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12 juin 2007

Birth of 'world music' tag revisited

Twenty years ago this month, a group of industry professionals representing a handful of specialist independent labels met in a small, nondescript room above a run-down London pub to discuss how to promote, market and sell music from outside the Anglo-American pop axis to a Western audience. Over warm English beer and a few desultory-looking plates of sandwiches, they spent a night coming up with the blueprint for a campaign that was to dramatically transform the way such records were retailed - and a new term to describe them. That term was "world music". Twenty years later, the pub is an upscale fish restaurant and world music as a genre has grown to generate such multi-million selling acts as the Buena Vista Social Club, Cesaria Evora, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Manu Chao. Yet it was not always so.

What's in a name

"What we now call 'world music' has always existed,"
said Charlie Gillett, founder of the ongoing Oval Records, and a renowned author, music historian and broadcaster. "But in 1987 there wasn't an identifiable section to browse through in record stores. Before the term was created, people simply didn't know where to look for these records."Oval Records was one of nine labels represented at that historic meeting on June 29, 1987, at the Empress of Russia pub in London's St John Street. Also present were Globestyle, Crammed, Hannibal, Rogue, Sterns, Triple Earth, WOMAD and World Circuit.

A number of other labels including Earthworks, Discs 'Afrique, Cooking Vinyl and Topic Records were unable to attend but pledged support. The meeting was convened by Roger Armstrong, the affable Irish-born director of London-based Ace Records, where he still presides in 2007. A highly respected record company man who had tasted mainstream success in the 1970s when his Chiswick Records label enjoyed hits with acts like the Damned and Sniff 'n' the Tears, he had moved into what was about to become known as world music when he co-founded Globestyle as a specialist subsidiary of Ace in 1985.

"Some of us were in awe of Roger because he was one of the few people present who had actually sold records in serious quantities," recalls Amanda Jones, then with the fledgling WOMAD Records and now label manager at Real World. Armstrong's mailed invitation described the gathering as an "international pop label meeting" and set out an agenda including "identifying the target audience," "how to deal with retail" and - most significant - "adoption of a campaign/media title."

In harmony

Shortly after 7pm on that warm Thursday evening, Armstrong opened the meeting with a fluent account of the importance of creating a generic name for music by international acts, in order to give it a focus and identity at the point of sale. There was little, if any, disagreement. "Everybody thought it was a good idea because it was clear that there was something happening if we could just get the door open," recalls Joe Boyd, founder of Hannibal Records and now an author and broadcaster.

According to Armstrong, other names under consideration included "world beat," "tropical," "ethnic," "roots" and "international pop." After an hour, he called for a show of hands, when "world music" garnered more votes than the rival suggestions combined. According to Iain Scott, then director of Triple Earth Records and now a label manager with compilation specialist Union Square, the initial aim was not to create anything as grand as a new genre. "The objective was simply to target more efficiently those who might buy music from outside their own culture, whether from Africa, South Asia or Latin America," he said.

Thomas Brooman, director of the WOMAD festival for the last 25 years but who at the meeting represented WOMAD Records (which in 1989 was to become the Real World label), shares a similar recollection. "We knew there was a grassroots audience for our music, but the roadblock was distribution," he said. "What we needed was a banner to rally behind. But in a brand-conscious world, we accidentally created a genre." Oddly, nobody present remembers who formally proposed the term "world music."

According to Ian Anderson, editor of monthly specialist magazine fRoots, who at the time was running Rogue Records, it was one of several terms that had been floating around for a number of years. So why was it adopted over the other names? "It seemed to include the most and omit the least," he said.

Ben Mandelson, co-founder of Globestyle Records, who kept minutes of the meeting and is now a producer and musician, agrees. "World music was the most vague and inoffensive term on offer." Mandelson and many others recall a strong spirit of cooperation. Anderson's persuasive advocacy of teamwork resulted in all of the labels involved agreeing to pool resources to fund a combined marketing push around the newly adopted term.

Mixed reaction

A few days after the meeting, a joint press release announced: "It was agreed that the term WORLD MUSIC would be used by all labels present to offer a new and unifying category for shop racking, press releases, publicity handouts and 'file under ...' suggestions. This means that you no longer have to worry about where to put those new Yemenite pop, Bulgarian choir, Zairian soukous or Gambian kora records."

The campaign had its early critics. "There were a lot of negative responses flying around," Boyd said. Two weeks after the initial meeting, a second gathering was held to consider reaction. "There was opposition from some quarters," Gillett said. "The Bhundu Boys, who were on Cooking Vinyl and selling a lot of records, were getting (placed) in the mainstream pop/rock section and definitely didn't want to be in a world music box. But fears that we were creating a ghetto were pretty swiftly dispelled."

Indeed, such resentments were ultimately doused by the campaign's success, although its initial aims were modest in the extreme. "Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares and Ladysmith Black Mambazo had maybe sold 100,000 by then," Boyd said. "But mostly we were trying to get sales up from the hundreds into the thousands. To go from that to World Circuit selling 7 million copies of Buena Vista Social Club was something nobody foresaw."

Set against the sophisticated marketing techniques of today, the 1987 campaign perhaps appears naive. Yet arguably it was the campaign's very simplicity that made it so effective. "It generated a climate of interest so that by 1989 Peter Gabriel could take the idea of a world music label to Virgin Records for a distribution deal," Jones said. "They could see the potential of the artists we had like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In fact, it was Virgin who suggested naming the label Real World."

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