Mapping the Territory: Cultural Authenticity in World Music

Amy M Corey. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 2. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

Music has the ability to both transport and inspire. In world music specifically, listeners can explore the lands and cultures of the globe through sound. We can climb the Andes Mountains, sail the South Pacific Sea, or trek through the Arabian Desert. As world music invokes remote locations, it also calls forth ideas of exotic instruments and foreign cultures. World music can provide listeners with a sense of cultures and lifestyles far removed from their own experiences. This picture of world music is but one snapshot and, most notably, is taken from a Western point of view. Instead of invoking a form of imperialist nostalgia, exploring world music from an American perspective must immediately acknowledge not only context but also privilege. Because I take both context and privilege as both given and accountable, my journey through world music is a challenging one. Rather than simply mapping the cultural territory of distant lands, the journey through world music is one that must traverse power, economy, and ideology.

Itself, world music is a problematic category. It accommodates various forms of music from different geographical regions. The category specifically refers to forms of ethnic and folk music with strong ties to local, regional, or even national sounds. As a form of folk culture, it can be defined as the musical and artistic expression of a given group of people and is thought to convey something about a unique way of life within a local community. Furthermore, folk music is regarded as “music of the common people that has been passed on by memorization or repetition rather than by writing, and has deep roots in its own culture.” Because the whole of folk culture was originally rooted in oral traditions, rather than in mediated or technological contexts, it is perceived as an “authentic” cultural expression. Authenticity refers to the qualities of genuineness and legitimacy in original forms of culture. In this way, folk music is regarded as pure culture as it remains essential and untouched. Most notably, it remains untainted by the interventions of the mass production technologies of the culture industry. The culture industry, as conceptualized by Theodor Adorno, refers to the ways in which the processes of mass production and mass consumption forever alter the artistic value and inherent integrity of cultural forms. Through production technologies, music itself becomes formulaic and standardized. Consequently, “culture has become openly, and defiantly, an industry obeying the same rules of production as any other producer of commodities.” In this way, the production of a musical product, such as a song or album, is indistinct from the manufacture of an automobile or a bar of soap because “culture now impresses the same stamp on everything” that is mass-produced. In this view, standardized production also results in standardized consumption, bringing with it the dangers of “regressive listening” in which listeners are distracted from fulfilling their “true needs” such as autonomy and creativity through their consumption of popular music. The danger lies not only in commodifying musical forms, but also in its numbing effects on listeners. In other words, through standardization and mass production, the culture industry threatens to debase and trivialize music itself as well as those who listen to it.

However, because world music is tied to local and ethnic cultures, it seems to retain a certain degree of distance from the mainstream popular music of the culture industry. In fact, it is often defined in opposition to popular music. Specifically, world music is regarded “as an authentic, self-driven collective expression … [positioned] against music as commodity or industry product.” Through a perceived distance, world music retains a sense of purity, and its genuine cultural expressions are positioned outside of the mainstream.

This distinction, however, is highly problematic within the current phase of capitalist production, distribution, and consumption of world music. For instance,

On the one hand, music is a primary form of artistic expression; since the dawn of civilisation, music has been one of the most significant means by which cultures have defined themselves. On the other hand, in the contemporary world, music is a relentlessly commercial industry generating billions of dollars in revenues for composers, performers, publishers, record companies, and many other players. This paradox is sometimes represented as a contradiction—creativity versus commercialism, the muse versus the market, culture versus economics—whereby the two forces must inevitably pull in opposite directions.

In a music sector that generates $130 billion annually, artists, consumers, media conglomerates, and independent labels alike are caught up in these contradictions. As an industry itself, world music is thoroughly enmeshed within the very systems of reproduction and commerce that original definitions of folk music disavow. In a context of global culture and global economy, these definitions are immediately called into question. For instance, what happens to “authentic” forms of world music as they are removed from local, ethnic contexts and transformed for global markets? In identifying the form and content of these musical commodities in a context of cultural and economic globalization, how is authenticity created or exploited? What connections can be made between authenticity and ethnicity? Finally, how do these distinctions organize world music through the production of market positions?

