WOMEX: Mecca of Contemporary World Music and Networking Hotspot


WOMEX: Mecca of Contemporary World Music and Networking Hotspot
[People] Alexander Walter, Director of the World Music Expo (WOMEX)

Last year the World Music Expo (WOMEX) celebrated its 20th anniversary in the city of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, the final destination of one of the classic Catholic pilgrimage routes. This year’s event was held in the beautiful Hungarian capital of Budapest, said to have one of Europe’s best nighttime skylines, over five days from October 21 to 25. The expo’s 21st iteration was the first WOMEX held in Eastern Europe, though the event was not without its challenges: Protests against the Hungarian government’s refusal to accept Syrian refugees persuaded many attendees to reconsider their participation. Despite the stress leading up to the event, WOMEX’s young director Alexander Walter found time to visit the Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS), thanks to the support of his organizational team. Walter started the interview by complimenting them for their unfailing assistance, a group he cites as the driving force behind WOMEX.

Q. Min Kim: You became the director of WOMEX at a relatively young age. Would you tell us about your personal journey and how it led you to WOMEX?

Alex Walter : I was born in Ulm, in southern Germany, and lived in Stuttgart before settling down in Berlin, where I’ve lived for the past 10 years. In university, I majored in social science, and was permitted to study in Madrid, Spain, as an exchange student. In 2004, I started interning for the Heimatklänge Festival, which was organized by the WOMEX conference and (its affiliated organization) Piranha Arts. Under WOMEX, I served as the content and program manager and the music program director, which allowed me to survey the event’s overall structure and gain a variety of work experience. Teamwork is the most important factor when preparing for a WOMEX event, and the roles of the interns and support staff are also extremely important. I try to continually educate and train the support staff and give them a range of work experience.     

Q. What was your first experience in organizing concerts?

Alex : When I was around 15 or 16, I was in a band. We were always looking for gigs, but opportunities were rare back then so we started organizing and planning our own concerts.

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WOMEX director Alexander Walter ©Kanghyuk Lee

Q. Would you care to explain how Piranha Arts is organized?

Alex : Piranha Arts was founded in 1987 and comprises Piranha Records and Publishing, which is responsible for discovering and promoting new artists; Piranha Kultur, which organizes festivals and oversees management; and WOMEX and Classical:NEXT, which are networking platforms for music-industry affiliates and professionals. There’s also Piranha Consult, our consulting branch that oversees special projects and works in conjunction with Porto Musical in Recife, Brazil; the Atlantic Music Expo in Cape Verde; Sound of the Xity in Beijing; Circulart in Colombia; and Primera Linea in Havana, Cuba. Last but not least is Piranha Research, which heads a variety of publicly funded research programs, making a total of six components. Our research team mainly focuses on analyzing shifting trends in the literature and music industries and searches for ways to create better working environments for artists and indie music organizers. Their findings form the base of WOMEX, as well as Piranha’s organizational and consulting approach.       

Q. WOMEX started in Europe and currently tours various European countries. Is this foundation going to change anytime soon? How do you select which cities to visit?

Alex : WOMEX is undoubtedly based in Europe, and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon since a significant portion of WOMEX participants are based in or operate out of Europe. Potential host cities1) send their proposals and are nominated through a bidding process. Host cities are responsible for handling local productions, managing the budget, and cooperating with regional government agencies.

1) Santiago de Compostela will host WOMEX once again in 2016. The host city for 2017 has not yet been announced, and the selection process for 2018 through 2020 is underway.

Q. What sort of benefits does a host city receive from WOMEX organizers?

Alex : That’s a good question. First off, I’d like to clarify that WOMEX doesn’t just tour various cities and hold festivals. It’s important to remember that every host city gains valuable expertise while preparing for WOMEX that remains after the event, and this knowledge serves as fuel for future growth and opportunities. When Copenhagen hosted WOMEX from 2009 to 2011, the city organized an additional programmed called the Nordic Club Stage, which provided an in-depth look at the culture and artistic merit of Scandinavian nations (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland), and enjoyed great success. In 2012, the Greek city of Thessaloniki introduced music from Greece and the Balkan Peninsula through the Club Globalkan Stage, while Cardiff in Wales promoted music from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland through the Horizons Stage in 2013. Last year, the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela spotlighted artists from all throughout Spain and South America on the Atlantic Connections Stage. This year, Budapest introduced Club Duna,2)  which highlighted artists from nine different Eastern European countries, including Hungary and Poland, and even Bosnia and Herzegovina.

