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In Praise of Putumayo (well, mostly)

PostPosted: Wed Aug 20, 2008 8:15 pm
by Jonathan E.
[Note inserted by Editor:
This thread has been hived off from the discussion about the latest issue of Songlines, hence the way Jonathan's post starts, referring to sales of 4,000 in the US for an Emmanuel Jal CD]

Those numbers are fascinating. Chicken feed ain't it, this world music business?!

How does anyone eat with sales like this?

I vaguely recall with absolutely no supporting evidence that back in the day, around the late 1980s or early 90s, a well selling "world music" release might sell around 50 or 60,000 in the US. Given the numbers put up by Charlie that would seem to be an astonishingly high number in that there is about zero interest in the US in world music compared to the UK. Even with a population about four times the size of the UK's, I can't see US sales substantially exceeding those in the UK with the possible exception of a mega-seller like Buena Vista Social Club. Or of Putumayo's anodyne compilation strategy.

Talking of Putumayo, last week there was a short piece about it on the CBS News. Watch for yourself here:
http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4336460n . Be patient it loads slowly. Relevant numbers I caught: 15 years in business, 150 releases, $20,000,000 in sales, double digit sales growth. So maybe I should amend my earlier comments about zero interest, etc. But by my maths (or math as the word is in the US) that $20,000,000 translates to only about 9,000 average sales if a retail sales figure or 18,000 if wholesale (approximately). Neither are exactly blockbusters, although I suppose they show that the skimming of the cream approach and ridiculously short lengths of Putumayo releases find favour with some. Personally, it annoys the hell out of me and I'm of the opinion that by and large those who buy Putumayo releases have no real interest in music but view the wretched things as some king of lifestyle signifier, a sort of aural coffee table book. I know, I'm a snob!

I'd be very interested if anyone with Rough Guides or World Music Network could provide any sales numbers for their releases, especially US vs UK. Rough Guides are well distributed in the US (although not like Putumayo, which are everywhere, i.e. in many places other than record stores — fruit stands, boutiques, health food stores, almost all POS for impulse buys). And, of course, Rough Guides are a decent length and generally contain considerably more interesting music than the Putumayo releases. I've bought dozens over the years, and I think three Putumayo releases — I was desperate. I also have a bunch of promos from Putumayo upon which I base my opinion.

I'd also be interested in general sales trends of world music releases in the UK. Up? Down? Holding steady? Are downloads of world music acts climbing without cannibalizing CD sales? The widespread availability of downloads seems to me to answer one of the crucial questions about the low sales of world music.

What about all those Fela releases? How did they sell?

What's this got to do with Songlines? Not much except that I did once get this opinion of mine published within those hallowed pages.

PostPosted: Thu Aug 21, 2008 3:17 am
by Tom McPhillips
I think Putumayo has achieved great success in marketing world music to people who don't normally encounter it by selling in non music stores and installing listening stations. Yes they are short, but I think that's a marketing choice, not to overwhelm the casual listener. I have several I treasure and a bunch that are so-so - people tend to buy them for me, they might have heard I like world music and this fits the bill as far as they know. If they encourage people to get further into the music that they've been introduced to, that's no bad thing.

Currently I'm enjoying Paul Fishers new Rough Guide to Japan compilation, which I think is great, since a lot of the artists are new to me and somewhat hard core from an aficionado's point of view. But the very fact that i think it's fab would mean that if a similar compilation was in my local Thousand Villages store on Putumayo, the listener would grimace and those headphones would be put back straight onto their hook. Horses for courses, I say.

