Article MT039

Taking the World for a Spin in Europe:

an insider's look at the World Music recording business

When scholars began using sound equipment at the end of the 19th century to make ethnological music recordings, their goal was initially to facilitate the work of musical transcription.  After transcribing, scholar-recordists typically deposited their recordings in the archives of national museums, libraries, research institutes, and universities.  Over the years, many of these institutions not only stored the recordings, but released them on disc, often in collaboration with private record companies.  Since the 1960s, when interest in traditional music and its offshoots began a modest expansion, privately owned labels have become more active.  Now, at the end of the century, the European world music business has evolved into a complex amalgam of private labels, national institutions, and international organizations that all produce recordings of ethnic and 'world' music.  The boundary between government-sponsored and private record producing is not always clear.  For example, a single company may encompass both sponsored and commercial labels.  Private labels may undertake 'non-commercial' projects while state-sponsored firms aim for commercial clout.  The world music marketplace is a crowded one in which a motley band of vendors vie for the attention of patrons who are no less diverse.

Government Support

Not all European labels have the same urge, or need, to compete.  The French labels Ocora and Inédit are state-funded (through Radio France and the Ministry of Culture, respectively) and evidently do not have to make decisions based on current fashions.  Ocora was founded in 1957 as a facility to train technicians from Africa for work in national broadcasting services in the emergent post-colonial countries, and Africa is still well-represented in its catalogue.  These days, 'A&R' (artist and repertory) decisions at Ocora are made by an editorial committee of scholars and world music connoisseurs.  This does not mean, however, that production decisions bear no relation to an audience.  Serge Noël-Ranaivo, who as a member of the editorial committee coordinates the production of the CDs, told me in a recent interview, "We have noticed a small growth of the audience since 'world music' was introduced, but not a rush on our CDs - at least not a significant increase.  A good reason may be that the audience for 'world music' comes from pop or rock fans who wish to change their habits - but not too much: at the last recital of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in Paris (at Théâtre de la Ville - 900 seats), half the audience was composed of young people who had only heard Peter Gabriel's version of Nusrat's music.  The program was of course traditional qawwali, free from any 'world music' gimmicks.  These young people were surprised and unfortunately, clearly disappointed."  Ocora was, by the way, one of the first outlets in the West for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's music.

The Inédit label is affiliated with the Paris-based Maison des Cultures du Monde, which presents concerts, theater performances, and exhibitions of cultures from around the world.  A significant part of its catalogue consists of recordings of in-house concerts (whose quality, unfortunately, can be uneven).  If Ocora has a historical bias toward African music, then Inédit's is toward music from Islamic cultures, due, one assumes, to the personal interests of its co-founders, Chérif Khaznadar and Françoise Gründ.  Both Ocora and Inédit demonstrate the commitment of France's largest state cultural organizations to the role of music from around the world in enriching national cultural life.

Governments may also support a label to promote national music, as is the case with the Swedish firm Caprice, which works with a broad range of 'non-commercial' music of Swedish origin.  A major project has been the release of twenty titles in a series called Musica Sveciae, which covers the length and breadth of traditional music in Sweden.  A cooperative effort with various cultural institutions (including public radio), it is supported by the National Council for Cultural Affairs.  More recently, Caprice has diversified, recording and releasing CDs of music from such countries as Ecuador, Uganda and Vietnam.

In the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, the major recording companies were state-owned under communist rule, and for these nations, folk music was a sine qua non of national identity.  During the Stalin era and well into the period of cultural de-Stalinization that followed, the emphasis of the state-owned recording companies was on adaptations and arrangements of folk traditions by professional, usually urban, musicians organized into state ensembles.  However in 1964 the Hungarian label Qualiton (a subdivision of Hungaroton) released an LP with field recordings of Hungarian music as an introduction to a series of three box sets, which, in the course of time, was expanded to a sizable collection of lavishly annotated records covering musical traditions related to Hungary and its cultural extensions (e.g., the music of Hungarian communities in Transylvania in the northwest of Romania, and music from Finno-Ugrian and Turkic peoples in the Volga region of Russia, recorded in the field and studied by Hungarian scholars who had hoped to find linguistic parallels reflected in music), as well as bands which emerged as a result of a folk music revival that began in the early 1970s.  An anthology series that was to cover the entire Hungarian cultural area in at least seven boxes with five LPs each, was abandoned after the fourth had been produced.  Recently, however, Hungaroton did release a double-CD with field recordings that Béla Bartók made of Turkish music in 1936, and it reissued an abbreviated version of the Finno-Ugrian box set on CD.

