From the case of the World Music market, we learn that local initiatives always have multiple meanings—a polysemy that cannot be avoided and must be considered in analysis and practice for local initiatives to thrive.

World Music Image Nowruz Traditional Singers
Traditional singer and players of dombra from Nowruz, Kazakhstan. Photo by Stomac and reproduced under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Since the end of the 1980s, we have become accustomed to finding World Music albums in record shops and playlists and listening to radio shows or going to World Music concerts. It all began in 1987, when eleven British independent labels organized a marketing campaign in London to release World Music as a new category in the music business. It is said that this campaign triggered a “ethno-trip” in the West: a search for authenticity and originality in non-Western “ethnic music” (Wicke et al. 2005:589). What initially seemed to be only a catchphrase that would be discarded by the next summer ended up as a stable category in the music business. In fact, the establishment of World Music is a tribute to the concrete efforts of many professionals who can be seen as local activists in their activities.

Because of the difficulties in spelling musicians’ names or the different forms of classification in each shop, some independent labels working with non-Western music organized a marketing campaign to convince local record shops to create a special place to accommodate the diversity of their catalogs. In order to reach this goal, they committed to work together and use a new common category, World Music, for distributing and selling their products.[1]In the 1980s independent music scene, label owners often were also radio DJs[2], tour managers[3], festival organizers[4], distributors[5], record shop owners,[6]and journalists[7]. They adopted World Music as a category in other fields, spreading its use very quickly.

Although the marketing campaign started in London as a local project, first agreements with distributors included the acceptance of this category in U.S. American record shops, expanding its scope. Two years later, Pete Lawrence (Cooking Vinyl) and Johannes Theurer (SFB Radio) organized the “World Music for the World” meeting as part of the program of the Berlin Independent Days trade fair, which specialized in independent music. This fair provided a place to advocate for World Music in Europe. Involved radio DJs participated also in the annual workshops of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), advertising for World Music and building its support in other European countries.

Convinced that World Music labels’ album distribution was too irregular to offer a reliable picture of its activities, these radio DJs created the World Music Charts Europe in 1991, based on records’ popularity in their radio shows. In the same year, representatives created Worldwide Music Days as part of the Berlin Independent Days. Worldwide Music Days lasted for three years and served as incubator for two important institutions in the World Music market: the European Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals, founded in 1993, and WOMEX—The World Music Expo, founded in 1994. From that point, WOMEX became the central meeting point for all people interested in World Music worldwide.

Uniting all these professionals was the desire to make non-Western musicians as famous in the West as they were in their home countries. They fought against racism and bridged cultures in an international context marked during that time by apartheid in South Africa and race riots in England. Because affordable digital technology allowed for the production of high-quality recordings, industry professionals could work as ethically as ethnomusicologists in producing and licensing recordings from different countries for resale mainly in the West. In fact, they developed an ethos rooted in their enthusiasm, ethics, and moral attitude against all forms of discrimination. This array of values built the base of the World Music market and is revived in every annual WOMEX trade fair. In 2017, “2,600 professionals (including 303 performing artists) from 90 countries” visited WOMEX in its 23rd year. This terrific attendance reveals that many music professionals worldwide share their enthusiasm for and engagement with World Music.

This story can be read as a successful achievement of local actors: they commit to change a general negative attitude in the West towards non-Western music, musicians and fans; they establish an international platform for cultural and economic exchange in the WOMEX trade fair; and they claim the World Music market is a positive side of globalization. Thus, these local actors not only admire the music, but also engage professionally to support musicians in making a living with their music. However, other ways of interpreting this story are equally important and part of the complex phenomenon called World Music. Below, I will discuss four aspects not mentioned in this interpretation that offer other views of World Music.

