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
But in May 1996, Siberry did, in effect, sign herself when she launched Sheeba Records in a Toronto factory building, armed with two employees â and a list of postal mailing addresses. The cost of managing that list turned out to be exorbitant, and in its third year, Sheeba, “a business we started in a state of blissful ignorance,” became Siberry’s hard lesson in self-marketing. She let her employees go, stopped spending money on stamps, and reinvented Sheeba as an Internet startup.
“It wouldn’t have been possible to continue independently without the Internet,” Siberry says. “So much of marketing is done by people hitting the search button, and that’s replaced a lot of advertising dollars.” When Siberry was recording her last album, a curious, dreamy collection of reworked folk tunes called Hush, she kept a journal on Sheeba’s Web site. “Every day I came home and wrote a funny story. I talked about how I had to gamble with the engineer for extra studio hours, and why certain songs were difficult or easy. The interactivity was a bit shocking to me. It was also a little shocking to the fans, who were just getting used to this kind of directness.”
Unlike Brooke’s, Siberry’s renown has dropped dramatically in her Internet years. She tours only occasionally, and while Time Warner still markets her older records, she’s sold a mere 5,000 copies of Hush through her Web site — a little over 10 percent of her average record sales on Warner’s watch. “But I make $12 per CD instead of $1.50,” she says. “I don’t have to sell that many to do okay.” And she does it her way — with her language, in her style, with no one to discourage or control her. “Keyboards magazine in Germany has created an unprecedented awareness of Siberry in Germany,” she writes to her Internet audience. “We thank them and welcome the German visitors to our Web hotel. We hope you find it inviting and comfortable. We serve breakfast all day.”
“All this business of the Internet and computer networks is really a study of ourselves,” Siberry muses. “The Internet is a map for how we relate to each other, and search for each other, and these peer-to-peer concepts and robots, and Web spiders going out, they are a reflection of ourselves, our tastes and dislikes. It’s teaching us how our brains work and making the invisible ways we communicate concrete. One day it will all be invisible again — all the networks and wires will disappear — and we’ll miss having that map of our communication in front of us to examine.”
At the very least, from the industry’s legal battles and the artists’ resistance there may at least emerge a healthier tension between mogul and musician. In other words, the Internet option might force the record industry to write fairer contracts. Which would not necessarily be the bleakest of worlds. “I have enormous respect for artists like Ani DiFranco, who just say ‘Fuck you’ to the record business and do it their own way,” says Geoffrey Weiss. “But they’re not making pop music. Pop music is a commodity, and if you believe it has any value, you have to realize that it exists because corporations put a lot of money into it.” And not every musician wants to acquire the small-business acumen Brooke and Siberry require to run their careers. Given the available options, however, they are happy to still have careers at all.
And their audiences are lucky to have continuing access to the music they love — with or without middlemen. “I’ll take it from here,” Brooke sings on another of Steady Pull’s singles to which I’ve become attached. “I’ll succeed or I will fail/but I will decide . . . at least every mistake will be my own.” Toward the end of May, a woman in Jonatha Brooke’s publicist’s office confided to me that Brooke was getting more attention than another female artist her own age — one who had a label’s support. On July 9, she’ll perform on the David Letterman show, a booking “MCA could never get,” says Brooke. And while she’s still driving the ’89 Mazda she drove to Los Angeles from Boston, she is happier in her career than she’s ever been: “There’s a lovely, supreme irony in this. I’m more successful in those standard industry terms than I ever was at a major label.”
Siberry, with less irony, is simply freer. On June 11, she announced in her “Museletter” that Sheeba Records will soon begin selling her songs as MP3 files for download, with her now out-of-print first record, Jane Siberry, as the debut offering. “One day we’ll be downloading our music from heaven,” Siberry posits, but for now, she has accepted the necessity of late nights in the office promoting her Internet business from Earth. “The belt is still very tight,” she admits. “But the potential is very, very great.”