Perfect Sound Forever

A Very Brief Critique of Radio Quotas
Part 1- France

Manuel Bamberger of the French Ministry of Culture
photo from Bernard Gick

by Tim Hodson
(May 2006)

I take it everyone heard about the riots in the Parisian suburbs last fall? And I take it that everyone is aware of the 'success' of the French language radio quota that has so helped the French record industry? But do you know the link? Well, as well as polygamy being blamed by one French politician for the riots, the latest controversy is a petition with over 200 politicians signatures to the justice ministry that several hip-hop bands should stand trial for their violent lyrics being 'one of the factors that lead to the violence in the suburbs.' If you've ever heard Monsieur R's 'FranSSe' you might well agree that this is true but more important for this essay is the rather unfortunate irony that French hip-hop was by far the biggest beneficiary of the quota. Rioting is by no means typical of the effects of radio quotas but some other more 'behind the scenes' matters strike me as other slightly ironic outcomes that occur when governments try to interfere with music policy.

Before I start I want to ensure all that this is not just an Englishman's rant against French governmental policy. My current line of fire has been radio quotas worldwide and my various studies have shown that very few actually work and if they do work then they are working for the wrong people. I am not against radio policy or music protection but I know that for radio quotas to work, they need to be honest from the outset as to what they are trying to achieve. However, the French system is an interesting example so I'll stick with it.

What gets looked over when praising the success of the French music industry is that if the quota was designed "To defend French culture and economic activity"- as was said by Dominique Devidts from 'The French Council on Audiovisuals'- then the outcome of 'culture' and 'economic activity' need closer inspection. First, to all of us uneducated in the politically-correct recognition of global cultures, 'hip-hop' may not appear to be that French. Second, if culture is the fluid, organic mass that has crossed boarders for centuries when and more importantly, why should it need protecting? But, if the reason is to "Increase French language output" - as stated by Manuel Bamberger, head of the music industry office at the French Ministry of Culture - then the question raised for me is 'why take a music and not its language?' Surely if hip-hop can be accepted as a global culture, then so can its traditional American language, right?

Anyhow, these two statements are quite typical of reasons for the quota across the board and leave us with three areas for study: culture, language and economics. I shall look at them one by one, but first some history...

The Case of France

The French quota bill was introduced on the 1st of January 1996 after years of the culture ministry urging radio stations to play more French music. The bill courtesy of Culture Minister Jacques Toubon - states that 40% of all music aired must be sung in French with 20% of this consisting of new French bands. Stations can face fines of up to 5% of their average revenue (which can mean millions of dollars) or even be taken off the air for not complying. The bill was modified in 2000 after complaints from radio stations that there was not enough quality or quantity of French music to air. It was decided that stations with different listener demographics should have different quotas, for instance. For "young" radio stations, the floor is now 35% French language songs but with 25 % for new talent.


First, there were complaints about the dominance of English in business (Woods:1981) and then in film (EU broadcast directive:1989) but if French radios have been so used to playing - in some cases 85% - Anglophone music then maybe a lot of French artists prefer to sing in English maybe it has become their culture! How may the quota have affected French Anglophone singers? Claire Allfree of The independent investigated le Nouveau Rock'n'Roll Francais (an album of English singing French Rock bands) and a further 6,000 French Anglophone rock bands who have found it much harder to get there music heard now that the quota is in place. Most bands on the album were denied record deals purely because they refused to sing in French. One magazine editor said that 6 out of 7 demos sent to him were sung in English.

English helps artists on to the world stage where fame, money and just the good, old, honest simple recognition is so much more easily achieved. Look at Air and Daft Punk who by singing in English have thrived in spite of (and not because of) the quota. Admittedly they don't sing much but even a few words such as "around the world" would simply not have made it onto the dance floors of England and America if they couldn't have been sung back drunkenly by the listener.


Another irony of the 'culture' argument is that the vast majority of hip-hop artists do not feel like they belong to any definition of 'French.' In rapper Monsieur R's song 'FranSSe,' he calls France a 'prostitute' referring to the ways it has used and then neglected ethnic minorities. This feeling is not new and was brought to international attention with the film la Haine (the Hate) in 1994. 'SO' I hear you cry 'if this resentment has been strong for ten or more years maybe resentment itself could be classified as part of a new French culture?' How amusing it would be if French officials went down that route!


French-born subsidiaries of majors have benefited as their multi national mother companies have financed their music. This may have created French jobs and increased some French wages, ultimately however the real money ends up in the hands of the Majors. As you can see from this chart taken from official IFPI figures - the small independent French companies, who one might consider should really be the benefit from any kind of 'protection' have fallen considerably, even when compared to the current European trend of falling Indies.

French Market Share

EMI Sony/BMG Uniserval Warner Indies Europe: Indies
2004 14.8% 30.0% 35.1% 12.7% 7.4% 19.3%
2003 15.8% 30.0% 35.1% 12.7% 7.4% 19.3%
2002 15.0% 22.9% 34.8% 9.5% 17.8% 21.0%

One reason for this is that where as most musical trends are found by Indies operating more closely within a scene and who are then copied by the Majors, government law is one trend that the Majors can see at the same time as everybody else. "As labels know," states Corinne Micaelli from the French Music Bureau, "there is (now) a window on radio to distribute young French artists, so they invest more in those." And she's right. Investment in new talent tripled and sales of French music rose from 49% in 1995 to 60% in 2002. But at what cost? Figures taken from Disc en France show 'Francophone titles' have increased from 14,610 in 2003 to 14,719 in 2004 but only at the detriment of the 'total number of titles' released which fell from 66,107 to 64,063 respectively. This figure correlates with IFPI monitoring that France dropped from fourth (in 2003) to fifth (in 2004) of the worlds leading music sellers. Also in 2004 there were 31,102 different 'new' titles released compared to 33,530 in 2003- that's more than 2,400 less! All this might suggest that less money is actually coming into France now and new artists in some cases are actually loosing out at the hand of the quota.

This whistle stop tour of the French radio quota was not meant to point a finger at anyone. It is simply meant to highlight what's happening in many countries where governments, academics and all kinds of lobbyists are seeking to reinstate their 'cultures' in the name of their people. Failing to realise that Western/American culture has been wilfully adopted by many of these peoples is one of the main problems of most quotas especially in New Zealand and Australia (in my opinion). Another major failing is to underestimate the power of the multi-nationals by instating an inadequate economic policy or in some cases not considering the economic implications at all, concentrating on a rather blind cultural policy. A much more attractive radio quota might be based on economics, featuring criterion of a much larger percentage of the returns back in the economies of that nation and hopefully through a series of other quotas see that money getting put back into the nation's artists.

Every nation has the power to create its own music. It just needs some initial protection from the government and then the right to generate money for itself. If it cannot, then cultural protection becomes just another fad and one that can be manipulated twice as easily by foreign, major record companies.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER