Music-Oriented Industrial Policy

Paul Ryan said today that “Stairway to Heaven” is his favorite rock song, and Barack Obama walked out last night to the strains of U2. Clearly, the United States has become dangerously dependent on foreign rock-and-roll imported from the British Isles.

My initial thought was that we should take a page from Mitt Romney’s energy plan and try to achieve North American pop music independence. We would construct a pipeline that allows us to supplement our domestically produced tunes with Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, Arcade Fire, Metric, and other imports from our friends to the north. But one key problem here is that even in intra-continental terms there’s no level playing field. Canada bolsters its net music exports with stringent import-substitution policies via the MAPL system which requires most radio stations to offer at ensure that their programming includes at least 30-40 percent “Canadian content.” Given that Canada contains slightly less than 10 percent of the combined US-Canada population (to say nothing of those dastardly English and Irish rock imports) that’s a huge thumb on the scales in favor of Canadian music that American trade negotiators failed to get rid of while working on NAFTA.

The biggest music export success story in the world, however, is almost certainly Sweden whose music exports total 800 million kronor (or about 1 percent of total exports or 0.02 percent of Swedish GDP) on the strength of Abba, Robyn, Jens Lekman, and the likes of Max Martin and Dr Luke whose work lies behind a lot of “American” popular music.

And this is no coincidence. Sweden has a pretty extensive serious of government efforts to promote Swedish music on the world stage. That’s everything from the Swedish music export prize, to the English-language “Music Room” page on the government’s official website, to events at the House of Sweden here in DC, and an array of quasi-governmental agencies that Spin reported on a few years back.

I would also note that I assume things like true single-payer universal health care systems are good for the music sector. Here in the US, if you decide to work part-time at a proper job in order to have more time to devote to artistic pursuits then not only do you have to get by on a low income (which happens everywhere) you’re going to find it extremely difficult to get proper health insurance. That’s simply a huge risk to be taking for your life, since if you happen to develop a serious illness you’ll then be unable to get coverage for it in the future even if you abandon your aspirations in favor of a more traditional career. A band in Canada or Sweden doesn’t have that problem.