Last week I published the first part of an overview of the music label Putumayo, one of the most successful independent World music labels. In the course of writing the article I was impressed by a couple of things I noticed distinguished them from a lot of the other companies out there working the market.
Most noticeable was how their definition of world music differs from other companies. It does not limit itself to what is the ethnic flavor of the week is. Certainly they are not stupid business people and if they notice an upswing in interest in Afro/Latin music they might produce discs in that genre, but they will not limit themselves to one brand.
When they say world they don't just mean the developing world, they mean different and interesting music that is culturally distinct no matter what country it comes from. One Putumayo disc could be the music of the Mississippi Delta; another might be the sounds of the cafes in Paris, or the latest innovations to the Samba in Brazil.
Instead of turning the music into anthropological studies by only using the oldest traditional music to satisfy ethno-purists, they provide a mix of both the contemporary sounds and the traditional. Ignoring what today's generation of musicians are doing with the music of their country and only focusing on the past would be like creating a disc of Afro-American music that is solely field songs while ignoring ragtime, jazz, gospel, the blues, hip-hop, and all other contemporary extrapolations from the original genre.
To my mind the former attitude perpetuates the "aren't the natives colourful" attitude that so epitomizes cultural imperialism. It's that type of attitude that breeds superiority and a belief that we somehow are more sophisticated than they are. By recognizing the fact that culture evolves over time, and reflecting it in their selection of music, Putumayo is giving a far more accurate portrayal of the people and the land that the music represents then many other labels.
There has been a disturbing trend in recent years for some distributors and producers of world music to attribute qualities to the music such as healing powers that simply don't exist. Predominately this type of attitude is taken by the New Age end of the market which will do almost anything to improve sales.
Putumayo may share that segment of the market with other labels, but they don't share the attitude. Instead of liner notes offering mumbo jumbo along the lines of "let the dulcet sounds of so and so's pan flutes carry your spirit to new heights", they have information on the artist, the country, and some history of the type of music you'll be listening to.
Each artist bio or description not only describes the music they play but explains how they have taken an original form and updated or modified it to suit the needs of their audience. From a Samba band in New York City whose sound is a combination of Samba and house music to a big band Samba orchestra in Brazil you will understand a little bit more about the band from the notes; at least enough to understand what to expect and to appreciate the band's objective in their music.
Putumayo's founder and President Dan Storper plays an active role in selecting what music to produce and which performers to utilize for each of the companies releases. He works with ethnomusicologist Jacob Edgar, who is Vice President of A&R at Putumayo, to find the bands most indicative of either a style of music or a countries particular sound.
Initially the company attempted to record individual artists, but found what they were attempting to do, give people as broad a picture as possible of a given type of music, wasn't being served by utilizing only one person's interpretations. A variety of performers allowed the company to do a better job of providing the overview they desired.
While I have always appreciated the music of many different countries around the world, I have mistrusted many of the companies producing world music. In far too many instances these companies seem to take from the countries whose music they are selling without giving anything back. This has been taken to the extent some of them only use music from back catalogues, royalty free.
To me so much of this business has the feel of cultural imperialism. Instead of stealing the natural resources of a country, foreign nationals are stealing cultural resource and making money off the work of others.
When you do a search for Putumayo online you don't find much more than sites selling their materials, reviews of various discs, and the occasional diatribe against them that's not substantiated by anything as inconvenient as factual evidence. I had been informed by my contact at Putumayo that Dan Storper is always willing to take emailed questions about the company, so I compiled a short list of questions that dealt with some of the issues that lie like a black cloud over the business of World music.
So here are my questions and Mr. Storper's answers completely unedited. I was impressed with his wiliness to address some of these issues, where others might have even refused to respond to them and his honesty about the intentions of the label. He didn't try to hide behind any great noble purpose and that in itself gave his responses much more integrity.
I haven't heard many of your discs, so this may be a false impression, but it was also fostered by your catalogue descriptions, but you seem to go for a more contemporary sound, rather than the more traditional music. In the Dance Party series you have bands that incorporate hip-hop, funk, and elements of electronic music into their native sounds for example. Is this an accurate assessment, and if so why does this focus exist?
Actually, we try to identify songs that are melodic and, for the most part, upbeat. Some of our CDs are more traditional, some more contemporary (the Groove and Lounge series particularly) but ultimately we seek songs that have good melodies, are usually up-tempo and, as we say, we would like to think will make the listener feel good.
Are artists recorded specifically for your releases, or do you compile the tracks from existing catalogues? How does the latter process work in terms of right and royalties if it is utilized?
We usually compile the songs from existing releases we discover in our travels around the world, through CDs mailed to us, attending conferences and festivals, meeting artists and record labels, etc. Tracks are licensed from record labels or artists to appear on our compilations.
There have been accusations of Cultural Imperialism or exploitation, laid against World Music labels in the past because they take from the local music industry without giving anything back in terms of development of a self-sufficient music industry in those areas. I know Putumayo donates proceeds from each release to charities from the regions represented on a particular disc, but what about the local music industry? What sort of assistance do you see your label giving them?
Putumayo’s focus is identifying great songs and artists who deserve more exposure. Regional labels and artists earn money that helps them develop their careers and businesses further. Many are discovered by booking agents, managers and other record labels and have greater earning potential after appearing on our CDs. Finally, we try to support the communities where the music comes from by giving a portion of the proceeds from most collections to non-profits working in regions where the music comes from (typically about $5,000-$20,000 per album although much more in a few cases).