Field work by ethnomusicologists in the socialist countries continued through the years of communist rule, but much of the results did not become publicly available until nearly the end of the communist era.  For example, in 1989-1990 the Soviet record company Melodiya, released an anthology series of music traditions of the USSR.  Vyacheslav Shchurov, one of the researchers who had collected material which appears on these records, now produces CDs with music from the Russian Federation on the commercial Pan label from the Netherlands.  With the privatization of state-owned companies proceeding apace, cuts in government budgets, national economies still far from strong, and the political situation not yet stable, it is an open question whether and under what circumstances record labels in the various former communist countries will put their energy into producing albums with traditional music, or reissuing vinyl albums on CD.  In 1992 Ferenc Kiss, the leader of the Hungarian folk revival group Vizöntö, established Etnofon as a private enterprise exactly for that purpose.  More recently, private companies devoted to releasing traditional music have begun to spring up in Russia.

Museum Collections

Museums and academic institutions have also been active in promoting recordings of traditional music.  The Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin and the Ethnographic Museum in Geneva both produce collections of traditional music records.  The Musée de l'Homme in Paris published a huge body of albums, a task that was transferred in the 1970s to one of the research groups in the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), which operates separately from the museum itself.  The collections produced by these three museums are extensions of their sound archives.  The Berlin archive was started in 1900, and initially led by Erich von Hornbostel.  It belongs to the department of Musikethnologie, which, beginning in the 1960s, has produced a variety of publications, among them the twenty albums in the Museum Collection series.  Mainly field recordings, they focus on a specific theme or ethnic group.  Particularly notable are four albums with music from countries that were a part of the Ottoman empire (one is devoted to Eastern and Western influences in music from this region), and a six-CD set of music from Irian Jaya.

The AIMP (Archives Internationales de Musique Populaire) in Geneva were founded in 1944 by the Romanian ethnomusicologist Constantin Brailoiu.  In 1928, Brailoiu had established the Folklore Archives of the Society of Composers in Bucharest, which still exists under the auspices of the ICED, the national Romanian Institute for Ethnology.  By the time of Brailoiu's death in 1958, the AIMP had released more than eighty 78rpm discs in three collections which included recordings from all over the world.  The largest of these was the World Collection of Recorded Folk Music, the first series to be published with the cooperation of UNESCO.  After Brailoui died, the archives remained dormant for twenty-five years.  In 1983 Laurent Aubert was appointed by the Genevan Ethnographic Museum to revive them, and his first act was to reissue two of Brailoiu's collections on LP - the World Collection and the Swiss Series.  These were followed by a set of three CDs with recordings that Brailoiu had made in his native Romania between 1933 and 1943.  During the 15 years of Aubert's stewardship, AIMP have released over forty CDs, most of them through the Swiss label VDE.  The releases consist primarily of field recordings, often of ethnic groups or musical styles not yet represented on disc, such as the Kayapó, Enauené-Naué and Nhambiquara tribes of Brazil.

In 1946 the Musée de l'Homme in Paris started to publish a series of ethnographic recordings under the direction of Gilbert Rouget, first in a limited edition of 50 copies intended solely for museums and sound archives.  Two years later, in cooperation with the label Boîte à Musique, it produced three discs with field recordings from the Congo aimed at a larger audience.  In 1953 it produced the first LP, which also marked the start of the 'Collection Musée de l'Homme.'  The Collection began a new series in 1969 in collaboration with the French label Vogue.  In the mid-1970s the role of Rouget's CNRS research group in making these albums was formally acknowledged when the collection was re-launched under a name that mentioned both the museum and the research institute.  Since 1975 this collection, in which albums focusing on polyphonic music styles are particularly notable, has been released exclusively through Le Chant du Monde.  Tran Quang Hai, a longstanding member of the CNRS-Musée de l'Homme research team, noted that the group has a mandate to do research recordings anywhere in the world except in France, and that members of the research team are the only ones who can publish recordings in the CNRS-Musée de l'Homme series.

