World music: It’s too often portrayed—even by those who work to support and nurture it—as the step-child of music genres. And, sure, back in the bad old days (read: the consolidation-mad 1990s), when the evil stepmothers of the music industry reigned supreme, it was neglected and ignored.
But now, everything has changed, and world music has five strong ways to move into all sorts of new, barely charted, increasingly monetized territory. As the mainstream radio-and-major-label empires crumble, there are many reasons to leverage world music’s distinct advantages. Here are a mere five:
1. It’s flown under the radar. Okay, not in the most literal sense. Many people have a vague notion of “world music”—but with emphasis on the word “vague.” In fact, no one truly seems to know what the world music market actually looks like, not in the detailed, data-driven way pop or jazz consumption has been parsed.
On the surface, this seems like a terrible disadvantage. After all, how can you navigate something you don’t understand? Yet the market is excitingly undefined. Musicians and industry pros have a tantalizing chance to define it. There are no rules, and this allows both for an exciting range of potential income streams and approaches (see #3), and for a potentially great burst of growth. Whereas in more-defined genres you have to position yourself in reference to what has come before, in world music you can carve your own path.
2. It’s poised to grow. Again, we lack hard data—something the industry needs to address—but all indicators point to a gap between potential U.S. audiences and the world’s many amazing musicians.
As pop sounds more and more compressed and uniform, as everything from “alternative” rock to country sounds more and more like pop, world music sounds like, well, like just about anything you can imagine.
The cookie cutter approach of cramming similar sounding, marketing-driven songs down consumers throats via monopolies, relentless radio rotation, and million-dollar payola schemes is on its way out: The average time young people spend listening to radio, for example, has been seeing steady, double-digit declines for years. The marketplace has shifted from a mass broadcast/mass consumption model to individualized interactive media/personalized niche consumption.
World music is a breath of fresh air in this stifled environment. It is the ultimate in long tail music because it is made up of hundreds or thousands of genres. As the long tail fattens up and new ideas for monetizing digital media sprout, world music grows. (See #4 and #5)
And there’s another shift underway as well, one that also works in world music’s favor. The U.S. audience itself is changing as the demographic picture continues to shift toward a more multicultural, geographically multicentric picture.
Latino communities, for instance, are burgeoning in quiet corners of the stereotypically “white-bread” Midwest. The Latino population of Indiana, for example, has grown by double digits since 2000. In another compelling example, African immigrants—be they Somalis in New England or Minnesota, or Nigerians in Texas—are establishing communities outside of the historical immigrant hotspots and reached 1.4 million foreign-born residents (nearly half of which are college educated) in the U.S. in 2007.
While it is simplistic to assume that listeners’ ethnicity determines their music habits, this quick glance at the numbers shows that there are lots of audiences we can reach whose tastes likely extend beyond Lady Gaga—and that these future fans likely the resources to purchase music.
3. Maximum musician flexibility (which equals more money for artists). It’s really hard as an indie rock band to play a club one day and a performing arts center the next. It’s rare when, say, an up-and-coming pop country or rap artist can get regular, decent paying gigs at schools, local libraries, and colleges. Finally, it’s relatively hard to score a spot as a jazz artist on the pop or country charts.
World music artists, however, pull stunts like this every day, moving from hip bar scenes to refined stages to children’s programs, and between the commercially established genres (think of Os Mutantes or Shonen Knife or Bomba Estéreo: all rock/pop and world at the same time). This means newcomer and midlevel world musicians actually have more opportunities to earn income from performances than their commercially oriented colleagues. Thus, as a world music artist, it pays to hone your skills as a lecturer/demonstrator, as a master teacher, as well as learning to work the audience at a club.
4. It’s a fresh and diverse source of compelling content. The great flexibility comes from world music’s multifaceted nature: It’s not a genre; it’s a set of a thousand interlocking genres.
The various styles, traditions, sounds almost always have two qualities commercial genres lack. One, they carry cultural knowledge that falls outside of the American mainstream and is thus considered intriguing and/or edifying in and of themselves (which is why your local children’s librarian wants you to perform as part of their programming).
Two, they sound new and exciting, filled with timbres and beats that blast through the walls of highly-compressed pop and rock most often heard on screens and on the air. This hasn’t escaped savvy music directors and composers, DJs and corporate events planners. The opportunities to find new ears, or for professionals and music lovers to embrace new sounds, will only expand as the digital revolution continues.
5. It’s perfect for the Cloud-based music future. As music consumption shifts from album and product-based purchases to one-off files and now streams, the more adventurous side of the American listener can finally emerge.
It may be hard to imagine someone picking up an $18 CD on a lark, but it’s not hard at all to picture a curious music fan clicking on a streaming file of Thai psychedelic rock or Colombian salsa as part of a subscription service. Just to give you a taste of the possibilities: Spotify, one of the leading streaming services, boasts over 500,000 paid subscribers registered since September 2009.
The future is the Cloud, and the Cloud may be just the thing to help independent, far-flung artists get their music to once unreachable corners of the global market. World music doesn’t have a “big four” of foundering, confused, irate major labels to inhibit this process and criminalize customers with lawsuits, for example. It doesn’t have to panic as unwieldy brick-and-mortar outlets go under and physical products (including, by the way, stand-alone iPods) stop selling. The old industry only rarely worked in global artists’ favor, and now we have a chance to build something radically more democratic, freewheeling, and pro-artist.
In this curious and exciting new world, digital distribution, licensing, and most importantly marketing will play key roles. And world music artists have a marketing goldmine: They have stories, lives, whole other worlds to tap into and to set their art apart.
DubMC.com is sponsored by rock paper scissors, inc., a "world music publicity firm." Contact rock paper scissors, inc. about publicity campaigns for your album release, tour, festival, or other global music project.