The Geography of Music

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

With Eastern bands impacting on Western music more than ever before, Michael Bergin compares the musical scene in both regions.

Musicians, I think it's fair to say, would make horrible geographers. One must only look to the Electric Picnic and the inevitability of at least one headline act introducing themselves with an ill-placed “Good evening Dublin'' to confirm this. However, a more glaring example is usually to be found in the marketing for said musician’s “World” tour, a glossy line-up of venues in North America, Western Europe, and probably some Australian destinations, if only to justify the cost of a private jet. Yet, the more geographically astute of you may realise that Earth is generally accepted to have more than three continents. For the musicians amongst you, take a moment, I know this may come as a shock.

So then, what lies in these hidden lands, untouched by Western music (or, at least, Western musicians)? As it turns out, a bustling music scene, that many in the west could do well to emulate. 

Take for instance, India. One of the most populous regions in the world, and though we seldom think of it, one of the most culturally powerful. The immediate example of India’s musical prowess that comes to mind for many is the influence Indian tradition had on George Harrison of ‘The Beatles’, widely considered one of the most influential bands in Western music. Harrison’s love for Indian musical styles helped to embolden and engender a new generation of musical experimentation in the west, providing the soundtrack to the psychedelic end of the 1960s. 

Today, India’s music scene is dominated by the big artists of Bollywood, though in recent years, a remarkably agile and fast-moving indie scene has sprouted up, with a plethora of unique festivals to promote these artists. The potential for inspiration in a land which is practically untouched by Spotify (who had only mustered two million users in a nation of 1.3 billion as of February 2019) is virtually limitless.

Moving away from India, and the obvious cultural superpower in Asia seems to be South Korea and its ever-increasing swarm of tightly choreographed K-pop bands. While these bands have seen enormous success in the west, this success has virtually eradicated the thoughts of other genres of music blossoming in the country - the K-pop surge fails to tell the whole story. For decades, South Korea has possessed a booming music scene, with a variety of genres such as rock and roll, swing, blues, and R&B centred around the fashionable Hongdae district, which is itself lined with Karaoke parlours and nightclubs.

Among the most popular genres of music in South Korea is “trot”, which combines swing, rock and blues into something entirely new, and though trot has existed in South Korea for decades, it has in recent years experienced a resurgence. There are a variety of trot-inspired game shows on South Korean television, which have been endorsed by leading figures in the K-pop industry such as Shin Ji of Koyote, among others.

All told, there is much more to South Korea’s music scene than the K-pop that seems to exclusively reach western shores. Seoul is a regional capital of rock, blues, trot, and indeed, soul.

Finally, any examination of the eastern music scene could not be complete without taking a look at the situation in Japan, so often derided in the west as a country of bizarre musical tastes and traditions, it is one which in reality offers room to experiment that is unthinkable elsewhere.

In Japan, restrictive copyright laws and the prominence of inverted business models that tend to funnel money away from artists have caused enormous strife for musicians in recent years, who struggle to finance their own art. However, the difficulty presented to artists does not rob them of opportunity. In order to comply with the dominant forces in the market, Japanese artists are asked to either craft suitable music to be sold to the masses, and if refusing to cooperate, rely instead on their own talents to succeed. Increasingly, artists are taking the latter option. 

This trend in Japan has produced some truly erratic, though inspired, work, most notably the genre of idol metal, a fusing of vicious basslines and energetic drumming with girly vocals and poppy presentation. If nothing else, this gives Japanese artists a desire to create something new and fresh, a desire that can be tellingly absent in the west.

How then, does the blossoming music scene of the east compare with its perhaps more lucrative western rival?

In the west, hip hop, pop, and techno have been the dominant market forces for the best part of the last 20 years, though the market forum for these artists to share their work has changed from record shops to viral apps such as TikTok. The prevalence of 'viral' music at the top of the charts is a concern to some music purists, who view the dominance of short, catchy hooks as being fundamentally destructive to musical creativity. Though of course, this is purely a matter of personal opinion. There has also been a post-punk revival in recent months, with bands such as Fontaines DC leading the Irish charge.

Yet, when comparing east with west, it becomes very easy to fall into the trap of debating which musical world is superior, forgetting about the influence both have had on one another. Without slick western boy bands, it is very unlikely that K-pop bands such as BTS could have achieved their rapid success in recent years. Similarly, were it not for eastern-inspired pop rhythms and creativity, a sizable chunk of western music would simply not exist.

In comparing the two, we allow ourselves to fall into the geographer’s trappings, drawing imaginary lines to divide cultures, when optimal success, and real innovation, occur only where cultures mix with each other.

Musicians may not be the best geographers in the world, but geographers wouldn’t make great musicians either.