PostPosted: Thu Aug 21, 2008 3:34 am
by Jonathan E.
I suppose I just always got irritated by Putumayo's short lengths, extremely parsimonious they are, and high/full prices compared to Rough Guides' budget pricing and usually very generous timing. Putumayo do a very good job of siphoning the cream; their releases are usually aurally quite pleasing. I am unconvinced that they've done much for more than a few, a very few, artists as regards those artists getting a US deal or selling substantial quantities of their own albums. I'm of the opinion that Putumayo have rather flooded the market, such as it is, with easy-to-digest pap in much the same way as someone (sorry, I've forgotten who) complained about with regard to compilations in the UK a few years ago in Songlines. The interesting question is whether they choke off the competition or not, not that I think they would deliberately do such a thing — and, as I recall, Dan Storper is also an investor in Jacob Edgar's Cumbancha label, so the argument would be hard to make.

Horse for courses is a fair argument and Tom's points seem quite valid to me. They're just not ones I personally espouse.

PostPosted: Thu Aug 21, 2008 10:06 am
by Charlie
Jonathan E. wrote: I am unconvinced that they've done much for more than a few, a very few, artists as regards those artists getting a US deal or selling substantial quantities of their own albums. Dan Storper is also an investor in Jacob Edgar's Cumbancha label, so the argument would be hard to make.

Several Putumayo albums have sold well in excess of 100,000 in the US, and they regularly sell 40,000. Their advances to record labels are often $5,000 which can be more than all the sales income for the applicable source album.

Putumayo nearly put itself out of business in an admirable but mishandled attempt to launch various solo artists - Habib Koite, Oliver Mtukudzi, etc - providing tour support, ads and all the other stuff a record label should do for its artists. The sales income from records did not come close to recovering their outlay.

So they went back to do what they do brilliantly, taking this music to non-standard outlets for music (about 60% of their sales in stores that are not conventional record stores). Meanwhile, Jacob Edgar, who has been the primary researcher for all their compilations (and somehow finds time to continue in this role), has moved to New Hampshire where he runs Cumbancha with Putumayo's encouragement and support.

This kind of discussion is just what Songlines could encourage.

I wonder if new editor Jo Frost is reading it, and what she thinks?

PostPosted: Thu Aug 21, 2008 10:50 am
by Ian A.
Charlie wrote:Several Putumayo albums have sold well in excess of 100,000 in the US, and they regularly sell 40,000. Their advances to record labels are often $5,000 which can be more than all the sales income for the applicable source album. (SNIP) what they do brilliantly, taking this music to non-standard outlets for music (about 60% of their sales in stores that are not conventional record stores).

I'll strongly second what Charlie says here. I always feel embarrassed that on the whole Putumayo albums get unfavourable "And The Rest" reviews in fRoots, often on account of short length compared to Rough Guide or Union Square compilations, tacky artwork (to some tastes) and what seems - to "expert" reviewers - to be M.O.R. selections. They are obviously not aimed at our readers and Putumayo boss Dan Storper, who I count as a good friend, has graciously accepted this in the many conversations we've had about it (some published).

But they have perfected the knack of selling huge quantities to buyers who would not usually collect world music (or even go into conventional record stores or on-line sellers looking for it), certainly those who have less anorak tendencies (i.e. wouldn't normally require detailed sleeve notes or be able to take 75 minutes of hardcore world music at a stretch). i.e. not us. It's a special skill and they are brilliant at it, no doubt turning a small percentage of their buyers into "proper" world music fans in the process.

They do indeed sell huge quantities which dwarf those of other compilation labels. They do indeed pay generous advances - and more to the point keep paying good royalties on the nail when the advances are recouped, and correctly account for the mechanicals to publishers too. From that point of view - and I was happily on the receiving end of their efficiency and commitment to certain artists when looking after Tarika in the 90s - they really are the artists' friend, and thus the music's too.

PostPosted: Thu Aug 21, 2008 4:23 pm
by Jonathan E.
I'm glad to read those informed opinions from Charlie and Ian and will modify my more acerbic comments in light of them.

Actually, I've always thought that Putumayo's notes were pretty good, like the pronunciation guides, am not horribly offended by the artwork (although it's not entirely to my taste) — and recall that the general quality of the compiling improved noticeably when Jacob Edgar came on board. I remember him as writing for The Beat previously and thought his columns were well worth reading.

