Not Just Aid You Can Dance To

A Call For A New World Music

A 16 minute read

“Five or ten years ago, world music saw itself as breaking into mainstream. It was marketed as the new reggae: black music with politics, easy for white people to dance to. Like pop… it could create huge stars like Mariza and Buena Vista Social Club. It felt like a sexy, growing sector.”

Kerstan Mackness, UK publicist and jazz manager

For the consumers who enjoyed our product, we were the ultimate form of budget holiday, and for the governments who supported us, a family-friendly, feel-good cause: aid you can dance to. But the golden days of world music are over. The malaise affecting the rest of the music business – sinking sales, fracturing markets and collapsing distributors – is one thing. But as the mainstream industry looks to live performance income to make up for disappearing sales, world music’s fundamental selling point in the good times – exotic culture from somewhere else – is looking like a profound structural problem.

If promoters in rich countries – hit by massive cuts in government support for the arts – are no longer able to import bands from far-off places for a specialist audience, the live world music scene as we know it is not sustainable. So if world music is to be more than a luxury for liberal elites and to thrive in the tough times ahead, we need new ideas, and fast.

Where those ideas come from is another matter. The mainstream industry seems to have settled – finally – on a plan of action for new music: 360 degree deals and global rights management replacing old-fashioned record and publishing contracts; a growing digital sector supported by tough file-sharing legislation, and the biggest hope of all – a ‘live revolution’ fuelled by high ticket prices and public hunger for an undownloadable experience.

Fred & Ginger: Eggs In One Basket.
Just because I can.

The cracks, however, are already showing: increasing opposition to the concept of boosting online sales through punishment; big promoters for top names spending much of this year scrambling to sell off cut-price tickets like traders on a market stall; and we have yet to find a grandmother who will advise artists to put all their eggs in one basket.

World music would be advised to look elsewhere for its models.

“Anyone within the industry will tell you that folk– specifically indigenous English folk music – is on the up. Folk is a very resourceful industry, because it has always had to be. We have always worked on low levels of sales and turnover. There is no obvious road for a professional career. Our scene has always been about live performance, not recordings. People just get out there and make contacts and plug themselves.”

Nick Hallam, Marketing Director of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

English folk star Sam Lee

There is a huge network of local folk clubs run by volunteers – some 420 in England at the last count. The catch is that most of them are sessions for local players that don’t often book external artists. So how can professionals make a living? One commercial and independent grass-roots phenomenon from the USA is taking live self-empowerment to a new level: house concerts.

“The idea is rather than having a concert in a standard venue that is totally open to the public, it is a concert by invitation, publicised to friends. Some people have massive houses with interconnecting rooms to seat 40 or 50 people – others, like one man in Yorkshire, has a purpose built shed in his garden with seating for 30 friends. Most of the hosts don’t take anything from the door –they charge about the same as normal venue, even sell your CDs for you and give all profit to the artist directly.”

Sarah McQuaid, singer.

If you are unlucky, things can go very wrong.

“The idea of giving all the income to the artist sounds wonderful, but the host has no incentive in getting the maximum number of people to the show. One gig on my US tour was in a creepy little sitting room – carpeted and over-stuffed with furniture – with three people in the audience.”


Sofar Sounds bringing the music industry up to speed

One organisation that works to make more musicians’ experiences as good as possible is Concerts In Your Home, a support network that connects travelling artists with recommended hosts across the US for a small annual fee. Their well-researched advice sheets for prospective bands and hosts alike are available for free download. Across the water, looks to provide a similar, free service.

Folk music’s attitude towards commercial self-reliance may well be just what world music needs. As the global economic crisis continues to bite, major reduction in state funding for culture looks certain, and the more subsidy a sector has, the more pain it will feel. World music initiatives – with our walk-on role as the cheerleader of multi-cultural politics – will be at the front of the firing line.

One of the most heavily subsidized sectors anywhere in the world is classical music, and one man who knows a lot about both the benefits and precariousness of this economic reliance is Henrik Rørdam, Managing Director of Copenhagen-based Da Capo Records, a label that releases Danish contemporary classical music within the Naxos distribution network.<

Nothing highlights the difference between the commercial and state subsidized sector better than the approach to making and selling records.

In an industry which has seen sales fall by 20-30% year on year, the situation for independent classical labels like ours looks very positive. Sales are stable and our market is growing, developing slowly. Most classical labels are defined by their repertoire, not their artists. This means that the back catalogue is important to us, not an individual CD. I don’t expect to break even from an album in the first year: when it has been in our catalogue for five or six years we can reissue it. We don’t have the same financial pressures to have everything balanced over a short period of time, which allows us to work more freely with artists.

