Kelly Rowland's fourth studio album Talk A Good Game dropped yesterday with guest…
- Posted on Aug 4th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
"I was at Amoeba Records looking for the new Baaba Maal album that I saw in London two months ago, and it's not there," he says.
It's not Amoeba's fault. The store has perhaps the largest, most varied selection of international CDs in the region, if not the nation. The Senegalese star's album just hasn't been released in the US yet.
On the other side of the coin, a president of a record label that releases a lot of world music in the US is also frustrated. Due to a variety of reasons, he'll be releasing 'Imidiwan: Companions,' the new album by Tinariwen, certainly one of the most-coveted by world music fans, in October -- three months after it came out to great acclaim in Europe and much of the rest of the world.
"Meanwhile, the European version is on Amazon," he says. "Not the best situation."
The fan and the exec, as you may have guessed, are the same person. Rene Goiffon is president of Harmonia Mundi USA, which is releasing the Tinariwen via its World Village subsidiary. But in both these roles he, like many other lovers of this music, is tired of the US being world music's undeveloped country.
It's a pattern that's been in place with many of the top acts in the world music market. Amadou & Mariam's most recent album, 'Welcome to Mali,' came out in Europe in December (with much global press coverage) but not here until several months later. Rokia Traore's 'Tchamantche' had a similar delay here recently.
But while the release patterns are territorial, awareness is not. The bands own website boldly proclaims that the album is "OUT NOW" and trumpets extensive and glowing coverage -- huge features and four-star reviews in Mojo, the Guardian, the Independent, the Sun and the Telegraph, write-ups on various Internet sites frequented by world music fans, videos posted on YouTube. And the praise is well deserved. 'Imidiwan' is at once a continuation of the forward-looking electric Saharan blues for which this troupe of Tuareg rebels has become the global name brand and a return to the austere basics of their desert sound that first captured international attention with the belated 2002 debut album, 'Radio Tisdas Sessions.' Both sides of that can be heard here in the song 'Lulla':
But anyone in the US wanting to get it now has to pay more to have it imported. Which means the most loyal fans get penalized. They either wait or pay a premium.
"This is one of my pet peeves," adds Viola Galloway, international music buyer at the Amoeba store in Hollywood. "I've been talking about it with a lot of customers, and we go on and on about it and no one really understands. Is this the '80s or '70s? No, it's not. People are global citizens. If something is out, it should be out everywhere. When someone reads on the Internet that the new Oumou Sangare album is out, it means you can purchase it anywhere, right?"
You know the answer. The long-awaited Sangare album, 'Seya,' was not released stateside until it had been out a significant time elsewhere.
As Galloway notes, in past eras an imports market made sense. There were only a few major publications that exposed a lot of music from other countries, and a handful of specialty import-releases radio shows. So the first couple of Brian Eno albums, say, or the first Clash album -- utter sensations in the UK and Europe -- were available here only as imports for quite some time. But once those acts reached the kind of interest in the underground/alternative market here that, say, Tinariwen or Oumou Sangare has in the world music market, even a little delay between European and US release dates was unthinkable.
And what's an annoyance or inconvenience for the fan can be much worse for the retailer or distributor. Galloway says that not long ago, even with a delayed release, she might have sold more than a hundred copies of the Sangare album by now. The actual number is, she says, less than 20. Most people who wanted it found another way to get it, whether ordering it from overseas or downloading it -- legally or otherwise. A real fan might do the latter, pledging to buy a CD when it's available here, but we all know the reality of those good intentions.
"That is a disaster for the store," she says.
Sensing a pattern?
Now, there are practical considerations in delayed releases some times, even with the big-name world music acts. "
Europe has for so long been the gateway, the marketplace for world music," says Dmitri Vietze, founder of the world music publicity and marketing firm Rock Paper Scissors, which is routinely charged with whipping up interest in the States for music that has been available elsewhere for months. "World music has been much bigger there for much longer -- partly historical and partly cultural."
Vietze doesn't see this as a problem, though to some extent the very location of his firm makes the case that geography is not a consideration for the exposure of this music. The company operates out of that noted world music capital, Bloomington, Ind.
Still, whatever the reasons, Europe is a much more active market for much of this music and a better place to launch most of these albums than the US. There are more venues, more festivals, more media possibilities. So a launch strategy for a Tinariwen is usually geared toward Europe first, with months of touring and promotion before turning attention to the New World (where this time around touring won't happen until early 2010).
"The problems that it presents are about promoting a record correctly," says Ian Ashbridge, founder and head of London-based Wrasse Records, which has released Tinariwen albums among many world music items in its diverse catalog. "Tinariwen is a very good example. Sales generally in America have been decreasing, and the sense is that bands want to make the most of their promotional time on a record. Consequently, if you put out a record that's released now in America, by the time you actually get around to doing a big tour and media, it's seen as a nine-month-old album. Or you wait. That's what's happening more and more. People are saying, 'We want to take that market seriously and not just drop a record out.' You can sell a thousand or so if you just go ahead and put it out, but they want to go over there and do all the work that entails. So in promotion you have to employ someone on the front end, get the record out to reviewers -- and then do it all over again when they come to tour."
He doesn't see it so much as penalizing the most devoted fans. But he does understand the frustrations of this sense that U.S. fans (and, yes, journalists) are getting hand-me-downs from Old Europe and wonders if perhaps with some of these more high-profile artists it would make sense to do a "soft" US release simultaneous with the European issue. Just get some copies in brick-and-mortar and online retailers so that those who follow the international press will be able to find them. The major promotional activities could then be held until the timing is more advantageous.
Goiffon, wearing his record executive hat, adds that there is a bit of a different culture behind the business in Europe than over here.
"If they are releasing a CD on the 25th, they're happy to get it on the 20th," he says. "If I get CDs in my hand on the second of September, I'm not going to release it on the ninth, because no one will be interested. I have to get my press and promotions people involved, create buzz and so on. We need a couple of months. And now we're in the middle of summer, which is not the best time here for a new release anyway. So we'll release the Tinariwen then second Tuesday in October -- which will be three months after the Europe date -- unfortunately."
On the other hand, Goiffon laments that there aren't more retailers venting to him à la Amoeba's Galloway. That would add more of a sense of urgency -- and perhaps less of a sense of the inevitable. But that inevitable might force the hand and finally tear down the wall, fold up the Music Curtain.
"No question it's becoming more and more of an issue," he says. "And we'll have to tackle it more and more because everyone's on the same track with iTunes and things being posted on YouTube. That can create some anticipation for when it's finally available. And everything will be sold at the same time everywhere when we're digital only."