Time to Chill

Suddenly, during the spring of 2001, Hotel Costes was everywhere. Everywhere that mattered. Almost simultaneously, the groovy yet relaxed rhythms spun during and after dinner in the lobby of the lush four-star Parisian hotel by French DJ Stephane Pompougnac could be heard over the chatter at well-appointed brunches on Key Biscayne, amid the clatter of silverware in cozy restaurants in Coconut Grove, and in counterpoint to the swish of raw silk at ultracool clothing stores on Lincoln Road.

Pause a moment in your analysis of the finale of your favorite HBO series, and you would hear Shirley Bassey's swinging love song "Where Do I Begin" reinvented as a downtempo heartbreak anthem. Look up from your cappuccino and copy of Vanity Fair and bounce to the funky bass and electronic snare of Cujo-Superstars of Rock's "Apollo" playing at the outdoor café. Tell the waiter: "Track twelve, please." Your psyche slips into the way-out drums of Nickodemus's "Cleopatra in New York" as you finish your crème brûlée.

Ah, to be upscale and cool. Or to put it more precisely, upscale and chill. If Spain's José Padilla invented the laid-back and lush electronic genre known as chill over sunset cocktails at the Café del Mar on the island of Ibiza, Pompougnac brought chill indoors and infused it with the spirit and myth of Parisian café society.

"When you have to make people dance, that's one thing," the DJ tells New Times while cozied up on a couch squeezed in beside the caterer's station on the back patio of the South Beach club Rain during a Winter Music Conference showcase last March. A compact, handsome man in his mid-thirties, Pompougnac speaks English slightly less badly than New Times speaks French, and so we are interrupting the interview every so often to ask a handler to translate or to exercise our right of first refusal of the seafood hors d'oeuvres heading out on the caterers' silver trays. A delicate shrimp in hand, the DJ continues, "At a restaurant, some people just want to have dinner -- no music. I have to prepare everybody to enjoy the music. I have to teach them to listen to a new style."

The guests at the Hotel Costes learned their lessons well; soon they were asking the DJ for music to take home. Pompougnac got the idea that his own chill approach should not be confined to the four walls of the Hotel Costes, where he provided an elegant electronic backdrop to diners and dalliers at the hotel's outdoor café -- however exquisite the garden or gilded the sofa cushions. His Hotel Costes should be broken into little digital bits for all the world of chic to hear.

The hoteliers acquiesced, Pompougnac says, somewhat reluctantly at first, to lending the institution's name to a DJ compilation. "For the first disc, I had to do everything myself," he points out. "I even took the picture for the CD cover." But when so many proved so eager to own a piece of the Costes's aural essence, the hotel happily lent its name again and again and again up until the recent release of Hotel Costes, volume 5 and counting.

But for now we are concerned with Hotel Costes, volume 3. For although volume 1 opens with a delicious rendition of the Rodgers and Hart standard "My Funny Valentine" by a band called Big Muff and volume 2 boasts "Sympathique," a delightful French sing-along by Pink Martini whose French chorus we've deciphered as I don't want to work/I don't want to eat breakfast/I just want to forget/And so I smoke (now what could be more glamorously French than that?), these attractions alone were not enough to alter the atmosphere on the other side of the Atlantic.

Volume 1 and volume 2 with all their charms were available to buyers in the United States through the South Florida-based importer MSI Music, which carried both titles among, as they say in the biz, its 80,000 skews -- the row upon row of CDs that line shelf upon shelf in MSI's enormous and immaculate warehouse just off the Palmetto. Volumes 1 and 2 sat waiting for Windows shoppers at Virgin, or Tower, or Amazon.com to place an order. But who knew those were the two titles anyone wanted among all those skews?

Only a very select few knew, until the people at French label Pschent approached the importers at MSI looking for a deal. "[French] labels were saying, 'We don't have representation in the United States,'" reports Ruben Leyva, vice president of sales for MSI. Even without any promotion stateside, Hotel Costes volumes 1 and 2 did a decent business. The idea of what might happen if someone did push the series was enticing enough to seduce Leyva and his boss, MSI president Ben Colonomos, into the marketing and promotion business after fourteen years of importing and distributing discs from Europe, Australia, and Japan. "With volume 3, we started to work the Hotel Costes series," says Leyva, "more like a record label."

And how. "We've moved close to 200,000 units of products from the international labels," claims Leyva. "A little over 110,000 on the Costes series alone." That's a tidy little niche, especially when the music industry at large is in such dire straits. MSI has been promoting French lounge and chill with events like the WMC showcase at Rain for Pompougnac and his playmate, French house DJ Charles Schilling, last spring and a late-night showcase for the two DJs at Mynt. MSI has also thrown a party in Paris in the Hotel Costes itself and on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at the old Maxim's. Most recently, MSI co-hosted a party featuring Pompougnac and Schilling with the Elite Modeling Agency in the newly reopened Limelight nightclub in New York.

But MSI is not only moving into the familiar circles of glamour. The distributor also is targeting a consumer who might never think of wandering into a record store, much less a dance club.

"Now we have DJs spinning in Saks Fifth Avenue," says Leyva. MSI approached the department store about playing chill as background music and keeping the discs in stock. The strategy has been repeated successfully in New York with plans to expand to seven other cities including Las Vegas, Houston, and Cleveland. The promotion worked so well that MSI hired local DJ David Cordoves to spin on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Saks Bal Harbour. The DJ keeps a playlist, printed up like tiny menus, next to the CDs.

"People are not just buying one CD," says Colonomos. "They're buying eight or twelve at the same time. These are women who are not part of the world dance community. The music is very soft and very sweet. It's not aggressive and it's not overbearing. It conjures an atmosphere."

Saks is not the only store buying into chill as what a press release for the Elite Modeling party hailed as "this year's sonic accessory." The French discs are now on the stereo and on sale at DKNY and Urban Outfitters. A number of South Florida shoe stores and hair salons also carry the records. The very chill Lincoln Road-style mecca Base has found that clients so identify with the sound that the store now has the entire MSI chill catalogue on display at the front of the store -- hitting customers before they even see the shoes or layered sheaths. The music, Colonomos says, gives shoppers "a parallel experience that goes beyond the record store."

But isn't there a danger in getting too tangled up with the fickle dictates of fashion? Colonomos hints at the perils when he searches the past for an analogy. "In the same way that easy jazz appealed to a lot of different people, this music has an appeal beyond the dance community." He regrets the comparison almost as quickly as he makes it. "I'm not saying the music is like easy jazz. I'm just saying it also has a broad appeal."

But it's too late. The comparison suggests a frightening possibility. Could chill someday, all too soon, lose its cool and precisely because of its broad appeal sound as toothless and inane as easy-listening jazz?

Colonomos doesn't think so. "Part of the appeal is the glamour. That scene [at the Hotel Costes] is absolutely phenomenal. I think Stephane's achievement is being able to communicate the glamour of the Hotel Costes."

Pompougnac, who has a penchant for more straightforward house music when given the opportunity, does not plan to keep the Costes series forever. "Maybe one or two more," he conjectures, before he calls it quits.

Whenever that day comes, we'll always have Paris.

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Celeste Fraser Delgado