Dan Storper’s love of global cultures and music led him to build Putumayo World Music into the thriving label it is today. What began with his own travels, Latin American studies, and ethnic clothing business in New York turned into a music empire with offices in 11 countries and a robust catalog of music compilations ‘guaranteed to make you feel good.’ The instantly recognizable CDs, available through Putumayo’s own website and through retailers ranging from Amazon to Whole Foods, are adorned with fabulous covers by artist Nicola Heindl. Named after a river valley in Colombia, Putumayo World Music is an influential force in bridging world cultures and making people happy.
Putumayo’s Women of Africa compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Find an expanded interview with Dan Storper in my new book Field Trip:Volume One, available on Amazon here! Or read more about my new book here.
One thing young people may not realize is they don’t have to figure out their life’s work right off the bat, that exploration can lead from something good to something great. Tell me about your journey as you connected the dots between majoring in Latin American Studies to taking a trip to the countries you’d studied, to opening a successful retail shop selling clothing and handicrafts from that region under the name Putumayo, to morphing that business into the record label you run today?
When I was about 9 years old, I started reading Dr. Doolittle books and other books about explorers who traveled the world. It was pretty clear to me that that’s what I wanted to do. I was very lucky to have supportive parents and an aunt and uncle who loved to travel and took me with them to Mexico when I was 16. That summer pretty much set my path in motion. I loved traveling through the remote areas of Mexico, seeing Indian cultures that hadn’t changed much in hundreds of years, discovering wonderful handicrafts and bustling markets and visiting extraordinary museums. I decided to major in Latin American Studies, spent a semester abroad in Madrid and, after graduating, worked for 6 months to earn enough money to travel to South America. On my first day in Colombia, I saw a vendor selling a beautiful wall hanging. I bought it and decided to spend the next 6 weeks visiting markets and looking for handicrafts that I would import and hopefully figure out a way to sell.
For the next year, I traveled around the Northeast finding museum shops and other outlets, doing exhibitions, and selling to family and friends. After a year, in 1975, I decided to open a small shop in New York City and borrowed $3,000 from my father. It was a tiny and somewhat primitive shop, but the response was very positive, and I was able to grow, move to a larger store, and eventually open up several shops. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sell enough crafts to survive, so I turned to “peasant” clothing that was coming into vogue. Over time, I opened other stores and began to travel to Afghanistan, India and Nepal and also began stopping off in London and Paris to check out what was happening in clothing design there. In 1984, with an assistant, I designed a collection of women’s clothing inspired by traditional cultures and started offering it to boutiques around the US. That part of the business grew to exceed my 7 retail shops.
In 1991, returning from a trip to Bali, I stopped off in San Francisco. On my way to an exhibition in Golden Gate Park, I happened on an African group performing in the park. I was struck by the great, upbeat African music and by the spirit and joy of the hundreds of people of different backgrounds dancing together on that day. I returned to New York and a couple of days later stopped into one of my stores that was playing heavy metal music. Annoyed at the music, I decided to put together in-store play music collections that would help create a more appropriate environment. The response from customers to the first in-store tape I put together was so powerful, I decided to approach a friend who owned a record company about putting together world music compilations that we would jointly release. The first two Putumayo World Music CDs came out in April 1993. The response was quite positive and led me, in 1997, to selling my clothing business to focus full-time on music.
Putumayo’s Sahara Lounge compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
What kind of research do you do into the culture and music scene of a given area before putting together a new collection? Are there certain criteria you have in mind for choosing what artists to include?
It’s all about the song. I pick songs I really like and play them for our staff to get their feedback. The fundamental criteria are that the songs have to be well-recorded, have good melodies and generally be upbeat — or, if mellow, they need to be beautiful and uplifting. We do research in a variety of ways. We have more than 10,000 songs we like in our database. I now have 4 people helping me research music, including an ethnomusicologist, Jacob Edgar, who has worked with me for more than 10 years, someone based in our European office, and a children’s music specialist based in our New York office. I also have product development support in our New Orleans office, where I spend most of my time. Between my travels and Jacob’s, we’ve visited at least 30 countries looking for music. But we get a lot through the mail from artists around the world and now use the internet for research.
