by Cortney Harding [originally posted on This Week In Music Tech]
I travel internationally a handful of times a year, and each trip usually has a few “the world is flat” moments. I talked baseball with a cab driver in Japan! I flew to Africa and wound up in a hipster motorcycle shop/coffee bar just like the one three blocks from my house! I watched a movie, starring French people, about young artists in Brooklyn, in Paris. Basically, every trip I have a handful of those moments where I think “we’re all connected. Deep down, we’re just humans! Borders are just social constructs (drawn by British men after wars, sometimes).”
But while all this is lovely, and should definitely get me a New York Times column and a book deal, it doesn’t quite translate when it comes to music and entertainment and tech. The west (which I’m defining here mostly as the US, Canada, and the UK) export the lion’s share of music and film culture to the rest of the world — and we don’t really reciprocate. Even with all our connectivity, our more open and fluid digital culture, non-English speaking acts are still categorized as “other” in the US.
That doesn’t mean they can’t reach some level of success — Juanes, for example, sells out Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center. But only one critic out of hundreds surveyed voted for him in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll last year. Maybe it wasn’t a great record (full disclosure — I’m not a huge fan myself) but it was a big release for many people. I’ve been to some Latin shows, and I’m probably one of a small group who doesn’t speak any Spanish. Ditto for the K-Pop show I attended a few years back — the audience was almost entirely Korean, Korean-American, a few nerdy white dudes, and me.
Meanwhile, Western artists can go to Seoul and pack clubs, despite not speaking the language. Taylor Swift can sell out any arena in the world, but the Taylor Swift of China, or Russia, or Brazil would only attract a niche audience in the US, unless she sang the bulk of her songs in English. And even then, she’d still be boxed in as a “fill-in-the-blank-ethnicity star” rather than just a pop star.
We’re more mixed and more connected than ever, and yet the default in almost all genres remains Western and English-speaking. Part of this is dependent on how widely spoken English is in many parts of the world, whereas in the US, learning a second language if you’re a native English speaker is seen as a privilege, not the norm. Part of it is the high regard in which many people still hold American culture — I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica, and when I mentioned I lived in Williamsburg, everyone know what that meant. People love New York and Brooklyn everywhere.
But this myopia has downsides for music, tech, and the music biz. If we’re so hung up on English-speaking artists and “othering” everyone else, we’re missing out on some amazing music. K-Pop’s not my thing, but it’s incredible to watch and could have big implications for Western pop artists if they were influenced by it. There’s probably some smoking hot singer in a developing country right now who could make a label millions of dollars and sell a ton of soda in some great branding deal — but because labels have a narrow view of talent, they’ll miss out.
Tech suffers from this as well — many of the problems tech companies solve are those endemic to the Bay Area and New York. Which isn’t to say some can’t become global brands — Facebook and Twitter are the most obvious cases here. But if we limit our scope to first world problems, we miss out on opportunities to solve even bigger issues and potentially disrupt massive industries.
I’m not talking about taking all the bros coding away at apps to deliver your dry cleaning and tasking them with solving malaria, either (although that’s a good idea). One startup I’m obsessed with right now is Snapscan, out of South Africa — it’s an app that allows you to settle a bill by snapping a QR code. Because mobile commerce is so huge in Africa, it’s been able to thrive in its home market, while companies that have tried to do this in the US have failed. But if Snapscan or another firm like it succeeded, it could disrupt payment as we know it — no more waiting in line at the grocery store (or the merch table, to bring it back to music). You could buy tickets by snapping a code on a poster. Hear an artist’s music in an ad, take a pic of the screen, and donate a few bucks.
I’m really fascinated by the next emerging markets, like India, China, and Nigeria (specifically Lagos). My hope is that we can develop a two-way music and culture exchange — these markets have tons of young people and are primed to consume music from the west, but they also have a ton of talented artists who influences are totally different than those of kids in US. A few episodes ago on Broad City, Ilana envisioned a future where we’re all “caramel and queer;” hopefully music can be integrated globally by then.