Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 16 News List

World music beating the trend

With innovativemusic and marketingPutamayo World Music has managed to turnprofits in an industryon the verge of collapse

By Tanya Mohn  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

The music industry may be struggling, but Putumayo World Music has barely noticed. Dan Storper, 52, Putumayo's founder, predicts that sales for the year will approach US$13 million, up almost 20 percent from last year.

PHOTO: NYT

The music industry may be struggling, but Putumayo World Music has barely noticed. "The down times have been our best years," said Dan Storper, 52, Putumayo's founder. He predicts that sales for the year will approach US$13 million, up almost 20 percent from last year.

That is pretty good in an industry besieged by file sharing and CD copying, and suffering from big declines in both sales and the number of music stores. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, shipments of music products declined more than 15 percent in the first half of 2003 from the period a year earlier, after drops of more than 10 percent in both 2001 and 2002.

Putumayo has been successful in part because it homed in on a niche market, in this case a growing taste for world music, defined by Storper as international music with tribal origins. The label's melodic and upbeat compilations range from Arabic Groove, contemporary music from North Africa and the Middle East, to Brasileiro, featuring samba and bossa nova, to Celtic Tides, with old and new songs by artists from Ireland, Scotland and Cape Breton in Canada.

Other labels distribute similar fare. But what sets Putumayo apart, its fans say, are its focus and its marketing, including distinctive folk art and comprehensive liner notes.

"Putumayo single-handedly revolutionized the whole genre," said Chris Fleming, who buys audio and video products for the stores at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It sells the company's CDs, including some customized ones for special exhibits. "Before Putumayo came along, world music was dry, field recordings," said Fleming, who previously helped set up the world music department at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, New York. "They brought it out of the archives, made it more accessible."

Putumayo's CDs are carried by big retailers, but most are sold in more than 4,000 specialty stores in over 50 countries. Many outlets are unconventional -- including zoos, cafes, and gift and health food stores. But such sites have been "the daily bread and butter that has sustained us through thick and thin," Storper said on a recent morning at his office in the NoHo district of Manhattan.

One trademark of Storper's marketing style is "storebusting." Susan Bergier, owner of the Amaryllis Clothing Co. in Portland, Maine, which sells Putumayo CDs, said these personal visits were more like sneak attacks than product pitches. "He is relentless," she said. "He will come in and criticize a display, putting the CDs back in order. He will call the office to reorder what is missing. It is not a sales call; it's on a different level."

Like many entrepreneurs, Storper stumbled into his current business. He started off in handicrafts and clothing from around the world, opening his first Putumayo store to sell such products in 1975. (The company is named after a river valley in Colombia that he has visited.) Eventually, he expanded to six more sites, and he played music in all of them. After a while, Storper said, he became too busy to oversee the choice of music. But one day in 1991, when he visited one of his boutiques in Manhattan, he was distressed to hear the pounding beats of heavy metal, which he judged inappropriate for his merchandise.

He shopped around but couldn't find the sound he was looking for. A few days earlier, he had attended a concert in San Francisco by Kotoja, a Nigerian juju band based in the US, and was entranced by the ebullient dance rhythms -- Afropop with elements of American rhythm and blues. "I can't believe how good this music is," he recalled thinking. So he put together his own tapes of similar music and played them in his stores. Right away, customers asked where they could buy the tapes.

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