In Greece, the ethnomusicologist Nikos Dionysopoulos releases CDs through Crete University Press.  He is working on a series that should encompass the various regions of his native country.  Some of these albums are studio recordings that focus on one particular musician.  A double CD with music from the island of Lesbos and a forthcoming album covering Epirus, in the northwest of Greece, consist of field recordings.  As Dionysopoulos produces these releases virtually single-handedly, they do not come out at a very great rate.

Although the institutions and organizations discussed above are relatively free to choose the music they want to present, they do depend on the budgets made available to them.  The recordings in the Berlin Museum Collection clearly show the care with which they are made, but the collection includes in all only twenty titles - an average of not even one per year.  Publicly funded cultural institutions are subject to political whim, and with the current European drive to reduce national budget deficits, state spending is liable to be cut.  The least popular funding categories come first, and culture ranks high among these.

Sponsorship by International Organizations

Other publications that don't have to contend too much with market pressure are those sponsored by international organizations.  UNESCO, after its involvement with Constantin Brailoiu's World Collection, decided to support two newly created series of traditional music: A Musical Anthology of the Orient, directed by Alain Daniélou, and An Anthology of African Music, under the direction of Paul Collaer.  Both were carried by the German firm Bärenreiter on its Musicaphon label, which later co-produced two separate series of music from Southeast Asia and from Oceania with the University of Basel, Switzerland.  Other UNESCO collections were released through two other European companies: Philips (Musical Sources) and the Italian branch of EMI (Musical Atlas, Anthology of Indian Classical Music).  UNESCO paid for the recordings while the labels took care of all production costs.  In 1987 the French company Auvidis took over responsibility for the UNESCO collections from Philips and EMI and, during the past decade, has reissued the majority of older titles on CD as well as expanded the catalogue.  In 1994, Bärenreiter halted its involvement in the Musicaphon series and sold the label to its next-door neighbor, Disco-Center Classic.  It has released four titles to date: three in the Traditional Music of the World series (which was adopted by Smithsonian Folkways beginning with volume 4) and one with music from Kalimantan, a continuation of the Southeast Asia anthology.  Label director Rainer Kahleyss in his turn stopped his involvement in the Musicaphon UNESCO collections; he assured me he will reissue the twenty albums in the series about South-East Asia and Oceania on CD at a rate of maybe one per year.

Auvidis recently reissued three albums from the African anthology.  Their spokesman Philippe Pinon could neither confirm if the label will indeed take the responsibility of making the other titles in that series available, nor give any information whatsoever as to what will happen to the anthology of Oriental music.  Being subsequently directed to the International Music Council (a UNESCO subsidiary), I put it to its representative Guy Huot that UNESCO probably would not want its collections to be fragmented over different labels.  He confirmed that the remaining collections would indeed be reissued through Auvidis, but that the titles to be made available, (the rarity and quality of the recordings are points of consideration) and the schedule according to which that will happen, still have to be decided upon.

Another organization that sometimes supports series of traditional music albums is the Ford Foundation, which currently sponsors Philip Yampolsky's Music of Indonesia, published by Smithsonian Folkways.  In Europe, the Ford Foundation supported a series of twenty-five LPs of Greek music produced by the Society for the Dissemination of National Music (SDNM), all but four of which consist of field recordings made in the 1970s covering the entire country.  The albums will in due course be reissued on CD, but without Ford's support.  This series is still the most comprehensive representation of Greek traditions, which makes it even more of a pity that its liner notes are so scanty.

