The Swiss stand at the Womex music fair in Budapest is hopelessly overrun. An invitation has gone out for drinks at the stand – organised together with the Austrians – and thus attracted a huge crowd. You can enjoy cheese, dried meat, wine and hold small talk. Most favourite topics: The state of the Helvetic concert market and the prices completely made up by Budapest taxi drivers. At the edge of the crowd, a booker of the Zurich club Moods negotiates with a French concert agency, not far from that, Berne organisers Bee-Flat scurry through the masses and the manager of Sophie Hunger meets people who look somewhat important. Very briefly, an Austrian band tries to perform a serenade but is silenced quickly by the security staff of the congress hall. Business is on the agenda for the day, music is not planned before the evening.
The dilemma is well-known. As a musician, it helps not just to be a creator of sound art but, advisably, also booker, manager, public relations agent and label manager. And because that’s the way it is, it can’t hurt to visit such fairs every now and then. Right, off to battle. The aim: to jazz up summer season 2016 with a few festival bookings.
The good news here at Womex: Open Airs such as Glastonbury, Sziget or Roskilde have dispatched delegates to Budapest who are looking for new bands. The bad news: They prefer to sneak around the exhibition incognito. If they do, however, decide to stop for a while, they immediately have a bunch of “fleeting acquaintances” around themselves, who are trying to slip them CDs and catalogues. That surely looks tiresome. Better to leave them alone.
World music – a marketing term for exotic music
Among the various music exhibitions and showcase festivals, Womex is among the older ones, and because of the niche that it serves, maybe not the trendiest. But people underestimate it. It takes place each year in a different city and is the world’s greatest fair for so-called World Music. A term that has been created nearly 30 years ago by marketing managers of English record labels, it has attempted to pigeon-hole music which didn’t fit into the traditional Anglo-American Pop-Rock scheme.
Also a term which is still stuck with the image of an unpleasant mystique mix of jute romanticism, third world exotics and cultural neo-colonialism. But World Music has long become an umbrella, under which everything from global pop by someone like Manu Chao, via electro-ethno studies of someone like Björk, up to Brazilian Favela Funk or Mongolian zither players roams around. World Music is what sounds exotic to the ears of a Westerner.
If you have to offer anything exotic in terms of music you are in the right place here. You are sure to meet someone that can help you on. The Womex community has become a closely-knit family, radio editors are searching for new music, and event organisers who don’t feel like putting together their concert programme merely based on the newsletter by various agencies are present here. And, due to the fact that the British hype machinery is no longer firing on all cylinders lately, even the most important major festivals can’t avoid digging around in the world for some hidden gems.
Serious preparation for a music exhibition is a must
If there is one species that has very low popularity scores at music exhibitions, it is representatives of bands who push sound recordings into the hands of any passer-by while reciting excerpts of their band biography. The key is to be prepared. Weeks before the exhibition, you need to find out by intense research work which of the concert organisers, agencies or festival bookers that are going to attend are on the same wavelength as you, and then you need to arrange a brief meeting with them.
Womex has established an internet platform on which you can browse around once you have been accredited. Each participant is listed here, often with e-mail contact details and sometimes with a photo. Those that decline meeting with you can usually be found in a cigarette break or at concerts in the evening where the trendiest Afrobeat bands of the world play alongside Cambodian Mickey-Mouse MIAs, Brazilian hip hop wannabes or Chinese Metal bands and try to trump each other.
Business meetings at Womex: promising to hazy
Back to the exhibition. The voice is hoarse, the head hurts. The meetings so far have been rather good. The gentleman representing a big Open Air in Luxembourg has listened to the music links sent to him prior to the exhibition, and offers an option for a date in July. It’s his business partner, however, who could still ruin the deal. He tells us in agitated way that during the Globus riots in Zurich, he was imprisoned and has since been avoiding Switzerland like the devil fears holy water. I mime empathy and hope for some mercy later on.
A festival in Amsterdam and a big city festival in Hanover reserve a date in the summer. The latter is said to attract about 15,000 people. An organiser from Helsinki has been wooed by what he heard so much that he wants to win the band over for a festival in May. And the delegation of a major Turkish organiser who is in charge of the country’s biggest Open Airs, brings along two festival organisers from Israel to the meeting. They say they had talked about the band and decided to start something together.
Other meetings end on a vague note. For example the French. The Festival Jazz à Vienne shows some interest but they say they’d get back to us if there was a need to. Same applies to the Festival Les Suds à Arles. And Roskilde? Passed each other and said hello. No more than that. Glastonbury? The rep wasn’t seen. Sziget? A conversation with a booker resulted in finding out that the world stage of the festival had been subject to a rather conservative programme; difficult for a band with a laptop as part of its instrumentation.
Efforts for visiting the exhibition and persistence when following up could pay back
But it’s always the same, whenever you return from a music exhibition: You stash away countless business cards carefully, reflect on various meetings and you have that fuzzy feeling and assurance that the global career is within arm’s length. Three weeks later, however, you’ll realise that the newly made friendships and business relationships aren’t that stable after all as you thought and that following up is a much more tedious process than you anticipated. And it’s going to be just like that – this year is no exception.
Past years have, though, showed that the effort and a certain persistence do pay back. Concerts at the Montréal Jazz Festival, at the Fernwärme Open Air in Vienna, at the Festival Fiest’A Sète, at the World Village in Helsinki or at the Festival d’éte de Quebec have come about as a result of attending Womex. Our agencies in France and Italy have also become aware of us once we played a showcase in Copenhagen in 2009.
One week after the exhibition, the Turks got back in touch. Everything was right on track. They said they’d listened to the CD we slipped them often and liked it. And a Spanish festival has also knocked on our door. With the question whether the band was getting financial support from somewhere. If so, they’d be interested. Yes, the financial crisis. It hasn’t spared World Music. Let the negotiations begin.
The author, Ane Hebeisen, plays with the Berne band Da Cruz (www.dacruzmusic.com) and is a reporter with the daily “Der Bund”.