Does one novelty pop song herald a musical revolution? When “Gangam Style” whinnied into the charts and a billion YouTube views at the end of 2012, music from South Korea, and “K-pop” in particular looked as though it was on the verge of a lasting breakthrough. Before PSY’s arrival, despite its straightforward charms and regional appeal, beyond the East Asian context, it was always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Trans-Atlantic music journalists momentarily praised the song’s global domination—and in usual fashion, the same sources seemingly moved swiftly on to herald its imminent death a few trends later. Is the excitement about global music generated by K-pop’s success just a flash in a pan? Freya Bigg, co-founder of United K-Pop, told BAMM.tv: “PSY isn’t typical of K-pop, so I don’t know if he is really is a good representative of the genre, but he has definitely opened minds to the Korean language at least. If anything changes, it might be that people are less hesitant to try listening to K-pop when introduced, because they’ve already had experience of it, despite it not being typical.”
So, have Western conceptions of Eastern pop radically changed? And does it even really matter, when domestic markets in East Asia and other regions are growing bigger by the minute?
This new global music is markedly different from what is otherwise known as “world music”. The latter term was initially a marketing construct under which groups and individual artists from disparate parts of the world could be categorised, often with powerful influences from local music traditions. But the more commercial industry, dominated by independents, has taken a knock in the past few years, facing the same pressures as the music industry as a whole. According to the world music tome fRoots, world music, as we know it, may have “unravelled”. Its annual critics’ poll saw more British folk acts in the top 10 than music from other places. On the other hand, it’s undeniable that this year saw more global musical styles, both on the dancefloors and in the charts than ever before.
What distinguishes these hits is a so-called “glocal” flavour and a move away from traditional musical forms. This music has influences from just about everywhere, and regardless of who you are, if you like it, you like it. Putting aside “Gangam Style”, these successes range from the Ghanaian influenced “Azonto” and dancehall-infused “Oliver Twist”, as well as the massive acclaim for Damon Albarn’s touring Africa Express. Or, here at BAMM.tv, the level of engagement has been tangible, as seen by comments made by a number of individuals from Taiwan. They were amongst hundreds of individuals using Facebook to share the Colombian band Monsieur Periné’s “La Tienda de Sombreros” with their friends, often stating that although their comprehension of Spanish wasn’t high, it didn’t particularly matter because it was such a great song, as the heart and soul of the track shined through.
New audiences are willing to try out new music, and they are finding it themselves online, through YouTube and other streaming networks, as well as through exciting new music discovery platforms such as BAMM.tv.
If music scenes in East Asia and Latin America are in constant development, how are acts from both regions benefiting from global changes in the consumption and production of music? Western pop’s world dominance has been secured by the developed musical infrastructure of venues and distribution in the US and the UK. Musical influence has been traditionally conceived as one-way, with acts from non-Anglophone countries having to appeal to Western audiences for cultural credibility. But the music coming from within these huge geographical regions is as diverse as anything from outside. And it appears that the internet, instantaneous distribution, telecommunication and cultural initiatives will carry on playing a huge role in showcasing this diversity to Western audiences.
The true “global cities” are so diverse that any indigenous music scene is already inherently cosmopolitan. While Reykjavik and Barcelona have always been huge tourist destinations, there’s no doubt that Iceland Airwaves and Sónar respectively have added to their cache. In the larger locales, there is more of an interdependence of necessity. Connectivity is vital, but artists will always need a strong infrastructure of promoters and venues. The history of music in major cities is mapped by legendary spaces, such as CBGB, the 100 Club and Max’s Kansas City. Bricks and mortar establishments continue to be important, whether it be for attracting known acts or for encouraging scenes to develop. And so they do—in “Asia’s World City” of Hong Kong, for example, over the past few years, the music scene has benefited from a cultural drive by the local government, as well as initiatives by residents looking for the same choice that they might get in London or New York.
The explosion of foreign festivals, attracting huge UK acts, may have had a negative impact on the domestic music scene, but it fares well for the intrepid traveller looking for a cost-efficient cultural fix. Hong Kong’s Clockenflap, for example, has continued to grow impressively in recent years, bringing high profile Brit acts like The Maccabees to its shores. What distinguishes the festival and its counterparts is the shared focus on regional acts, as massively hyped acts such as Azealia Banks played with smaller Hong Kong-based performers such as Jun Kung.
Underpinning this seasonal calendar is a strong network of local promoters working in small local venues such as Grappa’s Cellar. Independent company Untitled has already hosted indie favourite Japandroids this year and is bringing Bloc Party and Hot Chip to the SAR later in the year. Your Mum, which is run by the Clockenflap team, has also brought acts to the city all year around. Festival director Justin Sweeting told the South China Morning Post: “In the coming year, there’ll be more acts coming through that you’ve heard of – and more that you haven’t. I expect local bands to move up a gear too, with more opportunities as well as brand money available for more projects. I think there’ll be more shows of all sizes taking place – from smaller pop-up happenings to ever-larger one-off events. There are new spaces cropping up and more of a willingness to use spaces in more interesting ways.”
