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Pop Sensation Dot-com 

Dumped by your label? Start designing your Web site

Wednesday, Jun 20 2001
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Photo by Jack Gould;

In the week before I sat down to interview Jonatha Brooke, whom I knew primarily as the former half of the rock duo the Story, I had listened to her new record’s single, “Linger,” roughly a dozen times; I had watched the sweetly underproduced video she made of the song, which is available free, in streaming or download form, on any number of Web sites, including www.jonathabrooke.com and www.rolling stone.com. I’d Napster’d it, just to prove I could, and I played the CD, in the interest of research, nearly every day. By the time I met her, I had engineered for myself a pop star: I was not only listening to Brooke because I liked the record’s production and her everywoman lyrics (“I still crave your approval/and I’m helpless when you criticize,” Brooke purrs); I was listening because I felt like I couldn’t do without her.

This is, of course, the same method by which MCA — which is now owned by Universal Music Group, which is now owned by the DWP of France, Vivendi — might have worked “Linger” on the airwaves had it chosen to bestow Brooke with the Adult Alternative pop stardom she probably deserved when she launched her solo career in 1995. But as stakes rise and labels concentrate their marketing strategies on teens with cleavage, even the most innocuous idiosyncrasy is being driven from the fold, and Brooke is only the most obvious example: Despite her strawberry-blond beauty, her dancer body and her sometimes sultry, other times little-girl-vulnerable voice, Brooke is both too wholesome and too old to play the babe in hot pants for the Viagra-shilling Bob Dole. At best, had MCA invested a little more time and marketing in Brooke, she could have been the next Sheryl Crow, but in a 21st-century marketplace that may not have made room for the original: In the past two years, Crow, who was relocated from A&M to Interscope after UMG acquired and closed A&M, has been testifying to Congress about how copyright legislation favors big labels and lamenting to journalists that she’s “just another one in a real big corporate environment.” A writer friend of mine who follows the music business recently wondered out loud whether the moguls of the moment would recognize Joni Mitchell if she dropped through the roof of a boardroom crooning “Big Yellow Taxi.”

Then again, if “Linger” is not the major-label hit it could have been, perhaps Brooke should be grateful. For one thing, the rights to her songs will remain with her; the music conglomerates cannot control what they do not own. For another, “Linger” is an Internet hit, a feat Brooke accomplished with the help of a dedicated manager, a publicist, a distributor and independent producer, and — perhaps most important of all — a Web site. The last week in April, “Linger” jumped from No. 11 to No. 6 on Radio and Records’ Adult Alternative chart, marking the first time in her career that Brooke has broken the Top 10. Along with Aimee Mann and Sophie B. Hawkins, Brooke stands as evidence that Courtney Love may not have been speaking exclusively for her celebrity self but for the lesser-knowns as well when she claimed in her widely distributed speech at Digital Hollywood last May that recording artists “don’t have to work with major labels anymore, because the digital economy has created new ways to distribute and market music.”

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“The big machines are not set up to find intricate ways of reaching people,” Brooke told me over lunch at I Cugini. Steady Pull had been out a month, and in jeans and a Western-cut red gingham shirt, Brooke still seemed more like a girlfriend from college than the singer I’d been fixated on all week. “They’re not set up to explore all the complicated hills and valleys on the Internet, and all the ways to sneak through radio, or help a band on the road. So they give you a two-month window to make a big splash, and if you don’t make it, they’re like, ‘All right, this is over. We’ve got Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt to worry about, and we don’t â have time for you anymore.’ I can’t blame them, because it’s how the corporate thing works. The pressure is insane.”

Brooke’s contract with MCA came up for renewal in 1998, when her album 10-Cent Wings had been out a little over a month. It wasn’t selling as well as expected, and according to her manager, Patrick Rains, the label offered a revised contract that would “significantly restructure her deal on terms that were unrealistic and unacceptable.” But Brooke was on tour, and “We felt that the record would break,” she says. “‘Secrets and Lies,’ which was the single off that record, was the darling of Adult Alternative radio, and we thought it might move to another format and chart.”

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