No explanation is sufficient as to why a cover of a Ben E. King chestnut from 1961, sung by a band of unknown street performers and indigenous musicians from all across the globe, would ever, in the remotest way possible, become a Top Ten hit.
But this is the free-for-all era of digital media, where your mother or your neighbor could become stars if struck with the right idea or confidence to reveal an undiscovered talent. Viral distribution is why “Stand By Me,” sung by a group called Playing for Change, became a YouTube hit earlier this year, resulting in a bestselling album, a PBS special, several national television appearances, and, starting in late October, a national tour.
The phenomenon fell into place organically and with ease; however, getting to this point took Mark Johnson, a recording engineer in Los Angeles, four years of travel over 15 countries. Between stints working the studio console for stars such as Paul Simon and Jackson Browne, Mr. Johnson designed Playing for Change as a pet project he hoped would “show all different cultures and races and political points of view coming together to do something positive.”
Johnson visited South Africa, Ghana, India, Nepal, the Middle East, Russia, Brazil, and Ireland, among many other regions, with mobile recording equipment to capture instrumentalists, vocalists, choral groups, youth choirs, and subway performers, each contributing individual parts to familiar songs by Bob Marley, Sam Cooke, Peter Gabriel, and others.
Supported by private investors, the project was meant for eyes, as well as ears. An accompanying DVD to the album, “Songs Around the World” (Playing For Change Records/Concord Music Group), features videos that deliver Johnson’s vision with striking clarity: a cellist in Moscow accompanied by native American drummers in New Mexico; a steel guitarist in New Orleans backed by a South African choir; the rock star Bono of U2 trading vocals with the Ghana reggae star Rocky Dawuni.
The effect is less a multicultural collision and more an artful collage, as Johnson’s editing creates generous space among the performers, which, in turn, allows the songs to gradually build and gives them their emotional sway.
The trial run was “Stand By Me,” which Johnson released last November. It ended up receiving over 13 million hits. Johnson credits “the power of transcendence” for the response. “Everyone in the world wants to be part of something bigger than themselves,” he says.
Regarding the out-of-nowhere factor, there is a precedent. The Buena Vista Social Club, a group of unknown Cuban singers and musicians, and Down From the Mountain, featuring singers performing Appalachian music and bluegrass, both resulted from hit movies and generated Grammy-winning albums, tours and star turns for little-known performers who languished for years with scant exposure.
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.
“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.