World Music Profiles: New WOMEX Director Gerald Seligman

Gerald Seligman
Gerald Seligman
Gerald Seligman is the new director of WOMEX, the organization that puts together the largest and most important world music convention. WOMEX includes a trade show, conferences and high quality world music acts in its reputable showcases. World Music Central interview Seligman for its World Music Profile series.

Before getting to his plans for WOMEX, we’ll talk about his extensive background in world music:

How was your experience at EMI-Hemispheres?

From about 1984 I had the intention to use a major company’s own international network to find good music, repackage it and then send it back out using the same network for international distribution. It took quite some time to get this together, and I finally began while in Brazil in 1993 and then, with the move to London, I left a high-profile, fast-track job in EMI International to take up this low-profile, slow-track job as a full-time proposition.

Once there, it became apparent that the model I had in mind worked (and Hemisphere was among the first dedicated world compilation / reissue labels) and that it helped generate enough income actually to start funding entirely new projects.

From that perspective, it was something of a dream job, but, as in all dreams, there is a potential for nightmare. While I was in the majors, from 1990-2001, the results of so much bad management and short-term planning began coming home to roost. With each merger, the majors would swear they would leave their newly acquired indies intact, but, inevitably, they would swallow them up, fire their staff, pare down their creative staff and add ballooning operating cost to their operations.

Soon enough, the majors were so expensive to run that they could only afford to work the most expensive, commercial projects, ones with the highest potential of return (and lowest artistic return). In the process they abandoned first the niches and genres, and then even the moderate sellers — and the huge audiences that each of these areas represented. Hence the nightmare.

With reorganization and each towering new ego recreating the company in his image, I reported into 8 different structures in the 8 years of the label’s existence. The image comes to mind of a circus acrobat juggling flaming torches while rolling along on a spinning barrel.

Are major labels fickle?

See above. It’s not so much fickle as fucked. Some of which is earned, some of which is not. But, as always, it’s artists who suffer.

You were chairman of the executive committee of Freemuse. Can you give us some details about the organization?

Freemuse was formed to fight the effect of censorship on musicians. While organizations like PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) have long been established to support the interests of censored writers, no such organization existed for musicians, yet music censorship is a growing form of political and religious repression.

A group of us, under the inspiration of a conference organized by Marie Korpe and Ole Reitov, banded together, wrote the charter and created the organization.

Are you still involved with Freemuse?

No. Though I believe in the mission, philosophical differences emerged about an even application of objective standards on censorship.

How many countries have you lived in?

Four: The US, where I was born, Brazil, the UK and now Germany.

How’s life in Berlin?

Berlin’s a wonderful city, and it seems the entire 20th century was tethered to this one spot: the arts and sciences, two world wars, the cold war and now this burgeoning new capital of central Europe. Highly stimulating. Plus it’s such a livable city. Everyone, myself included, ride bikes everywhere.

What places in Berlin would you recommend to a world music fan?

There are a lot of venues that play world music, the Kulturbrauerei is the key place. It’s a former brewery in Prenzlaur Berg (former East) turned into a host of venues large and small, plus artist studios, cafes, a multiplex cinema, restaurants. Great place.

Arena has very good shows and nice booking ideas. And there are clubs like Quasimodo and others that host world music. Not as much happening as in Paris, London or New York, but there’s a lot on here.

What attracted you to WOMEX?

I started coming to WOMEX in its second year and have come ever since, doing countless conferences, serving on its jury’s first two years, even sometimes traveling for WOMEX. I’ve always believed in the project, and bought into the whole notion of networking, working together… What’s that expression? All boats rise with the tide… And where else can you meet nearly everyone of importance in the world music community: artists, producers, labels, managers, writers, everyone.

What are your immediate plans for the WOMEX organization as new director?

The key is to appreciate what works, not seek radical upset, but also to allow a creative process of considering — with lots of input from dedicated WOMEXicans — what enhancements might bring welcome new elements.

