Interview by Alex Teitz
World music is a broad term that can include eccentric artists in the US to traditional artists in a home country to genre mixing in the world. Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) is a publicity firm based out of Bloomington, Indiana that specializes in world music. Whenever you see a non-mainstream artist on FEMMUSIC from Africa, Asia and elsewhere there’s a good chance we heard about them from RPS. These artists can be striking for us and change the perspective of the listener. Our preview of WOMEX in the October issue is directly a result of RPS.
For the November 2016 issue, we wanted to get a different view of artists in the world and Middle East. Meet Tristra Newyear Yeager. FEMMUSIC is honored to have her in this issue. For info visit http://www.rockpaperscissors.biz/
FEMMUSIC: What is Rock Paper Scissors and what is its mission statement?
TY: RPS sprang from our CEO and founder Dmitri Vietze’s love of music and social justice activism. He found working with and promoting artists from other cultures, countries, and musical backgrounds engaged both of those passions. I joined the team more than ten years ago for similar reasons: I wanted to share my love of music with origins outside of my cultural community with others, to let them see the great beauty and appreciate the humanity of people that may appear very different on the surface. Music can help erode long-held assumptions and often hits us where it hurts, in the heart.
FEMMUSIC: How did RPS end up in Bloomington vs NY or LA?
TY: Our CEO had family connections here. There’s also Indiana University, which has a large number international students. Bloomington is a small town, which makes it a nice and relaxed place to live, but has some of the cosmopolitan perks of much larger cities.
FEMMUSIC: How did you come to RPS and what attracted you to it?
TY: I answered an ad in the local paper for a “world music publicist.” I had a background in the world music business, and I applied, though I had never considered publicity PR as a career option. I originally came to Bloomington for graduate school, but needed to get a job while finishing my dissertation. I finally defended and got the PhD (in Siberian history, for what it’s worth), but liked the work at RPS enough to stay on. I love getting to listen to music from all over, talk to people from across the globe and from all walks of life. I learn something every single day, and that’s a huge gift.
FEMMUSIC: How is an artist selected for RPS? What do you look for?
TY: There are two elements in marketing and PR: the music itself, which is the final deciding factor for any potential fan or journalist, and the story that surrounds it. If both are strong, and especially if they buck expectations, that can make for a great PR campaign. I listen for technical accomplishment, production quality, artistic vision, and cultural significance or relevance. Sometimes I love the music and really respect the artist, but I know the journalists we work with regularly may not get what they are doing. Good music is essential, but not the only factor.
FEMMUSIC: In the wake of 9/11 there is a different perception of world music(especially artists from the Middle East) and politics. Do you see that having any effect on RPS and it’s artists? Has it changed anything on how you work in the past 15 years?
TY: There have been some shifts in policies that make it very difficult for artists from Muslim-majority countries to come to the US. The visa process for artists is intense, expensive, and time consuming. Add that to the basic expenses of transporting a group to North America and getting from city to city once here, and you’re looking at a major investment, before a band even plays their first gig. Most world music artists have very limited budgets and often get paid significantly lower fees than rock or other musicians for similar gigs.
There are also positive changes. Many artists from the Arab or Muslim world are energized and want to reach people who may feel anxious or fearful about their cultures. They want to use music as a way to inspire positive connections and shift the conversation. More generally, the walls that used to separate genres and non-English-language music from the mainstream are slowly crumbling. I feel like younger music fans are open to new sounds and to exploring the world. I wish they got more information and exposure to the amazing music being made out there, but hopefully that will come with time, as the new streaming-based paradigm of music discovery comes into its own.
FEMMUISC: RPS does a unique showcase at SXSW. Tell me about the Pakistan showcase. How did it come about & how did you select artists for it?
TY: We worked on producing the showcase with partners in Pakistan, including the US Embassy in Islamabad, which has a really exciting set of initiatives to encourage musicians and musical events. The Pakistani partners chose the artists, which were a mix of pop, rock, and traditional performers. It was such a thrill to see festival goers getting down to qawwali music, or to devotional folk songs from Sindh. I really loved working with these artists and programmers; they are amazing, generous, warm people.
FEMMUSIC: What is the biggest challenge working at RPS?
TY: Publicity is a peculiar game. You can work really hard at something, and not end up with results that reflect that incredibly investment. Sometimes, on the contrary, a project clicks and coverage seems to build on its own, with you simply arranging the details. That said, I often feel frustrated, as do many music journalists and fans for that matter, that there seems to be so little interest in covering complex, nuanced, or lesser-known music. People in the media are under tremendous pressure to produce rapidly, or to attract a gazillion eyeballs. Yet you’ll never learn how awesome Sudanese hip hop or Bengali jazz can be unless someone tips you off to it, and that will never lead to massive numbers of impressions or clicks. We need some other metrics and we need dedicated gatekeepers, friendly and thoughtful ones, pro and amateur, to spread the word and keep the conversation lively. Otherwise, it feels like one long Drake and Taytay fest, you know?
FEMMUSIC: What experience(s) have stood out for you since you’ve worked at RPS?
TY: There are so many! The first time I heard a story I pitched on NPR. I love getting to hear artists’ early mixes and watch an album take shape. I have had seriously moving interviews with artists for press releases, when I found myself weeping or laughing so hard my belly ached. I have made true friends thanks to my work and learned more about places like Algeria, Pakistan, and Colombia than I ever imagined. My life is infinitely richer for the people I’ve met and their work.
FEMMUSIC: What one thing would you like to change about the music industry?
TY: I am really looking forward to a unified, reasonably transparent and just system of royalties/payments for creators and artists. The fractured and confusing legacy of the pre-digital industry hamstringing independent musicians and smaller labels, the exact people who are doing some of the most creative work out there. There are lots of proposals (block chain, for example, and global databases of various kinds) but artists and those who love them need to push hard for solutions that will actually take their careers into account and thus benefit them. Collective action is key, I think.