Megan Romer wears two hats. In part one of this two-part installment, she wrote about the "tribe" that has formed around the GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance. In this, part two, she talks about a totally different approach to developing audiences for global music.
About.com, the outlet for whom I write and am solely in charge of world music content, is a New York Times company and consistently ranked in the Top 15 (not percent - the actual number) of most-visited websites in the US. "Guides," as we writers are known, are highly trained in Search Engine Optimization, web-friendly writing, e-commerce, metrics tracking, and so on.
So what does this mean for the world music community? Nothing at all. I don't write for the world music community. Die-hards have wonderful, dynamic websites that they can visit to learn more and dig deeper into obscure genres and old favorites, analyze industry news, keep track of various goings-on... there are several, all of which are great, all of which I spend a lot of time at: World Music Central, National Geographic World Music, Soundroots.org, DubMC, and so on. Those are the websites that are written for and by people like you and me.
My website is different. I see it as my job to harvest the ripe, low-hanging fruits, those that are ready and waiting to be picked: people who saw Celtic Woman on TV and kind of liked the pure Irish stuff, but aren't quite sure where to start if they want something that isn't too rough, etc. People who like Bob Marley, but are completely baffled by the huge variety of reggae (and offshoots) on the market and definitely know that they don't like Beenie Man but aren't quite sure who they might like. People who saw the Edith Piaf movie and want to buy a CD but aren't really sure which one. I see it as my mission to turn these people into fans, however briefly. And it works. I have the metrics to prove it. I know that people have purchased lots of Karan Casey CDs because I told them that they'd like her if they liked Celtic Woman. I know that people are buying the wonderful Afroandina Christmas CD because they, like me, are dead tired of Jingle Bell Rock, and want a little something different. I know that people are more interested in the World Music Grammy Nominees than, in my opinion, they should be.
And that's okay! So what if 95% of them buy a single Ladysmith Black Mambazo CD (because they like Christian music and want to hear more of it from around the globe) and never buy another world music CD again? Even if 1% of them go on to see Soweto Gospel Choir live, and then perhaps attend a festival where LBM are playing, and hear Toumani Diabate for the first time, really enjoy it, move on to Toumani + Ali Farka, and from there move on to Vieux Farka, and so on, we're doing great. Every one of us discovered world music somehow -- very few of us (especially those of us who are of the Caucasian Persuasion) were raised on anything much world-ier than Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger's version of Wimoweh. Perhaps Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel got us hooked. Maybe we heard Cesaria Evora on NPR, or picked up a Putumayo CD at the gift store.
My website doesn't necessarily create demand -- often it is more of a service. You, new world music listener, might like this CD. It's not too out-there, you'll relate, you'll dig it. Hard-core fans might not say it's the best, but I've been where you are, and I know that you'll find it accessible. But I do try to write with an emphasis on the importance of expanding your horizons, learning about other cultures, etc., which hopefully translates occasionally into a slight sense of obligation and need. I try very hard not to be pedantic or know-it-all-ish... I spend a good portion of my blogging time trying to make myself seem human and even sort of "normal," so as to try to get newbies to relate to me in a way that they wouldn't be able to if they actually knew what a blowhard I am in real life. And it works. My traffic continues to grow, and I continually see metrics that show me that certain types of sales are on the up-and-up. I feel good about what I do, even though I've gotten a fair bit of flak for it from my snobbier friends, and even from certain managers, bands, and publicists who can't understand why I won't spend my time reviewing their super-obscure CD when instead I could be devising new ways to push people into the Ladysmith-Soweto-Toumani chain that I described earlier.
The market needs expanding, and is totally expandable, but I think that universal expansion strategies simply won't work. A multi-pronged strategy is the only way to go.
The one thing I know for sure, though, is that the snobbiness has GOT to go, at least publicly. We (as a world music community) should be encouraging our tribe to spread the word in positive ways, instead of making blanket statements like, "anyone who thinks that Ravi Shankar is the best sitar player in the world is obviously too stupid to get past the Beatles and do some exploration on their own." Let's think of ways to do better, to foment positive-diacritical messages, instead of negative-critical ones. We bear a huge responsibility as an industry, and hold enormous power in our ability to truly change the face of culture as we know it by introducing and creating positive inter-cultural dialogue and cross-pollination, and we need to do it. In-fighting doesn't seem to be working, nor do the "I know more than you" pissing contests that seem all-too-regular... I think if we all took the other approach (in a rational, businesslike way, not in the hippy-dippy way that we sometimes lean towards), we'd be doing ourselves, our artists, and the world a huge favor.