Are you reading this at the Larmer Tree festival, in a tent in Dorset? Or at the Mostar World Music Festival in Bosnia, the Telemark International Folk Music Festival, or the Kaustinen Folk Festival in Finland? Perhaps you can’t wait for next weekend’s Calgary Folk Fest, or Dranouter in Belgium, or the Festival Interceltique de Lorient in Brittany. Perhaps you’re just back from the Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia.

The summer festival is essential for lovers of world music. It is not yet easy to find online, and increasingly hard to find on the radio. Charlie Gillett, in the notes to Otro Mundo, the new instalment of his annual world round-up, asks why songs “as great as music has ever been” never receive “mainstream airplay on broad-minded radio stations …It is a scandal that all these artists are so completely and utterly sidelined by people who should know better.” But a festival offers a chance to taste 30 or 40 unknown acts over the course of a long weekend.

Yet festivals have a delicate ecology. Each one is the sum of a series of individual decisions taken by a horde of people. Organisers and promoters have to decide that the paperwork is worthwhile. Mention visas to any world music promoter and you’ll see them wince – everyone has a horror story to tell of visas arriving late or not at all, tours delayed, concerts cancelled. If you really are reading this at Larmer Tree, last night you didn’t see Shantel and the Bucovina Club Orkestar. The Balkan gypsy collective failed to get visas for its Serbian members, and in high dudgeon called off its entire tour.

The real problem for promoters in years to come will be finding the big-name acts to anchor their festivals, now that record companies are increasingly reluctant to invest in them because of declining record sales. The power players of the genre (although world music is a marketing concept, not a genre proper), such as Amadou and Mariam, can sell half a million CDs (worldwide), but other even relatively popular groups struggle to beat 100,000, a figure that hardly covers recording costs. Major labels that would sustain a world music career for the sake of prestige or vanity (much as they might have supported a legendary jazz artist) can no longer afford that luxury.

Tyler Cowen, the economist, advises readers to “snap up foreign fiction translated into English, if only because the selection pressures are so severe”: in order for a publisher to think a work of fiction worth the risk of translating and promoting to a foreign audience, its quality has on average to be higher than the average for homegrown work.

It used to operate the same way for music as well: the hurdles to getting music from Africa or South America or Asia released and promoted in the west were so high that only the better stuff got through, and the average world music release was better than the average pop album. As the record industry has broken down, so has that equation. Cheaper recording technology offers new opportunities, of course: Invisible System and Dub Colossus would have found it hard to record in Addis Ababa without it. But the next generation of headliners – the Rokia Traorés, the Oumou Sangarés, the Youssou N’Dours – will have to find new routes to market.

Bands have to decide that a summer spent touring from festival to festival is worthwhile for them, and the economics are still in many cases marginal. World music acts tend to be overstaffed by western standards: the African equivalent of a power trio in a transit van is a veritable orchestra of percussionists, extra guitarists and dancers.

On the demand side, each festival depends on 10,000 or so deciding that they want to turn up. They have to convince themselves that the weather will be Goldilocks-perfect. And they must wrestle with environmental and cultural puritanism even from the people who should form the music’s core constituency. There are mutterings about the carbon footprint of big festivals, the air miles performers rack up. (Womad’s Paula Henderson floats the idea that this year, her audiences will be using next weekend as an alternative to a holiday rather than a supplement, so the net impact will be less.)

In this month’s Resurgence magazine, Mark Kidel, one of the early movers behind Womad, wrings his hands about the way festivals pull music out of its context and reduce its diversity: he describes his brainchild as “a ceremony unwittingly celebrating the death of local cultures and the triumph of multicultural mediocrity”. But, in fact, festivals are less free-floating than normal modes of musical consumption. The rigours of the journey lay the foundations of an altered mindset; music is integrated into the temporary city where everyone eats and sleeps. Even mixed up with commerce and inauthenticity and heavy showers, the “ecstatic possibility”, as the American commentator Barbara Ehrenreich memorably called it, of “collective joy” lives on.

David Honigmann is the FT’s world music critic.
Peter Aspden is away

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