Globalization: Money, Music, and Migration

The popular consumption of world music in the United States highlights both the process and the politics of globalization. First, popular consumption is marked by world music’s increase in both availability and reception. Once available only in the geographical site of its production, forms of world music are now available in numerous locations. For instance, various styles of the world’s music can be found on online sites such as and Making cyberspace a significant point of access, digital downloads increased 54 percent in 2007. Furthermore, world music is available for listeners’ pleasure—and for purchase—everywhere from the Virgin Megastore and Wal-Mart to Starbucks Coffee Shops. Actually, Starbucks Entertainment Company has produced a multivolume series titled Hear Music that showcases world music artists such as Cesaria Evora, who sings traditional morna from Cape Verde; Bebel Gilberto, who sings bossa nova and other Brazilian styles; The Gotan Project, who compose techno tango; and The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, who perform salsa and Latin beats. Also indicating the popularity of world music, The Recording Academy awards 15 Grammys in world and folk music categories such as Best Traditional World and Best Contemporary World. Not only mainstream venues but also small, independent recording labels such as Putumayo World Music are significant factors in this trend. In fact, since Putumayo’s founding in 1993, the label has sold over 20 million CDs and, in 2006, generated over $24 million in sales.

Second, globalization names the practice of crossing, and even condensing, geographical as well as economic borders. Two of globalization’s defining factors include: (1) a perceived shrinking of the world and (2) the consolidation of capitalist market forces across the globe. First, “globalization refers to the process by which planetary distance is being overcome. As the theory has it: a new ‘borderless’ world is appearing, freed from the tyranny of distance.” Globalization invokes advances in technology through which it is now possible to not simply travel but also to communicate across great distances in relatively short periods of time. This aspect of globalization has positive or progressive potentials because it provides a means to explore the world’s geographical regions, peoples, and heritages. World music is the vehicle for the journey through which listeners can experience a variety of world cultures. In this way, globalization and popular consumption are linked as “the world keeps getting smaller … you can go to Borders now and find the latest Algerian rai CD or a great African artist nobody knew before.” In short, globalization makes smaller, or “shrinks,” the world by making culture accessible. In this way, world music is also embedded in the technology through which it becomes available. Within this viewpoint, experiencing cultures as global can foster diversity and intensify a sense of human interconnectedness. Here, world music holds great potential for the development of diversity, intercultural dialogues, and understanding.

Motivating this musical journey is a more fluid definition of not only music but also of culture itself. Under globalization, “cultural formations … are becoming increasingly mobile.” In fact, “culture is not a thing or a even a system: it’s a set of transactions, processes, mutations, practices, technologies, institutions out of which things and events [e.g., world music] … are produced, to be experienced, lived out and given meaning and value to in different ways within the unsystematic network of differences and mutations from which they emerged to start with.” Defining culture under globalization complicates the aforementioned definition of folk culture that was clearly embedded in particular traditions and locations. Instead, regarding cultures as sets of transactions and mutations, rather than as simple artifacts of ways of life, immediately uproots them from their local or “folk” origins. An apparent contradiction, the world music movement not only foregrounds but also embraces the mobility of cultural formations. Only through globalization has world music become accessible. Once embedded in local folk traditions, world music is now uprooted through processes of musical migration.

However, the process of musical migration exceeds culture because world music is also big business. Take, for example, the New York-based Warner Music Group who reported earning $869 million in only the fourth quarter of 2007. In this vision, music is at once culture and commodity. As a crucial function of globalization, when culture crosses borders, so does capital. For instance, Warner Music International, a division of Warner Music Group, promotes “local repertoire around the world, which it distributes and markets across a network of affiliates in more than fifty countries.” It is clear that Warner Music International not only distributes and markets, but it also profits from the production of “local repertoire.” Rather than growing in heterogeneous or even democratic ways, multinational recording corporations tend to condense economic power. Identifying a tension between local and global present in world music, global economies tend to absorb local economies. Not simply Warner Music Group but each major recording company houses a division for world music because “the big multinational corporations that dominate the music industry themselves organize their music divisions into units each concentrating on a different genre and audience.” For instance, Sony BMG is not only organized through divisions such as Sony BMG Latin, but it also serves as an umbrella for a collection of smaller music labels worldwide. For instance, Sony BMG houses several labels that produce local music including Swedisc in Scandinavia, AKTH in Greece, and Warnada in Malaysia.