Henrik Rørdam, MD of classical label Da Capo.

The only constraint Da Capo has is in its choice of material: it receives its subsidy from national government in return for recording exclusively Danish-related repertoire.

A refreshingly honest artist on Da Capo

I wouldn’t say that the concept of commercial success really applies to classical music at all, certainly not to 95% of what we do. This is why we get funding from the government, and the situation is the same for many other similar labels. All national arts – including the European film industry – are very fragile now. Without this support, there are two choices – to cut activity by 90% or follow the major labels and issue only the 200 most popular pieces by Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler. Working with repertoire that pays the bills… is not the way to develop a national cultural life.


Developing “a national cultural life” is what state arts budgets are for, but in tough economic times, boosting exports become a priority, and culture is no different. In world music, only a few ensembles in each country will ever function as cultural expressions of the particular political and social worldview that a government seeks to promote. But once again, the markets these exports rely on, and the promoters who fill the gap between local demand and these expensive imported ensembles with state funding, will be harder hit. Here, an ability to diversify will be key.

Book Slam in London provides a tantalising hint of ways in which promoters can score big successes with minimum costs. Elliot Jack is a partner in this monthly event that has turned the UK spoken word scene on its head. “The idea of Book Slam was to mix up genres and styles – performance poets, authors, stand-up comedy and music.”

Thanks to Book Slam’s vision of reinventing literature readings as raucous live parties with DJs and poet MCs, they have a loyal fan base, a 20,000 strong mailing list and top book publishers and pop labels beating down their door for a slot.

Some also-ran performing at Book Slam

“Each month we book one well known performer or big author plus others that no-one has ever heard of. Most of the sets are very short – 15 to 20 minutes at the most to keep people’s attention. The big name pulls the audience in but the other acts are the ones who blow them away.”

Elliot Jack, Book Slam

The beauty of the whole concept is its minimal cost to promoters: by identifying a need in publishing for some hip-hop glamour, and a similar need in commercial music for cultural credibility, Book Slam can bring top names from both for rock bottom fees.

“Publishers often cover costs for the author, bands play acoustic in a small set-up [to keep equipment costs down], and poets – even the ones at the very top of their game – are relatively cheap anyway.”


Only their award-winning monthly podcast receives external support. “I’m old-school,” says Jack. “If it ain’t commercial, then it won’t work.”

In the ultimate compliment, events based on the Book Slam model – mixing literature, music and comedy – have sprung up all across the UK. An entirely new scene has been developed – and sustained – within just a few years.

So as the threat of huge cuts hangs over our collective heads, now is surely the time to take a good, hard look at how we operate and what is needed to ensure our long term survival.

“Jazz has an infrastructure that supports many artists who play for 50-60 people a night in small clubs. This creates a platform for survival for musicians to earn a living without being household names. ”

Kerstan Mackness, Jazz manager

This lack of basic sustainability – an ability to support the professional existence of a large number of smaller artists as well as big names – is one of world music’s biggest challenges. Some elements are there –in Europe there is an informal network of Balkan beats, Latin and African club nights – but companies are taking far too long to recognise them as serious long-term partners.

Perhaps the most important challenge is this: twenty plus years on from that first legendary marketing meeting in a North London pub, it is time to look again at what ‘world music’ stands for.

“You’ve done all the great older divas. Just like jazz in the 80s and 90s, you’re starting to compete with your own past. These days, if you look through the pages of world music magazines, there are more and more photos of good-looking singers. This is a real danger sign that the tap is running out – you are thinking like pop, which means there is trouble generating interest.”


Folk, jazz and poetry all know what it is to be sexy, to lose that association and grow stale. Without a determination to export just as hard as we import – and reinvigorate the concept – ‘world music’ as a genre has little chance of staying fresh.

“In Europe, jazz supports its homegrown talent in a massive way. But the whole point of world music is that it is a pure expression of something from somewhere else. World cannot afford to ignore local bands from its own cities, the fusion artists who are not from another place. Unless it embraces these artists, it is very hard to see where the next generation of audiences will come from.”


So the theme of this year’s WOMEX is a call to arms: get together with our small friends in the neighbourhood, learn from their do-it-yourself approaches, wean ourselves off our admiration for shiny pop iconography and vanishing government money. We must reinvent ourselves – or at least die trying.

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