These platforms help promulgate the artists and music-industry affiliates of host cities and their surrounding regions, facilitate commercial and culture exchange, and help consolidate more solid communities. They also greatly contribute to establishing and advancing relations between respective regions and overseas partners.

The showcase stages of a region’s artists not only exhibit the artistic merit of their culture and music to international personnel but also help attract local audiences as well. This helps expand each region’s conception of world music, cultivates future opportunities for more concert events, and develops business networks. For instance, Creu Cymru, a local partner of WOMEX 2013, organized a post-WOMEX tour with Welsh and overseas artists. A good example of a solid and locally based network is Sounds from Spain, which started in Seville and has evolved into its own brand.3)

2) Duna is the Hungarian word for the Danube River, which flows through Budapest.
3) Walter used the term "legacy," emphasizing that such platforms aren’t just singular events but self-propelled brands that continue evolving.

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The Baraji showcase from WOMEX 15 ©Jacob Crawfurd The poster for WOMEX 15 ©WOMEX

Q. There were some unexpected pitfalls in this year’s event, such as a number of participants boycotting the event out of protest against the Hungarian government’s refusal to accept Syrian refugees. But thanks to those who supported and attended the event, everything turned out okay. What was that process like from behind the scenes?

Alex : Communication is very important in situations like that. If platform participants express any concerns (about a particular situation), we have to take them very seriously. Regarding the recent events, WOMEX announced that it would not tolerate any racist or intolerant behavior and that everyone would work to achieve our goal of transcending national and cultural boundaries to promote an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. We made this announcement as a joint statement with our local partner, Hangvető. Other than being the first WOMEX platform to be organized in Eastern Europe, this year’s event in Budapest spotlighted one of the region’s leading cities for music. WOMEX exerts a beneficial influence, as it helps to deter physical, cultural, political, and even commercial boundaries and barriers, and this year’s attendance expanded to include over 50 nations. Once again, WOMEX has demonstrated the importance of cultural diversity.

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WOMEX website ©WOMEX

Virtual WOMEX website ©WOMEX

Q. WOMEX strives to embrace all cultural, religious, and political backgrounds while facilitating communication and harmony among members of the world music community. What do you think of artists expressing their political views?

Alex : American musician Frank Zappa once asked, "Does humor belong in music?" And he clearly indicated that he thought "Yes." If you asked me if politics belongs in music, my answer would be the same. But WOMEX is not a political organization and does not sponsor any political activity. It is a platform for the world’s musicians and industry professionals to connect through their art and launch new projects.

Q. WOMEX in 2016 will be held in Santiago de Compostela once again. We’re looking forward to more from WOMEX, which has already seen 20 years of success.

Alex : WOMEX is always a work in progress. The essence of WOMEX is the world music community itself. Every year, we conduct evaluations to organize various conferences, showcases, and film screenings. The panels of judges are also members of the world music community, and WOMEX participants naturally expect an exceptional program from each event. We hope to expand networking opportunities, hold discussions on recent and heated issues, and, in turn, facilitate the sharing of information and knowledge. To bridge differing cultures and develop into a prime market, WOMEX needs to adapt to changing times while approaching the music industry with dedication and and an open mind.

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WOMEX 15 ©Jacob Crawfurd

The conferences and showcases of this year’s WOMEX represented the greatest number of cultural spheres in the platform’s history. Given that the event was the first platform hosted in Eastern Europe, it extended our network to include participants from Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Russia. We also witnessed a definite increase of East Asian participants from Korea, China, and Japan. In recent years, Korea’s world music community has utilized the WOMEX platform to become an active player in the global scene, thanks to support from the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS), and other Asian nations have taken notice. New markets are emerging in both Korea and throughout Asia, with local movements working to promote communication and solidarity.      

My interview with Walter taught me that cross-cultural understanding is crucial if a market is to promote networking and exchange and create business opportunities—whether you’re a WOMEX participant or the organizer of a similar event. He also reminded me of the necessity of establishing and expanding healthy relations between communities, as well as the importance of determination when it comes to setting and achieving goals for a certain event.





Min Kim_CEO of Sonic Islands
Min Kim_CEO of Sonic Islands
Min Kim received an MA in Music Business Management from the University of Westminster in London. As a programmer, she has introduced exceptional overseas world music artists to the Ulsan World Music Festival(Cheoyong Culture Festival) and the Asia Pacific Music Meeting, Korea’s first music market. In addition to having managed overseas artists, Kim has overseen recruitment procedures for key industry professionals from overseas. She is currently the CEO of Sonic Islands, a production and creative agency focusing on facilitating international exchange and promoting Asian artists overseas. She also organizes international tours and performances and does promotional work through various media.