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Putumayo has to be the most instantly recognizable world music label on the market right now

Putumayo And The World

I remember as a kid a big event was going downtown to the main flagship store of Toronto's landmark, Sam The Record Man. Three stories high plus a basement, and who knows how many square feet, all crammed full of more records than you could think possibly existed. They had everything and the people who worked there knew everything there was to know about records.

You have to remember this was in the days before the chain store or the franchise diluted the purchase of a record into a mere financial transaction. It was also the days before the birth of the small independent record stores that started to spring up in the mid seventies to meet the demands of the burgeoning independent scene fuelled by the punks, and then kept alive by the incredibly conservative nature of the major labels.

Record labels sprouted up in the backs of record stores around the world. On a trip to London in 1980 I carried demo tapes for a friend, which ended up in the hands of people running small record stores in Piccadilly with names like Rough Trade and Beggar's Banquet.

But I'm getting ahead of myself; rewind the tape back to Sam's four floors of music. The scrap heap of remaindered bargains in the basement, the maelstrom of madness that was the main floor's popular and classical music sections, the calmness of the second floor's, blues, jazz, and folk sections and the mystery of what exactly it was they sold on the third floor. Record stores were still magical places in those days that fed the imagination and gave you an education in nomenclature.

While I could understand the rationale behind the rock and classical music sections; opera obviously went with orchestral works, and The Beatles belonged in the same section as the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, the folk music section was awfully confusing.

As everyone who was even remotely with it knew, folk music meant people playing guitars and singing songs about important stuff like the war or politics. You know Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Joan Baez. So what were all these groups with the funny names that didn't sing in English doing crammed in side by each with them? What did some half naked smiling woman from Brazil have to do with Simon and Garfunkel? (The folk section was a revelation for an 11 year old boy in more ways then one I'll tell you; my first indication that Europeans and South Americans were a little more liberal then North America in their display of the female form was the covers of record albums on the second floor of Sam's in the folk section.)

This was my first glimmer of understanding what folk music literally meant; it was the music of folk. Whether they are folk from Africa, Jamaica, Germany, The Ukraine, or India it didn't matter. Folk were folk and they all had different types of music representing their different people.

The music was usually either uniformly poorly recorded, with surface noise creating a Phil Spector like wall of sound that made voices toneless and brass strident, or recorded for anthropological reasons by an earnest musicologist who took portable recording equipment with them into the jungles to record the strange music of these distant lands. In those pre World music days few and far between was the performer given anything more than short shrift by the forces in charge of music in the continental America's and other bastions of civilization.

For every Ravi Shankar who experienced some popular success there were hundreds who went unknown and unappreciated by people outside of their own countries. Even worse were the North Americans whose music was considered "ethnic" and didn't fit into any of the easy pigeon holes of pop music. How much zydeco music did you ever hear on the radio prior to the term "World" music being introduced into our lexicon?

It wasn't until 1982 that World even became a designation in music's vocabulary. It was with the formation of the World Of Music, Arts and Dance (W.O.M.A.D.) and their ensuing festivals and recordings that the term began to enter popular music as a means of describing non Western music.

According to the Wikipedia entry on World Music, it was at a 1987 meeting of distributors, producers, and others associated with the genre of music that the term was decided upon. They were desperately looking for a means of distinguishing themselves from the field so that retailers would be more encouraged to both stock and promote their materials and not just dump it into the folk music section.

All it took was a simple show of hands by those attending and the idea was approved. It was supposed to be only a temporary thing, a way to initially publicize a compilation, but it ended up sticking and brought us to the current status of things.

There have been many players in the world music scene, ranging from individual pop musicians who have had a genuine interest in expanding their repertoire and broadening their horizons (Harry Manx, Ry Cooder and Bob Brozman), to whole labels dedicated to the compilation, distribution, and selling of this new brand. Some of them were more genuine in their interest; seeking out, recording, and promoting individual artists as well as investing in the local music industry, while others simply swept down upon the back catalogues of older companies and repackaged royalty free music.

A few have achieved more success than others due to their persistence and ability to find a unique niche in the market place. One of the most successful to date has been the American based company Putumayo. Named for a river in the Colombian interior, Putumayo began life as a gift boutique and clothing store in New York City in 1975. It was chancing upon a performance of the African band Kotoja in 1991 that started founder Dan Stroper on the road to becoming a record producer.

What started out as a desire to have more appropriate music for his clothing store and assembling his own compilation tapes for that purpose, resulted in the formation of Putumayo World Music. Stroper approached Richard Foos who was then president of Rhino Records and worked out an agreement where they would begin collaborating on creating and marketing world music collections. As a result Putumayo's first two CDs were released in April of 1993.