Private Labels, World Music

"We do things we like" summarised Jaro's Ulrich Bass.  Jaro, along with GlobeStyle and Real World from the United Kingdom, and Piranha from Germany, are among the most active labels in releasing 'real' world music, that is, music which represents a fusion of traditional styles with elements of Western pop and rock.  In its choice of music, GlobeStyle seems to remain closest to traditional presentations, often focusing on urban music and not afraid of ensembles that use amplified instruments.  They do in-situ recordings, but don't shun studio techniques if appropriate - for instance in their recordings of taarab music from Zanzibar.

Real World, founded in 1989 by pop music superstar Peter Gabriel, invites musicians to record in their studios.  The label pushes marketing to new limits, producing a range of merchandise - e.g. clothing adorned with the label's logo and a Swatch watch called Adam, which was 'created,' to quote the rather curious wording in the catalogue, by Peter Gabriel in collaboration with a design team.  They also produce a biannual newsletter containing a sampler CD.  A recent edition featured tracks of a Tibetan female vocalist, a pop-inspired collaboration between English guitarist Sam Mills and vocalist Paban Das Baul, and a spacy 'Full Whack Dub' of mixed material made by Afro Celt Sound System.

Jaro, which claims it "discovered the mysterious power and rousing effect of archaic Bulgarian song," works with a clone of the Bulgarian Radio Choir, providing them with a hiphop and rap context in one project (From Bulgaria with Love), and combining them with the Tuvan ensemble 'Huun-Huur-Tu' and Russian jazz musicians Sergei Starostin and Mikhail Alperin in another (Fly, Fly My Sadness).  "There is," says Ulrich Balss, "no relation between [our] recordings and ethnomusicology as a scholarly discipline."  Caveat emptor.

Piranha started out as a production bureau for musical events, organizing concerts and festivals of music from cultures that were little known to the general public in Germany.  They were so successful that they decided to establish a record label for "urban world music mixing traditional and modern influences."  Like so many other labels, they feature klezmer, Middle Eastern styles, and qawwali.  Vite Perdite, one of their more radical CDs, brings together religious choral music, Italian rap, Renaissance compositions and arrangements of Latin music - a veritable feast for musical omnivores.

With a background in classical music, the French company Auvidis first acquired the UNESCO collection, then started its own Ethnic series and proceded to buy Silex.  Now it covers a wide range of traditional music and various departures from it.  Silex, for example, stretches from historic recordings to fusion projects that may couple, say, a Ukrainian vocal trio with the Carribean percussion group Baron Samedi.  By producing compilations on specific themes, Auvidis tries to attract a new public to its existing catalogue.

Private Labels, Ethnic Music

Pan Records from The Netherlands is an example of a label that, while operating commercially, focuses mainly on ethnic traditions.  It tends to represent areas that are not well covered by other labels and has built up series of recordings featuring music from the Pacific, the Caucasus, the minority peoples of China, and Siberia, with particular attention to overtone music (both sung and performed on jew's harps).  Pan's director Bernard Kleikamp seeks out ethnomusicologists (he was trained as one himself) to do field recordings and write the liner notes.  Pan also releases recordings from the archives of the ethnomusicological department of the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, founded by Jaap Kunst.

Gilles Fruchaux, director of Buda Records in Paris, started his label out of personal interest.  "Most commercial labels for traditional and world music are small and independent, and they are run by people who have a passion for this music - by necessity, because you cannot be rich in this business."  Like Kleikamp, Fruchaux likes to work with ethnomusicologists, such as Speranta Radulescu, who records in Romania, and Henri Lecomte, who produces a CD series of the music of Siberian peoples.  The Buda catalogue is a mixture of village and city traditions and non-Western classical styles.

Private labels may employ strongly contrasting strategies in order to survive.  While Pan put a halt to distribution activities, the British Topic Records (originally strong on English and Celtic folk traditions, and famous for its International Series which presented the first recordings in the West of music from communist Albania), set up a distribution service (Direct Distribution) in Great Britain which represents 300 labels with a broad range of popular music.

