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The term "alternative" has gone beyond buzz word, sort of the way that "digital" did. "Alternative music" is about the vaguest term in use in the industry

The term “alternative” has gone beyond buzz word, sort of the way that “digital” did. “Alternative music” is about the vaguest term in use in the industry today, used to describe anything that does not neatly fit into specific categories. When it comes to alternative music distribution, however, the common wisdom immediately conjures up the Internet.

But is that all there is? Hardly. In between conventional distribution and that virtual mall, there lie numerous possibilities for getting audio around and, in the process, making a few bucks. The key is for recording studios to get in on the action at the content stage. Recording studios have traditionally occupied just one step in the process from inspiration to retail, but studios can also participate in what is one of the most wide-open of free markets in history. And the key is content.

HONKY-TONK HERO TUNES IN TO QVCClark Enslin is a producer and personal studio owner living in Flemington, N.J. He used his studio, Starstruck (more on the name later), as a base for his career producing regional artists and bands. But the studio became a much more powerful tool when he bumped into former country music star and club owner Mickey Gilley about four years ago.

Enslin, who helped convince his friend Les Paul to come out of retirement a decade ago and start recording and playing live again, was in Nashville negotiating a production with Jerry Lee Lewis, who in turn told him about a trove of tapes that Gilley had collected. Apparently, Gilley had a 24-track recording studio attached to his eponymously named club in Pasadena, Texas, that in the ’70s and early ’80s was a locus of country music (much of it of the alternative type at the time) and inspired the Esquire magazine article that eventually became the film Urban Cowboy.

Gilley’s career as an artist burned out in the late ’80s. Gilley’s, the club, burned down-literally-shortly thereafter, but not before Gilley was able to rescue some 15,000 songs recorded over a period of nearly 20 years in what was dubbed “the world’s biggest honky-tonk” and was named the Academy of Country Music’s Nightclub of the Year three times in the early 1980s. The collection of recordings included never-before-heard tracks from the likes of Carl Perkins, Hank Williams Jr., George Jones, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Ernest Tubb, Freddy Fender, Dottie West, Brenda Lee and Gilley himself, who was no slouch in the hits department.

When Enslin found out just how big the store of music was, he started what turned out to be a four-year pursuit of Gilley, attempting to get him to agree to make a deal to release the songs. That persistence paid off last year when they entered into an agreement to produce “Live At Gilley’s” multidisc, multivolume sets.

Later, Enslin began to consider how to get the music out. He considered overtures from major record labels, all of which offered conventional deals via conventional distribution routes, and none of which, he felt, would ensure the integrity of the collection. Then he hit upon the cable-based home shopping network QVC, which had debuted its own record label, Q Records, based in Westchester, Pa., at around the same time. This way, the music of Gilley’s, which at one time was broadcast to 20 million listeners a week via a syndicated radio program in the 1970s, came before a potential 65 million viewers a day on QVC. (Atlantic Records is handling the conventional side of the deal, doing P&D and shipping a small amount to conventional retail outlets.)

Enslin’s studio was the locus of all of this activity, and Enslin renamed it Gilley’s East Recording in honor of the project. (One other note about the benefits of content ownership: Enslin’s original trademarked studio name, Starstruck, was sold to Reba McEntire when the country singer opened her own corporate operation and recording complex in Nashville in 1996, which was named Starstruck Enterprises.)

“It got to a point in my career where I realized that there had to be a way to turn all of these tools into a way of making products,” Enslin says, “not just someone else’s records. There were a number of components to the process, including the tape restoration process and the Gilley’s deal. But the bottom line is that the studio was a tool to access what is really a huge set of business opportunities out there in music. You can’t just look at a studio as this static entity that just does one thing: record music.” Enslin has a Les Paul & Mary Ford tribute record in the works, which will also be distributed via QVC and Q Records.

PUTUMAYODan Storper is not a studio owner, but he’s had a hand in music and alternative distribution for nearly three decades. Storper founded Putumayo, a trendy Manhattan fashion and handicraft boutique named for a river in the Amazon basin, in 1975. Catering to an upscale and environmentally aware audience, the store’s designs were dubbed “ethnic Ralph Lauren.” The chain grew, and Storper’s affinity for international ethnic products extended to music, so he replaced the Muzak-like in-store recordings with tapes he made of upbeat, melodic world and contemporary folk music.

Customers then began asking for copies of the tapes. Storper approached friend and Rhino Records head Richard Foos (both of their companies were members of the Social Venture Network, which also includes the environmentally conscious founders of such companies as Ben & Jerry’s and The Body Shop) and collaborated to create and market a series of compilations with titles including Best of World Music: Vocal and Best of World Music: African. After the collaboration ended, Putumayo released titles including Cairo to Casablanca and Mali to Memphis.

“The key to success in nontraditional music distribution is creating an identity and making it sound good,” says Storper, adding that remastering is critical to ensuring that such diverse compilations are sonically consistent from start to finish. He has used The Hit Factory’s mastering department several times in the past, as well as The Lodge in New York City, under the direction of his director of music, Daren Gill. Storper is also now heading into original recordings, having taken several world music artists into the studio for new productions. Putumayo just signed its fourth artist, Oliver Mtukudzi of Zimbabwe, who has caught the attention of Bonnie Raitt to the point that she was inspired to write a song and will contribute an introduction to the liner notes. All four artists (the other three being Ricardo Lemvo, Sam Mangwana and Habib Koite) will be out touring North America this summer.

