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Origins of World Music
by: Stuart Ian Burns  16 april 04
... or rather how a genre was formed...
World Music has two histories. There is the music itself - how it's developed throughout the world to become a beautifully scattered collage of sounds and feelings. But there is a more recent history which in some ways has been as influential as everything which has gone before. The history of the actual genre, which began at a meeting of interested parties on Monday 29th June 1987.

Music likes to be labeled because people like labels. I once entered into a long protracted argument with someone on the subject of Heavy Metal. I'd heard something and I was insisting on calling it Metal because it was loud, the lyrics were indistinguishable and I could imagine a room full of people banging heads together to it. He was growling that in fact Heavy Metal didn't actually exist and that there were in fact many sub-genres taking preference and that what I'd heard was in fact 'grind core'. I eventually gave in - partly because I wasn't that familiar with the genre but mostly because I accepted that Heavy Metal as a name was more of a marketing tool - at some point in the past a label was needed and that was chosen. Which is exactly how 'World Music' developed.

'World Music' of a sort was particularly prevalent in 1986, when Paul Simon released his 'Gracelands' album. The concept behind the album was to bring meld his own sensibilities with the sounds which he had fallen in love with listening to artists from Southern Africa. So although the sounds of Ladysmith Black Mambaso and Savuka were featured on the album, arguably they were just sounds which Simon used to wrap around his own concerns. Although they were credited in the sleeve notes, the name on the front of the album was still Paul Simon, no matter the contributions of the other groups involved. But this project and the work of Peter Gabriel and Johnny Clegg amongst others had to some degree introduced non-western music to a wider audience and this was an opportunity which could not be ignored.

Before 1987, although World Music undoubtedly had a following and with this potential market opening up, it was difficult for interested parties to sell their music to the larger music stores; although specialist music stores had been important in developing the genre over many years, the record companies, broadcasters and journalists had been finding it difficult to build a following because the music itself seemed to scarce - hard to believe now. They were eyeing the Jazz and Classic markets, watching them develop a cross-over audience and decided that the best way forward would be to collective strategy to bring the music to a wider audience.

At the outset of the meeting, the musician Roger Armstrong advised why something needed to be done; "(He) felt that the main problem in selling our kind of material lay with the U.K. retail outlets and specifically the fact that they did not know how to rack it coherently. This discouraged them from stocking the material in any depth and made it more difficult for the record buyers to become acquainted with our catalogues."

The first concern of the meetings was to select the umbrella name that this 'new' music would be listed under. Suggestions included 'World Beat' and prefixing words such as 'Hot' or 'Tropical' to existing genre titles, but 'World Music' won after a show of hands, but initially it was not meant to be the title for a whole new genre, rather something which all of the record labels could place on the sleeves of records in order to distinguish them during the forthcoming campaign. It only became a title for the genre after an agreement that despite the publicity campaign, this wasn't an exclusive club and that for the good of all, any label which was selling this type of music would be able to take advantage.

Another issue which needed to be addressed was the distribution methods which existed at the time. Most of the main labels were unhappy with the lack of specialist knowledge displayed by sales persons which led to poor service; there was also a reluctance amongst many of the larger outlets to carry the music, because they understandable liked larger releases which could be promoted within store. It was difficult to justify a large presentation expense if the stock going into stores was limited.

One of the marketing strategies used in the vinyl market at the time was the use of browser cards, which would appear in the record racks. As part of the World Music campaign it was decided that these would be a two colour affair designed to carry a special offer package; to aid the retailer a selection of labels would also be included (presumably for shelf or rack edging).

In an unprecedented move, all of the World Music labels co-ordinated together and developed a compilation cassette for the cover of music magazine, the NME. The overall running time was ninety minutes, each package containing a mini-catalogue showing the other releases on offer. This was a smart move as NME reader are often seen as discerning listeners and it was important step to get them on board.

By the time of that second meeting it was becoming clear that in order for the campaign to be successful, it should its own dedicated press officer. They would be able to juggle the various deadlines and also be able to sell the music as a concept to not just the national stations but also regional DJs who were keen to expand the variety of music they could offer. They were seen as a key resource as it was important for 'World Music' to be seen as something which could be important to people outside London - most regions after all had a similarly rich folk heritage which could be tapped into. A cost effective way of achieving all this would be a leafleting campaign.

The next step was to develop a World Music chart, gathering together selling information from around fifty shops, so that it would finally be possible to see which were big sellers in the genre - allowing new listeners to see what was particularly popular. It was agreed that the NME could again be involved in printing the chart and also Music Week and the London listings magazine City Limits. It was also suggested that Andy Kershaw might be persuaded to do a run down of this chart on his show regularly.

And so October of 1987 was designated 'World Music' month. A music festival, 'Crossing the Border' was held at the Town & Country Club, London and it was the start of the winter season for both WOMAD and Arts Worldwide. The main press release stressed the issues inherent in the campaign:

"Since the early Eighties the enthusiasm for music from 'outside' Western pop culture has been steadily mounting. More and more international artists, many of whom are big stars in their own countries, are coming here on tour. They started off, like The Bhundu Boys, playing small clubs and pubs, but now many acts are so popular that they are packing out larger venues.

"The excitement and word-of-mouth appeal is backed up by radio - Andy Kershaw and Charlie Gillett's shows to name but two... and the demand for recordings of non-Western artists is surely growing. This is where the problems can start for the potential buyer of 'World Music' albums - the High Street record shop hasn't got the particular record, or even a readily identifiable section to browse through, it doesn't show in any of the published charts, and at this point all but the most tenacious give up - and who can blame them?"

That this 'World Music' became prominent very quickly. Paul Simon acknowledging as much when he featured the Graceland musicians appeared upfront during concerts. This was possibly helped initially by the fact that music was still largely being sold on vinyl. I remember visiting HMV that very winter and suddenly seeing those large covers featuring mysterious pictures from far off lands - they were positively alien compared to the Debbie Gibson album a possibly bought that same visit.

But this story demonstrates that with co-operation anything can be achieved; but as well as a marketing opportunity, those involved were driven forward by a passion for the music, something which was passed on to customers. And it stands as a testament that some areas of mainstream music have adopted many of the features of world music, and that artists such as Shakira and the members of the Buena Vista Social Club, who would previously never have appeared on best seller lists and been ghettoized area being enjoyed by a much wider audience.
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