This form of organization is typical in multinational media conglomerates that account for over 85 percent of music sales. Specifically, Warner Music Group accounts for a 20.3 percent market share; Sony BMG accounts for a 25.0 percent market share; Universal Music Group accounts for a 31.9 percent market share; and EMI accounts for a 9.4 percent market share. These four corporations are responsible for the majority of production, distribution, and of course, profit from music sales around the world. In this way, large multinational corporations are integral to processes of musical migration. Such corporations mobilize great amounts of capital to produce and distribute world music. However, directional flows of music and money are not equal. In fact, capital from media conglomeration (and the corresponding amounts of economic power) tends to flow from north to south and from west to east. In contrast, world music culture tends to flow from south to north and from east to west. Such inequitable flows result in “the increasing control of local and national economies by big capitalism” and is a primary function of economic globalization.

In sum, processes of globalization are formed at the convergence of geographical, cultural, and economic developments. In this way, forms of music can “travel across geographical borders; they merge and separate; they cross and disrupt [economic] political and social divisions, and also, sometimes, they strengthen them.” While globalization may create greater diversity and accessibility in cultural flows, it also creates more power and centralized control in economic terms.

Commercial Categories and the Process of Selection

The problems concerning cultural and economic flows are compounded by the very category of world music itself. Most significantly, the category has been commercially, rather than musically, determined. Because world music is inherently diverse—it is made up of dissimilar sounds from distinct regions—it is difficult to define as a discreet musical genre. For instance, how can we compare the quick clave of a Cuban guaguanco with the deep doumbek of an Egyptian beledi? How are these more traditional forms related to hybrids or global electronica? All are categorized as world music but do not share the same rhythms, melodies, or even the same instruments. World music is made of diverse and essentially incomparable forms of music that are placed in the same marketing, rather than generic, category. In other words, “world music is not a musical genre but constitutes, at best, a marketing category for a collection of diverse genres from much of the developing world.”23 Focusing on the developing world also highlights the process of grouping music within the category as a process of discrimination. This is a strategic practice that confirms music’s classification as complex and, above all, highly selective.

In specific terms, selective categorization occurs across two dimensions that identify world music as: (1) foremost a commercial category and (2) an overwhelmingly non-Western cultural form. First, “world music can be conceived as a selective commercial category of music, rather than a genre that has inherent links to particular world regions.” While world music includes such disparate sounds as koto drums from Japan and panpipe from Peru, these cultural forms retain a common link only through their “foreign” market value. The world music category itself was created in 1987 when vendors added a new section to music stores. This section was created to provide a central location, and thus a central point of access, for a variety of musical forms. This category effectively grouped together all forms of foreign and folk music that couldn’t neatly fit into any of the other existing genres. Creating world music as a category also established its market position as separate from, even an alternative to, previously established (i.e., popular) musical categories. In other words, the category/grouping also created a location/position. Unlike other musical categories brought together based on musical similarities, forms of world music were brought together for the purpose of marketing. This also effectively unified disparate forms of music in a way that connoted a sameness across a variety of distinct musics.

Secondly, world music is an overwhelmingly non-Western musical form. Although some world music originates in the West, such as Celtic melodies or Gregorian chants, the vast majority of world music comes from more “exotic” African, Asian, Latin, Middle Eastern, and Pacific locations. For instance, of the distinct world music subgenres featured by National Geographic, less than 10 percent are of Western origins. In addition, of The Rough Guide to World Music’s eight featured picks, none are of Western origins, though three feature hybrid music. Because these are musical categories and featured picks, not simply top-selling artists, it is clear that the process of selecting and classifying music is consequential.

Although Western folk music is clearly a part of the genre, the marketing focus of world music remains concentrated on the more exotic aspects of ethnic music. Rather than constituting a market category based on musical similarities, the emphasis of the category is based on a standard of ethnicity. Most significantly, the standard of ethnicity functions as a brand identity. In this way, world music is essentially branded along ethnic lines. The focus on ethnicity is also significant because it marks a distinction between Western and Other cultures. As “a marketing category for a collection of diverse genres from much of the developing world,” ethnic brand identity is thereby associated with third world cultural identity. Another way of looking at this as problematic is to identify that “world music” actually refers to third world music.

