Ever Wondered How "World Music" Got Its Awkward Name?

Music, as Madonna wisely pointed out, makes the people come together (it also apparently makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel. Oh, Madonna...). But the endless, relentless, unmanageable offer of music that the invention of recording unleashed in the very late 19th century can also confound potential listeners. Enter the classification systems, foremost among which is the idea of "genres."

The process determining the classification of songs, recordings, artists and even labels for selling and reviewing purposes is one of the least transparent and most consequential in the music industry. And if you ever had an Oliver-Stone-style fantasy that these decisions are hatched in smoky rooms by a small cabal of interested parties, well, you're probably right.

Sadly, we don't have a transcript of the major record chains' meeting where somebody decided that everyone black or part black is "Soul" or "Urban," except for Jimi Hendrix and sometimes Prince who are "Rock." But critic Michealangelo Matos points us to something almost as fascinating: the June 1987 minutes of the meeting where the infamous term "World Music" was hatched by a cabal of hip UK label and media representatives in a smoky room (ok, we don't know this last part for sure, but we're pretty sure given the crowd that some patchouli was involved).

Details of this fascinating memo, after the jump.

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According to the "Minutes Of Meeting Between The Various 'World Music' Record Companies And Interested Parties, Monday 29th June 1987" (unearthed by fRoots magazine), a small group of insiders including Roger Armstrong, Amanda Jones, broadcaster and author Charlie Gillett, legendary producer Joe Boyd and representatives from UK's Channel 4, AWW/World Circuit and several other labels were concerned that retail outlets didn't understand the international recordings, mostly from Africa, that started flooding the market during the fight against Apartheid, the WOMAD festivals, and the surprising success of Paul Simon's Graceland. The same retailers who had no trouble moving cartloads of U2's The Joshua Tree had a much harder time with this material and "did not know how to rack it coherently."

Their solution:

It was agreed that we should create a generic name under which our type of catalogue could be labelled in order to focus attention on what we do. We discussed various names for our type of music(s) and on a show of hands 'World Music' was agreed as the 'banner' under which we would work. Other suggestions were 'World Beat', 'Hot...', 'Tropical...' and various others. It was suggested that all of the labels present would use 'World Music' on their record sleeves (to give a clear indication of the 'File Under...' destination) and also on all publicity material etc. There followed a discussion on whether or not 'World Music' should be presented as a designed logo or simply as a specific type face. Discussion followed as to the extent to which this might engender exclusivity of elitism, thereby begging the question of how any other label/organisation may be able to join the club. The discussion centred around the possible conflict between the short term commercial aim of promoting 'World Music' (sponsored, promoted, and paid for by us), and the longer term aim of establishing 'World Music' as the generic term for this kind of music as with Reggae/Soul/Disco etc. (non-exclusive and open to all). Artists designs solicited for the next meeting.

More from fRoots magazine's fascinating look at the original "World Music" memo:

We need to change the idea (as related by Ian) that because we are involved in the same sorts of music, we are necessarily rivals.

Five possible sales devices were discussed. They are as follows:-

  • Browser card containing 'World Music' heading and individual logos of companies involved.
  • NME 'World Music' cassette to which each company would contribute material.
  • Music Week advertorial.
  • Counter Leaflets/joint Catalogue/Poster.
  • Hiring a joint PR.
  • World Music chart.

A browser card was felt to be a useful tool to help the dealers focus attention on World Music. However, it needed to be used in conjunction with a retail campaign. It was suggested that the distributors supplied a special offer catalogue pack drawn from all labels available to that distributor. Initially these would be records from the labels who pay for the browser, but with the ultimate aim of establishing a racking category for all World Music releases.


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