There are quite a number of "World" labels out there now, Rough Guides etc. What do you think distinguishes your label from the others?
Hopefully, people have grown to trust Putumayo World Music for consistent quality, extensive cultural liner notes, and attractive packages. I think we strive to provide music, culture, and travel experience.
Do you sell your discs in the countries the music comes from? Why? Why Not?
In most cases, yes we do. In some cases, such as in Cuba, there are challenges. Sometimes the CDs are well-received in the countries where the music comes from. Sometimes they’re greatly appreciated in those countries and, in some cases, because we’re not usually picking the happening pop music of the moment or the most rootsy indigenous music, some people see us as outsiders picking music for outsiders. In general, though, the response in the countries where the music comes from has been overwhelmingly positive.
Do you worry that your non-traditional marketing approach-retail outlets, boutiques, and health food stores- might create the impression that world music and your label are only for a particular type of person? Doesn't this approach also run the risk of eventually satiating a finite market, thus causing sales to stagnate?
I don’t worry about that at all. The more people that discover world music through Putumayo in whatever way possible, from a non-traditional retailer, on the radio, by going to a festival, listening to the Putumayo World Music Hour radio show, or any other way can only help to build the interest in and audience for world music long term.
Unlike other 'World" labels, the music represented by Putumayo is actually from all parts of the world, North America and non-ethnic Europe included. (not just gypsies and other cultural flavours of the month) Was this your intended goal from the start, to be all encompassing, or was it more of a realization that World meant more than exotic locals?
The idea is to find music from all parts of the world that includes our popular American blues series, Zydeco and New Orleans jazz, etc. It’s not just about “world music” but music that’s well rooted in traditional but appeals to people with contemporary tastes.
I just want to thank Dan Storper for taking time out of his day to answer these questions. I tried not to word them in the form of an attack on him or his company, but to give him an opportunity to address those issues. Still I admire him for being willing to talk about them to any extent at all.
I have a confession to make. I'm one of those people who lumped Putumayo in as one of the bad guys of World music. Based on no evidence save for where I would see their music displayed for sale, I had dismissed them as just another lets cash in on the ethnic music craze company. But the more I researched them, and listened to their music the more I changed my opinion.
The fact they are celebrating their 15th anniversary this year tells you right there they are not in it for a quick buck. What company that's only in it for the money is going to give at least $5,000.00 in profit as a donation back into the community where the music comes from? No matter how successful a label is, that still adds up to a fair chunk of change for an independent label to be handing out.
They may not have the overhead of the major record labels, but they still have to pay for the music used, re-mastering and recording, promotion and packaging, and distribution. None of those things come cheap and very few of the other world labels work in the same manner, (some with even less integrity about paying performers involved through licensing fees), and have even more resources than Putumayo, do the same thing.
Neither is Mr. Stroper talking through his hat when he says that performers have received distribution deals through their appearances on his label. More than just one or two of them have been signed to record contracts here in North America after they had been heard as part of one of Putumayo's compilations.
There were two things in particular Mr. Stroper said that I found impressive, and both had to do with the intent of the label. In his last answer to my questions he said, "It's not just about world music, but music that's well rooted in traditional but appeals to people with contemporary tastes."
He doesn't look on other people's music as a museum piece needing to be preserved under glass, but a living, thriving subject. Listening to the music on his company's CDs only emphasizes that point.
While they honour the traditions that created the music they are also aware the people making and listening to music have equally wide and diverse tastes. In order to create an interest in another culture's music you need to find the means to make it familiar to as many of your potential listeners as possible.
An overview of a musical genre should be able to give the listener an idea of all the music can potentially offer. Not only does Putumayo do that with their overview discs, they also have created specialty discs, to emphasize a specific type of music from a region. The Groove, Party, and Lounge series each explore different facets of what various people's music has to offer.
Some ethno purists might have taken offence to his statement that "we try to identify songs that are melodic and, for the most part, upbeat… ultimately we seek songs that have good melodies, are usually up-tempo and, as we say, we would like to think will make the listener feel good". What's wrong with that as intent? Music is supposed to enliven us, and it doesn't always have to be a downer to be good.
There is more genuine passion in one Afro-Cuban dance song than 90% of the so-called serious emotional songs I've heard on the radio. Considering the state of the world these days, what's the harm in wanting to bring a little enjoyment into people's lives, no matter what form it comes in. The fact that the music is expertly performed and played with exuberance is hardly ever matched by our pop music machinery is something we should be thanking Putumayo for, and not taking shots at them about.
Not all the music they produce is going to appeal to everyone, I much prefer a more traditional sound in all my music, and so the contemporary pieces aren't my cup of tea. But to deny they exist because they are not traditional does a disservice to the people of the country the music is supposed to represent.
The Putumayo label distributes the music of living, breathing people, not museum exhibits. From Katmandu to Kansas City they search for what they consider to be music that is both representative and appealing for genres ranging from African dance music to American folk music. They are doing a remarkable job of introducing the music of various part of the world to the various parts of the world.
I may not rush out and buy all of their discs, but if there is a specific type of music I want to learn more about, I'll now check their catalogue first.