'Songlines': How a world music magazine came full circle and found itself

The genre wasn't even recognised until 1987, but 'Songlines', which marks its 50th issue, has found an irrepressible beat, writes Jonathan Brown

What is world music? Unhelpful associations with ageing white rock behemoths such as Sting or Peter Gabriel notwithstanding, this is still a question that intrigues Simon Broughton, editor of Songlines, the world music magazine that is celebrating its 50th edition this month.

"It is not a much-liked term," the former BBC producer concedes. The term "world music", it seems, was dreamt up over a few pints at the Empress of Russia pub, in the distinctly British confines of Islington in 1987. Among the group gathered were record-company owners, festival organisers and promoters who had become frustrated at the inability of their potential customers to find the latest cut by their favourite Ethiopian begena player or Portuguese fado singer when browsing in their local record shop.

"Now, you can put all these people with unpronounceable names in one place, alongside classical or opera. It has worked brilliantly," says Broughton.

The north London drinkers not only brought practically the entire musical world together under one umbrella, they even agreed to spend £3,000 promoting their niche. And while there are some – including the British-Asian composer Nitin Sawhney – who refuse to label their music thus, the niche has grown large enough to sustain a publication devoted entirely to fans willing to part with £4.25 to read the lowdown on the latest sounds emanating from the streets of Dakar, Belize or Jerusalem.

Songlines sprang into life in 1999 as an occasional supplement to the stately Gramophone magazine, the leading classical-music publication. The venture was conceived in response to a growing interest in music from beyond the English-speaking world and outside the confines of Anglo-American musical norms.

Aware that they had tapped into a vibrant market, the publishers soon spun off the supplement into a quarterly, if somewhat academic-looking, magazine in its own right. Broughton, who had broadcasting experience and had worked on the original Rough Guide to World Music published in 1994, was at the helm when Gramophone was acquired by Haymarket.

"They inherited it and kept it going for a couple of years, but Haymarket didn't really know what to do with it. It just wasn't their scene, so they decided to stop it. But by this time, it had made a big impression and a lot of people were upset to see it go," he recalls.

The magazine was still fairly niche, barely breaking even with just 1,500 subscribers out of 8,000 copies sold. But brighter times were in store when the title was purchased for the nominal fee of £1 – complete with the potential debt of unmet subscription payments.

Financial backing was secured from Chris Pollard, the former owner of Gramophone, and Rough Guides veteran Mark Ellingham. The magazine was redesigned, with a larger format, and it went to eight issues a year – each with a free multi-track CD of new music attached to the front cover.

Today, with a staff of five journalists and a small army of freelance writers, all experts in their field around the world, Songlines has undergone another injection of capital and relocated to new headquarters in Shepherds Bush. The bottom line is also looking healthier with a circulation of 20,000 copies, a quarter of which are sold by subscription.

Although the majority of readers are in the UK, the magazine reaches a significant audience overseas, particularly in the United States where it has no competition and where publishers see major potential for growth. The Songlines website offers a slimmed-down version of what is on offer in the magazine, plus the opportunity to listen to free podcasts on iTunes and the rundown of the latest world-music chart.

With a predominately well-educated, affluent, thirty-something readership, which Broughton says includes as many women as men, the appeal to advertisers is obvious, not least on the back of the current boom in live music.

Full-colour adverts for a dizzying array of festivals, shows, albums and travel feature heavily throughout the 100-plus pages of the magazine.

But world music offers much more than some simply beautiful tunes, says Broughton.

"It is not just about the musical interest – it is also a window on politics around the world. It is a way of looking at a much broader picture. What is interesting is that people come to it from so many different denominations, whether it is Radio 3, through folk or through travel. I am very aware we have to cater for all these audiences," he says.

It is also a force for good, Broughton says. "Take Pakistani Sufi music: someone like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (below). Extremist Islam is what grips the headlines, but if you listen to his work you realise that there is a whole different side to Islam, which is about peace and love."