'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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Urgent Requirement - Central Manchester

£20000 - £23000 per annum + 20 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Guru Careers: Social Media Executive / SEO Executive

£20 - 25K + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Social Media...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions