It is now my fifth day in Greece where I am attending the 2012 Annual Conference and General Assembly of the International Association of Music Information Centres (a.k.a. IAMIC) which is taking place in two cities: Athens and Aegina. The Greek member of IAMIC, IEMA, has been a very active member within the IAMIC network in recent years, largely due to the irrepressible energy of its director Kostas Moschos.
Kostas Moschos, director of IEMA and the coordinator of the 2012 IAMIC Conference, is also a master of the laouto, so he took a break from his role as host to entertain the delegates during our farewell dinner in Aegina, Greece.
Still, Greece feels like a somewhat unusual location for a convening of advocates for and experts in music that (no matter the variety of genre) is new. Greece, after all, is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations and the landscape here is scattered with reminders of the distant past. The remains of the Parthenon dominated the view from the breakfast area of my hotel in Athens and an even older ruin, the Temple of Afea Athena, is around the corner from our meetings in Aegina.
I felt somewhat naïve using the world classical during a late night conversation I started with colleagues from other parts of the world about Beethoven’s unjustly marginalized, I think, contemporaries Muzio Clementi and Jan Ladislav Dussek. Using such a word to describe music that’s only a little more than 200 years old seems overly optimistic after seeing the parts of the Acropolis that still survive and learning about all the parts that no longer do, including a church and a mosque that had been built there subsequently and stood for several centuries. The term contemporary classical, of course, is even more egregious and ultimately unverifiable. I have to admit, however, that it has nevertheless been used here quite a bit since no one knows what else to call this stuff and until we all can agree on another name we’re unfortunately stuck with it. (In my new lexicon, post-classical no longer cuts it since that term would have to refer to that Byzantine church and Ottoman mosque built inside the columns of the Parthenon that are now both long gone.)
Even more seemingly counterintuitive than holding discussions about contemporary music in a place where ancient history is so foregrounded is talking about technology, but as with most of the public music discussions I have attended for the past decade, technology has inevitably been the focus of many panels here. Remaining mindful of how music might be more effectively disseminated and appreciated, and ensuring that it can be an economically viable activity are, after all, of paramount importance to anyone interested in the future of music. However, a presentation with the provocative title “Is African music subsidizing Europe?” by journalist and sociologist George Markakis about the lack of an infrastructure to distribute proper remuneration to music creators based in Africa demonstrated that challenges exist far beyond the digital realm.
Although European performing rights societies collect royalties on behalf of African creators whenever their music is broadcast on a radio station anywhere in Europe, Markakis described how that money almost never winds up in the right hands since most African nations do not have rights societies, so it is extremely difficult to track down those creators. As a result, those funds often remain in Europe, theoretically benefiting European music creators instead of their African counterparts. Of course, the broadcast of European music in African countries is also not properly remunerated since there are no performing rights societies collecting those funds at all. But while Europeans are losing rightful income from African broadcasts, they are theoretically recouping it from the unclaimed royalties for Africans. On the other hand, African creators lose in both scenarios. They are not the beneficiaries of unclaimed royalties collected in Africa since none are actually collected.
Maybe there can eventually be an online solution to this problem but none was proposed. A possible starting point at least exists in a new initiative by the Siemens Stiftung and the Goethe Institute, two organizations based in Germany, to fund the creation of a music information centre for all of Sub-Saharan Africa. It seems like an impossible undertaking, since such a centre would cover a larger geographical area than the USA and most of the countries in Europe combined. Plus they would be responsible for collecting information from nearly 50 different countries, most of whose governments would be neither willing nor able to collaborate. But Jens Cording from Siemens, who addressed the IAMIC General Assembly, is hopeful than such an organization can be established. He spoke passionately about how collecting and disseminating music information could greatly improve Intra-African communication, which is severely lacking at the present time. He described how there is only one piano tuner in all of Uganda (and he is 80 years old) while there are several piano tuners in nearby Kenya who could travel to Uganda to train others if only there could be better communication between people in these two countries.
There is of course a serious concern that launching such an enterprise is somehow an act of cultural colonialism, but according to Cording the role of the two German companies is mostly financial. The goal from the onset has been for this to be an African project built by Africans, and they have already hired a project manager based in Johannesburg, South Africa, who will be in charge of the entire operation. Two planning conferences involving 25 attendees from the music sector who are based across the African continent have been held thus far, in Johannesburg and Nairobi, Kenya, to determine a plan of action. In the first year, this new centre will focus on gathering music information from four countries—South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal—and, if it is logistically feasible, one additional country that has yet to be determined. Material from other countries will be added in subsequent years. Music Information Centre Africa will mostly be an online portal, in both English and French, consisting of centre-generated content, third-party content, and moderated user-generated content. It offers a cutting-edge solution for a part of the world where civilizations began even earlier than in Greece but which has unjustly lagged behind just about everywhere else in our own lifetimes in terms of just about every amenity including technological development; musicinafrica.net will be specifically optimized for mobile platforms since smartphones are spreading in this part of the world much faster than personal computers ever did.
Here in Greece I’ve had much better luck getting my laptop to connect to the internet than getting any signal out of my smartphone, but of course I’m dealing with an American carrier. Everywhere in the world is different and one solution will not work for everybody, nor should it. But new things—ideas, organizations, technologies—need to work cooperatively and serve to enhance or compliment older things rather than replace them. I can’t think of more appropriate places to be thinking along these lines than Athens, where buildings from earlier millennia coexist with subways and skyscrapers, or Aegina, where traditional songs and dances are still appreciated by the young and old alike.