Tucked away in the heart of London is a small but incredibly vibrant company whose sole purpose over the past eight years has been to bring the music of the world to the ears of a wider audience than had previously been thought possible. World Music Network (WMN), in conjunction with the Rough Guide Series of reference books, has done much to put world music on the map. And what a map! You pick a place, any place — from far-flung island paradises to dense cities, mountain villages to South African townships — and chances are that WMN representatives have already been there, collecting the best rap, rock, soul, folk, reggae, roots, salsa, whatever style that region offers.
One might expect WMN to be some massive organization with huge offices; but in fact, the company — founded and run to this day by the partnership of Phil Stanton and his Colombian wife, Sandra Alayon-Stanton — boasts an office staff of just 10 people.
“I've had some experiences in the music industry before [starting WMN],” Stanton explains. “I'd worked for a small record label here in London, booking live bands and trying to get record deals going. After we got married, Sandra and I realized that we could turn our mutual love of what we now call world music into a business, except it was very hard to market our concept because, back then, world music was just music from around the world.
“At first, it was almost impossible to get the press or distributors interested in selling the CDs, so we hatched this idea of a kind of network to take care of that process for us, and then to compile the albums from existing media. We always wanted the CDs to be compilation albums so that people who were looking for that kind of music, but who had no idea what they were looking for or where to find it, would get a decent selection of what was out there. Then, hopefully, that would encourage them to go and look for more.
“So, in early 1994, we teamed up with the people who produced the Rough Guide books and sold them on the idea of a compilation CD in the back of one of their publications. That led to the first Rough Guide to World Music, which has now become the Bible, so-to-speak, of the world music genre. That first book, with our CD in the back of it, was such a huge success. It sold over 80,000 copies and has since been expanded and updated, and is now sold in two volumes all around the world. Since then, as Rough Guides to [specific] areas have been released, there is a WMN CD in the back, with music from that region.
“We also produce CDs that don't focus on specific places; for example, we have the Rough Guide to Tango or Ballet, or whatever, and these are not linked to books.”
So how does WMN find extraordinary music from far-off places and get it back to London? And how do they decide where to look for the music in the first place? “We have agents all over the world,” Stanton explains. “It sounds like something from James Bond, doesn't it? But seriously, we have people who travel to, or are already located in, the places where we decide we want to make a compilation from, and then they research and gather all of the material and send it to us. In the beginning, I used to go and do most of the recordings and research myself.
“Now we choose somebody who is a recognized expert of a particular type of music, or they will come to us with a schedule, and we work out a plan for the compilation, with basic rules gathered from the information we already have for what we think we want. It can take months — even years — to gather the right material, and because we are totally at the mercy of our agents abroad, we never quite know what we are going to get when the packages start to arrive.”
“Deciding where to go is more difficult,” adds Stanton's wife, Sandra. “We put together an ideas list and work from that. [Experience has shown] that putting every kind of music from around the world into one category and naming it world music just isn't working anymore, and it has taught us that the more you know about world music, the more you realize what you don't know. For instance, we started with an idea for a Rough Guide to the music of West Africa. But then we realized that there was so much and it was so diverse that we ended up doing guides to Guinea, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana and others. And, yes, there are still places left in the world, many of them where we still haven't been and, of course, we want to go.”
The material arrives on a variety of different formats. According to Laurence Cedar, a mastering engineer who has worked on over 100 WMN releases at his own Binary Studios in West London, “In the past, we have had every media you can imagine turn up at the office, from badly recorded cassette tapes to 78 rpm vinyl records. There is no guarantee in this business that you will get a nice, crisp digital recording on DAT or CD or MiniDisc to work from, so I have to be prepared for literally anything, though thankfully, these days, it is mostly a pile of CDs that arrives on my desk.” Cedar's studio is based around a Pro Tools system with Logic and a Mac G4.
Cedar's background includes both mastering — he worked for Trevor Horn on mastering the first Seal album in the early '90s — and writing music for commercials. “Phil Stanton got in touch with me in early 1994, just as WMN was starting out,” he says. “I was working as a writer of music for television commercials at the time, which is still my main business, but as you can imagine, world music plays such a huge role in sound design for visual images. I was fascinated by this idea for a compilation album of world music.
“For me, this arrangement is perfect,” Cedar continues. “When I write music for TV commercials, having a big CD collection of world music on hand — especially stuff that I have mastered — is very useful. I treat the projects as an education because there is always something from the middle of nowhere that you've never heard of that makes you go, ‘Wow!’ And the best thing about it is that nobody else will have heard it yet, either. I did some Coca-Cola ads for South America and they wanted a tango, samba and cha-cha-cha music, and all of the basic ideas came from CDs I'd worked on for WMN. It's like having a wonderful library that, luckily, I get the chance to constantly add to.”
An online catalog with detailed descriptions of all the WMN releases and many audio samples are available at www.worldmusic.net.