I think I'll go downstairs and listen to a Putumayo collection right now!

PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 12:02 am
by Charlie
Ian A. wrote:They .... correctly account for the mechanicals to publishers too.

This refers to the money that every record company must pay to publishers for the right to 'mechanically reproduce' their songs.

In every country outside North America, the mechanical royalty is calculated as a percentage of the selling price of each record. It is paid to an organisation (MCPS in the UK) which divides the royalty income amongst all the publishers represented on the applicable album. If an album has 35 tracks, each publisher paid 1/35 of the royalty income.

But they do it differently in North America, where the record company must pay what is known as the Statutory Rate, currently about 9 cents, for each song song on the album. The more tracks on the album, the more money has to be paid to publishers. This was the reason why albums by the Beatles and the Stones were different in North America, where Capitol dropped so many tracks off early Beatles albums, choosing ten tracks from the 14 on the original UK release, they soon had enough left over to compile an extra album that had no UK equivalent. Did something like that happen with the Stones too? I don't remember.

Anyway, this explains why Putumayo has only ten or eleven tracks per album, figuring that just under $1 (11 x 9 cents = 99 cents) is as much as they want to pay to publishers for use of their songs.

But that cover art! So cutesy, so naff. Oh how it hurts their UK reputation.

PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 12:07 am
by Charlie
Ian A. wrote:But they have perfected the knack of selling huge quantities to buyers who have less anorak tendencies (i.e. wouldn't normally require detailed sleeve notes

just noticed this bit - actually Putumayo's sleeve notes are admirably detailed and informative, including their guide to punctuation and often indicating what the songs are about

PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 12:14 am
by Jonathan E.
Charlie wrote:But that cover art! So cutesy, so naff. Oh how it hurts their UK reputation.

Ironic that she's a UK artist, isn't it?

I note extreme sensitivity to cutesy and naff, especially this week, among those in our fair forum living on the right-hand side of the Atlantic. Naff isn't even a word on the left-hand side.

But thanks for the explanation re publishing costs, Charlie. Clears up a question or two.

PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 1:31 am
by Ian A.
Charlie wrote:
Ian A. wrote:But they have perfected the knack of selling huge quantities to buyers who have less anorak tendencies (i.e. wouldn't normally require detailed sleeve notes

just noticed this bit - actually Putumayo's sleeve notes are admirably detailed and informative, including their guide to punctuation and often indicating what the songs are about

Yes they are: what I meant by my badly drafted quote was that (hopefully) they get people reading them and interested who wouldn't normally be bothered by sleeve notes. It always annoyed me that having sweated over a 2000 word sleeve note for a Rough Guide compilation, their designer would make the type too small in order to leave "arty" space on the page, and print it in illegible colour on a coloured background (my Rough Guide To The Indian Ocean, which I'm otherwise very proud of, being a particular case in point).

PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 4:00 am
by Jonathan E.
Ian, please let me reassure you that I managed to read all the sleeve notes to your most excellent The Rough Guide To The Music Of The Indian Ocean. I think when I got it I didn't even need to wear my glasses. Tonight, it's a bit of a strain and I'd need it under good light, especially the page where the type is just a somewhat lighter shade of green than the green background. Oh, I'll just get my bloody glasses!

Charlie called the Putumayo house graphic style "naff," but I remember working in a bookstore that also sold a few CDs and the manager complaining dismissively about the cover design of Rough Guides. I think it was the style before the current one; it was 1999, anyway. Ultimately, the point being that there's more than one way to be naff.

There was a bit about the revival of the LP on the TV news here a night or two ago. It featured Shelby Lynne, who has just had her first release as an LP after eleven (I think) as CD only. Asked if she liked it, she said, "Yes, of course. Look how big my picture is!" Or words to that effect. Another way to be naff?

And while we're talking graphic design, IMHO, Songlines spends far too much time on theirs, it looks too polished and fussed over — and there's waaay, waaaaay too much white space!
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PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 11:20 am
by Ian A.
Jonathan E. wrote:waaay, waaaaay too much white space!