Remember that all music is theoretically world music (i.e., originating on one world or globe), but only certain music is categorized (i.e., branded) that way. In other words, world “music is a perennial feature of all societies across the globe, but only some are labeled as such.” The process of selection and categorization is not accidental. World music is selected and categorized as a way of branding ethnicity and capitalizing on the third world locations and identities. In this way, world music should be regarded not simply as a market category but also an ideological category. The ideological association is problematic for the world music category because: (1) it backgrounds the presence of Western folk music, and (2) it marks and commodifies third world cultures.

Ideological Categories and Essentializing Ethnicity

As an ideological category, third/world music is based upon a basic binary distinction between “The West and The Rest.” Here, there is a clear division between the West/first world and the Rest/third world. In marking this division, terms such as civilized/primitive, culture/nature, and even commercial/authentic are employed in order to distinguish the first world from the third world. At base, binaries define through difference. A binary consists of two mutually exclusive terms that are defined in opposition. Viewed hierarchically, one term is valued, and the other term is devalued. As well, the definitions link with one another to essentially form a chain of meaning. In this way, primitive, natural, and authentic become linked terms in defining the third world. Additional binaries that are invoked through world music include pure/debased, exotic/ordinary, spicy/bland, and even inside/outside. As a basic meaning-making function, definition through difference may seem necessary to making sense of the world around us, but binaries remain, at best, ideological. Specifically, a binary system of representation reflects “a sense of fixity [that] is usually implied whenever music is discussed for pre-capitalis societies, both in relation to the cultural and geographical origins of the music, but also through the link to nostalgia—related to yearnings for past glories, lost youth and claims for styles of music that evade the ‘corrupting’ influences of contemporary society and economy.” These meanings are not natural but created and held in place by ideology. Moreover, binary definitions also work to essentialize identities and fix locations because within the binary system of representation “continuity is valued over change, stability is preferred to cycles of fashion, and … links [from] music to particular places establishes those links as traditions and genuine aspects of local cultures.” Effectively essentializing third world identities, a link is created between ethnic tradition and cultural authenticity.

Capitalizing on the ideological functions of binary definitions, the First World also establishes unequal structures for cultural circulation through economic power in the global marketplace. Specifically, the distinctions between The West and The Rest are exploited in order to stabilize a particular market segment by stabilizing a definition of ethnic music as authentic music. Recall that the global marketplace does not consist of egalitarian exchanges across cultures or economies of equality. Under globalization, flows of capital are unequal and function to secure the dominance of the Western marketplace. Displacing the utopian vision of globalization, world music is traded in a space of commerce and competition. This space is not a democratic global marketplace but instead truly refers to Western capitalist marketplace. In other words, when ethnic music enters a global market, we are really talking about third world music entering a first world capitalist market.

At this point, a contradiction surrounding world music in a global context is unearthed. As a form of global culture, it is fluid, but as defined through binaries, it is fixed. Recall that global culture is extremely mobile and contingent. It exists as sets of transactions and processes rather than locations or artifacts. As a form of global culture, world music is uprooted and becomes de-essentialized. In this way, the creation of music, identity, and even location are contingent processes. However, the binary system of representation seems to work against these notions of cultural mobility. This mode works to fix, rather than uproot, cultural formations. Under a concept of globalization, ethnicities and identities can’t be essential, yet, they are regarded as such under a binary style of thought. In this way, branding world music along ethnic lines works to embed meaning in exotic locations and ethnic identities. Take, for example, Cesaria Evora, the “barefoot diva” from Cape Verde. Called the barefoot diva because she typically removes her shoes before singing, she performs morna, the traditional folk music of her birthplace. Her sound is smooth, soulful, and melodic, and as culturally embedded, can be seen as an expression of the people in this geographical location. Here, Evora provides listeners with access to an authentic, ethnic experience as rooted in the music of Cape Verde. However, even as morna is a sound implanted in a particular geographical region, it is also listened to all over the world. Recall that Evora is featured in Starbucks Entertainment’s Hear Music series. As well, she has produced 18 albums, many of which are distributed by BMG Classics, a division of Sony BMG. Situated within the opposing forces of up/rooting, morna is transported from the cafés of Cape Verde to the Virgin Megastores of London or San Francisco. In this way, world music simultaneously relies on both the mobility of global culture and the fixity of ideologically based binaries. This inconsistency should not be read as a simple contradiction but as the way in which the very concepts of fixity and fluidity are ideologically produced.

