With massive developments in migration, travel, and technology over the past fifty years, musical diversity has simultaneously flourished and come under threat. Almost anywhere in the world, music from many backgrounds is accessible live in concert or in community settings, through radio and television, on CDs and cassettes, by downloads and streaming.
At the same time, many music genres are in danger of disappearing. This is happening well beyond the dynamics of musical styles and genres emerging and declining ‘organically’ as a result of changing tastes or circumstances.
In terms of the discourse on sustainability across disciplines, we can say that the ecosystem of many music genres has changed drastically, particularly since the middle of the 20th century. And just like in nature, we see that some organisms (and music genres) adapt quickly and thrive, while others struggle to maintain the conditions crucial for their survival.
Recognising a wide-scale threat to cultural expressions across many countries and regions of the world, UNESCO has initiated a range of policies and activities to safeguard cultural heritage.
The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001) emphasises the value of protecting minority cultures, and the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003) signals cultural heritage in need of urgent support. The Convention urges the development of programs, projects and activities that aid this goal.
Specifically for music, the International Music Council report on The Protection and Promotion of Musical Diversity (2005) outlines the host of challenges that face small music cultures in the current environment. Across more than twenty nations and regions, it describes the then-current situation and possible pathways for action.
Music Genres in Danger
In our fast-changing global environment, the decline or disappearance of music cultures is concerning. Particularly in the case of oral traditions, a one-generation gap can cause a wealth of musical material and knowledge to get lost, which can only be partially retrieved for future generations through recordings and archives.
There are many reasons for the decline of music genres. These include power imbalances, technological developments, infrastructural challenges, socioeconomic change, failing educational systems, adverse policies, and loss of prestige.
In some cases the threat to a music culture has no direct relation to music, but can be fatal nonetheless: war ravages music practices as well as the lives of people; diseases (like AIDS or ebola) can wipe out a community of musicians; earth quakes or rising sea levels can force people to disperse or relocate.
What Can Be Done?
Now that the threat to music (and other expressions of culture) is widely recognised, many initiatives support specific music cultures, from one-off festivals to education projects running for a number of years. These initiatives can be very positive for the cultures in question, but they are often only of a limited scope and over a limited period of time.
Another way to counteract decline in musical diversity is to document traditions in danger of disappearing. Documentation is stored in various formats and locations, from local repositories to large international centres. In this way, the sound of many traditions is preserved. This allows future generations to reconstruct (at least to some extent) music genres that have disappeared.
These efforts are valuable, but they do not always directly support the survival of music genres as part of an unbroken, living tradition. Many will argue this is a key condition for keeping the essence of a genre. A fruitful way to approach this is to regard every music culture as an ecosystem, with many forces influencing its vibrancy.