WOMEX has had two directors, the irreplaceable Ben Mandelson and then the indispensable Christoph Borkowsky (Reader please note: they’ll be reading this so I have to suck up a little…). But, in all seriousness, it’s remarkable how much foresight they had when they created the overall approach, let’s call it the philosophy, and its structure. Remember, WOMEX started with only 250 delegates and last year it peaked at 2500.

A tenfold growth is testament to the value of the event, a value that’s made more pronounced as the overall music industry environment toughens. But, as WOMEX grows, new challenges emerge. One question is how to keep our soul as we expand. From the many conversations I’ve had over the past year and especially in the past months, it seems the general consensus is that WOMEX has done that, and it is still as much a social as a business event, a chance to catch up with friends and colleagues and to do significant business. I’ve heard from lots of people — and it was my experience when I ran my label — that one can get all one’s business and networking done in WOMEX alone.

So, aside from taking over local production and sound (see more below), first we’re thinking about new features. For the first time last year we introduced the Radio WOMEX Studio, where broadcasters interviewed artists, some of whom performed live right there. We’ll be expanding this and, now that we know it works and we’ve mastered the technical challenges, we’ll be making this a well-advertised new feature.

We also initiated a Book Conference for WOMEX writers. There will be ‘How to Use WOMEX’ seminars for new delegates… We’re also looking, as last year, to vastly increase our coverage and activity in the digital realm. Beyond the expanded digital section in the WOMEX guide, our IT Director Stephan Siedler is about to launch a major virtualWOMEX which will be something of a “youtube” for the world music community where everyone can post information, new releases, photos, reviews, tour schedules, videos — and it’ll be updated daily by all the delegates.

We’re also exploring some actual digital workshops where projects could be undertaken between programmers, artists and producers. So, lot’s to think about.

Another key area for me will be in the new WOMEX Offspring venture. We are already doing an event for the third year now in Recife, Brazil, called Porto Musical. This will continue. Now we’re looking at possible new events in the Caribbean, in Asia, in the UK. And we’re doing active outreach to people throughout the world to come approach us with ideas for possible collaborations. Plus we are already involved in non-event projects, like DISMARC, the digital archiving effort, and a study we undertook on behalf of Norway’s Artspages on the digital market in Africa.

Finally, to fund a lot of these projects, we are redoubling our efforts to find sponsors, grants and partnerships. With the incredible network of professionals who participate in WOMEX, there are countless opportunities to create new projects and then send them out to all our colleagues for fulfillment.

What are your long-range goals and objectives?

To stay true to WOMEX’s original brief: to help develop and sustain the world music marketplace and never to compete with our own networks but to enhance their opportunities through networking… To launch the WOMEX Foundation to directly channel funds and support to new projects, and, yes, to enhance our working capital to create more and better events.

Will the WOMEX administrative office stay in Berlin?

Yes. WOMEX works thanks to its maniacally dedicated team. The whole project is run by so few people — only 5 full-timers — supplemented by one part-timer and many interns as the event grows nearer. Each is indispensable and each lives here in Berlin.

There were a lot of complaints about the sound in some of the showcases in 2006. How will that be solved this year?

You can be sure that we shared the concern at the sound quality in two of the halls in 2006. We’re completely revamping how we go about it, first and foremost by taking responsibility for local production back from the local producers.

Our relationship with ICAS, the cultural department of Seville’s city government, is the key to the way forward. Their own production office is now a full partner with us. They do the highly successful Bienal de Flamenco and Territorios, two indications of their dedication and professionalism. They are ideal partners determined to help us come up with the right solution. This all sounds vague, I know, but only because we’re still firming up the final details, which makes it a bit premature to make a formal announcement. We want to be sure to publicize what we know we can deliver. Stay tuned for a press release in as little as two or three weeks.

Some attendees mentioned that ironically there were few Spanish companies present. How will you attract more participants?