Divorcing world music from the concept of essential ethnicity also complicates the notion of cultural authenticity. Recall that world music is commonly regarded as a pure or authentic form of culture due to its origins in the oral traditions of folk culture. As a global cultural formation, however, world music can no longer be seen as truly pure or authentic. Nevertheless, world music retains what Walter Benjamin calls an “aura” of authenticity. By tying art to its origins in ritual practice, Benjamin claims that a work of art—or for that matter, any cultural form—retains the “aura” of the practice from which it is derived. For instance, “we know that the earliest art works originated in the service of ritual—first magical, then the religious kind. It is significant that the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function.” As world music originated in local folk cultures, a strong bond is formed surrounding its tie to authenticity in which ritual is the location of its original value. Moreover, “small scale societies in every world region, emphasiz[e] the role of music in both everyday life and ritual life.” In this way, the link between authenticity and world music is strengthened because of its proximity to folk culture. A cultural form can never be completely separated from its original ritual function, and world music is perceived as even “closer” to these rituals. Binary definitions coupled with the proximity to folk culture work to stabilize and essentialize the primitive functions of local cultures. While “true” authenticity is, of course, an impossibility within global culture, world music continues to be perceived as authentic music. Ironically, world music’s tenuous claim to authenticity is also central to its commercial success.

Making Music and Marketing Authenticity

World music retains a sense of authenticity through an “aura” that is enhanced through its proximity to folk culture. The sense of authenticity is also enhanced through a perceived distance from popular music. Recall that folk music is often defined in opposition to popular music in which “music as an authentic, self-driven collective expression … [is positioned] against music as commodity or industry product.” The sense of distance is created through: (1) the presence of divisions for world music within major record labels and (2) the positions created by independent record labels. Both sets of divisions imply that world music is somehow different from popular music, and the divisions effectively set it apart. While a sense of distance is present for the world music divisions of major record labels, such as Sony BMG, it is not as strong as the sense of distance produced by smaller independent labels. Independent labels such as Putumayo World Music, New Earth Records, Real World Records, and Rough Guide Releases focus production exclusively on world music rather than on diversified musical forms. One way of looking at this phenomenon is to define independent labels simply in relationship to a niche market. This, however, would be an oversimplification because the major labels also have a relationship to the same niche market. Instead, the presence of independent labels is central in creating a sense of authenticity for the world music category as a whole. In specific terms, the perception of authenticity is enhanced through the independent label’s position. Most significantly, independent labels are positioned outside of the majors. In this way, “outside” effectively names an alternative market position. The association is made because as world music remains separate, it also seems to remain pure. In other words, through independent labels, world music appears to be “untainted” by the culture industry. Of course, this is far from true because: (1) independent labels use the very same production technologies as major labels, (2) they rely on the very same networks for distribution as the major labels, and (3) they are also complicit in the creation and exploitation of ethnic/authentic definitions.

Independent and major labels alike use the same production, reproduction, and distribution technologies. Even WOMEX, the world’s largest music networking conference, is implicated in these systems. WOMEX is designed as a forum for independent artists and labels to gain exposure and distribution. According to UNESCO, WOMEX is

the most important international professional market of world music of every kind. This international fair brings together professionals from the worlds of folk, roots, ethnic and traditional music and also includes concerts, conferences and documentary films. It contributes to networking as an effective means of promoting music and culture of all kinds across frontiers.

Using “networking as an effective means of promoting music” appears to stand in opposition to the mass distribution techniques of the culture industry. As “outside,” the artists and labels participating in WOMEX effectively produce world music independently. However, they ultimately will have to work within the confines of major labels to achieve mainstream distribution. In specific terms, world music “is more usually produced by independent labels than by majors, although majors often distribute and market music produced independently.” As the smaller, independent labels achieve distribution through the systems of major labels, such as Warner Music International or even the International Online Distribution Alliance, they clearly take part in the culture industry.