From such humble beginnings an empire was formed. 15 years from the earliest idea and thirteen since the first two releases, Putumayo is probably the most easily recognized World Music label in North America, and has now spread its wings to include Europe and even more impressively South America, Africa, and Asia where the majority of their music still originates.

Part of Putumayo's success can be laid at the feet of their realization to compete in the music industry you have to be visible and recognizable. In most cases they are marketing a style of music and not an individual artist, which makes label identity even more important. There is also the fact that except for the occasional specialty radio show, they will not receive any significant airtime with which to promote their product.

The first thing you need to do in this sort of situation is pick a target audience appropriate to what you're selling. No matter how you slice it Putumayo needed their audience to have money, be educated, and have enough leisure time to be interested in travel so they might have had exposure to other cultures.

Dan Stroper was in the unique position of already knowing the market; he had been catering to them with his clothing and gift stores. Who else is going to shopping for items others would consider exotica, than the exact people he's looking to sell music to. It couldn’t have taken much of a leap for him to realize he needed to sell his brand to the "boutique market".

Since the mid 1970's, when head shops decided they needed to become a little more respectable and broaden their client base by selling more than just rock t-shirts and drug paraphernalia, stores selling handicrafts from different areas of the world have started popping up all over the place. From little hole in the wall joints that were indeed no more than expanded head shops, to higher end establishments that had buyers in countries like Indonesia shipping back goods by the bale.

In the early days of this type of store there existed an economic and cultural exploitation, as individual artists were not being properly compensated for their work. But times changed, artists began forming collectives, storeowners became more socially responsible, and policies of "Fair Trade" were implemented in more and more instances.

As artisans began being paid true value for their work, prices in the stores gradually increased to reflect the dollar amount being paid out for product. Instead of selling to hippies the market place shifted and the purchasing power switched to those who wanted go buy third world art guilt free.

Having entered this market in its infancy, Stroper was intimately familiar with both the clientele and how to best appeal to them. They would want authenticity, but they would also want accessibility. The easiest way to accommodate both those demands was to create compilations that were indicative of either a country or a genre of music.

Putumayo has achieved remarkable success in their fifteen years and has expanded their line up every time they've offered a new release. They sponsored tours of the United States for some of the acts whose music graces their discs as a means of increasing both the label's and the artist's exposure.

Whether its music from their "Groove" series; contemporary dance music form the country of origin, "Lounge" or "Dance Party" mixes, they have sought out the best available music for their audience. They have developed a children's line that introduces a young audience to something other then what they hear on the radio daily.

Of course you can't be successful without people being critical. But if one looks closely it's hard to find Putumayo guilty of anything other than doing a really good job of disseminating the music they produce. Sure most of the music produce is plucked from previously released sources, but tell me another World label that doesn't do the same thing. It is rare indeed when a label will specifically produce an album for an individual group or performer, and even rarer for them to receive the exposure they get from inclusion on a Putumayo collection.

In fact there is less to criticize about this label than others. While most distributors will only focus on developing countries, and call that World music, Putumayo is one of the few that actively search out music from European and North American sources.

They are one of the few who recognize the fact countries produce music beyond the traditional, and have created their different series to capture diversity. It is not unusual for Putumayo to have three or four separate discs from a region, ranging from the contemporary to the traditional sounds of the area.

Each disc also represents an investment back into the country represented musically. Either in the shape of a percentage of the proceeds being designated to a specific charitable organization, or in building a new perception of the people living there. Most of North America can't hear the name Columbia without thinking cocaine. These musical discs and the information in their booklets may not change people's attitudes completely, but they at least present a different perspective of the country in question.

Of all the arts that represent a culture, music seems to be the one able to communicate to the broadest audience. Perhaps, no matter the language, music has the capacity to communicate emotions that is easier to understand than other means of expression. A dance rhythm is a dance rhythm in every culture, and if you can move your feet and butt to it, communication has been successful.

The music Putumayo produces may not always be to everyone's taste, but it would be a poor world if we all only liked the same things. Besides, they produce enough music you're bound to find something pleasing to your pallet.

Putumayo has to be the most instantly recognizable world music label on the market right now and their attempts to bring the music of the world to the world seems to be succeeding. With everyone from Wal-Mart to fair trade boutiques selling their CDs the chances are they will continue to do so for years to come.

This is the first of two a part feature on World Music and specifically the Putumayo label. In the second part I will be interviewing Putumayo's founder Dan Stroper on specifics of how the label operates and give him a chance to respond to some of the criticisms made against the world music genre in general. Look for it in the near future

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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