Julia Hoffman is a global entertainment and music business graduate program student at Berklee’s Valencia campus. In this post she reflects on the Womex conference she attended in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
In October I learned what it means to be a ‘Womexican.’ Womex takes place for five days every October in a different city throughout Europe and it is not to be missed by any artist manager, agent, label, or festival programmer in the world music scene. And this really is a ‘scene.’ At this year’s Womex in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, I realized that anyone who is anyone seemed to know everyone! It is a close-knit community and having an ‘in’ can lead to many opportunities. Some notable encounters of mine included meeting Bruno Boulay, Programmer of MIDEM, Todd Puckhaber, programmer for the SouthxSouthwest Festival, and Malcolm Haynes, programmer for Glastonbury.
As a newcomer to Womex, I found myself thinking a lot about World Music. My distaste for the term spurs from the ever-so-common western view of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ Michal Shapiro, music journalist for the Huffington Post and long-time proponent of World Music, gave me a quick history of the phrase explaining that it was “created at a time when the marketing of this kind of music was very difficult because there were record stores with bins that didn’t have the right classification…the way that this whole thing came about (it’s kind of legendary) is that a whole bunch of these pioneers got together in a pub in Islington and struggled for three days or something (it sounds biblical) but they came up with this term ‘World Music’ just to try to market it.”
So, World Music started as a genre invented by the hippy generation in Western Europe and North America to account for all genres of music in all languages other than English in order to market it? That means it can include everything from ‘tribal’ music recorded in the Amazon rain forest to professionally produced rock music from Sweden. Needless to say the term has its critics, including
David Byrne who argues in his New York Times article I Hate World Music, “The term is a catch-all that commonly refers to non-western music of any and all sorts, popular music, traditional music and even classical music…one in which all music is equal, regardless of sales and slickness of production, this a musical utopia.”
Other opponents contend that this narrow categorization prevents music from reaching other consumers outside of the World Music scene. At an A&R workshop at Berklee Valencia, Entertainment Lawyer and professor at London Metropolitan University, Pete Dyson claimed, “Once labeled as a World Music artist, there is no return.“
However, if my experience at Womex was any indication, it appears that World Music is now growing as networks shrink with globalization and the internet makes the need to categorize music into genres almost obsolete…and the youngsters want a piece of the action.
Allie Silver, 27-year old founder of Free Radical Productions, an artist management and consulting business based in Buenos Aires, explained that in her six consecutive years at Womex, she has seen the number of young attendees skyrocket. “I used to be one of a handful of young people at the conference,” Silver said, “and now we make up what feels like half.”
Shapiro with the Huffington Post added to this by saying,“…the internet has made [young] people more open rather than less open, and right now I think people have less of a sense of judgment of music as fashion, but as ‘Is it cool?’ ‘Do I like it?’ So it’s really more a matter of making it more accessible in any channels that work.”
Shapiro explains that World Music has grown significantly over the years because it is flexible. She claims that initially it was run by ‘purists,’ [but] “it no longer is and fortunately most of those people who we thought to be ‘purists’ were more flexible and felt that it was important to be able to expand the definition of what World Music is…I think at this point they are willing to say it’s not just world music, it is just great music.” The vibrancy and networking opportunities at Womex are attracting audiences from all cultures, ages and genres. As Womex expands to include more young people and music of such a vast variety, while genres blur with the rise of the Internet, I ask myself, will the term World Music become obsolete?