Do it Yourself Rock
It was in the early spring of this year when we last caught up with Ani DiFranco, the independent folk-rock artist who has recorded, produced, distributed and sold over 600,000 albums through her own company since it opened for business in 1990. DiFranco was already the apple of alternative folk fansÕ eyes nationwide, persevering as an individual musician without selling out to corporate America. Now sheÕs in such high demand that even corporate America canÕt get enough of her."I always thought there must be another way for musicians to make a living without going to bed with business people and buying into that music industry corporate structure,"DiFranco said last spring. "ItÕs not like I have an inner hatred of people in the music business, though. TheyÕre just people, and a lot of them believe in the music. TheyÕre not evil. The system is just fucked up, and I donÕt want to involve myself in perpetuating it.ÓIf you caught the front page of The New York Times recently, you saw yet another reason for DiFrancoÕs attitude. The clearest and most recent indication that corporate label status can co-opt musical integrity is the national move on the part of Wal-Mart stores that requires major labels to edit music that the chain deems objectionable. In order to get discs on the shelves, major labels have given in to the huge chain, which is responsible for sales of over 50 million of the 615 million CDs purchased in the United States last year.The fact that major labels have shown a willingness to cave in to the Religious Right-style demands of an overgrown variety-store chain suggests that mainstream music is less and less about choice for consumers and more and more about profit for investors. In response, an increasing number of independent artists like DiFranco are finding it easier than ever before to be truly alternative to the mainstream. And these artists are likely to flourish in the coming years, redefining as they do the boundaries of alternative music.Exactly what "independent" means today in the music business can be a source of some confusion. With all of the production companies, distribution outlets and major and independent labels working together, it could be argued that no one can be truly autonomous. Indeed, as major labels continue to buy out successful independent labels, indie labels have largely become a thing of the past.The resulting buzz is all about D.I.Y., or "do it yourself"music, which might be described as the alternative to alternative. Bands who want to give it a go can find unprecedented resources available to them from the Internet and a new wave of independent labels and distribution companies across the country. More and more small companies are seizing the opportunity to promote D.I.Y. acts, which many believe have the potential to be the real moneymakers on the World Wide Web.D.I.Y. is a concept that has been around since the late 1970s, when self-produced 7-inch singles gave birth to punk rock. Today, D.I.Y. is making a comeback and itÕs creating a new wave of underground bands that are determined to stay in control of everything from the recording to the distribution and marketing of their product. If there is any artist who has successfully demonstrated the potential success of D.I.Y. recording, itÕs DiFranco. Her current tour, which touched down at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. this week, is selling out in venues across the country. DiFrancoÕs do-it-yourself philosophy and her highly-publicized success story have set the stage for others to follow in her footsteps.DiFranco founded her company, Righteous Babe, in 1990, when she was only 20. She was intent on retaining creative control of her music and creating alternative channels of distribution. Using a network of independent distributors, the company has now sold over 200,000 records this year alone and increased its staff to eight full-time employees. Ignoring the lure of corporate lucre, DiFranco, her fans and her employees argue that the payoff is greater and more satisfying when you keep the music business in-house."ItÕs increasingly difficult to create an alternative to mainstream pop culture,"admits Righteous Babe president Scot Lucas over the telephone from the labelÕs offices in Buffalo, N.Y.. "ItÕs like a microwave oven as opposed to a slow bake oven. Ani and I always talk about alternative and how an alternative station can be the largest station in town. They have t-shirt contests and play Green Day and Nirvana. WhatÕs so alternative about that? ThatÕs the question. What are you an alternative to if youÕre on Warner? How can you have a D.I.Y. ethic with a $450 million budget?ÓOnce upon a time, D.I.Y. was among the most important formative influences on modern alternative musicÑthe 1970s and early 1980s punk bands that proliferated by distributing their own material. "Back then, there were like 50 7-inch singles coming out a month from punk bands,"says Mike Deming, the chief engineer at Studio 45, a Hartford recording facility. "That whole early Õ80s punk scene was all self-fueled."There was a different 7-inch coming out every day and I had friends that would buy every single one. Between Ô77 and maybe Õ82 or Õ83, they would buy every single 7-inch that hit the streetÑand there were millions of them. Back then D.I.Y. referred to a band taking their master and overseeing mastering manufacturing and distribution.