The advent of the compact disc coupled with the advancement of digital sound technology has made it possible to reproduce pre-vinyl recordings with far better sound quality through the use of computerized clean-up techniques.  Many labels carry at least some historic recordings, while a few labels have sprung up whose catalogues focus on such material.  One of these is Interstate Music, in the UK.  Apart from blues, country and 'Spanish-language music,' Interstate features Greek and Portuguese urban traditions.  According to its director, Bruce Bastin, they have also issued music from West Africa, "100 tracks from 78 mints all recorded before 1930."  A CD of music recorded in Albania in 1930 is in the works.


Greece is literally teeming with 'world music' activity.  Recordings of music from village traditions and their urban offshoots are produced in bewildering abundance, both by (often local) cultural institutions and commercial labels.  The list of albums of rembetika, an urban style that emerged in Greek ports between the wars, seems to be endless.

Musurgia Graeca is a conglomerate of three companies, Orata, Lyra and Kinesis which together "explore the treasures of Greek music from the 5th century BC up to contemporary trends."  Orata has archives of scores whose provenance ranges from antiquity to the 18th century, a recording studio, and a department for designing and printing covers and inserts; Lyra is the oldest Greek label to remain independent of international record companies; Kinesis has an international distribution network.

The label FM Records covers much of the same region, but organizes its releases more emphatically into series.  Much of the music on these labels seems to represent a contemporary take on older traditions, recorded in city studios rather than in the field.  A considerable number of smaller labels are distributed through Nama, a company established to represent independent productions of Greek traditional music.  Most of the albums in the Nama catalog are the result of field work conducted by scholars.

A Very Private Enterprise

Ethnomusicologist Wolfgang Laade from Switzerland should be mentioned separately.  He released albums on the Folkways label between 1956 and 1977, then published compact disc recordings from his Music of Man Archive through the Swiss label Jecklin between 1990 and 1993 - recordings of musical traditions that had not yet been documented.  He produced some of the first CDs of music from Corsica, where he did extensive field recording, and also worked among indigenous ethnic groups from Taiwan.  Laade felicitously solved the problem of sponsoring organizations meddling in artistic decision-making: his recording expeditions are all self-financed.

Constructing the 'Commercial' and the 'Non-Commercial'

All of the labels I discuss in this survey operate within the market niche of 'world music,' a category that came into existence for the convenience of record stores and their customers.  Yet, as my modest survey shows, the variety of music, production values, and presentation within world music's tiny sector of the recording industry is enormous - perhaps the more so because the concept of world music is itself so all-inclusive (or so nebulous, depending on one's point of view).  Perhaps because so many world music labels, both private and sponsored, have the aura of boutiques, lovingly nurtured by founder-managers or owners who bring a connoisseur's taste and vision to their work, the field seems not entirely like a business; or at least it seems like a special type of business - a business infused with the zeal of proselytizers and true believers, as well as, I'd have to admit, a few sharks.  Each label vies for a particular piece of the world music market not only through the kind of music it presents, but in the way that it does so.  Jaro's Ulrich Bass ("We do things we like"), producer of Fly, Fly My Sadness, the Bulgarian-Tuvan-Russian fusion project that seems like an exercise in postmodernist extremism, comes across as the polar opposite of Wolfgang Laade, who is no less outspoken about the music he puts on his compact discs: "Salvaging hardly-known traditions which are threatened by extinction is still possible and necessary, and precisely this is my intention.  This accounts for the partly austere and sometimes 'unattractive' music on the discs.  The records are not made for a big market, which indeed makes publishing such material more and more difficult, no matter how important it is as source of information."

Sponsored labels can bring out challenging productions without the financial problems that Laade encounters, but such productions display a wide range of variation all the same.  For example, Inédit and the Berlin Museum Collection have both released large sets of Moroccan Andalusian music and music from Irian Jaya, respectively.  The first is an integral version of an enormous cycle of classical pieces recorded in a studio, the second is a field document of rituals and songs from a tribal culture that has been totally disrupted since the recordings were made.  The Andalusian cycle is accompanied by information so brief that it verges on the irrelevant, while the Berlin production contextualizes the music in prolific liner notes which offer a detailed ethnographic background.  Collector and series editor Artur Simon does not hesitate at some points to insert himself into the text, thus showing his personal involvement.  Far from being intrusive, Simon's presence makes the experience of this album even more poignant and alive than it already is; in contrast to the Moroccan box, which I found a very long sit indeed - the music and singing go on relentlessly, and without knowing Arabic, the listener hasn't a clue as to what the singers are so solemnly eulogizing.

