By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Brooke decided to finish her tour without the label’s support. And Rains determined that, since Brooke lacked the resources to make a new album when the tour was finished, he’d make sure they recorded the shows along the way. “I thought, ‘Worst-case scenario, if another label doesn’t sign her, we’ll make these tracks available to fans on her own label. And if it really turns out great, we can put it out commercially.
“That was in April 1998,” says Rains, “when selling music on the Internet was still in everyone’s imagination.” But in the critical six months before the album was finished in November 1998, venture capitalists fueled the development of online technology by backing ambitious, if sometimes foolish, ideas with cash. As a consequence, the online music industry exploded: Diamond Multimedia won a battle against the RIAA to distribute its portable Rio player for listening to MP3 files on the go; visitors to MP3.com rose from a few thousand to 3 million per month. So Jonatha Brooke Live was released on the Web page of her newly christened Bad Dog Records. And it sold. Not a lot by record-company standards, but with the proceeds from those 36,000 units — produced for pennies and sold at $15.98 each — she made enough money to get back into the studio with a new band.
Brooke is no Ani DiFranco, who rebuffs obsequious record moguls at regular intervals (and managed the phenomenal success of her label, Righteous Babe, for 10 years before bothering to build a Web site this past April). She admits that the dream of big-label success is not one she gave up easily: “Anyone who does what I do has to know that there’s some little glimmer of a wish, always, to sell a million records and be a household name.” She had every intention of migrating back to the record-industry fold with Steady Pull. Springsteen engineer Bob Clearmountain produced, Neil Finn of Crowded House and Spearhead’s Michael Franti guest-starred, and Brooke wrote pop hooks that grind a nice groove in your head; you find yourself singing them in the kitchen, wondering how they floated in. “The intent was to make a new record and then shop it to a label,” Rains says. But when the â album was finished, the label response was consistent: “They all said, ‘It’s a great record, but we don’t want it.’
“We had the people at one label tell us, ‘This is a brilliant album, but there’s nobody over here that has the stomach to get involved in a record that won’t sell huge numbers right away.’ Another said, ‘There’s no market for songwriters.’” Still another executive informed Rains that, as much as they respected his client’s considerable talent, at 37, she was just too old.
Steady Pull came out February 13. It’s available by mail order on Brooke’s Web site, where she sells the most records, or in certain stores, distributed by Koch International. “If you look at Billboard and SoundScan in any given week, the No. 1 or No. 2 Internet releases sell 4,000 in a good week,” Rains claims. “The week of Jonatha’s release, her album was No. 4. It sold 1,900 pieces.
“I think we can sell 100,000 records,” Rains predicts. “Maybe even 300,000, if something clicks. Jonatha made a pop record. Our biggest challenge is to see that it gets a pop audience.” With the online-distribution advantage, there are now as many ways to do that as there are independent acts.
Roots rocker Tim Carroll had been waiting for his record label, Sire, to release his first CD, Not for Sale, for a whole year when he realized it was never going to happen. He asked for the record back; Sire obliged, and let him pursue fans as he pleased. Among the people he sent it to: Corrie Gregory, co-proprietor of a retail music-distribution service called Miles of Music.
Miles of Music’s staff of seven is housed in a North Hollywood office so nondescript it could be a refurbished public-storage locker, but Gregory, who runs the business with her husband, Jeff Weiss, has managed to imprint it with her aesthetic. Around and above her desk are tributes to her favorite musicians, from Loretta Lynn to the Replacements, as well as fetishes to various saints and other strange objects, including a 6-inch folk-art wooden chicken. Miles of Music concentrates on an influential if obscure corner of American folk and rock, alternately known as roots, Americana, alt-country and plain old country. “One of the great dialogues that we’re part of on the Internet,” says Gregory, “is the constant bickering over whether country music is any good.”
It’s not that Miles of Music couldn’t live without the Internet; when Gregory and Weiss launched it in 1996, they had only an 800 number and a print catalog. By advertising in Oxford American and No Depression magazine, they managed to build up a decent consumer base for their mostly self-released and small-indie-label musicians. Yet when they went online a year later, the Internet increased their visibility, and consequently their sales, exponentially: It allowed them to gather together pockets of roots-rock aficionados scattered all over the world. Through weekly e-mails and online discussion groups, Miles of Music moderates a virtual community of roots freaks. “We’re not making any Britneys, but we’re enabling people to get out on the road, to get licensed in Germany and Italy and Spain,” says Gregory. Internet distribution and its attendant technology has also made it possible for Gregory and Weiss to release a few records. A few months ago, when someone e-mailed them music critic Jim Walsh’s review of an unsigned band called 12-lb. Test, they got the band to send in a demo and subsequently offered to burn 1,000 CDs to sell on Miles of Music’s Web site. All but 250 are gone.