World Music Does This Distinction Make Sense Essay

Length: 5 pages Sources: 1 Subject: Music Type: Essay Paper: #65893082 Related Topics: Oligopoly, Hip Hop, World, Musical Genres
Excerpt from Essay :

Popular Music

It can be difficult to create a meaningful distinction between global and local music today. While some music is clearly created for local consumption -- usually because of language barriers, cultural references and distribution limitations -- music itself is easy to transmit around the world using modern communications technologies. Furthermore, musicians draw their influences from other musicians as much as from cultures, and these influences are often multicultural in nature. It is unusual for a musician to only be influenced by other local musicians -- international influences almost always exist.

David Byrne (1999) looked at this issue in his essay "I hate world music," wherein he decried the distinction between "world music" as a term meaning non-Western music. He argues that the term world music ends up simply being a way to compartmentalize non-Western music as some sort of quasi-genre that you either consume or do not consume. Implicitly, he argues, the term infantilizes world music, positioning the Western above the non-Western, as if the latter is more a curiosity, and as inferior in some way. This, he argues, perpetuates a Western-centric view of the world, leading potentially to "exploitation and racism." Treating music as music, no matter its origins, is perhaps a better philosophy to take, rather than viewing the world of music through the lens where all non-Western music is lumped into a singular genre that at best understates dramatically its diversity and at worst represents a form of institutionalized racism.

Bohlman (2002) also notes the inherent absurdity of the classification of world music: "world music can be folk music, art music or popular music; its practitioners amateur or professional." Yet in his argument still treats the great world of music as a singular entity, a curiosity, and its availability in the West as simply an example of globalization. Arguably, however, the consumption of that which is foreign is not really an example of globalization at all, but something humans have done for centuries. True globalization would be to not see this product as being foreign at all, to not even think to compartmentalize it as something distinct from one's own culture -- a global culture rejects the idea that things are "foreign" or local.

But globalization as a phenomenon has brought more people to more places, and with this human migration comes a greater exposure on the part of all of us to different ideas and products for consumption. We still have this distinction -- world music -- between local and global music, but it is not necessary accurate or meaningful. For one, a lot of what we consider to be our music is actually produced for global consumption. Popular music from the west -- artists from the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia mainly -- is consumed the world over. Not everything that makes it big in the west transfers over to the global market, but enough of it does that it cannot be considered distinct from the class of global music. Further, international pop often bears so many similarities, from how it is made to how it is marketed and consumed -- to western pop that the differences lie only in language and cultural references.

On the other side, the world music market shows that there is still a distinction made between "global," which is a code word for foreign, and "local." This distinction need not exist, and in many cases is an outright false dichotomy. Several years ago, the most-heralded "world music" album was Amadou & Mariam's Dimanche a Bamako. While Amadou and Mariam are famous Malian musicians, much of the work on this album was done by Manu Chao, a Parisian of Spanish descent. Other "world music" heroes, such as the Buena Vista Social Club, play music that is wholly of their homelands, but they reached the public consciousness via Westerners, in Buena Vista's case Ry Cooder, for other artists the likes of Mickey Hart or Bill Laswell. That which we commonly know to be...


By no means is "global" or "world" music wholly foreign, especially not the acts that make it big in the West.

The other thing to consider is whether people outside of the West look at Western music as foreign. This seems to vary by country. In some countries, such as Russia, there is a strong distinction between local and Western, which seems to mirror the way that Westerners often frame the issue. In other countries, however, this distinction does not exist. Western music is just one of many musical forms within the pantheon, and in many countries the distinct genres of Western music are readily recognized; in many countries they do not fall into the trap of lumping all foreign music forms together.

I would argue that some forms of music are truly global in nature, just not all. Metal, for example, tends to have only limited distinctions relating to geographic origin -- for the most part artists perform to genre rather than country, such that black metal or death metal will sound pretty much the same no matter what country the artist hails from. In that way, it is not hard to see that other forms are less global, so there may well be some meaning to the distinction between local and global. However, that distinction is not necessary what we traditionally think it is, nor is that distinction wholly logical. I personally feel that David Byrne is right, and the sooner we start to think of music as just music, the more it will become truly globalized, and the less imperialistic our views on the vast world of music will become.

4) The growth of mass media has had a profound impact on the ways that music is created and consumed today. Prior to mass media, music was based around two forms. The first was music that was written, and the second is music that was passed down without being written. In both cases, however, music was something that was only performed and heard live, and each artist could interpret a song or piece in his or her own way. Once music became recorded and commoditized, songs became less fluid, and were locked in time with a specific sound. A song could be covered, but there was always a record of what the original sounded like. From a creative standpoint, this is quite different from the telephone game that much traditional music became, wherein a tune would evolve with each playing, and each musician. So prior to recording, music was strictly attached to the rhythms of daily life, and was a reflection of that. Recording changed the relationship that both musician and consumer had with music, detaching it from "ritual and life-cycle performance contexts" (Middleton & Manuel, no date).

With music being recorded, it was ripe for mass media exploitation. Over time, large media companies have evolved that control the production and distribution of music, as well as its marketing. This vertical integration has allowed these media giants to create an oligopoly, which in turn has greatly reduced the variety of music available for consumption. The advent of the Internet, combined with a reduction in the cost of producing high quality music, has allowed for a flourishing of music in the past fifteen years, with easy access to more artists from all over the world than has ever existed. Reduced transaction costs, from recording to producing to the costs of independent distribution, have allowed for this. It is worth noting that the rise of self-distribution and small labels taking advantage of these lower transaction costs has emerged in part as a direct reaction to the oligopoly that exists in popular music and in music distribution.

So there is clear evidence that mass media has resulted in a lower selection of music through mainstream venues. The idea of mainstream music only exists because there became a differentiation in terms of consumer access between music controlled by large labels and music that was not. Whether the proliferation of music and access to music in recent years is the result of these same mass media forces is an interesting question. In one sense, this proliferation does represent a backlash against the status quo. In other sense, however, the lower transaction costs associated with the creation of music and its distribution would have occurred with or without the mainstream media -- indeed, the mass media fought opening of music distribution channels that they did not control. If music's rich diversity today exists because of an organic shift in the factor conditions, then arguably mass media did not contribute to this. And yet, in some ways, it did.

The argument for that is that if mass media had not created its oligopoly on music, and then used that oligopoly for force feed consumers only the most banal product, there would be no pent-up demand for organically-created music. Independent artists have a market in part because mass media…

Sources Used in Documents:


Byrne, D. (1999). Crossing music's borders: "I hate world music." New York Times. October 3, 1999. In possession of the author.

Bohlman, P. (2002). World Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Richard Middleton and Peter Manuel. "Popular music." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 12, 2015,

Cite this Document:

"World Music Does This Distinction Make Sense" (2015, October 16) Retrieved January 20, 2022, from

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"World Music Does This Distinction Make Sense", 16 October 2015, Accessed.20 January. 2022,

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