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02 août 2007

Where the real thing clings on

At the muddy rock festivals and the low-budget pub gigs, you can hear something that doesn't come off a computer

To the Womad festival, with the wellingtons. By the time we arrive vehicles are being towed on to the site, so God alone knows how they're going to get out. It's the 25th anniversary of the World of Music Arts and Dance spectacular and the 5,000-acre Wiltshire estate is a sea of glutinous mud.

Couples force buggies across the claggy terrain while attempting to dance to the Congolese drummers behind them. I ask Sunday Times rock critic Robert Sandall where the press tent is and he points across the mire: "Past the gun emplacements at Tyne Cott, left at the ridge, third crater on the right."

With record sales plummeting, the live arena is now where the money is, and people are happy to pay handsomely for an "authentic" experience that can't be copied on a computer. Such as watching musicians perform. Even when standing in a puddle.

In its new location, Womad is a colourful collision between lovers of world music and local gentry on a bender - indeed the Caribbean Food Shack rubs shoulders with La Grande Bouffe gourmet pancake tent. The music-lovers are watching the Malian lute legend Bassekou Kouyate and his ensemble Ngoni ba, and the aristos are flooring beakers of warm white wine and dressing their daughters in little fairy wings and T-shirts that say "Elf & Safety".

I flag down a charismatic gent in sturdy outdoor clothing, unmistakably the 21st Earl of Suffolk and owner of the 17th-century pile at the end of the drive. Rock festivals are a major revenue source for country estates - Balloch Castle, Henham Park, Leeds, Cornbury, Blenheim - and the party is effectively on the old boy's lawn. How is it going?

"Wonderfully well - but it's made an awful mess of my landing strip!" He indicates a swath of grassland chewed by lorries, and a Piper Dakota in a hangar.

Strolling out of an adjacent tent is Womad pioneer Peter Gabriel, on stage in just over an hour. I made a radio documentary about the first event in '82 - recording vegetarian food vendors (a novelty) and sitar players in teepees - and I interviewed Gabriel, a world music evangelist and the former lead singer of Genesis. And here we are 25 years later. "Well yes, we introduced the world to the world," he waves towards the acres of throbbing tents, "but that first festival was a financial disaster. I got death threats from people who were owed money. I was the only fat cat to be squeezed, I suppose."

The latest beneficiary of Gabriel's cash is a "personal recommendation engine" called Filter, demonstrating under canvas behind him. Download his software package free and it reads the contents of your iTunes library and suggests various selections from a five-million-song archive that might appeal to what it gauges to be your taste. "It's a life jockey, not a disc jockey," he tells me, as skilled with the soundbite as any politician. "Consumer-centric and content-agnostic."

How you make money out of this venture isn't clear, but if people are paying less for music, the current philosophy is simple: encourage them to buy more of it.

Musicians now endure great privations to get their careers aloft - and no better example than Laura Veirs, on stage two days later at my west London local. Ten years ago, Veirs and band would have been in a Holiday Inn with their road crew, but the frail, Portland-based singer-songwriter drove herself alone from the previous night's gig in Newcastle, uses an echo-box to replicate her missing musicians and gamely leaps off stage at the end to sell her own merchandise.

The following night, pub-rock legends Any Trouble light up the golf club across the field, their first performance in 23 years. You wonder how they'll adjust to the harsh new world that's developed without them.

There's a telling line at the beginning of The Simpsons Movie, which I see with my eldest son. It cuts from the Itchy and Scratchy short to our heroes watching in a cinema just like ours. "Why should we pay to see this stuff," Homer asks, "when we can watch it at home for free?"

It brought back the gag Barry Cryer told me in the Loose Ends studio. "Doctor, doctor, I think I'm going deaf." What are the symptoms? "Those funny little yellow people on the telly."

Mark Ellen, Published 02 August 2007, Mark Ellen is editor of The Word magazine

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