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The cool art of downtempo compilation

Keith Gallasch talks to Leigh Wood

‘Down’, ‘slow’ and ‘cold’ and their kin, ‘low’, ‘sluggish’ and ‘chill’ are not, for the most part, words with positive connotations. Our semantics traditionally incline to things warming up, looking up and moving on. There are ample exceptions of course. But we live in a time when slow is becoming a virtue, when cool is ubiquitous and down is on the up and up. There are books on the life-saving merits of slowness in the age of speed. There’s the slow food movement and the therapeutic activities of our downtime—yoga, meditation and tai chi, not to mention the wildly proliferating spa resort. ‘Cool’ is also big—the return of a key attitudinal term from the Beat Generation but now universally applied: you like it, it’s cool. More recently, ‘chill-out’ has passed through dance club doors into general use. ‘Down’ meanwhile is getting a new lease of life in downshifting (paradoxically a luxury for those who have the reserves with which to live on less) but still looks bad in downsizing and that popular phenomenon embodied in everything from the mass media to a US President—dumbing down.

However ‘down’ doesn’t get any better than when “chilled out tracks take you on a downtempo journey” as in One World Music’s Zen Connection 3, a 2-CD “global beats” compilation of 27 tracks of highly integrated musical diversity. This is music to slow you down, a carefully orchestrated invitation to relax and reflect from a former DJ with a penchant for World Music and an ear for a market where, curiously, it’s the enveloping interplay of tracks and not the individual artists who stimulate the purchasing urge. It’s the DJ thing on another plane and in another market. Or a market in the making.

Leigh Wood is the General Manager of Sydney-based One World Music and he’s very conscious that he is responding to a need while creating a market. Wood’s background is in the London music scene. He says he stopped DJ-ing only recently to focus on the time-consuming job of managing One World. Wood arrived in Australia about 10 years ago and worked for Pulse, part of SBA Music who produce videos and DVDs. “I helped set up the CD side of things, putting compilations together on a monthly basis—Top 40 and one of Australia’s first dance compilations produced on a regular basis. I used to get music from all the major companies and independents, quite a nice little job to have...a huge job actually—a pile of 200 CDs on the desk. You soon get an ear for choosing in a split second. I fine-tuned my hearing for what might work in the mass market. One of the early compilations I did was a chill-out CD called The Cool Room, about the time Café del Mar started. It never became mainstream because it was sold directly to the entertainment sector. But it made me realise that there was a huge market where people just liked music as a sort of background or to help them work, something to tune in and out to—energy in the background. It was spawned from the dance club era when it was winding down.”

What’s the association with Zen in the labelling of the CD series? “It’s a holistic element, a lifestyle thing. When I use the Zen notion it’s just about the music and how it reacts with you, how you use it. How does it make you feel? Do you realise that these vibrations can have a positive effect in your life? Do you realise that when you’re in a bad mood and you put that thrash track on it’s going to make you even more aggressive? I don’t think people think about this in Western culture.”

Wood discovered that people liked the music he was compiling but “didn’t know where to go to find it, because it’s probably not so much about the artists but about the music. From my perspective I’ve built One World on a certain sound rather than specific artists.” He sees this as fitting with the widespread principle of branding. But artists are still very important, most obviously in having a key name or 2 on a compilation along with lesser known but high calibre musicians from around the world. UK world music artist Nitin Sawhney, a guest of the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival, appears on Zen Connection 1 and 3. Wood sees this as important if the compilation happens to go into a store: “the name might be just enough to encourage people to have a listen.”

Supporting local talent is also important. Two Australian groups, Amanaska and Small Defence, have individual CDs out through One World and they appear on Zen Connection. Bamboo Soup is a CD collaboration between Small Defence (Kristian Hill and Robert Staines) and shakuhachi master Riley Lee (a collaborator with the Taikoz drumming ensemble and a recording artist for New World); “a fun exercise for Riley to try something new with some beats, a nice blend with electronica.” Panorama by Amanaska (Simon Lewis and Stephen Joyce) is blessed with quite upbeat ‘global beats’, very distinctive cross-cultural guest voices (but no translations) and very classy instrumental playing. The over-arching ambience of One World Music CDs evokes reflection and invites relaxation, especially on Zen Connection, but the ‘slow’ effect is often gently counterpointed with layers of brisk beats electronically or acoustically realised.

Market and branding acumen aside, Wood sees his compilation skills as rooted in the love of music and an intuitive feel for where music is going. That involves a lot of listening. But passion has to be balanced with the need to generate new markets. Wood says “we’re moving into another area with the Elysian Vibes compilation, downtempo music for the growing spa market”, specifically “the spa resorts for getting away from a world that is getting faster and faster. There’s a sense in which people can use the music within their treatment environments. We’re finding that a lot of spa resorts are buying our music, which is really healthy for us!”

These niche markets are critical for One World Music: “We’re not a major record company in the traditional sense, so record shops can’t be so important to us. We’re major in what we do but it’s very much outside the norm. We need to find alternative markets.”

The project came about when Wood “got together with New World Music which had been going some 20 odd years in Australia and around the world. They had a huge market with a very traditional base—I mean by that music for relaxation and music that is non-electronic. Some of the music was dated or tagged with the new age label. How many times can you reinvent pan pipes? New World Music started in 1982 and has been hugely successful. But my aim was to put the music first, take the best from the past and bring it up to date and appeal to the younger market as well as the existing one. One World Music is more progressive in its sound, though that might not be the right term to use, but certainly more original...and I won’t go where certain music has been over-used.”

Although Wood does not invest directly in the production costs of tracks—the operation is royalty-based—he does seek out musicians. As the label’s reputation grows, artists send Wood their music and he’s begun to move in the direction of commissioning tracks. This approach has been made much easier by the development of cheaper, computer-based recording techniques. Recalling the over investment in the synthesizer sound in the 80s, Wood’s only wariness is of tracks that are totally electronic: “they date too quickly. The computer is an instrument and not the only one. The whole dance music thing is sometimes so disposable.” Wood is after the analogue-digital, acoustic-electronic mix, with “computer-based artists adding musicians to give their music an organic flavour that appeals to a broader market.”

Although niche markets are vital to One World, Wood still has his eye on the big picture. Where were those 25,000 copies of Zen Connection sold? Wood explains, “They were originally distributed through New World. We immediately sold 8-9,000 copies in Australia, 5,000 in the US and the rest to Europe, including some major store chains. We have been knocking on the doors of major retailers here; Sanity has a selection of our stuff .” Web sales are also important, as are lifestyle (formerly new age or health food) stores.

“Individual CD sales are developing nicely”, says Wood, “but the compilations are the key thing, very cost effective and allow me to channel money back to artists.” He sees himself as providing left of field quality music, as being open to new developments and “not putting up any barriers.” As the compilations get better known he finds himself coralling better sounds, “the pool of sounds is opening up.” Compilations used to be a by-product of the music industry— “now they can come first, introducing music and artists people have never heard before. It’s a part of global connectivity.” And Wood sees it as very much a matter of how he puts compilations together, the DJ mentality, he says with a smile, of “taking you on a journey where you haven’t been before. People can easily make their own compilations these days but I offer the integrity of my selection.” And it’s downtempo, chill-out cool and good-for-you slow.

One World Music,

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 46

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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