[This article was written by Dave Kusek (founder of the New Artist Model) and world music PR expert Trista Newyear Yeager.]
World musicians face an interesting and unique conundrum. You naturally reach across boundaries; your music crosses cultures and promotes cultural awareness. But it’s easy to feel stuck in a small niche that can seem uninviting or overwhelming to outsiders. You might feel siloed, like your growth as an artist is restrained by the size of your niche. After all there are only so many self-identifying Afrobeat or Welsh-language alt-folk fans out there.
Now, having a niche is a very good thing! A strongly defined understanding of who you are as an artist can turn the key on a set group of people who share that same devotion and fascination. It’s hard, as an artist, to leave it at that. You want to expand your circle to people outside the most obvious niche.
This is getting easier and easier, as the album buying past moves into the playlisting present, if your music has sonic similarities to more mainstream music.
If you want more hands-on guidance on how to expand your audience as a global music artist, click here to learn more about the World Music Master Music Business program.
Leverage Related Genres
Most popular and mainstream genres out there have their roots in the deep cultural past. Rock sprang from the blues and Afrodiasporic American musics, with sounds and scales and a certain grit you can still feel in a lot of music from Mali and other parts of West Africa. And many fans of those popular genres would enjoy related world music. The key is to meet them where they are, and the YouTube cover environment is the perfect place to start.
Try covering more popular songs in related genres, bending them into your sound. Some bands have done this with truly daring, fun results. Matuto covered Beyonce with a Brazilian twist, and the Tuvan throat singer Albert Kuvezin does a mean Joy Division. This gives people a point of reference while introducing a new, literally foreign genre to the experience. From there, make sure you also have original music and links to your website so they can check out more if they like your sound.
Another option is to collaborate with musicians in related (or maybe even unrelated) genres. Beyond the YouTube cover strategy (where you put videos out there and hope people find them), collaborating puts your music directly in front of an interested audience. Do a gig together, open for each other, collaborate on a cover song, or write an original song together. Those more mainstream music fans will be much more likely to give your music a chance if you’re playing alongside their favorite artists – and that’s the power of a recommendation!
In fact, this is precisely the way many people know about some of their favorite global artists. Paul Simon, back in the day, made Ladysmith Black Mambazo a household name. Ry Cooder did the same thing for Ali Farka Toure and the elder Cuban masters of the Buena Vista Social Club. Yo-Yo Ma has brought many Central Asian traditional virtuosi into the spotlight, while Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has worked recently (and brilliantly) with a striking group of Rajasthanis.
Star-making producers and rockers from the outside are merely one part of a broader dynamic, one driven by insiders and by artists, as many amazing kora duos attest. Seize your chance; try creating something with someone whose music you love, but who operates outside your scene.
Stand for Something (and Sustain that Stance)
As cross-cultural artists, many world musicians find themselves in the middle of world political, environmental, and social issues, using their music to share these important messages. These issues are universal, and many people can relate despite their musical preferences. Again, it’s about meeting people where they are and finding common ground.
If your music comments on global issues, play it up! Reach out to charities, organizations, conferences, and events and try to get involved. Maybe you can get your music played on a commercial for an animal rights organization, perhaps you could perform at a local global warming awareness event, or maybe you could use your political messages to connect to musicians and fans in the hip hop community.
This needs to be more than a one night philosophical stand, however. The more in-depth and sustained your engagement, the better — and the more likely to create lasting connections with others who share your values. Don’t just play at a blacklivesmatter rally; start a series of traveling workshops that emphasize the beauty and power of Ghanaian percussion traditions and how they connect to American identity. Make your knowledge and passion the pivot, not the add-on.
A great example of this bigger picture-type initiative is The Nile Project, a multinational project that unites artists from along the Nile River. They do more than play together; they start conversations and address water use issues, directly and indirectly, as part of a bigger push to change dialog about the river. A long tour, several releases, and lots of creative surprises have risen from this project, making it great for the artists and their audiences.
Untangle the knots with the World Music Master Business Program, an online training course by New Artist Model and rock paper scissors, designed to help global artists develop a roadmap to career success. You get 9 classes taught by industry veteran Dave Kusek and world music PR experts Dmitri Vietze and Tristra Newyear Yeager, hundreds of video training modules, and thousands of resources (including free ebooks when you register).
Reserve your spot at newartistmodel.com/worldmusic/ Registration is limited. Classes begin April 1.