Music firm goes to seed for a rockin’ good future

by Angela Jeffs

Last year, all too aware that sales of CDs were dropping, Douglas Allsopp of Buffalo Records went along to the annual fair of promotional goods at Tokyo’s Big Sight to look for a possible additional venture.

“I already knew about Greensticks, made by an Australian company. It was the lack of interesting new products — 400 companies all pushing the usual stuff, tissues, bags — that helped convince us to start doing Greensticks in Japan.”

As a product, Greensticks is the eco-equivalent of a giveaway matchbook. The difference is that instead of a match head that strikes a light, there is a seed. You simply tear out the greenstick, turn it upside down and plant it in a pot or flowerbed.

Thinking it quite the most original idea for a freebie he had ever come across, Allsopp approached the company in Melbourne, only to discover it had been invented in the U.K. 20 years before. Still, for his requirements, it was perfect. “As well as Buffalo Records and our subsidiary label Yellow Bus, we’re now also Greensticks Japan.”

With a passion for music, Californian-born Allsopp managed record stores in Los Angeles before coming to Japan two decades ago “for a couple of years.” He did have a kind of plan, he admits, based around the appeal of the French countryside. “I guess I got de-railed.”

For years he worked as a translator and an event organizer. Then came the idea of establishing his own music label.

“It was a fluke really. I’d become frustrated with Japanese promoters opting on the side of safety in bringing artists over from the States — you know the 27th Deep Purple Reunion kind of thing. I met up with Japan veteran and music buff Peter Barakan and asked what he’d do in my situation.”

On Barakan’s suggestion, Allsopp organized a tour for the slide guitar artist Kelly Joe Phelps. Live gigs in Japan were very different even then, but it proved a great way to make contacts and meet buyers of blues and country music.

Initially, Allsopp ran Buffalo Records from his home in Setagaya, Tokyo. Realizing that it was working out fine and that he could live anywhere, he and his family moved to Kamakura. For three years he worked out of a tiny office off Komachi-dori. Now the company, with a young, enthusiastic team, is on the main drag down to the beach. Nice work if you can get it.

Business is good, he says. This may come as a surprise considering young people especially are choosing to download popular music online. With CD retail sales down 50 percent compared to two years ago, the secret to survival he believes (“if there is any secret”) is specialization.

“We’ve been importing and releasing music from New Orleans since 2001. But after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 there was no music in the city for two years.”

Now the city is back to a certain degree of normalcy. Since they are no longer struggling quite so hard to survive, artists can start to spend more time and money on their music; they can begin releasing albums again.”

Allsopp is keen to find new ways to bring such music to the public. This summer, for example, he prepared eight hours of music — “really good stuff” — for play at a local beach house. “I’m thinking to start making low-price compilations to help musicians get their names out there.”

Every year or so, he brings a name to Japan. In October, it will be John Cleary, the British keyboardist who has lived in New Orleans for 30 years. Cleary heads his own band, in addition to which he’s been playing in Bonnie Raitt’s band for almost 10 years.

“That’s him we’re hearing right now,” Allsopp says, adjusting the office shuffle. “Tickets for John Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen are selling reasonably well. Still we need to keep working diligently to get the word out to ensure a successful tour.” The Sim Redmond Band has toured Japan five times, including a gig at Blue Note. The last time they were here through the auspices of Allsopp and his team was two years ago. Most recently, Buffalo was able to get Janet Klein to this year’s Fuji Rock lineup. “It was great. Janet and her band played on three of the stages.”

He changes the shuffle again to introduce Brett Dennen, a young singer-songwriter he holds in high regard. He’s not a best-seller, but Allsopp believes his uniquely quirky voice will appeal to a significant audience. “He’s just the kind of artist I want to bring here.”

Yellow Bus was developed three years ago as a sub-label. Allsopp has always personally preferred acoustic — swing, blues, singer-songwriters — but acknowledges there are a lot of good electronic jam bands.

“Understanding that a lot of fans of acoustic may not like that kind of music, I decided to give jam a label of its own.” Over the last eight years, he has released some 150 albums in Japan, with a core of some 30 artists that he knows sell well. He also handles imports.

And even though Greensticks may sound like an odd product to add to a music business, Allsopp says it works well. He has total confidence in his colleague and ex-wife, Setsuko Noguchi, who now handles that side of the business.

“In six months,” she says, “Greensticks has attracted nearly 50 clients, including Apple, Panasonic, CNN.”

Companies who feel they have a corporate responsibility for the environment are especially keen. They design their own Greensticks to give away in-store, at events and at product launches. Renault hand them out as free gifts in their showrooms. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s label offers them with new albums.

The public responds well; Allsopp thought it a clever environmentally sound idea and so apparently do we.

He continues with equal enthusiasm: “We test them here and at home.” People are contacting the office all the time, saying that they planted sweet basil or one of the many other herbs and flowers available, and how now (he says pointing to mid-calf and higher) “they’re up to here!”

The public can see the product on the company’s Web site; they are then invited to get in contact for press releases and samples. At the moment, most clients approach Buffalo, so there is no need for aggressive selling. But there are bigger things in the pipeline as the company prepares to offer Greensticks retail.

“We’re at a strange stage with Buffalo,” admits Allsopp. “We’re doing really well, but to afford two or three more staff we’d need to expand considerably. We’ll see how things go for the rest of the year, then take stock.”

He wants more people in Japan to go to live gigs. Having spent a year in London, he knows how exciting a good live music scene can be. In the meantime, he will keep plugging away at promoting New Orleans music and other American roots music, and bringing over artists on a regular basis.

As for his two sons, they respond to Buffalo’s kind of music up to a point. They used to like it a lot, but these days are more into Japanese pop. But maybe there is hope, because just the other day, Allsopp found one of his boys moving around to Dire Straits, which in his mind has “never been dance music.”

For his own part, he is very partial to John Cleary’s live album (a rarity as Cleary does not like recording live), and right now he is listening to Shelby Lynne, who has a new album out covering Dusty Springfield tracks.

“It’s great, really good.”

Web site: Buffalo Records, Greensticks Japan.