I can’t imagine why anyone thought that. We actually had over 200 Spanish companies present, with 85 of them occupying over 50 of the 240 trade fair stands. As for Spanish delegates, there were 418 in all, which is quite a lot when viewed against the overall delegate figure of 2500. That’s a lot of Spanish representation! But, even so, now that we’re staying in Spain for awhile, thanks to our growing and very constructive partnership with the city, there is more we are going to do to increase the presence even farther.

We’ll be placing more ads in Spanish media and trying to bring in more Spanish partners, but for the first time we will run the conferences in Spanish and English with the help of simultaneous translators.

Will attendees find anything new this year in Sevilla?

The enhanced Radio Studio, new workshops, more digital conferences and projects, a far greater integration with the city itself, better — yes, we promise — transportation and catering, perhaps a joint project with UNESCO with North African delegates (to be confirmed), and more, much more…

WOMEX seems to grow every year. How do you see the future for WOMEX and world music in general?

It’s interesting to note that as the overall music market suffers, the world music market keeps growing. It is also the home to so much professional creativity (not just artistic) and such an early adapter of new technologies. Times are harder than they’ve ever been, but it amazes my just how resilient this area is.

There is nothing like WOMEX in North America. Do you think that a similar North American world music conference-showcase would be viable?

APAP and Folk Alliance both increase their world music coverage with each year. North America is a viable and inevitable place for something like WOMEX. We’d love to find the right partners, already existing or otherwise, to contemplate what could be done, big or small.

Many Europeans get support for government agencies for showcases and low cost booths. What should Americans do to benefit from something similar?

The Europeans are way ahead on knowing how to pry funds out of their regions and governments to support the arts, the creative industries as they are now more frequently called. As a local industry organizes itself, it presents an easier means to make funding proposals. This sounds like a good WOMEX conference topic. I’ve been doing a presentation myself, last at a UNESCO conference, about how local music industries organize and interact with governments. Perhaps we should do this at WOMEX, too.

Where were you born?

Far Rockaway, Queens, New York, on a little slip of land between a bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Just a nudge to the right or left and I would have been a fish.

What is your favorite meal?

I love all varieties of Asian food, though not exclusively.

What music are you listening to lately?

One asset of working at WOMEX is how much new music crosses our desks, especially during the jury process (there were nearly 640 proposals last year). I keep a separate list and mark off which ones I want to pay closer attention to. But lately? This week? The French film soundtrack composer René Aubry, kind of like Penguin Cafe Orchestra minus the eccentricity, Mayra Andrade, Josh Rouse, Fiona Apple (I confess. Heavy on the George Martin, don’t you think?), Mbilia Bel’s Tabu Ley phase…

What kind of movies do you like?

Love film. Few restrictions though I try to avoid the films where overpaid actors run from big explosions.

What do you like to do during your free time?

Music, film, books, writing, I love travel all places all times any chance, walking, bike riding…

What country would you like to visit?

Andorra is high on the list. Then San Marino. Or is it vice versa?

Which is your favorite city?

Having lived in Rio de Janeiro, I love the Rio that might have been.

What was your best moment?

Oooh, tough one… I was four years old and… No, I pass..

What was your most embarrassing moment?

Tougher still. I was fifteen, and… Definitely pass!

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music industry?

Back in 1984 (see question #1) I wrote every label in the US, big and small, proposing that they hire me to create a department for international music. The “world music” term did not yet exist. The #1 executive of a major called me himself and in true mogal style with an accent to match said, “I’ll give yuh five minitz to tell me wha you want.” He only gave me three. “Wait a minnit,” he interrupted. “Letz get somethin’ straight. We’re not in the rekkid bizness to make the kinds of rekkids we want to go home and listen to.” I didn’t know what to say to that. I thanked him and hung up. But it was the best lesson I ever had in the music business. That was the reality that had to be understood if it was going to be counteracted. I am proud to say that in my entire career (120-plus CDs compiled or produced), I made albums I went home to listen to.

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