More recently, the city acquired a venue for contemporary music which had its first dedicated festival in December last year. West Kowloon Cultural District Authority regenerated the city’s cultural scene along the ethos of ‘if you build it, they will come’. The administration has been integral to setting up Freespace, a combined outdoor and indoor space, which can host three different gigs at any one time. Kung Chi Shing, festival co-curator, said: “Traditionally, outdoor music festivals tend to present only one musical style, but with Freespace Fest, I have deliberately curated a programme that represents the dynamism and diversity of Hong Kong’s music culture in all its energy and richness. This also reflects how I hope WKCD will develop: as a place of diversity and true appreciation.”
Its connectivity also makes it ready to handle the most futuristic of digital music initiatives. “I was blown away when I was meeting with someone in Hong Kong in 2012 and was being told that a large digital cinema had sold out five nights in a row to stream live concert footage over from Japan,” BAMM.tv’s Co-Founder Nicholas Hansen, said, in an interview with Music Weekly Asia. “It just shows how much people want to go out and be a part of something, and why we’ve used that for our inspiration for our iPad app. I see the future of live music as being much more participatory and interactive.”
Latin America, given the mostly ubiquitous Spanish language, has always had tendrils across the global music scene, and indeed “BAMM Latino” forms a substantial part of the BAMM.tv content library. Apart from the occasional break-out hit, though, its traditional music remains more famous than its contemporary pop and rock music. Brazilian punk and metal has always been a fixture, but there have been few breakout mainstream successes. Music scenes in smaller countries have been slower to develop over the years, but some believe a new generation of globally-minded, internet-savvy fans are opening up to new sounds, and reassessing older ones.
“I used to listen to the same five local bands—there weren’t that many at the time—just like my entire generation,” BAMM.tv’s Vice President of Business Development, Fernando Estrada, said from San Francisco, commenting on the local music scene in Guatemala, his country of birth. “They got so popular because those bands represented the pride of my country, my neighborhood, even my school, where some of them went to. They had very little presence on the radio or TV if any, because media perceived them as lower tier music. Instead, media prefer to promote mainstream music coming from Mexico, U.S or the U.K.
“I think these days, musicians in Guatemala aren’t afraid to explore new sounds like it was before. In my teenage years, it was basically, rock, pop or some ska, but now, I’m not surprised to hear electronic Guatemalan music with female voices in English, or any other crazy combination of sounds. My point is that the pride is still there, newer generation of fans are seeing their artists as equally as any other artists from other country and not as lower tier anymore. “
Even sounds which have crossed borders and have been embraced by different countries change radically when combined with local influences. Cumbia is one form which has flourished across Latin America, its combination of protean African and Latin sounds lending itself to innovation and experimentation. But its story changes whenever it takes root in a place. The music ‘originated’ in Colombia, but new forms have developed in other countries.
“You can hear cumbia blaring from houses and cars all around the poor areas and shanty towns in Argentina, and in the ‘bailantas’ (dancing halls),” BAMM.tv’s Programme Developer Ian McPherson said from London, reflecting on the Argentinian music scene. “Around a decade ago, a former more ‘romantic cumbia’ took a step down to give way to the much more aggressive cumbia villera (‘shantytown cumbia’), with lyrics that speak about crime and drugs. Cumbia songs still tell stories about love and experiences of common people.”
The electronic variant of cumbia is called digital cumbia, and it’s hard not to think that the name also refers to the means of its dissemination. Digital cumbia is a global movement, bringing together producers from Copenhagen (where it is called Cumbia Vikingo), Colombia and Mexico, among other places. As well as bringing artists together, Latin America’s communications revolution has made it one of the biggest markets for subscriptions services and music consumption. In 2011, Brazil commanded nearly a fifth of all digital music sales after iTunes was launched the country. And here as well, every internet-enabled screen, no matter how small, is a window to the world. Tablets and smartphones undeniably shape how music is selected, delivered and distributed. The curve for digital music consumption overtaking physical music sales is expected to be much steeper in emerging markets than in established ones like the US and UK, affording more possibilities than ever for artists to get their work heard and distributed globally.
DIY, music fans themselves can be the driving force for getting their favorite acts to travel. Touring remains all important for establishing a fanbase—it’s just that with the right mix of ingredients, that tour could potentially take place in the next country over, instead of the next town over. Crowdfunding is emerging as an alternative revenue stream for musicians, affording a level of independence from traditional label models, but mobilizing strangers online is relatively easy as compared to getting fans to work together on the ground. Gigfunder launched last year to give bands a way of financing tours, without spending any money upfront, relying upon fans to start the campaigns and get their favorite bands to sign up to the service.
“At the end of the day, wherever you are, it’s just natural to look to your cultural and geographic neighbors and see what they’re doing, listen to what you like and let the influences ebb and flow accordingly,” BAMM.tv’s Nick Hansen said. “I think what PSY’s done is to reinforce the notion that you can have musical genres grounded in relatively tight silos that are a lot more accessible than they’ve ever been before, and sometimes songs are going to come spinning from those silos and be appealing to more or less everyone—clearly, one billion YouTube views speaks for itself. But the common point in all of these ‘success stories’ is that they will be the product of locations that have thriving local music scenes, both forming and feeding upon this global music culture. It’s a terribly exciting time.”