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A Conversation with Dan Storper of Putumayo

I’ve teased them in the past for their prolific release schedule, but the Putumayo Kids label does some of the most consistently impressive work on the kindie market — in an era when plenty of Americans can’t find New Jersey on a map, let alone Ecuador or Uganda, the Putumayo releases take listeners on effortlessly enjoyable global journeys. And while they’re edifying and entertaining, they’re also contributing to charities like Amnesty International, which is getting 50 cents from the sale of each copy of the latest Putumayo release, Kids World Party .

To celebrate the new album (out June 28) and find out more about the company, we scheduled time for a talk with Putumayo’s founder, Dan Storper. Here’s what we discussed.

I’d like to begin by talking about Putumayo and Putumayo Kids. What’s the company’s mission, especially as it relates to kids’ music?

Well, let me go back a little bit. I started the label as a result of a few happy accidents, one of which was walking into one of our retail stores back in ’91 and hearing some really trashy metal music that I didn’t think was appropriate. That led me to search out international music, and I found all of these great artists I’d never heard of, which I compiled into a tape for our stores. And on the day the tapes arrived, I got multiple calls from managers telling me that customers were flipping out over the music — to the extent that people couldn’t get their jobs done, because they were fielding so many questions about it.

Through a group I was a member of, called the Social Venture Network, I met the owner of Rhino Records, and it struck me that we were looking at an opportunity to create thematic collections of music from around the world. So I proposed the idea to them — we’d collect the songs, they’d do the licensing, manufacturing, and distribution. It started from that, and kind of evolved into something that really led me out of the rat race of the clothing business.

And even as far back as the first compilation we did, I was struck by how many people were enjoying it with their kids. That was when the lightbulb went on in terms of this music’s real universal appeal, and then a teacher came to me in ’98 or so, and told me she’d been using our compilations to teach her students about other cultures, and she was wondering if there was an opportunity to create something targeted toward a younger age group — specifically the 5-8-year-olds. So we started looking around, but not necessarily for music that was recorded for children; actually, I’d say probably half the songs on our kids’ releases weren’t made for kids. They’re just kid-friendly. We discovered that everywhere in the world, there are songs that are fun and upbeat that kids will like, and that was the beginning of our Kids Playground series.

In ’99, we released an album called World Playground, and there was an amazing, instantaneous response to that. Our first release featured a song by Manu Chao called “Bongo Bong,” and it was well-received all over the world, and it was the beginning of our forays into things like the Dreamland series and our Sing Along album. We started a Putumayo Kids division, which enabled us to focus a little more attention on not just the music, but on reaching out to kids’ retailers.

And then, in 2005, I had my own child, which of course deepened my own understanding of the need for multicultural music for kids, and reaffirmed my focus on not only finding great music, but doing things like making sure the liner notes on our compilations are fun and educational. We want parents and grandparents to be able to listen to our music and be able to enjoy it as much as the kids.

Starting a record label has never been an especially wise move from a business standpoint, and today that’s truer than ever, but Putumayo seems to be flourishing. What do you think are some of the main ingredients of that success?

Well, it’s a couple of things. This is definitely a tougher era for the music business, and you can’t escape things like record stores shutting down, or the way the economy has affected sales in the overall retail environment. We’ve been somewhat insulated — but not entirely — by our focus on non-traditional sales outlets like gift stores, museum shops, and children’s stores. We’ve cultivated relationships with close to a thousand shops — and specialty shops for the most part, not massive chains. We go out of our way to make sure each store has a copy of each CD to play, which is probably one of our biggest expenses, but it’s one that pays off, because people can hear the music. We try and keep our prices down to an affordable level, and again, we put a lot of extra effort into our packaging and liner notes. I think all of those things have helped us.

But I understand the issues that have plagued the industry, and we aren’t immune to them. We’ve discussed doing some digital releases at some point — when you look at the iTunes numbers, you realize you can’ t ignore that world. But ultimately, I think parents and grandparents simply understand the value of a kid putting a CD into the player at home or in the car, and listening to music the whole family can enjoy. I think that’s the biggest thing we offer, is that we can provide music a parent can listen to over and over again without finding it annoying — and learn about other cultures in the process.

