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Label them mavericks, successful ones, too

By Tom Moon
INQUIRER MUSIC CRITIC


Let's take a peek into the pop-music pipeline.

The next few months will bring: a Mariah Carey record midwifed by Sean ``Puffy'' Combs and other million-selling producers; a Rolling Stones record designed to accompany yet another stadium tour; some nerdy computer wizard who will inevitably be hyped as the next electronica breakthrough; a few power-ballad chanteuses bent on out-bellowing Celine Dion; at least one more hissy-fit knockoff of Alanis Morissette.

In other words, more product. More boring business as usual.

Anybody still wondering why the recording industry's in the dumps? Think it might have something to do with decisions about talent made by major labels?

Ani DiFranco does. The fiery singer and songwriter, who's appearing Wednesday at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts on a bill with Bob Dylan, has cultivated a large and devoted audience without the help -- or interference -- of a major label.

The Artist formerly known as Prince thinks so, too. After years of what he considered ``slave'' treatment at Warner Bros. Records, he's operating as an emancipated independent: His next release, the four-disc Crystal Ball, will be available primarily through mail order.

Popular music has always had its rebels, those ``outsiders'' whose works posed a threat to the status quo. But most often, their rebellion has been packaged and marketed by the recording industry through the usual channels. Other renegades, discovered by the small independent labels that boomed in the '80s, were co-opted in more subversive ways: Their small labels have routinely been purchased by the majors.

DiFranco's indie insurrection is something else entirely. Born of idealism and a desire for creative control, it's grown over the last six years to become a viable alternative to the established corporate order. Her quest has inspired scores of artists, from veterans such as Jane Siberry and Kurt Smith of Tears for Fears -- both of whom started their own companies in the last year -- to emerging talents with no track record.

Just by doing things on her own terms, DiFranco is forcing other artists to consider the compromises they make and to examine the qualifications of the people who pull the levers of the star-maker machinery -- those noted (if often nonmusical) Svengalis whose decisions have been known to choke creativity in the name of profit.

Naturally, the record execs dismiss these enterprising end-runs. In interviews with Billboard and other industry trade magazines, they counter that the major labels still offer the most efficient system for promoting and distributing recorded music. This may be true, but given the current emphasis on hits at every big company (in one manager's words, ``If you don't sell half a million your first or second time out, forget it''), artists who don't fit the hit profile may stop trying to conform to some talent scout's vision and begin to explore other outlets.

In a few years, when digital delivery of music via the Internet becomes practical, these folks will be happy to eliminate the muddling influence of the labels and work directly with the public, on more hospitable terms. (Already, Todd Rundgren is offering a subscription service through his Web site, http://www.tr-i.com For $25 a year, fans can download new music not available on CD.)

DiFranco has always gone direct. From the start, she focused on touring and developing a mailing list. She recorded her solo albums on shoestring budgets and distributed them to a small network of independent record stores. Her sheer determination and constant road work have helped her cultivate an extraordinarily loyal audience: In July, before her picture graced the cover of Spin magazine, her 10-album catalog crossed the million-copies-sold threshold.

Best of all, DiFranco keeps more money per unit than most major-label superstars. After covering pressing costs and overhead, her label, Righteous Babe Records, nets the artist $4.25 per disc -- compared with the average $1.50 earned by most top-shelf talents working for the majors.

Righteous Babe president Scot Fisher maintains that anyone with the right attitude can do what DiFranco has done: ``The analogy I use is the lottery: You sign a deal with a major label, it's like you're betting your career and your life that you're going to win that lottery. For every act that makes it, 20 acts don't. But if you set your sights on something more realistic, and you approach the work like a craftsman, you can sustain a career.''

Fisher and others cite changes in the production end as being beneficial to artists who want to go it alone. Ads in trade magazines offer to press 1,000 CDs for approximately $2,000. Internet-based promotion is relatively inexpensive, as is running a mail-order business complete with an 800 number. Righteous Babe's 800-ON-HER-OWN has helped sell more than 130,000 copies of DiFranco's current double CD, the live Living in Clip.

The Artist also has his own 800 line -- 800-NEW-FUNK -- and a business plan that, like DiFranco's, relies on a pragmatic combination of low-cost releases and steady touring. Operators on the line are taking advance orders for the four-CD live collection Crystal Ball; more than 50,000 orders, at $50 each, have been confirmed. The Artist says he won't even print up the discs until he receives 100,000 commitments, a way to reduce potential losses.

These artist-run operations offer important nonmonetary benefits as well. Had DiFranco signed with a major, she might not have been given the green light to record with Utah Phillips, the folk veteran known for his anarchistic views. With Righteous Babe, she can control her own destiny. That means taking creative risks big labels might discourage.

One of the Artist's complaints with Warner Bros. was its reluctance to release music on his timetable. Major labels expect new efforts every 18 months to two years and argue that issuing product more frequently floods the market and hinders often-elaborate promotional campaigns. A notorious workaholic, the former Prince is more interested in sharing music than promoting it. His new strategy -- which tapped major-label distribution for last year's three-disc Emancipation and independent distribution for his acoustic effort The Truth -- allows him to release his wares as it suits his prolific ways.

It should be alarming that there is little room for visionaries such as DiFranco and the Artist within the major-label system. But considering the prevailing bottom-line mentality, which offers an endless parade of cartoon gangstas, overwrought balladeers and other cynical stabs at the lowest common denominator, it's hardly surprising.

If artists who are dedicated to stretching things -- to the kind of experimentation and long-term growth the industry once encouraged -- must exist on the fringes, so be it. They might be out of the pipeline, but as DiFranco's extraordinary success makes clear, they're no longer out of the game.


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