‘World Music’ Industry Category Turns 30, But Is It Still Appropriate?

Image Title: Archie Roach performed at Womadelaide 2017 Image Credit: womadelaide.com.au Image Title: Archie Roach performed at Womadelaide 2017 Image Credit: womadelaide.com.au
Jasmine Crittenden · March 14, 2017

The term ‘world music’ officially entered the music industry in early 1987. According to music historian Philip Sweeney, a group of producers and promoters met in North London’s Empress of Russia Pub to decide on a sales category for ‘ethnic’ and ‘international’ recordings. ‘World music’ was their choice.[1] This history is recorded on the pages of UK froots music magazine.

The impetus was to provide a category in record shops to bring together music previously displayed haphazardly to support its development.

In May 1990, Billboard created a World Music Chart, which listed the top fifteen selling albums twice a week. In 1992, the Grammy Awards established a World Music category and WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) made its inaugural appearance in Adelaide, having launched in Shelton Mallet, UK, in 1980.

The move was a success. As The Guardian noted in 2004 “it was a simple decision – but the result has been remarkable” and led to many artists achieving global success, notably Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club.

The term ‘world music’ was coined in the 1960s by Robert E. Brown, an ethnomusicologist at Wesleyan University, Connecticut. ‘I thought it up in order to distinguish a new PhD program there from ethnomusicology programs already in existence,’ he writes. ‘To summarise it briefly, the concept of world music anticipates a world culture of the future, in which, through greatly accelerated communications technology, all music might be said to belong to all people.’[2]

Such contrasting applications of the term highlight its fraught nature. Today, the meaning and appropriateness of ‘world music’ are contested hotly.

In 2012, Guardian journalist Ian Birrell wrote that ‘perhaps’ the term ‘made sense’ in 1987, as ‘a marketing device to promote the sounds of the world that were lost in record shops and on the radio.’[3]

However, he argues that now, ‘in this mixed-up, messy and shrunken world’, ‘it feels like an outdated and increasingly offensive term’. He points to artists such as Nigerian-born, Berlin-based singer Nneka and Kinshasa-born, Belgium-based Baloji, who, as a result of being categorised as world music performers, ‘find it that much harder to get on playlists, get gigs and get attention’.

Meanwhile, during The Music Show at WOMADelaide 2016, singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo, who has won three Grammy Awards, said, ‘I’m trying to push [the musical establishment] to realise that any category, in any genre, is limiting … We don’t live in a world limited to our doorstep or by our frontiers — so why should we do that with our music?’[4]

Similarly, Brown rails against the use of world music as a reference to non-Western music. He writes, ‘Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the concept has been narrowed down, or distorted away from, its original meaning. It is often used now to refer only to non-Western music (a term, incidentally, which I abhor). How could world music exclude any music in the world?’[5]

 Furthermore, Ian Scobie, director of WOMADelaide, told the ABC, ‘We don’t really see ourselves as a world music festival anymore. We see ourselves more as a festival for music from around the world.’[6]


[1] Philip Sweeney, Virgin Directory of World Music, Virgin, University of Michigan, 1991, ix.

[2] Robert E. Brown, ‘World Music – Past, Present and Future’, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music website, May 1992, accessed 13 March, < https://www.ethnomusic.ucla.edu/world-music-and-ethnomusicology>.

[3] Ian Birrell, ‘The term “world music” is outdated and offensive’, Guardian, 23 March 2012, accessed 13 March 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2012/mar/22/world-music-outdated-offensive>.

[4]Angelique Kidjo, cited in Patrick Carey, ‘As WOMADelaide turns 25, what counts as “world music”?’, ABC News, 6 March 2017, accessed 13 March 2017,  <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-06/as-womadelaide-turns-25-what-counts-as-world-music/8321286>.

[5] Brown, ibid.

[6]Ian Scobie, cited in Carey, ibid.

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