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Pop Sensation Dot-com

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.”

“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.”

 

“We asked them to wait nine months, and in the meantime promote the record,” Rains recalls. But on the Friday Brooke’s contract expired, no one at the label would return her phone calls. On Monday morning, a friend of Brooke let her know that those independent radio stations around the country that had grown so fond of her song had received a memo instructing them not to play it. Payola laws prohibit a record label from paying a radio station to make a hit; instead, promotional middlemen known as “indies” coax airplay. According to the memo, Brooke was no longer associated with MCA, and radio stations were advised to “cease and desist all activities on her behalf.” People at the label would later tell Brooke it was all a mistake. “But somebody did it,” says Rains. “It happened. How do these things happen?”

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.

I met Gregory within my first few weeks in Los Angeles; she was 23, working in the L.A. Weekly’s mailroom, and â alarmed that a newcomer to the paper knew so little of the L.A. music she deemed important. So she made me a tape: the Blasters, Dave Alvin, X and Joe Henry — a collection curated with passion by a genuine connoisseur. I listened to it until it wore thin, and somewhere in my piles of CDs are records I bought on nothing other than Gregory’s advice. As I watched her work on Miles of Music’s Web page 10 years later, inserting commentary in other staffers’ blurbs, deciding what to feature, it occurred to me that what she’s doing is the same thing — making compilation tapes for a larger audience in the form of sample MP3 files, an online catalog and pictures. “We’re trying to give you that feeling you had at the record store when there was somebody at the counter who knew what you should be listening to,” Gregory says. “And where else would I get to write, in big capital letters, ‘WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD THAT HAZELDINE DOESN’T HAVE A U.S. RECORD DEAL?’”

Typical online record distributors and retailers, such as Amazon, take 50 percent of the artist’s cut of sales in exchange for overhead and promotion; Miles of Music takes about 36 percent (and, significantly, no future rights). Some artists on Miles of Music’s list do have record contracts, although they’re mostly modest endeavors with small labels: Dolly Parton’s new album, Little Sparrow, on Sugar Hill, is one of the staff’s favorites. Other bands, such as L.A.’s Gingersol, are enjoying Miles of Music’s promotional support while they wait for the A&R guy to show up at the door, acceptable contract in hand. A significant number are in Brooke’s shoes — their record labels lost interest, but they still have an album to sell. Carroll sold 1,000 copies of his CD, Not for Sale, on the Web site. The proceeds hardly constituted a decent living, but it was at least enough to fund another week in the studio. And enough to allow Carroll to continue a career as what people in the industry see as an increasingly common phenomenon: The disintermediated artist.

Since the record business began, artists from Howlin’ Wolf to Elvis to Moby have complained about the companies big and small that hold the rights to their music. But they have also needed them: Record labels might demand more in royalties than the song-makers think they should get, but they also write the checks that get records made, offer artists unparalleled exposure, and often give good advice. “The Beatles were only the Beatles because they hooked up with George Martin at Parlophone,” says Geoffrey Weiss, a former vice president of A&R at Warner Bros. who was recently hired in the same capacity at Hollywood Records. “There have been a couple of times in history when the services labels provided went up significantly in their standards. One of them was in the ’60s to the mid-’70s, during the heyday of A&M and Warner Bros., when the labels were really nurturing a community of artists. Another was after the punk era, when there was this infusion of fresh excitement and young people in the industry through the early ’90s.

 

“But now the industry’s being run by accountants and attorneys,” Weiss acknowledges. “The environment isn’t really all that conducive to developing great talent.” Still, he argues, as much as certain artists complain that the vertical integration of the record industry has left them without anyone to gripe to, industry conditions are not the worst they’ve ever been. Artist royalties range from 10 percent to 25, and however little songwriters net, at least they get paid something. “A lot of the early labels were small businesses, and as such were subject to the whims of cash flow. Morris Levy,” Weiss states of the infamous mob-affiliated founder of Roulette Records, “did not provide artist services.”

Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry made two unusual but acclaimed records for the Reprise/Warner Bros. label before she scored her first commercial success, When I Was a Boy, with two strong singles and one certifiable pop hit, “Calling All Angels,” which her handlers at Warner arranged for her to record with K.D. Lang, over Siberry’s initial protests. Judging by the song’s success — Wim Wenders chose it for his film Until the End of the World, and the song resurfaced in Pay It Forward — the label was right, presuming, that is, that Siberry wanted to be a pop star, and it’s not clear that she ever did. Left to her own devices, Siberry writes tunes that unravel like spools of gossamer thread and frequently go on for many minutes without chorus, hook or bridge. After four albums of low-to-moderate success, the folks at Warner asked that she renegotiate her advances and hire a producer. “I didn’t want any part of that,” Siberry says, “so they were kind enough to let me go.” She doesn’t blame them: “I don’t think I would’ve signed myself. I would’ve looked at the advance and the potential sales and said, ‘Thank you very much, but no.’”

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.”


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