The music has also taken on a business life of its own: Storper sold the clothing business and now runs Putumayo World Music, which has released recordings by such superstars as South Africa’s Johnny Clegg (a collection), Bob Marley (an unreleased track featured on the international collection One World), as well as new artists, and has presented concerts and other special events. The company maintains its raised-consciousness approach: $1 from each sale of the One World CD is donated to UNICEF; more typically, 25 cents from each compilation sale goes back to nonprofit organizations doing work in the cultures where the music originated.

From the beginning, Putumayo has pursued creative distribution. The original deal with Rhino called for that label to handle traditional distribution, while Putumayo would deal with “alternative” outlets, meaning specialty shops, cafes, The Nature Company and the like, especially in environments that cry out for world music backgrounds. Today, those outlets number about 3,000. Michael Kraus, co-founder and senior VP, was given the moniker head of alternative market sales, and early on, the alternative outperformed the traditional. Today, Putumayo has taken over the traditional record store channels, and the balance has evened out to about 50-50. The philosophy, however, has consistently been to get the records to the “disenfranchised audience,” as Storper calls them, of potential world music fans.

The premise is basic and universal: “There are a lot of artists out there who have good music and who were enterprising and charming enough to go into local stores that have some affinity for what they do and get those stores to sell the recordings,” Storper explains. “The thing is it’s a match of music that’s not otherwise available to the public and a distribution system that’s unconventional and where those new artists aren’t competing for space against major record labels. There are distribution problems with such a system. But the market is potentially enormous.”

Packaging has also proved important in creating an identity. Storper has been a longtime backer of the DigiPak, despite the fact that it costs more, and the vibrant, collage-like covers of the compilations are in a recognizable style, all from a single illustrator now working out of Spain. And Storper has been putting out a monthly “fourth-Sunday” Putumayo Radio Hour with KFOG in San Francisco to promote world music. This summer, the show goes national for 15 episodes on more than 40 commercial and noncommercial stations.

VICTORIA’S SECRET IS OUTWhen Storper was in the early stages of his music business, he got some useful advice from Paul Whitehead, whom he met in a taxi in Paris some years back. Whitehead owns The Iliad, a recording studio in Nashville that has served mainly one purpose since 1988: creating music for retail and commercial enterprises. Whitehead has put together specialized album projects for a wide range of commercial clients, including Hallmark Greetings, American Express and Celestial Seasonings, but he is perhaps best known for his first project along those lines-the Victoria’s Secret line of romantic CDs.

The Iliad has grown from a 4-track operation in 1971 to a 48-track digital Harrison/Studer-equipped facility designed by Tom Hidley in a landmarked brick building on Nashville’s Second Avenue North. Whitehead is proud of the fact that all of the studio’s upgrades have been financed by music that is sold via alternative distribution. He invested $100,000 of his own money in that first project, a recording of classical pieces done with the London Symphony Orchestra, as a calling card to the lingerie marketer. But since then he has developed concepts and sold them before beginning production. “Nothing is done on a speculative basis,” he says, adding the refrain that all who have taken the alternative road have embraced as a critical mantra: “Why would I want to be in a store competing with 10,000 other titles when I can be the only guy in 10,000 stores? The thing is that we look at the studio business differently. The equipment ears out over time; only the content has lasting value.”

Not that everyone felt it, but the Recording Industry Association of America says sales of prerecorded music were up in 1998, with record sales posting the healthiest gains in four years. The dollar volume came in just shy of the $14 billion mark. At the end of 1998, manufacturers saw a 5.7% net unit increase in audio and video product shipped to domestic markets (from 1.06 billion units in 1997 to 1.12 billion in 1998); the corresponding dollar value of those shipments (at suggested list price) reached $13.7 billion.

The RIAA cited several factors explaining the growth, including the continued diversity of recordings, hit product releases spread throughout the year, a hot fourth quarter, and increased consumer demand for full-length CDs and music videos. CD unit shipments grew 12.5% from 753.1 million in ’97 to 847 million in ’98, and CD dollar value grew 15.1%, from $9.9 billion in ’97 to $11.4 billion in ’98. Even though cassette unit shipments dropped 8.2%, from 172.6 million in ’97 to 158.5 million in ’98, and their dollar value dropped 6.8% (from $1.5 billion in ’97 to $1.4 billion in ’98), cassettes apparently remain a viable format, with full-length tapes constituting 16% of all album unit shipments. Also, for the first time, the RIAA is reporting sales of DVD music videos. Unit shipments of DVD music videos in ’98 totaled 485,000; the dollar value of those DVD unit shipments in ’98 was $12.2 million.

The biggest success story of the year was undoubtedly the growth in rap and hip hop. Lauryn Hill, Beastie Boys, Jay-Z and DMX delivered blockbuster releases. Also, numerous female artists reached Platinum or multi-Platinum levels, including Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Mariah Carey, Brandy and Alanis Morissette. Box sets by Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks and others proved to be immensely successful, and movie soundtrack hits such as City of Angels, The Wedding Singer, Armageddon and Hope Floats joined the wave of popularity begun by Titanic early in the year. And finally, the purchasing clout of younger music buyers buoyed such artists as Backstreet Boys, Hanson, ‘N Sync, Monica and the Spice Girls.