Phil Stanton, who founded the record label Riverboat Records and music portal World Music Network has passed away at the age of 54, after a long battle with cancer. From the very beginning he was a great enthusiast for the world, its ecology and its music
When he left school, Stanton taught for a while in Kenya where he developed a love of African music. He then returned for further education in the UK. “At college I heard about a record company called Triple Earth,” he told me in 1999. “I asked if they had a job going, but Iain Scott, the label’s director, said he couldn’t yet support himself let alone anyone else.” Stanton went back to Africa to work in Sudan, but subsequently got work from Iain Scott on the 1986 Caribbean Music Village festival and at Sterns African Record Shop.
World Music Network is best-known for the Rough Guide series of CDs which now runs to nearly 400 titles. Having started Riverboat Records in 1989, by some serendipitous fortune he came up with idea of starting a compilation label exactly when the first edition of the Rough Guide to World Music came out in 1994 (I was one of the editors). The Rough Guide to World Music CD was the first release.
Stanton was lucky to be able to ride the crest of the world music wave for many years. The Rough Guide compilations started off with predictably popular titles, Cuba, Brazil and Flamenco, which at that time could sell around 35,000 copies each. For many years they were the most accessible and most reliable way to explore an unfamiliar musical culture. Thanks to Stanton’s curiosity and willingness to take risks, they soon became more adventurous to include Indonesia, Iran, Afghanistan and more giving curious listeners the chance to encounter music it was hard to hear any other way. Certainly the Rough Guide CDs, like the books from which they borrowed the name, were a bench-mark for investigating a particular musical territory or genre. “They’re aimed at first-time listeners and the idea is to give a good impression of what the music is about, including plenty of traditional material to show where the music has come from,” Stanton said. “And we always point out the source albums in the booklet so that people can find a way forward.”
There’s a personal anecdote here. David Harrington of Kronos Quartet got hold of the Rough Guide to the Music of Iran (which I compiled) as soon as it appeared in 2006. He fell in love with ‘Jahlé’, a lullaby track from Bandar Abbas which had been recorded by BBC Radio for World Routes. Kronos commissioned an arrangement which appeared on their Floodplain album (2009) and was played in concerts round the world. All thanks to the Rough Guide CD.
Compilation albums eventually became commonplace and nowadays almost anything is findable online, but during the 1990s and 2000s the Rough Guide CDs were leaders in their field, intelligently-curated and classily-produced with well-written notes, usually well-ahead of their short-lived competitors.
Stanton’s sister label Riverboat is dedicated to artists rather than compilations and Stanton was generous in giving this platform to emerging names. Riverboat won the prestigious WOMEX Label Award in 2013. World Music Network’s Battle of the Bands competition brought brand new artists to the label, including the Krar Collective, Monoswezi, Simo Lagnawi and Don Kipper. Artists like Debashish Bhattacharya, Etran Finatawa and Samba Touré are just a few of the high-profile names with several releases on Riverboat. Just last summer Debashish’s daughter Anandi was a much-acclaimed new signing on the label.
Always aware of the shifting market, World Music Network moved away from plastic jewel cases and adopted eco-friendly cardboard packaging instead. Speaking to Stanton around five years ago, he saw how the market was changing as audiences turned to streaming and downloads, so they started focussing more on Riverboat’s artist-led releases.
Some of the Rough Guide titles became kind of formulaic - Arabic Café and Brazilian Café, Psychedelic Cumbia and Psychedelic Samba, although these too have brought up hidden gems. 'Wal Sant'ana's 'Que Vide é Essa' is so effortlessly sexy, funky and life-affirming that it overshadows everything else,' said the Songlines review of Psychedelic Samba by Brendon Griffin.
In 2017 Stanton himself compiled Riverboat’s Brexit Blues, which was clearly a statement, using Riverboat recordings about Britain’s current mess. Can music help to break down the very borders Brexit seeks to impose? asked the notes. Here’s hoping. It was typical that Phil, upset by Brexit, responded with something inventive and creative like this.
It was always Stanton’s intention that World Music Network would continue with its mission to release great music from around the world after he passed away, and the label is committed to continuing his wonderful legacy. He will be sadly missed by all who knew him.