April 10, 2008
When "Music" Is Not about Music (2 of 2)

In the first part of this post I referred mostly to the case of Starbucks' Hear Music. This idea of selling something else through music, sometimes very good music, reminded me of the case of another label, Putumayo. Founded by Dan Storper in 1993, Putumayo World Music's motto is "guaranteed to make you feel good" and their purpose to introduce "people to the music of the world's cultures." In April of 2007, Storper commented to The New York Post that, in those same five years when the music industry had officially entered a period of crisis that caused so much anguish to the majors, his company increased its sales by an average of 10 percent annually.

Music from the Wine Lands (2006) is a prototypical Putumayo album that comprises all of the characteristics described above. It contains a "a full-bodied selection of songs from the world's leading wine-producing regions" aimed at the "music lover and the wine drinker in everyone." The cover is set in a time-ambiguous villa in an idealized bucolic Europe. The album includes music from France, Spain, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Greece, Portugal, Italy, and the U.S, ranging many different genres. Their common denominator is that they come from countries that produce wine.

Apparently this frail, and certainly not musical, cohesion works well with Putumayo's audience. In the Amazon.com consumer reviews of the album, L. Lubbe "Leandi" from South Africa raves: "I am both a wine lover and a music lover. I live in a 'wine country' and this album is a great accompaniment to a glass or two of fine wine for me."

Kassabian considers that "Heindl's cover art work, their A&R, their engineering, and their choice of track order all guide you through an apparent naïveté and recognizability to a sense of being 't/here.'" And although the here is unavoidable, I wonder what there is really created from a CD like Music from the Wine Lands.

According to the New York Post , Putumayo's success can be traced to three key factors: a focused release schedule; a globalization-fed awareness of other cultures and selling through nontraditional retail outlets. The label's website informs that they are positioned 3,000 book, gift, clothing, coffee and other specialty retailers, while maintaining a strong presence in record stores. Some of this independent retailers are not traditionally associated with music, like Whole Foods and Bath & Body Works. In fact, this form of alternative distribution amounts to 65 percent of Putumayo's U.S. sales and probably a similar percentage overseas.

Putumayo invests 10 percent of their CDs in promotional activities channeled through the independent retailers and distributors all over the world. They maintain a very close relationship with their representatives and commonly practice "storebusting." These surprise visits performed by different members of the Putumayo offices are not intended to be traditional pitches, but they encourage a dialogue and training of each worker, increasing their emotional investment in the brand.

Putumayo does inadvertently accept on their website that their main focus is not music itself when they refer to their "unique brand identity - a rarity in today's artist-based music industry."

Although Putumayo presents itself like the environmentally friendly boutique hotel, its albums are much more similar to a cruise line. You visit many places and go away with the illusion of knowing them, but in fact a cruise line is not selling the places but the time on the ship, likewise Putumayo doesn't really sell music, but the Putumayo brand itself.