Once upon a time I used to be jealous of magazines like The Wire for having the luxury of lots of white space, but I grew out of it. Whilst it's very nice to have magazines and CD booklets look jolly arty, we should never lose sight of the fact that their main purpose is to carry information and be read, so page design should first and foremost be reader-friendly. I know a number of magazines in associated fields where a cover feature will be under 1000 words, plumped up to 4 or 5 pages with groovy graphics - I mean, Straight No Chaser always looked great but there was very little to read in it. Whereas with fRoots a cover feature is 4-5000 words. Mind you, the editor of a certain US world music magazine was once overheard at Womex asking somebody why on earth anybody would be interested in reading all those long features we publish, but I didn't lose heart!

It is possible to have 2000 word legible sleeve notes on CDs and for them to still look great. CD design has improved by many leaps and bounds since the days when they were just LP sleeves reduced down small. Many are works of art in their own right now, it's a different medium: they simply can't be judged unfairly alongside vinyl covers any more.

Donning my grumpy-old-fart hat, though, I'd say that the main problem with CD booklet designers these days is that many never learned the basic rules of typography (in particular, why stuff works). Too tight leading, widows and orphans everywhere - aaarrghh, my visual equivalent of the sound of chalk scraping on a blackboard! Get the typography right and better design flows on from it . . .

PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 11:35 am
by Ian A.
Charlie wrote:In every country outside North America, the mechanical royalty is calculated as a percentage of the selling price of each record. It is paid to an organisation (MCPS in the UK) which divides the royalty income amongst all the publishers represented on the applicable album. If an album has 35 tracks, each publisher paid 1/35 of the royalty income.


Except in the case of magazine covermount CDs where the MCPS have moved the goalposts (in our case retrospectively: apparently they changed the rules some years ago but never notified us and have recently been billing us for the extra we didn't budget for).

For covermounts, even though they are free, they treat them as if they are 50% of the cover price of the magazine and charge mechanical royalties accordingly. So far, so good, and it used to then be that same pro rata share rule. But now, if you have more than 15 tracks, they increase the notional value of the CD accordingly, regardless of the total playing time.

We always tried to put as many tracks on our fRoots CDs as we could within the 78 minutes you can fit on a CD, to benefit the maximum number of artists. Now, with this new rule (and our shoestring budget) it can only be 15 - we're just using longer tracks to still give the full amount of music. So in effect the MCPS are acting against the best interests of artists by doing this . . . they are preventing 2 or 3 per CD from being included.

PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 1:17 pm
by howard male
I’ve actually not been sent a Putumayo CD for at least two years now (maybe because of the justifiably damning view I did for The Word of a global blues collection they put out) so I can’t comment on recent releases.

But although I’ve always had a bit of a problem getting beyond the nicey-nicey ‘isn’t the world just one big shiny happy village of dancing simpletons’ covers, I’m sure that some of their CDs are perfectly acceptable.

PostPosted: Fri Aug 22, 2008 2:02 pm
by CantSleepClownsWillGetMe
S'funny, I never thought of Putumayo's cover art as anything other than clever, instantly identifiable and eye-catching artwork and a damned smart representation of the company's corporate identity. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the distinctive, brightly coloured design is the very thing that makes it attractive to retailers, who know a decent bit of marketing design when they see it and who, crucially, would never have thought of stocking world music before.

Not only that, but Putumayo has built up a very successful market in World Music cds aimed at children; something that no other company (as far as I am aware) has managed to do. Just imagine, your children or grandchildren being lulled off to sleep listening to Toumani Diabaté or Ladysmith Black Mambazo! And, of course, if you catch 'em young enough, maybe they'll spot one of your (distinctive and brightly coloured) cds in a shop one day and play it to their kids ....

Also, I wonder how many people reading this thread had to google to remind themselves what Putumayo's covers looked like. No, I didn't think so. Now that is clever marketing. ;-)

June