Yoga is a practice used by fans of fitness and spiritual gurus — and in most every class there is music playing in the background as limber bodies flex between postures.
For the past 20 years, local record company White Swan Records has been distributing, recording and representing artists that create many of the sounds found in yoga studios internationally.
“You know, the yoga teacher is like a modern DJ now, and White Swan [Records] is just a great resource for teachers to get turned on to new music to play in their classes,” says MC Yogi, an artist represented by White Swan Records.
When White Swan Records first started in 1991 in Boulder, there wasn't a dominant or organized yoga industry in America. Founders Peter Hill and Parmita Pushman started the company by distributing yoga music created by friends.
“It was really interesting, because, all of a sudden, we were at the right place at the right time, when yoga studios started to play and sell music, and we had that background,” Pushman says. “It was great for us, it was the real alignment, to say ‘OK, here we are, this is a new wave in the market, but it’s also exactly who we are.’ It’s not a stretch for us. It’s not like we’re learning something new. This is what we do.”
White Swan Music, as it was known, released Essence, a record of chants and mantras made by longtime friend Deva Permal, in 1998. The recording has since sold more than half a million records worldwide, and its initial success is what helped launch the public image of White Swan Records as a label, says Joel Davis, the label manager at White Swan.
The business has continued to prosper despite the tumultuous nature of the music industry, something Pushman attributes to White Swan Records’ early familiarity with yoga.
“I think that we really know how to reach the grassroots market,” Pushman says. “We’ve built that relationship with the people and the stores and the studios so that we have a way to reach them.”
Yoga music is a genre as diverse as the people who practice.
“It’s generally not too hard-edged, but you might be surprised by some of the things considered yoga music,” Davis says.
Many assume that yoga music is really just world music, a medley of traditional chants and drums, but as participants in yoga have become younger, the music has followed suit. Now, many albums considered yoga music incorporate modern elements of electronic, dubstep and hip-hop.
“You look at some teachers’ play lists for what they’re playing in their classes, and it will look like a play list for a radio station,” Davis says. “There’s a great diversity in the music.”
In conjunction with its 20-year anniversary celebration, White Swan Records will be providing live music for Boulder’s first Hanuman Festival on June 16-18.
Despite White Swan Record’s origins in Boulder, no local artists are currently represented on the label. Davis says many of the label’s early artists lived abroad.
“It’s certainly not a policy to keep Boulder artists off the label,” Davis says. “The right project just hasn’t presented itself; we’re definitely certainly open to that.”
The festival will bring artists Donna De Lory, Desert Dwellers and MC Yogi, among others, to the Boulder to share their take on yoga music.
Davis says that all of the artists have a distinct take on the genre, allowing yoga to inform their art in unique ways.
De Lory toured with Madonna for 20 years and incorporates devotion and mantra with pop arrangements, while Desert Dwellers produces upbeat electronic music. MC Yogi integrates spirituality and yoga philosophy with hip-hop in his album Elephant Power, which is currently No. 7 on iTunes’ world music charts.
“The music has a flow to it that’s probably a common thread to any music that’s going to work for yoga,” Davis says.
Kirtan, a Sanskrit word referring to spiritual call and response, and devotional chants, is what is usually found in all styles of yoga music.
“These chants are ancient,” Davis says. “They’re thousands of years old, and people are doing these same chants, but they’re doing them in all different ways: guitar-driven, beat-driven, hip-hop, very traditional, very gentle, to dub, to electronic.”
White Swan Records is adapting to yoga’s changing audience and divergent musical tastes with the creation of a new imprint to the label, Black Swan, which will be released next year.
“That is going to be our home for the more upbeat, hipper, not necessarily just-for-yogis kind of yoga music, music that will have more of a crossover potential,” Davis says. “I think a lot of people out there have a preconceived notion of what yoga music is.”
What seemingly sets White Swan Records apart from other yoga music labels is their understanding of the market, as well as the small size of the company, which allows them to quickly adapt to yoga’s changing face after 20 years in business.
“Because we have a close relationship with a huge network of stores and studios, we have our finger on the pulse of what’s going on in this particular market, and I think that gives us an advantage,” Davis says.
White Swan Records’ reach extended to a natural foods store in Northern California, where a young Nicholas Giacomini, also known as MC Yogi, first discovered yoga and yoga music.
“White Swan was one of our distributors for music, and I had been working on some music on the side,” MC Yogi says. “I sent it over to White Swan and said, ‘Would you guys be interested in distributing this?’ And they put it out three years ago. It was the first record we did, and it went to the top of the iTunes charts for world music.”
MC Yogi’s album is still on the iTunes homepage for world music three years later. He says one of the coolest parts about working with White Swan Records is their industry presence and generosity of spirit, both as a distributor and record label.
“You know, working with them was always really great,” he says. “They sent me tons and tons of free music as a retailer — I was always getting lots and lots of demos in the mail. Then it was really fun when it came time to put out our album and the idea that there were tons and tons of studios around the country that were getting our album as a free demo, that was pretty cool.
Davis says that having a staff of fewer than 10 employees and a genuine dedication to yoga’s spiritual principles has helped make White Swan Records a business in Boulder that’s going to stay.
“It’s really the yoga of life,” he says. “We’re trying to apply that to the practice of being a record label and distributor.”