Ó"Bands are still doing that today, to a certain degree,"says Deming. "They will pick up a CMJ [College Music Journal] and make themselves a distribution database and go out and spend their own money to manufacture and distribute."The success of underground labels is monitored closely by major record companies, which regularly track a bandÕs progress on the college music circuit before deciding who to sign. Unfortunately, the respect fans accord D.I.Y. labels is often undermined by companies that use the term as a selling point to obtain street credibility. Large companies have been known call independent labels and ask them to release a bandÕs recording in order to create an aura of authenticity around the group.Righteous BabeÕs do-it-yourself philosophy is a response both to such major-label hypocrisy and the fact that the contracts the majors offer to young artists are not always as sweet as they appear. Aside from distribution and promotional backing, record companies simply offer an artist an advance to support their recording or touring expenses. Unless youÕre Alanis Morissette, that advance will be just enough to cover the basics. Ultimately it must be paid back to the record company from album sales. Once thatÕs taken care of, the band takes a percentage of royalties. If the record doesnÕt get made or doesnÕt sell, the artist can end up seriously in debt. DiFranco and Lucas would argue a self-fueled record company invests in itself 100 percent."No matter what kind of business youÕre in, if youÕre doing it yourself, itÕs D.I.Y.,"says Angela Stron of New York CityÕs Dirt Records, a fully independent label that currently supports a stable of seven bands. StronÕs company uses independent distribution to market its bands to mom-and-pop shops in the city. The company has gained enough recognition to land its biggest act, Magic Dirt, a deal with Warner Bros.Ñwhich raises another question.Why, if being independent is the aim, would a band leave the small label that has worked so hard to promote it for a bigger label where itÕs one of a hundred other bands competing for attention from one marketing and public relations department?"You need distribution and thatÕs the hard part of being independent,"Stron says. "If you donÕt have a major, youÕre reliant on independent distributors and that can be more difficult because majors often have more power to get records out there and to get people to listen to them. I think being independent takes more stamina and more persistence.ÓA growing number of independent labels are signing distribution deals with major record companies to help get their albums on the shelves. To purists, like Righteous BabeÕs Lucas, that is anathema. "There are a lot of pseudo independent labels,"says Lucas. "My definition of an independent label is a label with independent distribution. Very few indie labels have totally independent distribution. Most of the indie labels are owned by the major labels, so whatÕs that?"The lure of landing a corporate deal is not hard to understand. Major labels have control of distribution and tons more money to throw at advertising and promotion. That means increased radio play, a larger audience and, presto, humongous record sales. Righteous BabeÕs Lucas readily concedes that if DiFranco signed to a major she could make millions. "If we had a corporation that had assets of half a billion dollars and a sales force of thousands of people, sure we could get in stores and played on radio. But where is that money going to?"says Lucas. "The whole notion of stockholders is pretty twisted these days. People donÕt invest in companies that they think are good companies, but the ones they think are going to make a profit. We think weÕre making a profit if we can pay everyone thatÕs in our office and AniÕs real proud of that.ÓStill, many people in the industry canÕt figure out why DiFranco doesnÕt follow in the footsteps of Hootie and the Blowfish and Pearl Jam and sign with a major label. "I think itÕs crazy,"says Jason Steinberg, promotion director at New YorkÕs X107 FM. "I think thatÕs taking it one step too far. The reason everyone gets into music is to get their music out there so people can hear it.Ó"IÕm not sure if I agree with Ani DiFrancoÕs perspective, but itÕs interesting,"says John Orofino, lead singer of the Hartford band Swirling Ginger, which recently made it to the semifinals of the national Ticketmaster Showcase. "I would rather get my music heard by 10 million people and I would give it to a major just because they can make that happen. ItÕs an egotistical artistic kind of thing.ÓLucas sympathizes with the urge to go with a major label. "If youÕre 19 or 20 years old and someone says they will give you $50,000 dollars and youÕll be on Atlantic, sure youÕre going to take it. What are you going to say, ÔNo, IÕm 20 years old and I donÕt need your moneyÕ? Look at the Goo Goo Dolls. TheyÕre on Warner and theyÕve been working their asses off for the last 10 years. Warner put some more money into them and now theyÕre huge. I donÕt know how long theyÕre going to be huge. What else is there for them?"Why arenÕt more people seeking strictly independent success ala Ani DiFrancoÕs? "Because itÕs hard,"points out Orofino. "If youÕre doing it yourself, you donÕt get the tour support and benefits of being on a major label. When you come on board a major, a lot of people take care of things you donÕt necessarily want to take care of.ÓOrofino does agree that there are two sides to the coin. "Large companies can either put their money behind your band or you can sit in obscurity for a couple years with a contract thatÕs going nowhere. A lot of bands canÕt even choose the singles on their albums. The record company does that, or the record company decides whatÕs going to be a video. The band isnÕt even asked ÔWhat do you think?Õ Some schmuck, some weasly dude, is telling you what your best stuff is.ÓJim Matus of West Hartford, Connecticut, guitarist for the popular rock group Mr. Right and the experimental progressive rock group Paranoise, learned the hard way that artists have to know exactly what they want from a label, large or small. Paranoise was signed by Island Records back in 1988 and received national critical acclaim for its unique sound. But Island couldnÕt figure out how to market the band and put only limited resources into promotion. Their albums didnÕt move and Paranoise was dropped after one record. The second time around, the group decided to deal with an independent label that really understood the music and was prepared to promote it. "Their heart was in it but they couldnÕt afford it,"says Matus. "So basically we got the same treatment from big label and the little label for different reasons.