Photo by Sarah St. Clair Renard

Whenever there’s a large gathering of independent musicians, like the annual DIY Music conference in Hollywood, it ain’t Frank Black who’s treated like a conquering hero and resident Wise Man of indie rock; it’s Derek Sivers, an odd-looking yet friendly character with disarmingly blue eyes and thick dread-ropes jutting downward from the base of his shiny balding skull.

As founder and CEO of the online music store CD Baby, Sivers has paid out nearly $15 million over the last seven years to more than 93,000 independent musicians, who have used his service to sell 1.5 million CDs. Every Monday night he gets to send off about $200,000 worth of checks to rockers, gospel choirs and one-man novelty acts who don’t otherwise have record deals, managers or distribution contracts. “Which is just my favorite part of my job,” he says with a twinkle. (Included in those 93,000 is a band I’m in, which has sold 121 CDs through the site.) CD Baby keeps $4 of each purchase, offers bands the option to sell each song on Apple iTunes (keeping 9 percent of that), and the rest goes straight back to the guitar-strings fund.

Sivers is a hippie capitalist in the best sense of both words. He will talk to you with equal enthusiasm about how CD Baby is “some kind of karmic obligation to the greater good of the world” and how you really oughtta read Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends & Influence People. His site accepts no advertising or paid search results (“it’s kinda the root of all corruption”), while offering bands free credit-card swipers and $20 UPC bar codes. Numbers 7 and 8 on Derek’s “My Tips on Promoting Your Music” (available at are “Have fun — do NOT be corporate” and “Have someone connected working the INSIDE of the industry while you do the groundwork.” He delights in hanging up on venture capitalists, is a staunch believer in schmoozing and maintaining business relationships, and his favorite phrase, usually uttered with childlike wonder, is “How cool is that?” There are no contradictions in any of this.

For the last couple of years, Sivers has been splitting time between Santa Monica (where his wife lives) and Portland (where his company does). After starting off his career as a successful hired-gun guitarist, touring Europe and Japan with the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto, and then later forming a college-circuit act called Hit Me, he now spends much of his time delving into the minutiae of software code to rewrite his site from scratch while the kids up in Oregon take care of business. We met up recently to talk about the expanding horizons for musicians who go it alone.

L.A. WEEKLY: How have things changed in the last five years in terms of bands being able to go their own way and make a living at it?

DEREK SIVERS: I launched CD Baby in March of 1998. I started it because a few months before that, I was a guy with my own CD that I’d made myself, and I was trying to sell it online because I was doing a national radio campaign. I’d hired a college radio promoter, and it was picking up little pockets of interest in places like New Mexico and Central California and Maine, and all these places I knew I was never going to be able to tour. My only means for selling CDs at this time was at shows, and because we were getting these pockets of interest, I wanted to get it up and selling online. I really went searching high and low, and there was not a single place that would do this for you.

I called up CD Now and I said, “Hey, I’ve sold 1,500 copies of it on my own at shows, would you guys like to sell it?” And they said, “Sure, who’s your distributor?”

I said, “Well, I don’t have a distributor.”

“Oh, well, you need to have a distributor.”

I said, “Well, can’t I just be a distributor then, and send you my CDs, and you sell it and pay me?”

And they were like, “Sorry, kid, you gotta go through a distributor.”

So I called up the other big online music stores at the time, and it was the same story — they all said, “Unless you’re going through a distributor, we can’t deal with your products.”

That is so beautifully missing the point of the Internet.

Yeah! I mean it’s just ridiculous: Can’t I just mail you a box of CDs, you put it up, and if somebody orders it, you ship it and pay me?

And so then I started talking to some distributors, and I was really bummed out with the way that that worked, where even a very reputable distributor in New York that came recommended to me, their deal was that they wanted to know that you had about $20,000 in the bank. Their two conditions were: “We like your music, we’ll be glad to work with you, if, number one, you need to be working with a real radio promoter — not college radio, but major radio — because without that it won’t sell. Number two, if you’ve done that, and if a real radio promoter that we approve of has agreed to take on your project, we need to know that you’ve got at least 20,000 bucks in the bank, because we don’t want to be stuck in a position where you do well in the first round, but then you can’t afford to roll out more . . .”

And at that point I was just like, I don’t need to be in shopping malls in St. Louis, I don’t need to get it into every Tower Records in the country, I just want to make it easy so that the person who heard it last night on his college radio station in New Mexico can order it, right now.

Looking back, it kind of makes me smile at how much things have changed. Here it was 1998, there was not a single place that would sell your CDs for you as an independent musician. And now, in 2005, or even if you would have asked the same question in 2000, there’s a dozen places, not just CD Baby, but even Amazon has their Advantage Program and whatnot. How cool is that?