In my reviews of your compilations, I always joke about how many there are, and say you’ll eventually either run out of ideas or start picking ridiculously specific ones like Putumayo Tuesday Morning Breakfast Party. How do you choose your themes for these albums?

Well, I’ve always been somewhat instinctual in that area. We definitely talk about themes, and it’s a process. You can have a great collection of songs, but sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn’t. I think as a company, we’ve released something like 170 compilations, so this is a question I get a lot, even from friends. But the funny thing is, it always seems like there are more compilations waiting to be made than we have time to release. There was a period where we were releasing as many as 15 or 16 a year, and that felt a little crazy, because we weren’t allowing ourselves enough time to focus.

On the kids’ side, we’ve never done more than two or three a year, and when you’re doing that many, it gives you a lot more flexibility. We’ve talked about this a little recently — for instance, we’ve done one kids’ Latin collection, and we’ve probably done 20 of them on the adult side. We’ve done a French collection for kids, a Brazilian collection…and we had done one overall world collection, so we decided to make another one. For whatever reason, it’s sort of a curse to put the number two at the end of a title, so we just changed the title completely, and that was the genesis of Kids World Party.

How often do you get new music from an artist instead of licensing a previously released recording?

In the beginning, they were all licensed. On occasion, if I didn’t like the way a recording sounded, we’d try and do a remix or get the artist in the studio to re-record something, and over time, those efforts started accelerating. We did a Christmas album and asked a couple of artists to record new songs, because we weren’t finding enough recordings we really loved to round out the record. And then last year, we did an album called Tribute to a Reggae Legend, where we asked artists to record new versions of Bob Marley classics. It’s happened a number of times over the last several years, and as we do more and more of these, we realize it’s a way to create something special. Over the last few releases, I’d say two out of every 12 or so tracks were recorded especially for that compilation.

And then additionally, there are songs that have never been released in the United States — at least half of the songs on our collections were never available here.

Often, store- or label-curated compilations are just obvious retail fodder, whether you’re talking about random brunch music on a Starbucks CD or any of the countless discs you see on those Target endcap displays with the keypad buttons. But the Putumayo releases are obviously curated — they’re smartly sequenced, and they’re very user-friendly. They don’t sound like anthropology lessons.

I think that comes from a couple of things. First of all, we go through a long research process that some people find fairly taxing. Jessica, our dedicated kids’ music researcher, gets frustrated because she’ll love a song, and we’ll put it through the process where we play it for our separate offices — it’s often like running a gauntlet, and sometimes the music just doesn’t make it to the end. You know, we play the songs for young kids — including my son, who’s six, and his cousin, who’s seven. Over the last couple of years, they’ve made a great testing ground. On Kids World Party, we include Solanna’s “Oompa Loompa,” and as I was working on the album over the last year or so, my son’s eyes would light up every time that song came on. Then I’d play it for the staff in New York, and 90 percent of them would start smiling and bopping along.

You get songs like that, and some that just fall flat, and sometimes for no apparent reason. I try and trust my own instincts, and remember that I want songs I can listen to repeatedly without getting tired of them, because these are for somewhat captive audiences — parents, people who work in stores. And even then, you know, I can listen to a song 40, 50, or 100 times and finally get it onto the playlist, and still realize it doesn’t quite work. And even if it does, that isn’t even the end of it — we still have to license the music, and we don’t always get all the songs we want. Then we have to sequence it, and that’s something I really spend a lot of time on. Sometimes a song is too long for a young audience, so we need to get the artist’s approval to edit it. We have to check the lyrics.

So, you know, it’s a process. And at the end of the day, sometimes we feel like we’re lucky to get two or three of these out a year.

Well, the effort shows. These are really fun, family-friendly gateways into world music, and we don’t have enough of those.

My dad was very involved in a couple of movements that tried to promote equality and understanding between people of different ethnic backgrounds, and I learned a lot from that. So the ability to use music as a way of introducing kids to other cultures, to ensure they’re open to — and, in fact, embrace — other people that may be different, that’s a big part of why we’re doing this in the first place.

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