Yesterday, National Geographic announced the launch of their new record label. We caught up with label manager Mat Whittington for a Q & A about bridging the worlds of DJ/electronica and "world music," the evolving role of recordings in the changing marketplace and National Geographic's vision for its new record label.
1. As manager of Thievery Corporation and now manager of National Geographic’s new recording label, you have had a foot in the DJ/electronica world and another in the realm of “world music.” What are some of the things the “world music” industry can learn from the dance world?
Mat Whittington: It's tough to say really. I think in the electronic music scene there are less creative boundaries for the artists because of the nature of the music. You make a hip-hop track with X, a Brazilian track with Y, a reggae track with Z and they can all co-exist on the same album without much afterthought. It's hard to imagine that kind of musical diversity on say, a Ravi Shankar or Cesaria Evora record. Maybe that's the lesson though, better A&R to make the music more interesting, exciting, and current.
2. There seems to be a perception by some in the music media and in broader society that global music is solely for Birkenstock-wearing, granola-eating fans. What artists have you seen emerge that challenge this notion?
MW: M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, The Very Best, Thievery Corporation, Manu Chao, Yeasayer, Calexico, Balkan Beat Box, Buraka Som Sistema, Extra Golden are just a few of the many. I think that the general public as a whole is probably more open to music from around the world than they ever have been before. They just need to be exposed to it, therein lies the rub.
3. How have those artists been able to sidestep this stigma?
MW: Probably by never defining themselves as narrowly as 'world music' or any other such nomenclature. The music itself is the key. I think the artists listed above, and many others, are certainly influenced by music from around the world but it's not the defining characteristic of the music.
4. How do you think the role of language affects the success of international music in the US?
MW: I think that if an artist can overcome a 'musical barrier' with the listener, than the language barrier is less important. If you can't understand the language then the music, or the overall 'feel' of a song is the only real hook that can grab you. When I worked with Thievery, English was the minority language on most, if not all, of the records and they all sold very well. "Je Pense A Toi" by Amadou & Mariam is one of my favorite songs and I speak restaurant menu French. That song just splits my heart in two every time. I've no idea what it's about and I don’t want to know lest it ruin my own mental/emotional image of the song. Sometimes mystery is better than knowledge.
5. What suggestions do you have about how a musician or band categorizes their music in terms of genre?
MW: Don’t. Just make your music, let Dmitri and I worry about the rest.
6. When you look at the “world music” marketplace, what do you see that you think is not effective?
MW: Wow, so many things, but I think the biggest one is passion alone is not enough. This is a business. I know you love your 20-piece (insert country of choice) Orchestra but they are all going to need flights, hotels, work permits, AND go home with enough to pay the rent. Why are you going to spend your money signing, releasing, and promoting artists that MIGHT play 3 US shows a year. The constant discussion about what 'world music' is. It's totally ridiculous. Should Mariza appeal to the same people Buraka Som Sistema does? Why? Because they're both from Portugal? Because they both sing in Portuguese? The music is miles apart. That's like saying, "if you like Bob Dylan, you'll love Britney Spears" because they both sing in English and are from the US. The first thing I did at Nat Geo was ban the term 'world music.' It's useless.
7. What do you see is the role of recorded music in the emerging music marketplace?
MW: not news that sales are down but the recording and releasing of new music is still THE driver to all the other parts of the business. Touring, merch, ticketing, fan clubs, are all driven by new product from artists. Almost exclusively that is new music. Everything is spun off from that, and it's hard to see that changing even as the amount of money derived from it's sale decreases.
8. Tell us about National Geographic’s plans as a label.
MW: We plan to sign and release modern music from around the globe from a variety of artists, genres, and countries. We're looking for musical explorers, the Jacque Cousteau's of rock and roll. As for the label, think indie label ethos but with a massive worldwide media company. We will also work with our Film, TV, and Kids, Games & Magazine group's to assist them with their music needs, and we obviously work very closely with our Music TV Channel which is rolling out all over the world right now. I know that we have a very unique offering for artists. It's very exciting. From an artist’s view, not only are they able to tap into this wealth of resources but money made by the label goes back into the overall funding for the Society, meaning that via the success of their music, artists contribute, both artistically and financially, to the mission of National Geographic. It's a record label with a conscience.