"World music," a loosely defined term used to categorize a variety of genres such as African, Asian, Brazilian, Celtic and Cuban, has seen significant growth when compared to the overall music industry as a whole.
CD sales and concert tickets are being pushed to new levels through the efforts of independent music producers such as Putumayo World Music, the recent music and film effort "Buena Vista Social Club" and Celtic dance and music events such as "Riverdance."
The Recording Industry Association of America doesn't break out world music as a category because it's still a small piece of the overall business. But estimates from independent music executives find sales rising 20% per year even as the music industry continues to experience flat to slight growth. Estimates are that world music pulls in $125 million to $150 million a year in revenue. That gives world music about a 1% share of the total $13.7 billion U.S. music market.
A growing number of upscale baby boomers, tired of Western popular music formulas, are the segment's key consumers.
"Adults are looking for the thrill of discovering new music," said David Hazen, senior VP-marketing for Putumayo World Music, which produces a number of CD music compilations, packaged with hip folk art graphics. "They are disillusioned with music on the radio. They want something that's rootsy."
'BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB'
The Grammy-winning "Buena Vista Social Club" CD was a big factor in the recent surge. While on a trip to Cuba, guitarist Ry Cooder rediscovered the country's forgotten older musicians who played a genre of music known as son, a romantic, lyrical form from which the more modern salsa derives. An independent movie about the musicians was released recently by Artisan Entertainment.
"World music is climbing," said Alecia Cohen, publisher of New York-based Rhythm Magazine, a monthly that focuses on world music. The music, she said, "is typically for Anglo baby boomers who are tired of rock and jazz."
Popular artists Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon have fostered world music artists, mostly through their own musical efforts. Mr. Simon's 1989 "Graceland" boosted interest in African music and, more recently, his musical "The Capeman" added fuel to Latin-based motifs. Mr. Gabriel has been the most aggressive, establishing in 1989 his U.K.-based Real World music company.
Perhaps the biggest push for world music has come from Putumayo, which originated as a New York-based marketer of Mexican and South American ethnic clothing. It now posts about $10 million in sales a year.
About 10 compilation albums are produced a year by Putumayo, with titles such as "Music From the Coffee Lands," "Latino! Latino!" and "Celtic Tides." Its compilations, heavily branded with the producer's name, have been credited with helping to sell world music to new listeners in recent years. Additionally, the label also produces CDs for specific artists, such as its best-selling artist, Habib Koite, a Malian singer, songwriter and guitarist.
Putumayo can't compete with the major labels' promotion budgets allocated to retailers. Instead, marketing success for company has come through non-traditional distribution, including booksellers such as Borders Books & Music and Barnes & Noble, as well as some clothing stores and coffee bars.
A DUAL AUDIENCE
"They can reach people [ages] 18 to 50. Because their graphics are cute, they can reach out to older people." Added Chris Stevenson, senior VP-marketing at House of Blues Entertainment: "Putumayo has done an amazing branding job. That is what's lacking in the [overall] music business."
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for world music is getting promotion via radio airplay. TV shows, such as "CNN World Beat" and PBS' "Sessions on West 54th Street," have helped do some of the marketing work. This past summer, Putumayo, in conjunction with Ben Manila Productions, launched "The Putumayo World Music Hour," a radio show syndicated to over 70 stations. Tom's of Maine and long-distance service provider Working Assets are sponsors.
Major record labels have had world music divisions for years, but many haven't been actively pushing product. These days major labels have established joint ventures with smaller labels -- an effort to match smaller music companies' street-marketing savvy with the larger label's more traditional marketing expertise.
SMALL ECONOMIC MODELS
But the question is can the majors deal with world music's comparatively tiny economic models? For instance, typical pop/rock albums are measured in terms of big numbers -- 500,000 sales for the gold status recognized by the RIAA; a million for platinum. By contrast, 10,000 is a good seller for a world music artist, with 20,000 to 30,000 a big hit, according to Mr. Hazen.
"The major [labels] are in it, but to a degree," said Deborah Morgan, music industry consultant and former general manager of BMG Classics, a division of Bertelsman that produces jazz, classical and world music. "A lot of marketing tactics that have been successful have been with the smaller labels. They are more nimble."
Even if the big labels don't grow the business, executives believe world music will still be successful due to the explosion of marketing through the Internet. "A 10,000-selling artist will grow into a 250,000-selling artist worldwide because of the Internet," Mr. Stevenson said. "It's a changing market for these