Music's own rags-to-riches story has roots in law, enforcement
IPN Opinion article
The Tennessean (USA)
Millions loved Slumdog Millionaire's rags-to-riches story. But the story behind the story ó the huge success of India's Bollywood movie industry ó is even better. Creative industries can create economic growth, and one of the best examples is Nashville's country music.
Nashville's rise was an underdog tale to rival Slumdog. A century ago, Tennessee was one of the poorest states in the country, with derided "hillbilly music."
Yet a handful of entrepreneurs saw potential in that ignored music. Ralph Peer showed the way with his 1927 Bristol recording sessions. These recordings, which Johnny Cash called "the most important event that ever took place in the history of music," launched country music's founders, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
More importantly, Peer's trailblazing created the country music industry, now one of the country's biggest entertainment industries, netting the region's economy more than $6 billion annually.
Country music drew on the rich local musical heritage, yet it was thanks to the legal conditions in the U.S. that this undervalued talent could be turned into a hot product. Copyright, in particular, provided this essential foundation.
What does the story of Music City USA offer for musicians in poor countries?
Much popular American music ó the blues, gospel, R&B, rock 'n' roll and even country ó traces roots to West Africa, a region full of culture and poverty.
For example, Senegal's capital, Dakar, has some 30,000 musicians. Sadly, the World Bank says only a dozen have any success abroad. The average Senegalese musician is even poorer than his countrymen, making less than $800 a year.
Part of Africa's problem is pirated copies dominate as much as 90 percent of some markets. But piracy is just a symptom; the disease is failed civil and criminal legal systems. Without legal support, there is no incentive to invest in musicians and they cannot commercialize their talent.
Protecting property rights is a first step but depends on the wider rule of law ó equal for all and consistently enforced. As the Nashville model shows, only these foundations allow entrepreneurs and artists to build with their talent.
African musicians are already a step ahead of Nashville's unknowns of the 1920s, because their music is already internationally acclaimed. But its top names had to record overseas.
After collapsing in the 1990s, Zambia's music industry has turned around, thanks to a new copyright law and the efforts of Chisha Folotiya, founder of the Mondo Music label. Like Peer in Nashville, Folotiya has unleashed what he calls "exponential growth in the amount of Zambian music being produced in the last seven years, and also in the consumption and the appreciation of it."
Enforcing contracts and protecting recordings under the rule of law sounds a lot less exciting than a slumdog becoming a game-show millionaire, but it's the true road from rags to riches for millions in the arts.
Alec van Gelder and Mark F. Schultz are authors of Nashville in Africa, which will be launched in Nashville March 24. Van Gelder is an analyst at International Policy Network, a London-based development think-tank. Schultz is a law professor at Southern Illinois University.