Today, Righteous Babe is a successful independent label with nine additional artists on its roster (DiFranco's opening act on her current tour, the acoustic-punk badass Hammell On Trial, is the latest addition). Although the opportunity to sell out to a major label comes around regularly, DiFranco prefers to stay outside the corporate music industry. That means she won't sell as many copies as her friend Prince did in his heyday. On the other hand, when Prince learned how much more DiFranco makes per CD sold, he was inspired to get himself out of his long-term major-label deal.
In refusing to buy into the music industry system, DiFranco makes a statement more political than her most outspoken songs. In her actions, she provides an alternative to the most accessible product marketed to the largest possible audience. Now, when an indie label feels like it can't hold back the tsunami that is the majors, its owner looks up and thinks, "What would Ani do?"
"Ani DiFranco and Righteous Babe have been an inspiration to the entire independent music business, including me," says Brandon Kessler, founder and owner of Messenger Records, whose artists include Chris Whitley and Dan Bern.
Messenger Records is just one of the independent labels that has continued to be successful in a time when the majors are scrambling to do anything, both dumb (sue consumers of music) and smart (lower CD prices, although not as much as originally intended), to stop flagging sales. With smaller overhead and more focus on good music instead of the bottom line, indies are thriving, even as corporate buyouts and deregulation are making it harder and harder to get their music in record stores and on radio. They offer some lessons to their major label brethren.
Lesson 1: Value Your Customer
"The major labels blame two things for the downturn in the music business," Kessler says. "They blame piracy, meaning they blame their customers, or they blame their artists by saying there's no new genre of music out there. So they blame their consumers and they blame their suppliers. It's like, go back to business school, please.
"Piracy is a symptom of them not valuing or understanding their customer. They don't give them enough value on the CD they purchase. They charge too much per CD that doesn't have enough songs that the person likes. There's all this Internet stuff and they don't even have a card in the CD saying give us your e-mail and get a free song. They don't reach out to their customers. Independent labels for a long while have reached out to our customers, incorporated them into our marketing campaigns, answered every e-mail, given free songs to them online, encouraged tape trading and kept prices low."
Lesson 2: Value Your Talent
Nan Warshaw, a co-owner of pre-eminent Americana label Bloodshot Records, says some of her bands that ended up signing to majors got screwed over, as the label waited years for the right time to release a record, if they released it at all. She estimates that about 2 percent of bands are deemed successful by a major label, and the rest are dropped.
"Most of our bands are breaking even," she says. "They're seeing royalty checks. Even if they are piddly little checks, at least they're seeing something, and that's something you'd never see at a major label unless you're selling hundreds of thousands of records."
A good example of this is the Old 97's. The alt-country sweethearts left Bloodshot for their shot at stardom with Elektra. After they polished up their sound and released three slick CDs which garnered little commercial success, the label dropped them. The band is currently shopping for another label and hopes to have something new out by spring 2004.
Jeff Price, founder and co-owner of SpinART Records (whose roster includes artists Clem Snide, Apples in Stereo and Frank Black), agrees with Warshaw. "For the major labels, this isn't about getting Robert and Hilarie from Apples in Stereo enough money to carpet their new baby's bedroom. It's about hitting quarterly projections for their share holders, and hitting bottom lines and getting the share price up."
The major reason Sister Hazel left Universal Records to start their own label, Sixthman, is because, according to drummer Mark Trojanowski, they were not allowed to release the music they wanted when they wanted. "We just couldn't live in world that says you're only worthy to put out a record every three years. That's not how Led Zeppelin and the Beatles put out music 20 years ago."
Nashville has more dive bars than ATL now that sucks. tbh i think that new…
*Christ, Lord sorry
"Punk" style like this seems like it is the polar opposite of punk. Bradford Cox…
They're kind of starting to look like a joke of themselves. Song's good though.