Digital Explosion, World Music, and Niche Aggregators
Q & A with Stefan Prescott of Dance Tracks Records: Electronic World Dance Etailer

Vieux Farka Toure: An Emerging Case Study on the Simultaneous Convergence of Remix Culture, Niche Marketing, and New Source Material

Vieux_mixter_1 Two weeks ago when DubMC's Dmitri Vietze facilitated a discussion titled "Digital Explosion and Live Performance" at the annual Arts Presenters conference, a somewhat spontaneous "case study" emerged as various people involved with the debut album of Vieux Farka Toure and the parallel remix album produced by Derek Beres shared different aspects of the project. Here we offer a Q & A with producer Beres about this new-model approach which supports: original source material and accompanying live performances as well as a remix project, whose tracks will be staggered over a few months, and for which there will also be a live dance party with DJs and Vieux playing live; and, exclusive downloads on various e-tailers and blogs, and even a fan-as-remixer project in collaboration with Creative Commons/Mixter. The intent here is to expose the inner workings of such a project and explore new models for cross-marketing world music.

Describe the mission of the Vieux Farka Toure remix project.

It’s twofold. First, the remixes are a way to lead people back to the source material, which is the root of anything Vieux does. Second, I wanted people to recognize both the foundation of African music, which shines through in the soulful, bluesy songs he writes, as well as a “future culture” that is not limited by geographical location but is nonetheless influenced by African music. Every aspect of the mission leads back to Vieux himself.

How did you get involved?

I met Jesse and Eric of Modiba when they reached out to me regarding their incredible compilation, Derek_beres ASAP: The Afrobeat Sudan Project, which raised over $130,000 for relief funds in Darfur. They knew of my work in journalism and with GlobeSonic, and we hit it off right away. After they licensed Vieux’s debut to World Village, they conceived the idea of doing remixes. Knowing I have interviewed and played alongside pivotal figures on the global electronica scene, they asked me to produce it.

How does the original artist (Vieux, in this case) get paid? How do the remixers get paid?

The remixers were paid a flat fee, essentially an advance. They are then given a percentage (or “points”) that will accrue as their mix (digitally) and the actual album (hard copy or digitally) is sold. Like every advance deal, once the money they were forwarded is earned back, they see royalties. Vieux will also get a percentage from each sale, though without the need to earn back any advance money.

How is this project different than typical remix and DJ projects?

I want people to recognize that the “traditional” and “digital” realms of music are two aspects of the same thing, and I have applied that idea to every aspect of this project. In my book Global Beat Fusion I discuss the computer being the first “world folk instrument.” Folk instrumentation is defined regionally and comes to be the soundtrack for that particular geography. The computer is being used simultaneously by everyone on the planet; like any instrument, it is not “easy” to play, but creates opportunities we’ve never had before.

With this project in particular three main ideas embody this. First, I invited remixers from various realms to partake. I didn’t want a complete “house” remix album, or a “chillout” compilation. I wanted everyone to do what they do without worrying about how to do it. Hence, we have thumping dancefloor interpretations by Cheb I Sabbah and the GOONDA crew, a soulful trumpet/conga mix by DJ Center, a bass-heavy cruiser by Nickodemus, a funky Stevie Wonder throwback via Chris Annibell, a head-nodding, hip-hop beat by Yossi Fine, a folksy four-on-the-floor missile by Fabian Alsultany, a chopped up and polished gem by Eccodek and a gorgeous, ambient mix by Karsh Kale. This leads me to aspect two.

Instead of releasing the album at one time, we decided to hold off three months after the release of Vieux’s debut to put out the full remix album. But we are releasing each song digitally as exclusives with six different online retailers. This means for a set amount of time, each site will have exclusive rights to sell one or two songs – which means they will promote that song as exclusive, hopefully bringing in more sales. Whether or not this works is anybody’s guess, but we wanted to test out the waters. It will do something important on each site: offer front-page presence and give an air of exclusivity that is key to doing anything successfully online (in terms of salability). It’s actually an interesting fusion of viral marketing (community) with predatory rights (individualism), which fits into the basic structure of the human psyche.

Like I said, this is trial by fire. But to make it real – to offer the project some aspect of tangible experience – we created the remix party at Pacha, the third aspect. I invited six remixers and a few percussionists to this gorgeous nightclub in honor of Vieux’s first-ever American tour. The show will actually be the first time he plays on stage in the US. We are having him do a half-hour mini-set before he performs at Joe’s Pub for a full show the following week. I wanted him to be real to the remixers, and vice-versa, and, if the night goes that route, to actually play along with some of the DJs as they spin. Having two albums centered around one artist is one thing; having the players on both interact and meet on a common musical ground is a whole other experience.

Both the original VFT album and the remix album are getting released in close succession. What are some challenges and potential problems with this approach? What are some potential advantages of this approach?

The remixed album will not be released until May. The individual remixes will be available simultaneously, though, something I thought long about. Most labels use remixes as a late-stage boost in the sales of the original recording, alongside the obvious sales from those mixes themselves. Thing is, we’re not dealing with mainstream music here. We have the strength of Vieux’s father’s name; if Americans know about African music, Ali is going to be a first point of reference. Still, I do not see an especially large amount of confluence between traditional African music fans and the electronica community…yet. I do not believe either album is going to have a huge jump out of the gate in terms of sales. I do believe both will prosper over time, however, and that they will help each other along the route.

