Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Interview with Dan Storper, Putumayo World Music founder

Dan Storper Putumayo label founder
©2007 Rick Olivier
Dan Storper, founder of Putumayo World Music, is still highlighting world music after 30 years.

The iconic label is celebrating 30 years of crafting stellar compilations.

Back in the World Music Show’s early days, my music library lacked substance on the genre. My shows were filled with tracks found in my local library, given to me by other VPM (formerly WCVE) radio hosts and from my personal collection — which I’d be remiss or in trouble if I didn’t say most of it was my wife’s collection. (This was pre-digital downloads.)

The bulk of CDs in our collection were from the Putumayo record label, with titles like A New Groove, In the Garden of Eden and one of my favorites: Music from the Coffee Lands.

“We actually approached Starbucks at one point with an album we were working on called ‘Music from the Coffee Lands, which was kind of the first in this series of nonmusical themes,” said Putumayo Founder Dan Storper. “We'd come up with this album that we thought was really lovely. [But] there were a lot of issues with branding, pricing and all kinds of things with Starbucks. I just decided that now we'll go our independent route.”

Going the independent route allowed Putumayo to sell over 400,000 copies of that album, said Storper.

“That's a great album, far more profitable than if we'd done it with Starbucks.”

It’s because of how much Putumayo CDs helped my show flourish, and because of how they were put together, that I was so happy to have the chance to interview Storper on the label’s 30th anniversary.

Global Groove
Global Groove is just one of the over 300 CDs Putumayo World Music has released.

Over those years, Putumayo has churned out nearly 300 CDs and sold more than 35 million world music, jazz and blues albums. The company has also raised a ton of money for nonprofits that are doing work in the countries where it gets music from, according to Putumayo.

I was immediately drawn to these collections for a few reasons. Besides the now iconic and recognizable artwork (which we talk about), the records were compilations — meaning they featured a slew of artists and bands. If I really liked a song, which happened a lot, the compilations allowed me to dig deeper into an artist’s catalog and feel safe in buying that artist’s full release.

Plus, as someone who carefully puts together a weekly, two-hour playlist, these compilations were also carefully, purposefully crafted to take us on a journey.

“I felt like you know, ‘Let's at least give people an opportunity to understand a little bit about the artists. the culture and region they come from,’” said Storper. “There's an educational element to that. The idea of the liner notes was always something that was important to us.”

The other very important detail inside these Putumayo releases is, in fact, the details. Mini booklets inside each CD contained background information on every artist — where they came from, what they were maybe known for and more importantly — phonetic guides to pronouncing their names. Having these helpers was a lifesaver to someone like me, who was very new to cultivating a world music playlist.

album cover illustration: five individuals celebrating Mexican culture through song and dance and attire
Putumayo World Music
Putumayo Presents Mexico

In my interview with Storper, we talk about the early days of the label — how it grew out of his wanting to change the music playlist heard in his retail stores (it was “thrash metal”); how he enlisted the help of Rhino Records to gather world musicians;, to who created the CD artwork.

Plus, we talk about how at a party years ago at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine told Storper to visit Ten Thousand Villages in Carytown (which carries Putumayo music).

Our 22-minute conversation covers all this plus what’s next for the label, as it moves into the Digital Age. I can say that our talk and this blog is more like a love letter to a label that really helped get the World Music Show to where it is today.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.