1 October 2022
New world order
Pop music is a poster child for globalisation. Record industry revenues across all regions increased by almost 20 percent in 2021, the highest rate in seven consecutive years of growth. But amid the buoyancy of the current music boom, uncertainty lies ahead. Can global pop continue growing when globalisation itself is faltering?
In the world economy, trade rivalries, energy crises and sanctions are creating discord. But a more harmonious situation holds true in the pop charts. In 2020, for the first time, over
half of the top 20 best-performing albums were in non-English languages. According to the
International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the most successful recording act in
2021 was BTS, the K-pop titans, with US superstar Taylor Swift following in second place.
Other non-Anglophone artists included J-pop boy band Snow Man and Puerto Rican
reggaeton singer Bad Bunny. The latter’s latest release Un Verano Sin Ti is the most
streamed album on Spotify this year.
Streaming was responsible for almost $17 billion of the $25.9 billion earned by recorded
music in 2021. Its ability to send songs instantly, everywhere has transformed pop’s
geography. Afrobeats is a prime example. Blending US forms such as rap and R&B with
African pop, it formed in Nigeria and Ghana before spreading to the UK in the 2010s. From
there it has crossed into other territories, creating international stars such as Burna Boy and
Wizkid. The impetus came not from big record labels but at a grassroots level, through
entrepreneurial musicians and promoters harnessing the power of the internet to seek out
new audiences. Music always finds a way.
Vast social media platforms are the scaffolding of global pop, a way for artists to build
popularity, or find it thrust upon them by an unpredictable viral fad. In just five years,
TikTok has reportedly gained over 1bn users. The app might appear to be the very essence
of brain-rot frivolity with its gazillions of homemade music videos, but it has transformed
the record industry. Label talent scouts scour it for acts to sign, based on the latest
craze. Contrary to a reputation for generating bite-sized nuggets of nothingness, the
platform can bring musicians of real worth to mass notice. An example is the Californian
musician Steve Lacy, whose breezy pop-funk song ‘Bad Habits’ has topped charts across the
world off the back of a TikTok trend.
The momentum of pop globalisation has carried over into the boardroom. China’s tech giant
Tencent, which dominates the nation’s streaming market, exchanged equity stakes with its
Swedish counterpart Spotify last year. Tencent also owns 20 percent of Universal Music
Group, the world’s biggest record company. Universal itself has been busily expanding
across Africa with licensing deals and the opening of more regional headquarters. Other
major western labels are also widening their horizons. In June, the US-based Warner
Records signed its first K-pop band, the girl group Aespa, alongside an agreement with one
of the entertainment companies that dominates South Korean music, SM Entertainment.
Whether corporate, technological or musical, the trend in pop music is towards closer links
between regions. But geopolitical tensions threaten a reversal. In March, after the Russian
invasion of Ukraine, Spotify joined the exodus of companies from Russia, which was until
last year, the fastest-growing territory for subscription revenue from streaming. Western
record labels have also stopped operating there.
TikTok’s Chinese ownership includes a stake held by the Chinese Communist Party and is
another flashpoint for the flow of music. In 2020 it was banned in India amid a territorial
dispute between the two nations. This year the American Federal Communications
Commission called for it to be removed from Apple’s and Google’s app stores due to reports
that the parent company ByteDance, was accessing American user data. The video-sharing
platform exists under a different name in China, Douyin, whose content is kept separate
from the non-Chinese content on TikTok.
In the information age, control over data is both lucrative and politically sensitive, and has
the potential to affect music streaming too. The ‘great firewall of China’ through which the
People’s Republic censors the internet, is a model for how controlling states can be over
online life. Meanwhile Big Tech competes for supremacy in the attention economy,
rapaciously shearing details from us, to deliver us like sheep to advertisers. Battles over
ownership of personal information are intense. The risk of technological decoupling rises,
with the digital world splitting into opposing blocs. If that happens, will the flow of music
The answer, I predict, is yes. The world music market is at once too small and too big to be
broken up. The record industry’s revenues of $25.9bn last year represented a bumper haul,
despite being less than a quarter of the global pet food market. There is no compelling
economic rationale for rival nations to shut themselves off from each other’s music. The
sums involved are puny compared to larger sectors.
Cultural protectionism is a more likely reason for barriers to be raised. Last year Chinese
authorities cracked down on K-pop fandom, shuttering online fan club accounts. “Irrational
star-chasing behaviour, when found, should be dealt with seriously,” warned the social
media platform Weibo. The move followed steps to restrict imports of Korean popular
culture to China in 2017 after the US installation of a missile defence system in South
Korea. But an outright K-pop ban hasn’t been attempted. Denying people access to their
favourite music carries a risk, even for a regime that doesn’t rely on democratic consent.
Pop’s impact is best measured not by the billions of dollars it generates but by the hundreds
of billions of streams that its songs notch up every year. This is why the global market is too
big to dismantle. Its hold over the popular imagination is too powerful to be easily unprised
or replaced. Unlike manufacturers of dog food, popstars are among the most idolised people
on the planet. I recall visiting Brazil once where I was introduced to locals in a remote town
as an “international man from the land of Paul McCartney” - a designation I would gladly
swap for my official status as a British citizen.
Music has the rare ability to traverse geographic and linguistic boundaries. It captures
hearts and minds without trying to change them. Although prone to conservative attack for
promoting social liberalism, the majority of hits are in fact studiously inoffensive and
apolitical. Easily consumable and obsessively followed, pop songs are a valuable currency in
the attention economy. Platforms like TikTok might have their wings clipped by the politics
of a deglobalising world, but music will not. Other means for reaching the online population
of billions will be found, through pragmatic licensing deals and cross-border link-ups. Like
water, pop will find a way past any emerging obstacles, a flood of songs that will continue to
spill out in all directions over the Earth’s surface.
Ludo Hunter-Tilney is the pop music critic for the Financial Times. In 2014, he won the
award for the London Press Club’s ‘Arts Reviewer of the Year.’