Putumayo’s Acoustic France compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Putumayo’s Celtic Tides compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Putumayo’s World Reggae compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
The Putumayo identity is very strongly tied together and conveyed by the cover art of Nicola Heindl. How did this look come about, and did you set out from the beginning with the idea of creating this very cohesive brand identity or was this more of a stroke of luck?
I had no preconceived plan. I met Nicola through a mutual friend who had noticed a greeting card that Nicola had designed on my bulletin board. Nicola was a young illustrator from London and was coming to New York for a few days. We met up, and I asked her to do the first Putumayo CD cover. People responded well, and we’ve continued for the next 17 years.
Artist Nicola Heindl
Putumayo could have gone down the path of being very hippie or very serious, but you seem to have done a great job of staying true to your motto of ‘guaranteed to make you feel good.’
Thanks. It’s been a very natural path. I’ve always cared about producing work of quality that makes people happy and takes them on journeys to explore the world.
Enjoy this video of “Kirmizi Biber” by Bendeniz from Putumayo’s Turkish Groove compilation:
Putumayo’s Turkish Groove compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
You’ve come up with some creative and fun ways to curate music, even doing collections around global themes and food — like Music From the Wine Lands, Music from the Coffee Lands, and World Lounge: The ultimate chill-out soundtrack for a global cocktail party. Is this one of the most enjoyable aspects of your work?
Absolutely. Coming up with themes is both a challenge and fun. I’ve gotten quite a bit of help from my staff over the years. There are so many different musical genres, so many countries with rich musical traditions, and so many ways to demonstrate music’s connection with other areas like food.
Putumayo’s Music from the Wine Lands compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Putumayo’s World Lounge compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Tell me about your traveling and about the offices you operate around the world. Did you ever imagine Putumayo would become this big?
We now have offices in 11 countries, generally small 1-to-3 people offices in key markets. They help sell, promote and market our CDs in their countries and/or regions. We’ve had much success in Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Holland (where our European office is based), and several other markets which seem to appreciate our music and approach.
Putumayo’s Italia compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Enjoy this video of “Cette Ville” by Mathieu Mathieu from Putumayo’s Québec compilation:
Since the beginning, Putumayo has contributed to non-profits doing work in the regions where the music originates. How do you choose which organizations to support, and how central an aspect is this to your business?
It’s been an important part of our efforts since I started the company. We feel it’s helpful to donate a small percentage of our sales (usually 1%) to non-profit organizations that work in areas where the music originates. While the music itself is our first priority, cultural exploration and education is equally important, and the charitable support feels worthwhile and appropriate.
Your Putumayo Kids division not only brings world music to children, but also includes educational liner notes and multicultural activity kits. What do you hope to accomplish with this effort?
Now that I have a 4 year old son, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to bring the world to kids at a young age so that they don’t grow up with fear of other people and cultures. And learning about the world through music is one of the best ways to accomplish that. It’s a big focus for our future.
Putumayo’s Asian Dreamland compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Putumayo’s Reggae Playground compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Putumayo’s Hawaiian Playground compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Taking this question a step further, what is your larger mission with Putumayo? Do you ever ponder the impact you’re making?
The mission is ultimately about the combination of making people happier through music and bringing about a better understanding of the world and other cultures.
Putumayo’s Rumba Flamenco compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Putumayo’s Arabic Groove compilation, cover art by Nicola Heindl
Enjoy this video of “Como A Cada Mañana” by René Ferrer from Putumayo’s Café Cubano collection:
What’s next on the horizon for Putumayo?
We’re working on several projects, including a children’s book and DVD. We’re also working on a series of annual TV specials, DVDs and books.
What are some of your favorite things about your work and about your life?
That I get to travel, spend much of my time listening to music, have some flexibility through running my own company, and generally get to work with and meet great people and artists who are enthusiastic about bringing the world’s music to people.
Dan Storper, founder and CEO of Putumayo World Music
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