Cuban revolution

Ry Cooder on "Buena Vista Social Club": "This record has its own rules."

Published August 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

During the summer of '99, the only real pop-music surprise is that 52-year-old veteran guitarist Ry Cooder's "Buena Vista Social Club" is having a far more interesting run at the charts than Ricky Martin's first record in English.

Martin, the charismatic Latin superstar, recorded a pop album for one of the world's largest record companies. Thanks to three singles blanketing radio and video outlets, the album quickly went multi-platinum. By contrast, "Buena Vista Social Club," Cooder's laid-back musical collaboration featuring old-time forgotten Cuban musicians such as Ibrahim Ferrer, was released on small world-music label Nonesuch, distributed by Atlantic. Thanks to relentless word-of-mouth it has managed to reach gold status in America. More incredibly, 100 weeks after its release, the NPR-friendly album just recently hit its commercial stride and now seems certain to surpass the 1 million sales mark domestically.

For music-industry insiders who understand how difficult it is to organically grow an album aimed at consumers more concerned about monthly mortgages than weekend curfews, the choice is an easy one; "Buena Vista Social Club" has all the markings of a rare music-business phenomenon.

"This record has its own rules, its own engine," says Cooder, who traveled to Havana to record the album in the spring of '96. "It's just now starting to happen." Released in September of '97, the album won near-universal acclaim from critics but managed to sell just 3,000 to 4,000 copies a week, according to SoundScan.

That's fine for the average world-music release, but on the pop charts those numbers will bury an album. An upset win at the Grammys in early '98 helped temporarily boost the album to No. 178 on the Billboard 200. And while "Buena Vista" continued to sell well in major cities (remaining in the top 25 for 20 months running at the Tower Records flagship store in New York City), by last April national weekly sales had fallen to under 1,900 copies. Part of the problem was a total blackout at commercial radio. "It's been a ghetto," says David Bither, senior vice president at Nonesuch Records.

Still, older music fans sought the album out and kept a buzz alive. "People tell me they hear it in the air," says Cooder. "In restaurants, in coffee shops, in cars. Just not on the radio."

That blackout represents a particularly damning indictment against adult album alternative (Triple-A) rock stations. They're the outlets supposedly catering to older fans still curious enough about new music that they don't want to be escorted down the padded hallway to classic rock hell. Meanwhile, corporate broadcasters, busy buying up hundreds of stations nationwide and turning them into cookie-cutter pop, rock and R&B stations, often tout Triple-A stations as commercial but willing to take musical risks.

However, a quick check of Billboard's airplay chart reveals such cutting-edge and overlooked acts as the Pretenders, Van Morrison, Smash Mouth, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Goo Goo Dolls as the ones getting the most Triple-A spins these days. That means that despite its remarkable sales run among consumers in their 30s and 40s (i.e., target Triple-A audiences), "Buena Vista Social Club" remains shut out of the format.

Nonesuch approached VH1 over a year ago about the "Buena Vista Social Club" project, but the boomer cable channel was uninterested.

It all illustrates a larger dilemma, says Bither, who sees an industry obsessed with all things youthful and convinced that profits will come quicker with teen projects. "The older audience is not served by the record business," he says. That, despite statistics from the Recording Industry Association of America that show that those over 30 are the only ones who bought more CDs in 1998 than they did in 1997. "'Buena Vista Social Club' galvanized that over-35 audience who are not being satisfied, except for Lilith or maybe Tom Waits records," says Cooder. "But those are little voices in the dark."

Bookstores, however, did realize the record's unique draw and quickly came to its aid. Led by Barnes & Noble, Borders and, major book chains now wield real influence within the record business as they sell more CDs to a slightly more discerning customer. They have promoted "Social Club" relentlessly. As of Wednesday, the album ranked No. 3 among Amazon's current bestsellers.

Now, thanks to the recent release of Wim Wenders' surprisingly successful art-house documentary -- "Buena Vista Social Club," which chronicles the musical project -- Cooder's creation is selling 16,000 copies a week, according to SoundScan. That's good enough for No. 86 on the national chart, right behind Eric Clapton's latest. "It's become the de facto soundtrack," says Bither. (One week after the "Buena Vista Social Club" movie opened in Minneapolis, local sales of the record nearly quadrupled.) And with the first "Social Club" tour set for the fall, as well as talk of an upcoming PBS special in the works, the album could go even further.

"My experience is: You make a record, they disappear, and then you make another one," says Cooder, whose 35-year career has never been interrupted by notable solo commercial success. "But something happened in that room [in Havana] and I still haven't figured out exactly what it was."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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