by Dmitri Vietze, rock paper scissors, inc. (http://www.rockpaperscissors.biz); originally published in the North American World Music Directory (http://www.worldmusicbook.com)
Every time you put the phrase “world music” on anything, a debate ensues. Is the phrase good or bad for the music forms and musicians that get lumped under this umbrella? (And the requisite/banned question: “What is world music?”)
I think there are two deeper questions embedded in the line of inquisition:
- Is it ethically inappropriate or even harmful to use the phrase “world music?”
- Is using the phrase “world music” strategically effective for getting more exposure from the North American listening audience or not?
If you use the term “world music” as a genre when describing an individual musician or ensemble, the term is culturally relative. That is, “world music” in one geographic location is “local music” in another geographic location. For all intents and purposes, you are calling it “exotic music” or “foreign music,” and that only holds true if your audience is from the same geographic context as you.
This assumes an ethnocentric position, such as, “I am an American and this music is world music because it is not pop or mainstream or traditional music from my culture.” This is ethically problematic for two reasons.
First, it limits the definition of what it means to be an American. If you are of European heritage thinking this way, and referring to music from Latin America or Asia, you are basically saying that people with Latino and Asian heritage born in America are not truly American; they are foreign. So even if the intention is to diversify the airwaves of North America, the very term “world music” has the effect of re-affirming the “otherness” of American-born citizens. Using the American example, rather than the Canadian or Mexican example, makes things more simple for me since I live in America, but I suspect there are corollary arguments to be made in those countries as well. By putting all of these music forms in a separate musical box (and on separate radio shows and separate festival stages and separate retail pages or bins), you may very well be removing them from the mainstream.
Second, thousands of genres get lumped into this single “world music” category when used this way. Ethically, this smacks of “All _____ people look the same.” Another way of saying this is “If it’s foreign, file it under ‘I don’t really understand it.’” It’s a black box. This is ethically challenging because beneath each music form (and beneath the ensembles that perform these styles) are cultural traditions or modern day creations within a cultural context that exist for religious, economic, political, and other social reasons. (This applies to rock, electronic, jazz, and hip hop styles from around the world too.) By lumping them together, they are simply flavors to be enjoyed and co-opted for the purposes of entertainment and commerce, not to be considered for each of their innate qualities.
You may argue that: “Of course, you cannot expect your average American to dive deep into the cultural heritage of every song that originates from somewhere else! I thought you wanted to expose your music to more Americans! Giving them a history lesson is not going to excite most of them.” This portion of the conversation is about ethics, not strategy. We will get to strategy shortly.
I sidestep this ethical argument of the term “world music” by referring to it not as a genre but as a philosophy. If you listen to and watch music of ALL types through a global lens, you have a world music philosophy. Each of us is a curator of music. We curate our own listening, the listening of the people around us, and if we are professionals in the music field, we curate the listening of the people in our audiences (radio, festival, record label, and performer audiences; even the journalists with which a publicist communicates is an audience to whom we curate). If we curate that music with a global perspective, we follow a world music philosophy. This is not the same as saying this band or that artist is world music. If I heard a jazz radio program whose producer said she was a world music curator and then proceeded to play all American jazz, but it put it in its cultural and global context, I would be thrilled.
That being said, I do think you can refer to a world music radio program or world music festival without ethical problems. Though I think the world music perspective is strengthened by including music of the home country and treating it the same as the rest of the featured music (as globalFEST and the Lotus Festival do, for example). That’s following the world music philosophy. Is it effective for reaching wider audiences to call your radio show a world music program or for an artist to played on such a radio program? That is the separate question I tackle next.
Is the Term “World Music” Strategically Effective?
Separate from the ethical question is whether using the term “world music” is effective for widening and growing your audience as a performer or curator of one or more global music forms. In the arguments I have heard on this topic, there seem to be two opposing perspectives.
The first perspective goes something like this:
There are people who want to be exposed to other cultures and live a lifestyle that desire a global soundtrack. These people practice yoga, are adventurous in their food choices, like to travel abroad, speak another language, associate with culturally diverse friends, read foreign literature, pay attention to global news, are inspired by spiritual leaders from other parts of the world, etc. Giving them the simple entry point of “world music,” they can access your music easily. These are your people in (North) America.
The second perspective is along these lines:
Not only is calling it world music ethically wrong, it is a signifier for some people that it is not cool. It is precious, academic museum music. The largest audience discovering music and tastemaker audience—youth—listen to music as an alternative to the classroom. Parents and grandparents listen to world music, not youth. Most people are not going to go looking for a world music festival, but they might stumble onto it at a rock or jazz festival. The world is not standing still with traditional tassels on their hats and pointy shoes. The world is absorbing technology, fashion, and new styles of music like the rest of us. So don’t dress it as world music unless you want to turn these people off and limit your audience.
The World Music Contingency Theory
I argue that both are correct. Some people are turned on by the phrase and some are turned off by it. Most people aren’t even aware of the term or concept of world music. I propose The World Music Contingency Theory.
Strategically, different situations call for different positioning. For any given performer or recording artist (or festival), you can ask: is my likeliest audience going to be turned on or off by positioning as world music? At any given moment—a tour or album release, a photo or video shoot, a blog post, a festival line up—which positioning will serve me best? You can also ask: how do I want to be seen in the long term? You may have to forsake some audience growth in the early days to maintain your positioning for the long term.
Some artists may have less of a choice about positioning or may take a larger risk by trying to position one way or the other. What if you position yourself as world music only to find out many of the festivals/presenters that book global music forms don’t want to book you? Or what if you are hoping to get into clubs to reach a younger audience and find out those promoters do not want to book your acoustic, traditional music? Sometimes the market will direct your answer to the contingency question.
At conferences like APAP, WOMEX, and SXSW, there is always at least one person in the room who turns this discussion on its head with a comment like: “My artist performs Latin hip hop; I am trying to break into the world music ghetto!” or “I have an Indian electronica artist who makes way more in the world music scene than in the electronica scene.”
Interestingly, in Canada some of the biggest supporters of live performers from around the world are the folk music festivals. Performers playing music from around the world make up less than half of the performers at these festivals, but they play to enthusiastic audiences who may not have heard them otherwise.
The World Music Glass Ceiling
In addition to all of this, some performers find that they do well positioned as world music, but when they are ready to grow to the next level, they hit a world music glass ceiling. They become used to certain performance fees and audience draws and they can now see the next level up. They want media coverage in larger more mainstream outlets and to appear at bigger venues and festivals, but these larger platforms may not see ticket sales or advertising support to justify bringing in this performer.
Some performers cleverly (or inadvertently) divert this glass ceiling effect by collaborating with musicians outside of their genre, musicians with totally different audiences. Consider artists like Ali Farka Toure (with Ry Cooder), Bassekou Kouyate (with Bela Fleck), Buena Vista Social Club (with a film release), or Wu Man (with Yo-Yo Ma). Others adapt their repertoire to engage a wider or different audience. Consider Seu Jorge doing David Bowie songs in a Bill Murray film, Ozomatli doing a kid’s album and show, members of Antibalas performing in the Broadway musical Fela!, and Tanya Tagaq doing live performances to film. This adaptation or evolution can be an effective inversion of the Contingency Theory: instead of asking where you fit, fit where you want to be. But this has to happen in the creative phase, not after the rehearsals are over, the tour is booked, and the record is done.
To read additional articles on the world music industry and for a free directory of world music industry and festival contacts, go to www.worldmusicbook.com.