In this role, the distinction between commercial and authentic becomes less distinct. Rather than constituting a pure contradiction, however, this functions as an organizing principle in which “the commercial/authentic distinction also organizes so much music making and marketing” for major and independent labels alike. As an organizing principle, it solidifies world music’s alternative market position thereby confirming its perceived authenticity. However, the perception of this distance cannot be legitimized in light of recording, mass production, and especially mass distribution techniques that make it available. Specifically,

This trend has continued to the point now where many otherwise independent labels are distributed by one of the major transnationals. In fact it has been suggested that the independent record companies act in a way that serves the potential interests of the majors. They are generally involved in developing music outside the mainstream; if their music is successful and generates new audiences, they may begin to pose a threat to the majors’ market dominance. If so, they may simply be absorbed by the majors (and in the process the sharp edge of whatever new sounds they have championed may become blunted by being re-packaged for mass taste). Thus, insofar as independents may act as a source of new talent and new sounds to feed the demands of the majors for novelty and innovation, the relationship between the two types of companies may be thought of as symbiotic rather than oppositional.

This organizing principle is further problematic because the “criteria to differentiate ‘classical,’ ‘folk,’ and ‘popular’ music are artificial and at best localized.” Under a concept of global culture, the distinction between categories of music may no longer by applicable at all. For instance, “all music that is heard and enjoyed can be interpreted as ‘popular’ in some sense. Whether talking about ‘traditional’ musical styles that remain important in the social practices of individual communities or migrant groups, the mass produced output of record labels, or the categorization of music in record shops.” The categories that previously defined, differentiated, and fixed cultural forms have been uprooted under globalization. As a foundational definition for world music, the very distinction between folk music and popular music is cast into doubt.


As a form of global culture, world music is part of a mobile formation that traverses distance in a “borderless” world. However, world music is caught in the tension between the drive to embed and the desire to uproot. This process is also realized through unequal flows of culture and economy. As a commercial category, rather than a distinct musical genre, world music is an overwhelmingly non-Western cultural form. Disparate sounds are grouped together based solely on their foreign market value. Additionally, because the world music category remains focused on ethnicity, “world music” needs to be reconfigured as third world music. As a problematic ideological category, the distinction for third world music is firmly held in place through a binary system of representation and especially through a distinction between The West and The Rest. Tying third world music to nostalgic notions of rituals in primitive cultures also works to strengthen its “aura” of authenticity. As a market category, world music labels work to create a sense of distance from the mainstream culture industry. World music is, of course, deeply enmeshed within the production and distribution systems of the culture industry, but it retains the appearance of purity through its alleged distance. Each factor contributes to the production of perceived authenticity in world music. Here, world music is not simply a form of culture or musical genre but a carefully constructed brand. The brand capitalizes, both literally and metaphorically, on ethnic forms of music as authentic forms of music. However, the question of authenticity is no longer a question of truth or falsity; instead, it is a question of production. As heterogeneous forms of world music enter a global marketplace, authenticity is strategically produced through commercial categories, ideological categories, and market positions. Most significantly, it is not the sounds or rhythms, not the melodies or music itself, but “authenticity” that is the product being sold.

As enabled by the continuing processes of globalization, world music will most certainly continue to grow commercially. New venues and technologies, especially digital downloads, make it easier than ever for global consumers to discover the “new” sounds of “primitive” cultures. In fact, “early indicators are that the new digital revolution will be a huge plus for folk music, helping it to be heard by millions of people that the old filters of the pop industry prevented it from reaching.” Implicated here is the possibility for technology to diversify distribution, thus creating a more democratic system and potentially mitigating corporate conglomeration. However, because independent music creates alternative market positions that actually serve the interests of major labels, this “filter” increases their potential to control local music and local economies. In other words, this is a filter that does not exclude but instead absorbs more and more of the world’s music and the world’s audiences. These trends ultimately point toward the continued concentration of global economy. Also implicated in this trend is a greater need to be critical of the investments and consequences as economies of entertainment traverse the globe.