Background music label strikes chord across world

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It is the relentlessly upbeat world music which provides the soundtrack for wholefood stores and gift shops from Kew Gardens to Costa Rica.

But despite selling 27 million CDs with titles such as Afro-Latin Party and Music From the Chocolate Lands, the Putumayo World Music company remains relatively obscure.

In an era of declining CD sales, the New York-based record label has quietly turned a mission to "introduce people to the music of the world's cultures" into a multimillion-dollar global franchise.

Established in 1993 by world music fan Dan Storper as a replacement for the heavy metal being played in his Manhattan clothing and handicraft outlet, Putumayo is the background music heard in upmarket delis, Whole Foods outlets, bookshops, clothes boutiques and gift stores in 80 countries.

While music stores are disappearing from the high street, compilations such as African Reggae, Café Cubano and Bossa Nova Around the World have become hugely popular impulse purchases at specialist shop check-outs.

The CDs, with their attractive folk art covers and informative liner notes, helped introduce musicians such as the Malian singer Habib Koité to a global audience.

The label, which was named after a river in Colombia and has offices in 10 countries, has expanded into cookery-themed compilations, best-selling children's albums and educational colouring books with Latin, European and African themes. There is a Putumayo syndicated radio show and the company promotes the artists it features on international tours.

Now Putumayo is making a long-awaited leap into the digital space, in a move given more urgency after its stock was destroyed in the London riots. The next wave of Putumayo CDs were awaiting distribution from the Sony distribution warehouse in Enfield, north London, which police now suspect was set ablaze during the riots as a targeted criminal act.

Mr Storper, who opened the first Putumayo boutique in Manhattan in 1975, said: "We lost 15,000 CDs in the Enfield fire and we've been scrambling to replace them.

"In the old days, people's business would have been totally destroyed by the fire." The fire helped persuade Mr Storper, who says he doesn't own an iPod or iPad, to allow Putumayo songs to be sold through iTunes, Amazon and 7Digital.

He said: "I've resisted digital for a long time because we developed a global physical distribution system. The decline in traditional music retailers has caused an increase in our sales at museums, gift shops and children's stores. There just aren't many places to buy music any more."

Mr Storper was inspired to launch the label after hearing an African band play to a diverse audience in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

He said: "I lost interest in clothes and started doing compilations of world music in our own outlets. Then we offered the CDs to other boutiques and health food outlets. We cut a deal with Costa Coffee. We were doing music for coffee brands before Starbucks sold music in cafes.

"If you're hiking through West Africa or climbing in Costa Rica you'll find a Putumayo CD at the gift store at the top of the mountain."

The company does its market research. It targets an audience it calls cultural creatives, with "an interest in culture, travel and the arts", who are likely to visit museums and travel to more exotic locations. Putumayo claims there are 50 million North Americans and "millions more around the world" who fit into that category.

The CDs always feature "upbeat and melodic" tracks. Although some may find the offerings bland, Mr Storper is unapologetic.

"We offer to take people on a musical journey which is guaranteed to make you feel good. We knew people were resistant to world music so we give them a money-back guaranteed full refund if you don't like a purchase."

Mr Storper, who has donated profits to the Haiti earthquake appeal, added: "It's a package mixing music, culture and travel. And our CDs include recipes to help people to cook dinner while playing the music.

"If we didn't have the museums, gift shops and children's stores, we wouldn't be here. People still love CDs. The decline in traditional music retailers has caused an increase in our sales at other outlets."

The first digital releases will be African Beat, featuring artists including Vieux Farka Touré, whose work is remixed by Western DJs, and Latin Beat, which includes Colombian cumbia music and the Cuban singing legend Ibrahim Ferrer.

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