How a little jam went global
'Stand by Me' YouTube hit started a cascade of interviews, a CD – and next month, a tour.
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Both projects illustrated a public hunger for musical packages that differ from the norm. According to Norman Lear, the legendary television producer who today runs Concord Music Group, several major labels passed on Playing for Change before it landed on his desk.Skip to next paragraph
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"At first sight, it does not suggest there's money to be made," says Mr. Lear. "There's no young person or big stars, the songs you heard before and the musicians are all over the world. So I didn't look at it and say, 'there's a big buck to be made.' I thought, 'this can be very good for our label because it's so good and so healthy and so deeply touching.'"
Lear says he frames the project with what he calls "a rising tide" for connection among people from different cultures. "People are desperate to end the killing in the name of God, in the name of a flag, whatever ... there is a crescendo for the need of coming together."
After Lear showed the "Stand By Me" video to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the resulting album and DVD received distribution through the coffee chain, circumventing traditional retail, which has suffered over the last decade due to digital music sales and conglomeration. In 2008, about two-thirds of all album sales were made at large chains like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The direct sales at Starbucks are immediate exposure for Playing for Change artists who may have little profile outside their native country. That includes Ghana reggae singer Rocky Dawuni, who was invited to participate after Johnson saw him perform at a Los Angeles club.
Mr. Dawuni says the project aligned with the way music is appreciated in Africa, as a utility to accompany everything "from birth to celebrations to death." "Everything revolves around music, we haven't even scratched its power," he says. Westerners may balk at appreciating music as anything but entertainment, but Dawuni says his background taught him it has the ability to "create empowerment and promote peace."
The method to making that happen is rooted in the way Johnson made his recordings. After landing in a country, he used local guides to find musicians known for playing native instruments or singing in a particular dialect or style associated with the area. He made the recordings outdoors to capture the environment of each particular location. Each musician wore headphones, which filtered what was recorded up to that point, and allowed them to contribute their parts in accordance with what was needed.
In the end, recordings that featured up to 70 musicians did not feel crowded; everything in the song sounded essential, even if slight.
Upon introduction, the language barrier was broken by his iPod video screen, which allowed Johnson to play the "Stand By Me" video to provide perspective into what he was up to. "Everyone, whether it was a choir in a South African township or monks in northern India, when they saw the project, they felt it. Which is why the project works. It's about going from one human heart to another."
He sees Playing for Change as an ongoing project, with more albums and videos on the way. A philanthropic foundation bearing the Playing for Change name is building one-room music schools in many of the places where Johnson first recorded, such as Mali, Katmandu, and South Africa, all of them with Internet hook-ups to allow students from different points on the globe to perform together in real time. The tour, which starts Oct. 20 in Alexandria, Va., will feature a band of 10 musicians from the recordings, many of whom don't speak the same language, just music.
Johnson says the tour will be a physical embodiment of the "global family" the project meant to create. "All these people together are much more powerful than the individual," he says.