ÓAn independent label can certainly bring a band to the attention of labels with deeper pockets. Indeed, it is practically impossible for a band that has not shown independent success in terms of record sales and an extensive mailing list of fans, to attract the attention of major labels in the first place. At that point, however, most bands have learned enough to hire a good entertainment lawyer to represent their interests."If you can really do it yourself and stay independent to the point that you have some bargaining power, and then join the big corporation, thatÕs the best way to go,"says Matus. "But if you do it when youÕre just a little baby band then youÕre going to get taken advantage of. IÕm just looking for that middle ground.ÓOne guy who thinks he has found that middle ground is Jay Barbieri, a former executive at PolyGram and EMI Records who recently announced the first World Wide Web music label, J-Bird Records. Barbieri describes the Wilton-based company as a "farm team for the major leagues,"in which bands can get their music heard and sell their CDÕs via the web, while major labels check in occasionally to see who has the numbers. The goal, he says, is almost always to strike a major deal."WeÕre going to take bands to that next level,"adds Barbieri, whose idea has already attracted the eyes of Billboard, Cashbox and CNN. Any artist that has a master and artwork can sign to the company for $600 and receive its own web page. Sound samples, bios, tour schedules, manufacturing and distribution are all handled by the label, which keeps tabs on how many units the bands sell. It is an attractive way to show a major label how well a group is doing and an easier way to sell CDs than trucking them to stores around the country and fighting for shelf space. The label opened for business on Nov. 1 and has signed over 100 bands already.Though he says independents can do well selling their own albums, Barbieri strongly believes that they need the major label industry. "Record companies love independent labels to spend all their money. When one band hits, they just walk in and say ÔWe want that artist.Õ Independent labels only help the record industry and big companies will watch them because they can always buy them out. Independent labels are stepping stones.ÓWhether David will beat Goliath in the battle for the bands remains the subject of hot debate in the industry. Dirt RecordsÕ Stron says that major labels are already losing their grip on the alternative music scene and believes that can only mean growth for independents. "Before 1990, when a lot of college departments at labels didnÕt exist, there was no such thing as an alternative department at major labels. I think that independents had a much easier time then. Then, all of a sudden, Nirvana happened and labels started to sign the same types of bands that independents were signing. It got very difficult,"Stron says. "Now itÕs going back in the other direction. The biggest name bands like Pearl Jam have not hit anywhere near the amount of records the labels thought they were going to sell. People are buying Rush and Journey, and I think thatÕs great for independent labels. ItÕs just going to get majors focusing less on alternative, independent underground music. WeÕll be able to sign great bands.Ó"There are plenty of bands and musicians out there who could really sell 10,000 records if there was an opportunity for them to do it,"Lucas agrees. "But if you donÕt have a gold record a major isnÕt going keep you.ÓBut since most independent professional bands tend to see no viable road to success other than getting signed, major record labels appear undaunted by the new potential business for independent labels. "IÕm getting more and more jaded about the whole thing because IÕm getting the impression that the majority of bands these days want to be bought out,"says Steve Picard, host of Radio 104Õs Sunday night Spinning Unrest independent music show and music director at The Buzz 99.9 FM in Burlington, Vt."For the musicians I know who have signed itÕs a fucking nightmare. They feel guilty if theyÕre credible musicians in making the jump to a major label. They always are on the defensive with their friends. And itÕs friends like me that force them to do that.ÓGranted, most music fans probably donÕt care whether a band is independent or not. However, major labels are signing fewer bands than they did in the 1980s, in part because record sales are declining to the point where one-hit wonders abound and signing bands for tax write-off purposes only is no longer sound business practice. That will open up the market for a new wave of independents in the coming years, and for bands that want to go D.I.Y., the declining cost of producing CDs makes this the perfect time to get started."I tell people to go out and play their own music,"says Lucas of the musicians who call Righteous Babe asking for advice. "Go out and get an audience, and if you really believe in it, you have to invest in it. If you donÕt have any money, invest your time."The next thing is mailing list, mailing list, mailing list. One of the most successful things weÕve done is to keep on updating our mailing list. In the beginning, Ani and I used to hand out the postcards at shows. Now there are 30,000 of them. And donÕt wait for a record label to put out your music. Save your money. Save up $2,000 or whatever it takes and put out a CD. When you go to the gigs and 10 people like your music, sell a couple CDs. I advise people not to buy recording equipment. Practice before you go into the studio. Then go sell your own records. You can still take that CD and send it to Warner or whatever if you want.ÓIn the end, all musicians are D.I.Y. at one point or another. But the do-it-yourself strategy now reaches from garage bands in East Hartford, Connecticut all the way up to Ani DiFranco. Recording equipment and CD production costs are lower than ever and access to the record-buying market on the Internet is practically free, making real independence a viable option. Most importantly, the middle ground between playing for beer and making millions is ripe for the picking, and the people that know how to create their own success will be the ones that reap the rewards, both musically and materially.