Copyright 1999, The National Post
Saturday, August 21, 1999
LENGTH: 1,445 words
BYLINE: Jeff Breithaupt
HEADLINE: Artist Owned
Many, mostly female, songwriters are eschewing the trappings (and traps) of the major labels to start their own record companies -- and find success on their own terms
Unlike most business cards, Jane Siberry's tells a story. On it, there's a close-up photograph of a woman's cleavage, and superimposed over that is a vintage black-and-white photo of a woman and her dog in an open field. The dog is dutifully seated, and the woman is aiming a rifle at something situated off to the left. Two words also appear on Siberry's business card, just below the company name -- Sheeba -- and above the spot where the cleavage houses a heart. The words, thus safeguarded, written in blood-red, say "Artist Owned."
Sheeba is a uniquely gifted Canadian songwriter's record company, and Siberry is the only artist on its roster. Like so many songwriters, most of them women, she is eschewing the trappings -- and traps -- of the major label system, a system that at last count had cannibalized itself down to five companies (Sony, WEA, EMI, BMG and Universal).
Siberry has fully embraced the envelope-stuffing independence and make-your-own-coffee artistic control that comes with signing yourself. "It feels right to be so reduced," she says. "The whole world is working closer to the bone."
Another established artist considering label ownership is Aimee Mann, the lead songwriter of '80s one-hit wonder 'Til Tuesday and a weary veteran of the major-label system. The Geffen-signed songwriter was responsible for two of the craftiest pop albums of the decade, Whatever and I'm With Stupid, but neither of these eminently catchy, infectious albums turned a hit single, and that's been the source of most of Mann's woes.
When Universal bought PolyGram last year, Mann's then-label, Geffen Records, was also absorbed by it. The new management promptly decided that Mann's in-the-can third album lacked a hit single. Mann, frustrated by frequent, unsolicited sojourns back to the drawing board, summarily left Universal and bought back her third album's master tapes from the label. She is considering putting the album out on her own (she has begun to sell an advance, seven-song EP at live gigs) and seems pleased and slightly surprised to hear that Jane Siberry is surviving her independence: "Someone at my label actually warned me, using Jane as an example of why not to put out my own album," Mann chuckles, "kinda like, 'You better play ball, 'cause it's not easy out there'."
As it turns out, the warning tactic had some validity. For Siberry, the transition into self-employment was anything but easy. In 1996, Warner not only attempted to negotiate a reduction in her per-album advance, but also the right, in Siberry's words, to "insist on an outside producer." When she left the label, Siberry "had several other offers, but I decided to keep it really simple and try to do it myself." Pause. "I didn't know what I was getting into."
Her Sheeba label grew to a staff of 11 and was soon riddled with poor management and distribution deals. Extracting herself from those relationships left Siberry with significant legal debts. She shut it all down and started again from scratch in August, 1998 -- a little more than two years after Sheeba was first incorporated. Now, as she slowly rebuilds her record company, she's content to sell her work (not just CDs, but Siberry-penned prose and poetry books, T-shirts, photographs and even boxer shorts) via her Web site. The money she raises on the site will go back into studio time and business costs, she says.
Hers is a cautionary tale, but there is no regret in Siberry's tone: "This is a sharp-as-a-tack little company that will now allow me to get a lot more music out there."
As for Mann, she is enjoying taking responsibility for her own career. "It's a lot more fun," she says, "a lot more involving. You see where your money goes. I don't mind writing a cheque when I know what it's for: $1,500 to press 2,000 CDs? Well, that's sensible!"
And what of that elusive hit single? "I'm not worried about having a hit personally, but for revenge purposes, sign me up. I gotta get that 'I told you so' in there some place."
However, without major-label representation, it becomes a lot tougher for artists to get effective retail distribution and radio airplay, and most artist/owners cannot afford to make videos, so MTV is not an option. These hardships are tempered by the joys of creative control and by the reduced pressure to sell because of higher profits per unit sold. On a major, for example, artists are likely to realize $1 to $1.50 per unit, whereas independent profits can range from $6 to $10 per unit depending on production and distribution costs.
Those are enticing numbers, especially for artists who are able to leave the majors with large and devoted followings in tow. One such artist, and one of the few high-profile males in the artist-owned label business, is The Artist Formerly Signed to Warner, the erstwhile "Prince" who runs NPG (short for New Power Generation) Records from his mansion just outside Minneapolis.
Although the Purple One's mail-order business walks the line between impressive entrepreneurial spirit and total self-parody (in addition to music, NPG's product line includes Get Wild perfume, Pink Cashmere body oil, air fresheners, tambourines, coffee mugs, key chains, and phone cards), the bottom line is that this true original is now free to chart his own creative course.
It's that freedom that fuels the energies of these unlikely label bosses.
Ani DiFranco, a funky folkie who has never spent one minute under contract to a major, is living proof that successful music careers can result from self-employment. Since 1990, when the then-20-year-old Buffalo native started selling her first self-made album at live gigs, DiFranco has steadfastly avoided the major labels, many of whom came calling when her Righteous Babe Records experienced its initial success. Nevertheless, her face has appeared on countless magazine covers and her catalogue has sold more than two million units.
Righteous Babe has used Koch International as its major U.S. distributor since 1995, but maintains relationships with three small women-run distributors, relationships that date back to the early days of DiFranco's career. The company also has strong distribution partnerships in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, Israel -- and Canada. "We sell more in Canada than we do in Europe," says Scot Fisher, DiFranco's manager and label president. "A lot of Ani's success started in Canada. There's a great circuit of folk festivals. And we have really good distribution there."
"Really good distribution" means the distributor is getting the music into the stores and building lasting relationships with retailers. Fisher was initially skeptical of formal distribution: "I used to think, before I got deeply involved, 'Why would we sell a CD for $10 to a record store when we could sell it for $15 at a show?' The reason is there are a lot more record stores than shows."
DiFranco's success has influenced a new generation of performers who are committed to the do-it-yourself approach. Two such artists, Rachael Sage and Heather Eatman, have created their own Manhattan-based labels, MPress and Impossible Records, respectively.
Sage, whose melodic gifts and vocal style recall Kate Bush, was directly inspired by DiFranco to tackle an independent career. "The shift came in my junior year at Stanford," she recalls, "when I became aware of Ani DiFranco. I saw the type of career that was possible if you were willing to put your pedal to the metal and not wait around for someone to discover you." Sage eventually opened for DiFranco on tour.
Eatman's first album, Mascara Falls, was released on Oh Boy Records, an indie label owned by songwriter John Prine, but she decided to release her follow-up, Candy Dirt, a strong, sharply detailed folk-pop collection, on her own. "It's been a no-brainer for me," she says. "My interest in music is the joy that comes from performing. I need to be able to write music that I'm comfortable with. I'm not interested in the short-term financial goals that [the major labels] are trying to reach."
"For the majors," Aimee Mann says, "it's easier if every Coke bottle looks like every other Coke bottle, and you just jam on the cap with the automatic cap jammer."
"I have a totally different respect for everyday small business now," says Jane Siberry, who appears to have survived her escape from the cap jammers. "I can go into a small store and immediately calculate the overhead and know that my $4.99 makes a difference."
HOW TO FIND THEM ON THE WEB
Official site for Sheeba: www.sheeba.ca
Official Web site under construction. Dated site from former label (Geffen Records): www.geffen.com/aimeemann/
Official site for NPG Records:
No official site, but more than 80 fan sites to choose from, including www.anidifranco.net
A good links site:
Official site for Impossible Records: http://members.aol.com/carseat