‘WORLD MUSIC’?: AN INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT ALLAN STEVENS

Former journalist Scott Allan Stevens discusses his perspective on “world music,” an increasingly ambiguous term and genre that he knows well from his years of hosting KAOS FM’s Spin the Globe radio show and of reviewing music on his blog SoundRoots. (If you are quick enough, you might even win a CD!)

Scott Allan Stevens

How many years has Spin the Globe been in existence and where did you originally get the idea for it? Did the show or the SoundRoots blog come first?

First, thanks for inviting me to Apsara – I appreciate the opportunity to talk to another group of readers with globally open ears and minds!

My radio show Spin the Globe emerged after I’d been listening to global music for more than a decade; this music was essentially the soundtrack to my international studies emphasis at university, my work as a journalist, and some far-flung travels. After four years as an editor at the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, I returned to my native Pacific Northwest and rediscovered the great community and radio stations here. I found out about free training at KAOS FM in Olympia, Washington, and I knew I had musical knowledge and a personal music collection that would add something new to the airwaves, so I signed up. In September 1999, Spin the Globe first aired, and it has been a wild ride ever since.

SoundRoots came along later in 2005 as a way to share CD reviews, a concert calendar, and other info in the time between Spin the Globe episodes. The “Monday’s MP3” posts are probably the most popular; recently I’ve had some guest posts, which is helpful since I’ve had less time to spend blogging. I’d love to post the many interviews I’ve done over the years; I guess that’s a project for the future.

Do you find that the core of your listeners are from Olympia, the South Puget Sound Area in general, or now with the internet are they simply from around the world? What about your SoundRoots readers?

SoundRoots has readers from all over the world, most from the United States and other English-speaking nations, though many visitors are from France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia, among many other places. Spin the Globe has something of a three-pronged audience. First, the listeners of the KAOS broadcast are, of course, concentrated around Olympia. Second, I know a number of listeners catch the show via the live KAOS webstream. And third, Spin the Globe is available online for a few weeks after airing. According to stats for 2011, the show has the most listeners in the United States, Japan, Canada, France, the UK, and Germany. I’ve also received emails from listeners in Serbia, Brazil, Malaysia…you name it. But not North Korea. Not yet, anyway.

“World music,” as you aptly state on the Spin the Glob website, is a bit open to interpretation. If pressed, how do you define it in a few sentences?

How hard are you pressing? Seriously, I’ve thought a lot and written some about this (see my conversation with Scott Kettner of Nation Beat). I’m trying to use the phrase “world music” less and less, though it’s still useful if I have only a moment to convey the idea. Or I’ll say that I’m interested in global music with distinct ethnic roots. And yes, that can include anything from Inuit overtone singing to Ghanian drumming to New Orleans brass bands, as well as modern fusions building on such traditions.

A performance during the 2009 WOMEX festival in Copenhagen. (Flickr/Programa Música Minas)

A performance during the 2009 WOMEX festival in Copenhagen. (Flickr/Programa Música Minas)

In the years that you have been hosting the show and blogging, how do you think that the world music industry has evolved? What do you think are the forces behind any changes that you have seen? Who are the major players nowadays?

The huge shifts in the music industry in general have also hit the “world music” sector, clearly. The internet is probably the single biggest change, allowing artists to connect to listeners more easily and directly and also bringing the scourge of illegal file sharing. For fans of global music, though, the ability to go online to search and buy music from all over the world is amazing. You may be the only person in your city to own a CD by some little-known artist from Kenya or Vietnam – how cool is that?  Some record labels are flailing as the musicians connect directly with fans, cutting out the middleman, and I’m seeing an amazing number of self-released CDs these days. At the same time, it’s great to see innovations by some labels. The Rough Guides are now packaged with an entire bonus CD, for example, and a download will never be as good as getting a complete package such as the CD, DVD, artwork, and extensive liner notes that come with the Smithsonian Folkways recordings. Innovative artists and labels will survive.

How, if at all, has the internet changed the way that you find music to play on your show and review on your blog? What are some of the resources that you use?

The internet is a huge part of the research I do each week as I prepare for Spin the Globe and as I write reviews. For musicians I haven’t seen perform live, YouTube can be a great way to get a sense of their performance style. I’ll also visit band and label websites for info. Many global music labels have freebies to entice visitors, by the way.  For example, Indies Scope usually posts a free song from each of their releases. Download a bunch of those and you’ve got a great Czech compilation!

While I like videos and interviews with artists, I try to avoid reading other reviews before I’ve reviewed an album. It’s much more interesting to read them later and see the points of agreement and difference with other reviewers.

I also follow dozens of music blogs in Google Reader, many of them focusing on older, out of print LPs. For example, I just nabbed a great mbaqanga album from 1979 from Electric Jive . (While I love blogs like this one, I’m aghast at the blogs that post entire new albums for free downloading. If listeners don’t pay for music, artists don’t get paid. If artists don’t get paid, they’ll get another job and listeners lose. It’s that simple. I always post links to the artist’s website and a legitimate source for the music, because SoundRoots is about discovery and exploration, not about giving away free music.*

A Brunswick recording, distributed in China. (Flickr/Bunky's Pickle)

A Brunswick recording, distributed in China. (Flickr/Bunky's Pickle)

Finally, how do you think that the internet may help or hinder artists around the world, especially independent musicians?

Again, it’s all about the innovation. I’m a photographer as well as a radio DJ and blogger, and photography is going through many of the same issues as the music business. Both involve a product that can be easily stolen and pirated. Like photographers, musicians need to keep up with technology and use it to connect with their audience. The internet (along with tablets, smartphones, and whatever comes next) allows one to reach well beyond the local market to make fans, sell product, and even fund future product through crowdsourcing. Of course the key with music or photography or anything else is to have a quality product to start with. The proliferation of tools to make music (and photos) means we all have to wade through more mediocre offerings. I spend more time than I’d like dealing with music that’s either bad or inappropriate for what I do.

Independent musicians in our turbulent but exciting world can thrive by being good at their craft, observant about their audience, and innovative in connecting the two. And music lovers can contribute by going to live shows and actually buying the music. And, if you happen to live near a community radio station, perhaps by getting your own show to highlight a unique musical niche that the mainstream media ignores. Maybe I’ll see you at KAOS?

*Well, SoundRoots isn’t all about giving away free music. But now and then we like giving away a CD. So head on over and you’ll have a chance to win… let me see what’s kicking around here … Ah! I’ll give away the album Tango 3.0 by Gotan Project. I’ll post the contest about the same time as this interview appears on Apsara. Good luck, and thanks for reading and for your interest in global music with distinct ethnic roots!

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