The prevalence of English pop music seems to be declining. Prior to the success of Psy’s K-pop track “Gangnam Style” in 2012, the last non-English song to reach the Top 10 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart was Los Lobos’ “La Bamba” in 1987. However, in 2023, there have already been seven non-English songs in the Billboard Top 10.
Globally, individuals are shifting their attention from English-speaking popular musicians to embracing rhythms, verses, and words in their native tongues. Based on a review of Spotify information published in the journal Nature in 2021, this trend has been gaining momentum since 2017. Research from the London School of Economics examining listening patterns in Europe reveals that throughout the continent, there is an increase in the number of Italians listening to Italian music, French to French music, and so on.
Korean pop, known as K-pop, has become a highly successful and widely recognized form of non-English music. While Psy’s hit song marked a significant moment in its global success, the roots of K-pop’s rise can be traced back 15 years prior. The growth of K-pop as a major economic force can be attributed not only to individual talents but also to government involvement.
Following the financial crisis in Asia in 1997 and South Korea’s appeal for assistance from the IMF, known as the Day of National Humility, there was a swift increase in investment in cultural initiatives as a means of aiding recovery. This led to the rise of the “Korean wave,” or Hallyu, a term coined by China’s Beijing Youth Daily newspaper. The late 1990s saw the emergence of K-pop, and both national and local governments greatly increased their efforts, allocating 1% of their budgets to support creative industries. As a result, Korean music, fashion, and culture gradually spread to neighboring countries such as Japan and China.
In 2012, the song Gangnam Style marked the first time a K-pop song gained worldwide popularity, causing a shift in the significance of local music. Prior to K-pop’s global success, only 9% of students surveyed expressed a desire to become entertainers. However, by 2012, this number had risen to almost 40%. Currently, K-pop is even incorporated into school curriculums.
The level of government funding for music education in Latin America differs depending on the country, but its effects are equally impressive. For instance, Colombia has utilized music as a means to tackle societal problems and reduce violence, such as through the establishment of a network of music schools in Medellín in 1996. In 2018, a national plan was implemented to increase investment in music education and training in cities. The investment made since the 1990s has resulted in success, evident in the international popularity of Spanish-speaking Colombian artists such as Shakira, J Balvin, and Maluma.
In Europe, home-grown music has also been flourishing, although less tied to policy. In 2012 and 2017, 30% of Top 10 songs on the Italian music charts were by Italian artists. This was echoed by trends in Poland and Sweden. Fast-forward to 2022 and 70% of the Top 10 songs in these three countries were by local artists. In Italy, you’re just as likely now to hear Sfera Ebbasta as Ed Sheeran. In Poland, Sanah rivals Taylor Swift.
Could increasing investment in music and culture in European countries, similar to South Korea, potentially speed up the exposure of Polish pop, German hip-hop, and French rock to the global market? The current level of investment in music and culture may indicate that this is already taking place. For example, Germany’s cultural budget saw a 7% increase in 2022, and Berlin’s planned investment for 2024 is more than double that of England’s. Prior to the pandemic, Poland was investing twice the amount of the EU average in these areas.
In contrast, there has been a lack of comparable investments in countries where English is the primary language. For instance, in the UK, PRS for Music, a company that manages royalties, plans to decrease funding to its charitable division for up-and-coming artists by £1.75 million in 2024. As a result of reduced government support for the arts, various aspects of the music industry, such as local music venues, classical music, music education, and nightclubs, are at risk. This could ultimately lead to a decline in the popularity of English-language music.
The trend set by Psy, from J Balvin to Maluma, has now become the standard rather than the exception. Despite Ed Sheeran’s The Shape of You being the most streamed song on Spotify in the 2010s, English-speaking artists should take note that the next popular hit we sing along to could be in a variety of languages such as German, Polish, French, Korean, or Spanish.
Shain Shapiro wrote the book “This Must Be The Place: How Music Can Make Your City Better.” He is the founder of Sound Diplomacy, an economic consulting firm, and also manages the international nonprofit organization Center for Music Ecosystems.