‘Warts and all’, or polished commodity? Understanding the commercialisation of folk music

The back streets of the poorer districts of Lisbon, Portugal, are often considered home to the urban folk music genre, fado. But fado is, in many ways, a cultural export of Portugal, earning a place on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and becoming part of the tourist experience in Lisbon. One of the results of this is that the performance and nature of fado have changed over the years. While it is still possible to experience what many may call ‘authentic’ fado in some tavernas, the majority of fado performances that take place in Lisbon – at least those that can be easily found without insider knowledge – occur in a restaurant setting, where the instrumentalists wear suits, and the fadistas perform, perhaps not out of a sense of saudade, but out of a sense of showmanship, in order to entertain the tourists with songs that are stereotypical of the genre, the sort of songs that appear on virtually all recordings aimed at the foreign markets.

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Is the term ‘world music’ relevant?

When I write about ‘world’ music, it is often styled with quotation marks. The term can be problematic, because virtually any music which is considered the least bit exotic, or different to that to which we have become accustomed is pigeon-holed into the category of ‘world’ music. This category of music is wide-ranging and expanding to suit the demands of a consumer market. While the original purpose for this interest in the music of the ‘other’ may have been anthropological, the commercial production of music necessitates a shorthand, a catch-all term that can be used to classify a certain type of music and meet consumer expectations. A 2019 article in The Guardian speaks about the “flawed and problematic” nature  of the term. Yet it’s continued to be used. Is the term relevant, and how can it be understood?

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The problem of ‘world music’

One of the largest industries in most developed economies is the music industry, a market constantly expanding and growing with new releases and constantly evolving genres. As audiences increasingly see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ living in multicultural societies, there has also been a notable increase in the cultures and customs of those whom we consider ‘foreign’. There is an imperative to understand the context of the music we consume, and when music is sold, this necessitates the labelling of music into genre-based categories, such as popular, alternative, and classical. However, such genre-names are highly subjective and deceptive; any music that people like could be described as ‘popular’, ‘alternative’ is self-explanatory, but fails to state what it is an alternative to, and the term ‘classical’, if taken literally, should only apply to music composed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries! The expansion of each of these categories creates an even greater sense of vagueness, not helped by the fact that each of these categories is further sub-divided (death metal, heavy metal, and speed metal, for example), but none more so than the genre that is most commonly referred to as ‘world music’.

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