It would be too simplistic, however, to suggest a consistent distinction between scantly annotated, studio-produced 'commercial' releases and field recorded 'non-commercial' releases full of thick musical description.  Labels such as Ocora and Geneva's AIMP produce high-quality studio recordings with excellent production values and strive to complement these with well written and accurate documentation contributed by ethnomusicologists.  By contrast, some recordings that seem for all the world like esoterica destined for a small group of specialists nonetheless lack the sort of information that specialists would find useful.  I regret having to put many of the productions of France's Buda Records in this category.  But, for example, the CDs I have seen from Buda's Siberian minorities series give only scant information on the background of the songs and the people who sing them.  Buda's The Orient of the Greeks, a reissue of 78rpm discs with wonderful urban music from Greek ports in the 1930s, is presented as rembetika despite the fact that in nearly all the tracks the music harks back to Turkish origins: most of the musicians are Greek exiles from Turkey.  Fortunately, the quality of the music outweights the rather inaccurate information.

The 'fusion' labels approach the music they present from the perspective of contemporary rock.  This involves more than adding rock instruments to traditional music, or superimposing different musical styles - it is also a question of sound ideals and recording techniques, which are typically quite sophisticated in rock music.  In comparison with some of the recordings released on CD by Inédit, the instruments on Piranha's Journey of the Gipsy Dancer are far more prominent, and their placement in the stereo image is far more distinctive.

When the producers of these labels add Western instruments and mix styles, one might start asking questions about what such treatment implies for how they really view the music with which they are dealing.  On Ocora's Central Asian Classical Traditions CD the music often teeters disturbingly on the edge of a deep silence, prompting in the listener an introspective state of mind.  Real World has made an album with the Algerian singer Abderrahman Abdelli whose art could perhaps attain such depths.  Producer Thierry Van Roy who, according to the liner notes, was captivated by the beauty of Abdelli's voice, constructs a musical background around him with South American and Ukrainian instruments, adding saxophones and keyboards.  These additions may have made Abdelli's music more palatable to the more adventurous segment of the rock music audience, but they have also smoothed over a characteristic roughness.  Distracting the listener from Abdelli's voice does not seem indicative of respect for the singer.  To quote Wolfgang Laade, "We have entered an age in which business is everything and members of society are only considered useful as tradespeople and customers.  'Ethnic' music is a commodity like 'ethnic' religions, rituals, and clothing.  On the other hand, records of world music belong in every ethnomusicological archive and scholarly institution.  The music is there and should not be ignored.  But it can only be appropriately interpreted if the roots of the ethnic material are known."

I look at the piles of compact discs I have listened to for this survey (including many produced by labels not mentioned in the text: WDR Network, Wergo/Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Playasound, Arion, Al Sur, Robi Droli) and browse through the catalogues of labels from which I buy for my own collection: scores and scores of jewel cases.  Pull one out, say it is the Uzbek singer Munajat Yulchieva, and what you hold is the result of her determination and years of training, the quality of her voice, her personal history and religious feelings, the persistence of a researcher to go to Uzbekistan to record her.  And with regret I realize that the sheer number of titles being produced must cause a devaluation of the significance of such music.

René van Peer - 21.7.99
Freelance journalist

This article was first published in Ethnomusicology 43:2 (Spring/Summer 1999), published by the University of Illinois Press.

It was first submitted to Ethnomusicology in late-1997 and this survey of European labels represents the situation at that time.  The author is aware of changes that have occurred since then, but decided not to update the text as that would have resulted in a further delay of publication in that journal.

Article MT039

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