Interview: Teresa Georgi (Putumayo Kids Europe)

TeresaGeorgi_AmsterdamFest.JPGLast month the energetic Putumayo Kids label released its latest globally-flavored CD, European Playground. Last week we chatted with Farmer Jason about life as a North American artist breaking into the European kids music scene. This week I thought it would be interesting to get a more European perspective on the kids music scene, so I talked with Teresa Georgi, who's the manager for Putumayo Kids Europe. She was born in America but has lived in Europe for a number of years now. Read on to find out the good parts about the kids music scene, the bad parts, and about the next Putumayo disk.

Zooglobble: What music did you listen to growing up?
Teresa Georgi: My mother loves the blues so we grew up listening to Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker… When she wasn’t playing the blues we listened to the Stones, Bob Dylan, Al Green and Janis Joplin – I was lucky; there was always great music at our house.

My first 45 was "Puff the Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul and Mary. My mother finally had to take it away from me though as the lyrics always made me cry. My next 45 was "‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ by the Beatles (I think "Can’t Buy Me Love" was on the flip side) and as far as I was concerned this was music nirvana. I couldn’t wait until I was a teenager! I was about 5 at the time.

How did you end up working for Putumayo in Amsterdam?
I’ve known the founder and CEO, Dan Storper, for over 20 years. In 2005 we met in a restaurant in Amsterdam by chance (the European headquarters are in Holland) and started talking and sharing ideas; when he told me about the fledgling kids division it immediately captured my imagination.

I’ve always loved the brand and its socially-conscious profile and jumped at the opportunity to help grow the kids market in Europe. I really believe that our CDs are exceptional, not only are they fun and engaging but music helps children express themselves, and our music helps make children aware that there’s a whole world of kids out there that are fundamentally just like them. It’s a unique concept that takes children and their families on a journey around the world and helps them to become global citizens.

There's obviously been a resurgence of interest in family music from both the public and musicians here in the States. What's the status of the genre in Europe?

HerbieTreehead.jpgThat varies greatly from country to country. France, for example, has a dynamic family music scene and a number of popular kids’ bands that have a growing fan base, while in the UK, kids bands are almost non-existent. It’s incredibly challenging to find UK music labels interested in producing and distributing kids’ music so stores end up carrying 15 different versions of “Wheels on the Bus.” On one hand you would think that this presents us with the perfect opportunity to dominate the market but the reality is that the resurgence of family music in North America has created an incredible demand for kids’ music. It will be awhile before Europe catches up but we’re working on it! (Photo: UK artist Herbie Treehead)

Who are the big kids' artists in Europe?
Again that’s entirely country-specific. The Netherlands have wonderful bands like Samba Salad and De Band Krijgt Kinderen but these bands are virtually unknown outside of their borders. There’s some crossover that takes place at summer festivals but I couldn’t name one kid’s band that is well-known throughout Europe.

Do you find the artists are limited to one country due to language or cultural reasons, or are some stars pan-European in their popularity?
I think language is much more of a barrier than the perceived cultural "differences." So much of the music we listen to have the same roots, or borrow from favorite genres like reggae or rock & roll, and kids all over Europe share a love of very similar sounding rhythms and melodies. But for a band to achieve pan-European success they would have to communicate with their audience in about 20 different languages, unless they give really theatrical performances – that’s asking a lot from most bands.

Language is our biggest challenge as well, more so with the parents though than their children. Parents all over Europe are inclined to choose music for their children that they’re familiar with, and that’s sung in their native language. So Putumayo Kids CDs inevitably appeal to a niche market of parents that tend to be globally oriented and like the idea of introducing their children to other cultures and languages through music. There’s no question that children like to follow the lyrics and sing along, but they’re surprisingly intrigued by music from different countries and if the beat is good and the melody is strong they’re into it.

Is European Playground essentially a compilation of the biggest European family music artists?
Yes and no. European Playground definitely features some of Europe’s most popular family music artists - but these artists are popular in their individual countries, not throughout Europe. But that’s what makes this CD so appealing. Here we have the opportunity to introduce children all over Europe to great, upbeat children’s music from neighboring countries. For them it’s fun to hear the music their French or Danish neighbors are listening to, and in the process it teaches them that we’re all part of a global community.

Is TV an important component of success for European family musicians, or can they make it without it?
I can’t speak for TV across Europe, but my experience in Holland, the UK, and France is that unfortunately the best children’s bands fail to get the television exposure that they deserve. The bands that get exposure tend to be very mainstream and seem to have been created by marketing teams with the simple objective of producing a brand that generates sales of merchandise – music CDs included. But in answer to your question, I think bands can find success without television but it requires a lot of hard work!

Which North American artists are doing well in Europe? Is the language barrier for non-English speaking countries a barrier to the artists?
There is definitely a language barrier so I think North American performers would need to work with either a local kids’ artist or entertainer to ensure that the audience is engaged. But if this is done well it can add fun and potentially hilarious elements to a performance as it gives them the opportunity to play with language and cultural stereotypes. There are a few artists like Dan Zanes and the The Wiggles who perform regularly in the UK, and there are wonderful family festivals throughout Europe so there’s certainly an audience for a wide range of kids’ bands, but there’s limited distribution channels for CD sales.

AlainLeLait.jpgAny advice for North American family musicians thinking about making a push into Europe -- are there particular countries or venues that are receptive to them? Any tricks of the trade for breaking into the European CD (or download) market?
To be honest I think I could better advise European artists on how they could break through in North America as there’s a much stronger market there and an existing network! Local European artists can build a market in their native countries but they themselves have difficulty breaking through in other European countries so it’s understandable that it would be even more challenging for North American musicians. There is, however, a growing interest in kids’ music, so I would suggest they focus their efforts on the UK as language isn’t a barrier, and try to build a community of support there through radio, television and the internet. The challenge is that they’ll have to do it on their own. (Photo: French artist Alain LeLait, who now lives in Colorado)

What's up next for Putumayo Kids in Europe?
We’re about to launch our new release, Picnic Playground, on July 28th, which features a number of talented musicians from Europe, North America, Australia, South Africa and the Caribbean. In addition we’re in the process of expanding our brand to include other products that will also take kids on a journey around the world. In the meantime we will continue to build a market in Europe for kids’ music that hopefully will benefit artists living on both sides of the ocean.