Feb. 4th, 2010

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My City vs Your City is a fascinating information widget designed by Michael Schieben. It takes data from LastFM and organises it so that you can compare the Top 10 most-listened-to artists in any two cities of your choice (as long as they're on LastFM's list of cities, and have active listeners). The clean and attractive interface then gives you a percentage overlap between the two cities.

After using the widget to make some fairly trivial observations (Kings of Leon do better in Protestant countries than Catholic ones! David Bowie is more popular in London than New York!), I found myself most interested in comparing how many domestic artists different countries have in their Top 10s. You might expect pop songs in local tongues, from local artists, to sprinkle the most-listened-to playlists of all nations fairly equally, but that turns out not to be the case at all. What emerges very strongly, in almost all the cities you care to look at, is an Anglo-Saxon monoculture. Cities all over the world list the same artists in their Top 10s: Coldplay, Radiohead, Lady GaGa, The Beatles...

It's almost as if someone or something has got to them. The same "someone" who commands people all over the world to wear blue jeans seems to be laying down the law, or subtly inveigling its norms into people's desires. THOU SHALT HAVE A MAXIMUM OF THREE DOMESTIC ARTISTS IN THY LASTFM TOP 10, this "something" says, UNLESS THOU ART FRENCH OR JAPANESE.

Yes, according to this widget it is only cities in France and Japan in which we find people willing to go beyond this unofficial "30% local cap", this unwritten "commandment of monoculture". Paris boasts 40% domestic artists in its list (Gainsbourg, Air, Phoenix, Daft Punk), while Tokyo charts a massive 70% of homegrown talent. That's almost complete self-sufficiency! No need to import any foreign music except the odd Beatles and Radiohead mp3!

Nowhere else can match this extraordinary Japanese achievement (which could be a fantastic blow struck for autonomy, or a kind of navel-gazing autism, depending on your perspective). Even in China -- confident, fast-growing China, which just took Japan's place as the world's second richest nation, and is on track to be its richest within ten years -- LastFM users are only tending to let one single measly Chinese track into their Top 10s.

Muslim Turkey stretches to three domestics, Mexico has none. Religion seems to count for more than money: the Anglosphere's cultural hegemony seems to be outlasting the financial dominance of the US, although slightly less so in Muslim countries. (Here we have to strike a note of caution, though. This is all based on data coming in via LastFM, a Western service. It's perfectly possible that Chinese music-sharing services would feature more Chinese music. Or possibly not.)

There are, of course, two nations who listen almost exclusively to music made within their own borders: the US and the UK. No, make that three, because Japan does too. Where the US and the UK differ from Japan, though, is that they export their local culture all over the world. Nobody outside Japan is listening to Japanese music. Japanese music isn't a hegemony, and Japan is not a music hub.

I must say, I find the picture that emerges from My City vs. Your City a deeply depressing -- and sadly familiar -- one. What this widget makes visible is the same one-way cultural flow I described in (Don't want to live in a) hub and spoke world and Culture flows through English channels, but not for long. In the terms used by airlines for their route maps, culture is flowing in a clear hub-and-spoke pattern, radiating out from a strong central point, rather than in a point-to-point way.

Comparing Porto in Portugal with Porto Alegre in Brazil, I'd have hoped to see a little point-to-point cultural action going on based on the fact that these two nations share a language, Portugese. But no, neither Porto nor Porto Alegre is using LastFM to listen to anything in Portugese. If they have anything in common, it's their love of Metallica and the Arctic Monkeys. You can only "fly" from Portugal to Brazil via LA or London.

Another way to look at what's going on is to say that we live in a world in which global pluralism is "asymmetrical" rather than "symmetrical". Many are not speaking to many on a level playing-field; someone is at the centre, speaking, and all the others are ranged around that "someone", listening, and mostly inaudible, even to their immediate neighbours. In the words of the Barclays Capital slogan, this is "global reach, built around you". As long as you're an Anglo-Saxon.


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February 2010

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