The first aspect not mentioned: The World Music initiative started in London, capital of the West-leading British Empire for more than three centuries—a fact that never disappeared into the background. Britain’s colonial past and postcolonial present echoes in every step taken by the World Music enthusiasts. They do not want to reproduce exploitative relationship patterns, although they cannot avoid being interpreted as reviving colonial relations. The British press published criticisms quite often in the late 1980s, most prominently in Oldfield and Reynolds’ article “When all the world’s a stooge…” (The Guardian, 01/09/1989, p. 31). Some voices within the World Music market also raised these issues, for example, David Byrne (ex-Talking Heads, Luaka Bop’s owner) in his March 1999 New York Timesarticle “I hate World Music." Ian A. Anderson answered Byrne’s provocation in “World Music History," which mentions the colonial relations between Great Britain and the USA. Anderson’s article also points out that Americans are very centered in American culture, a criticism that reflects a problem, but does not solve it. As seen in Byrne’s and Anderson’s debate, history matters when interpreting local initiatives—not only the local history itself, but the position of this locality in a broader historical context.

The second significant aspect to consider is the expansion limit of the World Music market. In one sense, World Music is a Western project: WOMEX takes place every year in a different European city, and World Music festivals often take place in Western countries where many World Music labels have their headquarters. Promoters and enthusiast seldom use the term World Music (in its various translations) outside the (symbolic, not geographical) West or Global North. Also, musicians allegedly come from all around the world to play World Music for Western audiences, representing “their cultures.” From this perspective, producers and consumers are on the one side (the Western) and products on the other (the Rest). For this reason, the “World Music” market is criticized for being Eurocentric and reproducing the unequal division of labor observed in other global markets (Wilson 1987, Guilbault 1996). This interpretation makes us aware that the broader economic context where local initiatives are embedded is also important in defining its meaning. World Music as a market category makes more sense in the West.

A third aspect I would like to discuss relates to the politics of representation. For practical reasons, early World Music labels agreed with distributors and record shop owners that their albums would be organized according to the country, musician name, album title, catalog number and label. If a certain musician initially predominated a country’s listing, this musician indirectly established the “standard” to identify this country’s music—regardless of this musician’s position in his or her “local” or “national” market. As a consequence, there may be a mismatch between the way the World Music market represents a music culture and the way the members of that music culture represent themselves. This mismatch is most clearly visible in the case of Buena Vista Social Club. Jan Fairley reported in 2009 on how a certain Cuban music genre became a national icon internationally with Buena Vista Social Club, but remains a niche inside the country. From this, we learn that the World Music market, which started as a local initiative in London, may have negative effects in other localities after reaching its goal, as in the case of the new generation of Cuban musicians. Youngsters in Cuba who intend to tour internationally playing other music genres are confronted with the Buena Vista Social Club image. They have to negotiate materially and symbolically with producers and concert organizers in order to value their work and be recognized as Cuban as well.

As a last point, independent labels’ success in constructing the World Music market cannot be reduced to a simple marketing strategy. Despite a successful short-term marketing campaign in record shops, enthusiasts could only successfully establish the World Music market after much networking and attempts to create market institutions (such as the charts, a trade fair, a platform for festival organizers) that allow for the continuity of this market. Marketing is just one of the activities necessary to bring a local project forward.

From the case of the World Music market, we learn that local initiatives always have many meanings—a polysemy that cannot be avoided. In analysis and in practice, we must be aware of these different interpretations, see where they take us, and remain in dialogue with them, instead of trying to impose only one interpretation, thus extinguishing any possibility of dialogue with the difference—which could also mean the end of an initiative like World Music.



[1]Some documents of this initiative can be found here:

[2]Charles Gillet, partner in Oval Music.

[3]Anne Hunt and Maria Farquharson, partners in Arts Worldwide and World Circuit’s founders.

[4]Thomas Brooman and Amanda Jones in WOMAD Records.

[5]Iain Scott in Triple Earth.

[6]Robert Urbanus in Sterns.

[7]Ian a. Anderson, Rogue Records’ owner and fRoots editor