This is the other thing that’s really different: In 1998 and before, you could get distribution, but you were really judged along the way. It was only if someone who really believed in your music had signed you to a deal. What’s amazing to me now is that it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks — any musician with the most unlikable music, if they believe in it, they can put it out to the whole world. You don’t need a filter, you don’t need people at a desk approving you or maybe changing their mind, or maybe the one person who likes you gets fired and now you’re screwed. The whole thing has changed.

What are the mechanics of your Apple iTunes deal?

Though Apple’s deal says they reserve the right to refuse anything, they generally don’t. A month after they launched iTunes, we got a little invitation thing saying we’d like to talk to you about getting the CD Baby catalog up on the Apple iTunes music store, and I went up to Apple’s office thinking that this was going to be a meeting with, you know, a marketing guy. And then Steve Jobs himself walked out, saying, “It’s really important to us to get every piece of music ever recorded available in the iTunes Music Store.” Since we’re not talking about physical product, there’s no reason not to. There were a few other indie labels there, and he was saying to them, “Even if you have an album that’s out of print, that isn’t even worth you pressing up a thousand copies anymore, let’s just get a digital master of it and make it available to the people that want it.”

So it was really kind of a different mindset for music retail. Not just like, “Hey, we’ve got 100 square feet of floor space, we need hits, baby, hits hits hits!” It was, “Get everything up and selling.” Which is just the most indie-friendly attitude you can have.

And I think it’s really because iTunes did that, that everybody else had to catch up . . . That whole mentality was just kind of tossed out, because you never know what’s going to hit — there might be some obscure band that no one’s heard of today, but tomorrow they’re going to be on a reality show, and 50,000 people are going to want that album that day. So the idea is, let’s get it all up and selling, why not?

I’m curious about the culture that has emerged along with CD Baby, and also more generally the digital distribution of music and different new ways to get revenue streams, like selling your stuff to TV. When I was at DIY last year, I felt like I’d stumbled into this whole universe that had been chugging along, totally without my knowledge. Has it created a parallel indie universe and network?

Not even just music and musicians, but whether it’s photographers that feel like they have an outlet for their photos now by using the Internet to go directly to the people who like their photos. Or, hell, blogs are the best example, all these people that wouldn’t have room to write columns in the newspaper before now find people out there that want to read what they have to say. I think it’s the same kind of culture . . .

Before, say, ’94 or ’95, before the Internet came around, there seemed to be a sharper divide between those who create and those who consume: It seemed like you were supposed to be either one or the other. I love to see this kind of American rebellion, fueled by extreme hate for the record label, not just from the fans but from the people like Prince, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, that have loudly said how they hate their label and they’re never going to work for a label again. I have the feeling that a new generation of musicians will grow up not having to be converted to that way of thinking.

Like right now, I meet lots of 30-something musicians, who maybe spent their teens and 20s wanting to be a rock star, and now are kind of starting to think, “Well, maybe I can make a good living just putting out my music directly and doing it on my own.” But they kind of had to fall over to that way of thinking. What I think will be really interesting is, imagine being a 13-year-old musician right now, growing up surrounded by this mentality of “Fuck the label, the label sucks, indie is cool, go direct, never sign over your rights to somebody else”! Imagine growing up in that mentality, and what that’s going to look like in 10 years!

I saw Guided by Voices a couple of years ago, and the lead dude, crazy guy, said, “I want to thank the 20,000 of you who buy every one of our records.” It struck me, especially the way these guys make their records, that they probably make a pretty handsome living selling 20,000 records. So what is that threshold now? Is it continuing to go down?

Oh yeah . . . But forget even the 20,000 number, the overriding idea is that maybe it’s one — maybe there’s a band that poured its heart into a record, and would love to sell it, and there’s one person in Switzerland who wants it, and that’s it. Maybe someone is doing really obscure avant-garde electronic kazoo music, and there’s a guy in Australia who just thinks that’s the greatest thing. He should be able to get it; there’s no reason not to . . .

You talked about the Guided by Voices 20,000. I also really take into consideration all the people who have a day job, and don’t want to quit their day jobs. They like working at the deli, they’re happy with it, and they put out this album because they wanted to . . .

There are different reasons for making music. For some people the album is a starting point — once the album is out, they’re gonna promote the hell out of it, they’re gonna tour, they’re gonna work it, they’re gonna try to make something happen. The album comes out, and it’s like a gun going off at the start of a race. But for other people, the album coming out is a finish line. They wanted their whole life to make a record. And you know what, it’s been a few years with some friends and some favors, but they did it, they made a record. And that’s the end of it, they don’t even really care if people buy it — they are happy that they fulfilled this dream of making a record. It’s a very different mentality.

Are you still playing?

No. That’s much too long of a discussion. But the short way to say it is, I imagine what I’m feeling is the same as when a basketball star becomes a basketball coach. I made a full-time living as a musician for 10 years, and I definitely had my day in the spotlight, you know? But once CD Baby started I kind of felt an obligation to show all these musicians how to do what I had done, and everything I’d learned since then, like what I wish I had done differently.

LA Weekly