Fans of Ali Farka Toure will immediately flock to the debut – that’s a given. But what about fans of Cheb I Sabbah and Karsh Kale? Now both of these men have worked with African music. Cheb’s last record was focused on North African female vocalists, while Karsh has played along with artists like Hassan Hakmoun. Associating a predominantly South Asian community with Vieux’s name, however, has integration potential. Same goes for the likes of Nickodemus, Chris Annibell, DK (GOONDA) and Center, all of whom have regular parties in New York with dedicated followings. Chris’s party, Afrokinetic, is designed for this project by name! The overall hope is that by introducing Vieux to the club scene we can draw attention to the original material. In the same breath, if that works in the opposite direction – if fans of the traditional sound want to hear these cutting-edge takes – even better.

How are you and Modiba Productions using the remix album to promote the original album?

Everything connects back to one centralized source, which is Vieux’s website. I wouldn’t say there are specific ways we are marketing them together. As Jesse mentioned during the Arts Presenters session on Digital Explosion, it’s a matter of branding. Whether you hear “Sangare” on a radio show or hear Nickodemus spin his version on the dance floor, you are directed back to one source. As far as we know they will not be packaged together. But it really is a matter of viral marketing, hoping that as each arm spreads out, they pull back to the same place.

How does live performance come into play with the remix project and the original project?

Live performance is where it’s at for any musician, guitarist/vocalist from Mali or DJ from Brooklyn. In general artists are not going to support themselves selling CDs. Recorded music is really a souvenir of a live show. This has long been the case with older music forms; the same applies to DJs. In that world there are “bedroom producers,” people that make music on a computer but cannot reinterpret it live. None of those are included in this project. When you go to Turntables on the Hudson, you’ll see the DJ surrounded by a few percussionists, maybe a guitar player, bassist, vocalist, etc. One time at a summer party an entire Balkan brass band came into the middle of the crowd and played for 15 minutes before dropping back into the DJ. This is the sensibility we’re creating with the Pacha event: six DJs, two live percussionists, a trumpet player, Vieux and an African dance troupe. As much as people are there to dance, there is that interactive feature that make nights like this really special.

Tell us about the Creative Commons remix. Who is CC and how does the remix contest work?

I interviewed Eric Steuer for the latest issue of XLR8R. He directs this project, which is called Mixter. Creative Commons is a copyright “law” -– in quotes because it is still more idea than law, though quickly gaining credibility –- that gives all the power to the creator. Instead of owning the copyright (or allowing a label to own it), the artist has different levels of ownership. They could allow some elements of their song for remixing, or that their music can be used for non-commercial purposes with no compensation (outside of credit). The Mixter project evolved out of this initiative, started by an outspoken and progressive lawyer named Lawrence Lessig (I highly suggest his book Free Culture for more info).

While interviewing Eric, who had done a tremendous job with a Brazilian music project, I mentioned the Vieux record. He loved the idea. So we are offering the elements – isolated instruments and vocals recorded in the studio – online for anyone on the planet to download, remix and post back online. The winner will be put on the final album. Again, it is that sense of interactivity, that the buyer can also be a player, that’s so appealing. They’ve done four projects like this, I believe, and have gotten between 100 and 500 remixes per project! You can go online and listen to all of them. It’s a brilliant idea, and this has quickly become a vehicle for spreading the word about Vieux. We’ve gotten the majority of press from this project alone.

OK, now give us a recap in terms of the timeline of how all of the above aspects are playing out.

Well everything really hits in the next few weeks – his first US tour, the Mixter contest and the release of his debut recording as well as a few of the remixes digitally. So it’s a lot at once, then a lot of little things as we go along. In March we’ll release one mix via National Geographic, and another on Calabash. Like I mentioned, longevity is key. As Vieux comes over to America to play more and more – I know he’s got some dates later in the spring, and possibly for the summer – things will continue to grow. We’ve gotten a great response from all ends of what we’re doing, and I expect that to blossom and continue to grow, especially as he comes here to perform.

What are some of your favorite new emerging online trends, technologies, and tools for pushing global music into more ears in America?

Well there are a ton of gadgets, and I’m a fan of toys, but I do become overwhelmed. I know ring tones are a huge market, but I use a blackberry, which doesn’t allow for them (go Verizon, as usual). And online networking is great. I spend a lot of time on MySpace and Zaadz, and have met an incredible amount of people. Yet this is by no means an end-all. I’m a very hands-on person; as a yoga instructor I spend hours interacting with people on a personal, physical level. I think this is a key thing to understand with our technologies.

I was reading an article about the first book to be published consisting entirely of text messages. Apparently it tells a coherent story. I’m a huge texter myself; I probably send a few dozen every day. All of these little ways of staying in touch are amazing and I want to utilize them for all aspects of what I do, whether pushing forward music, yoga or the books I publish. I’ve sold the majority of my books via a vehicle that didn’t exist just a decade prior. That’s incredible.

But I still don’t feel there’s anywhere more immediate, and primal, than the dance floor. I became a DJ because I can write about music until my fingers bleed, but you won’t have that intimate connection with the sounds I’m discussing. Between playing global music in my yoga classes and in the club, I’ve had a huge response that you would never get as a journalist. As we explore outward and continue to be inquisitive creatures, we’ll pull in what endears us. Global music certainly has that capability.

In the article about that text book they discuss how some head of state in Europe recently broke up with his girlfriend via cell phone messaging. Gossip aside, that’s a telling feature of modernity. The online world is a connecting point that offers us insight into who the world is. That information is useless if not applicable to daily life. If you listen to African music on an online station and then go outside and make racial slurs, the connection was not made. The trend to really expose this music to people will happen as we recognize people as people, and not ideologies or blips on a radar map. My favorite technology is turning the computer off and walking outside, just to see what happens. is the brainchild of Dmitri Vietze and is sponsored by rock paper scissors, inc., world music publicity firm

Full disclosure: World Village (label for Vieux Farka Toure) is a client of rock paper
scissors, inc.