The way we talk about music in African countries is full of clichés. One such cliché is that the continent’s music has potential.
Take, for example, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Creative Economy Report which claims that in Africa “despite the abundance of creative talents, the creative potential remains highly underutilized”.
Or a chapter on the World Bank’s Africa Music Project, that makes the opening claim that “African music has significant business potential”.
We do not contest the existence of such potential throughout Africa – nor elsewhere in the world. But if music across Africa is primarily characterised by its mere potential, how can we understand the successes of ‘African’ musicians, in their own countries, across the continent, and throughout the world?
In response, we need to understand what exists, and see those existing practices as valid (though imperfect) in their own right, rather than lacking ‘Western’ characteristics.
Take urban transport, for example.
In Melbourne, public transport is messy but formalised. Different trains, trams, and buses connect residents and visitors throughout a large network.
In Nairobi, a similarly effective and largely informal network exists.
The major difference between the transport systems in both cities is that most visitors will recognise that Melbourne formally has a public transport network with clearly indicated stops, route maps, timetables and apps.
In contrast, many visitors to Nairobi will see that there are plenty of Matatus (minibuses), but they may be less confident than when they would visit Melbourne to use this form of shared transport as a reliable, cost-effective and largely efficient manner to move through the city.
Stops are not clearly indicated, formal maps are absent, pricing is not transparent, and timetables are not advertised.
But does this mean that Melbourne has a public transport network and Nairobi doesn’t?
Both Melbourne and Nairobi are equipped with a system that transports people to visit friends, commuters to work, and students to school, like virtually any city in the world.
The major difference is therefore transparency about how the system works, and thus what the system actually is.
It would be easy (and misleading) to argue that Nairobi has deficient public transport, based on the assumption that every system requires indicated stops, route maps, and timetables. Maps and Google overlays can exist without such formality.
Such a proposal would be misleading as it ignores the context, the existing mechanisms, and the real needs as well as the system’s positioning within a wider national political economy.
What these transport systems have in common is that they are perpetually imperfect.
Recognising that people in Melbourne and Nairobi all complain about the timeliness, comfort, connections, and coverage of their transport systems is crucial in thinking about possibly improving them.
Five perspectives on the cultural Economy
In our research on the cultural economy across countries in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, we found a common thread. This is that perspectives on what the cultural economy should be can be classified into five distinct perspectives.
The Celebratory perspective provides an optimistic (and at times wilfully uncritical) account of the role ‘creative industries’ (they rarely use ‘cultural industries’) can play in cities, regions, countries and the world as a whole.
The Aspirational perspective builds on the celebratory perspective in its optimism but projects these successes into the future. Creative city strategies are a good example, as this aspirational strategy inevitably leads to diminishing returns.
The Refusenik perspective builds on a refusal to reduce artistic and cultural value to the ‘economy’ and refuses to see culture as merely another economic driver.
The Agnostic perspective is driven by detailed empirical work and does not start from an ideological a priori evaluation of the sector. It may lead to extrapolations and discussions of the broader political economy of the cultural industries.
The Reflexive perspective explores the contemporary conditions of cultural production and consumption, and the policy settings that shape them, through the cultural industries.
It tends to locate current issues and challenges in the longue durée, that is long-term cultural production, without discounting the successive layers of nuance it has acquired over time.
What sets apart the public transport systems of Melbourne and Nairobi, is that aspirational approaches to public transport often eclipse agnostic or reflexive approaches.
The former may look more straightforward, easy, and even elegant than the latter options – that is to simply create a Melbourne system in Nairobi.
However, it will reveal that there is likely not an easy way to solve the ever-changing challenges of urban transport. These challenges, while similar, require bespoke solutions in Melbourne versus Nairobi due to the different contexts such as geography, resources, habits, and histories, therefore supporting a reflexive approach.
Our underlying argument is that the same goes for the music economy.
In many countries, looking for formal bodies dealing with recording music, administering performing rights, supplying record stores, and drawing up sales ranks is a bit like looking for a formal bus stop on a Matatu line.
There are mechanisms in place, much like Matatus having their regular stopping points, but if you don’t know where they are, you’re unlikely to recognise them.
Yet transport is thoroughly embedded in the physical fabric of the city, whereas music is simultaneously global (music travels easily) and local (music production gravitates around nodes like New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo, and regional hubs like Johannesburg, Seoul, Miami, Abidjan, Lisbon, Nairobi, and Cairo).
History matters for the future
Naming and classifying the cultural economy is a political act.
Political in this context does not refer to party politics, but the political implications of the choices and the assumptions about how the cultural economy should work — whether knowingly or unknowingly.
The recent ‘discovery’ of the cultural and creative industries is a great illustration of this: these activities have existed well before we started calling them ‘industries’.
Organisations including UNESCO and the British Council use their position to define and delineate the scope of the cultural economy. And their perspectives often overlook the histories, social organisation, cultural contexts, and political economy of existing practices.
In some locales, mobile phone companies operate as labels. In others, musicians or movie producers willingly ignore their copyright claims to allow for their songs and films to be more widely distributed by pirates.
These represent often invisible (to official statistics and accounts) innovations and adaptations to the existing structures and practices of the international music industry.
It matters that different countries continue to use different terms to describe the cultural economy, often without realising the implications of their discursive choices.
The cultural economy – much like culture itself – has globalised, but it has not become homogeneous in its offerings, in its rewards, or in its processes. And its varied informal institutions can remain invisible, particularly to an outsider’s eye.
This is an edited extract of the new book Global Cultural Economy co-authored by Dr Christiaan De Beukelaer and Dr Kim-Marie Spence. Published by Routledge, the book launches in multiple countries throughout October 2019: on the 10th October in Melbourne, 23rd October in Leuven, 28th October in Geneva, and 30th October in London.
Banner: Guests dance at a wedding in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso/ Christiaan De Beukelaer