Much Like "Indie," "World Music" Is Defined By Its Audience, Not Its Musicians

"People don't necessarily think of Bob Marley as a world-music artist, they just think of him as a great artist. That's how I think of Aurelio."

That's KEXP DJ Jon Kertzer, who also runs Sub Pop's "world-music" imprint, Next Ambiance, the label behind Aurelio's album Laru Beya, featured in this week's paper. Kertzer rightly bristles at the tag "world music" in relation to this Honduran artist. "World music" says nothing about Aurelio's music, other than that it's not jazz or rock and roll or rap. But that's almost the point.

Genre tags are imperfect crutches, but they're very useful crutches.

People who make music or are a part of the creative process almost uniformly hate genres. They feel bruised when it's pointed out that their music is not without classification, and cry foul when the single word used to describe their music doesn't capture the subtlety of their craft. Most reasonable people don't want a dissertation on the style of a band's music when they're introduced to an artist in conversation. They want to start with a genre.

But even if "world music" is up there with "alternative" as the worst-of-the-worst labels, it's still very useful. Like the "indie" genre, it describes a listener, not a style of music.

Stereotypically--and stereotypes can also be very useful crutches--a listener who likes Bassekou Kouyate, Next Ambiance's other artist, is more likely to enjoy Aurelio Martinez than, say, FOALS, an artist on Sub Pop's flagship label that's not considered "world music."

Why? Because, as Putumayo's success has made abundantly clear, people who like music from Brazil are also likely to like--or at least try--music from South Africa. The musicians don't make "world music," but they fetch a "world music" audience.

Follow Reverb on Facebook.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow