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Musicians find Net success without record labels


By Julene Snyder

(IDG) -- There's little glamour to be found at the Doubletree Inn in Omaha, Neb., but Jonatha Brooke isn't complaining. The independent singer-songwriter is in the midst of "touring her butt off," hitting what must feel like every town in the country to support her latest record, Steady Pull.

Skipping the glitz that comes with touring on a major label has its challenges, but that's part of the price you pay for controlling your work and keeping a bigger cut of the profits. At a time when the entire music-industry landscape is in flux -- with artists and labels alike trying to hammer out issues over copyright and compensation for digital use -- former major-label artists like Brooke, Aimee Mann and others are finding that going independent and using technology to their advantage can pay off both financially and creatively.

After all, it's certainly no secret that the current major-label system is set up to make stars in the short-term, not to build careers for the long haul. "Major labels don't have much of an attention span unless you're 19 and really cute in hot pants." Brooke says ruefully. INFOCENTER
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Brooke, formerly with the critically acclaimed folk-pop group, the Story, says that on a major label, her new record -- which came out in mid-February -- would probably have been shunted to a back burner by now. But by releasing music on her own label, Bad Dog Records, she's already sold twice the number of records at this point in her new albums' life than she ever did on a major label, and she's just getting started with her own media blitz.

While it's standard today for artists to have their own Web sites, Brooke is more involved with hers,, than most. Her official bio calls the site a "remarkable tool in her independent marketing quest," and says that she uses the site to respond to fans directly and let them feel like they're part of the songwriting process.

So far, doing it her way is paying off, big-time. Brooke says her record's first single, "Linger," has reached the top 10 on adult-alternative charts, which is better than she ever achieved on a major label. She attributes this at least in part to her own passion for the music and, of course, being single-minded about promoting the record. Bottom line? "I get more of that money," Brooke says.

Having creative control is another significant reason for going independent. Aimee Mann, who came to fame as the lead singer of new-wave band 'Til Tuesday in 1985 and was nominated for an Oscar and a Grammy last year for her soundtrack to the movie Magnolia, is also finding that independence suits her better than being signed to a major label.

Her turning point came in 1999 when Interscope decided not to release her album Bachelor No. 2. "They'd basically inherited me and didn't know what to do with me," Mann recalls. "Since I'd come in under budget, if they'd released the record, they would have had to pay me." Instead, in an unusual deal, she used the money the label owed her -- which she says was in the low six figures -- to buy back the record and put it out herself. She considers herself the winner in the deal, even though she spent the money she'd been planning to live on for a year to regain ownership of her work. "I do exponentially better financially releasing my music myself," Mann says. "I've sold more records with my rinky-dink system than Geffen ever did with their whole staff." That rinky-dink system consists of Mann, her manager and an assistant, who've done whatever it takes to get her music to the people who want to hear it.

Mann also has relied heavily on the Internet, especially before she got a distribution deal for Bachelor No. 2. She used her Web site,, as a way for fans to mail order the album, and she offered the entire album for paid download for just under $10.

To date, Mann says she's sold about 185,000 copies of Bachelor No. 2, and the Magnolia soundtrack -- composed almost entirely of Mann's songs - recently went gold with more than 500,000 copies sold. "On a major, you might make 50 cents a record -- and you have to pay back the costs to make that record," Mann says. "As an indie, you make $8 a record."

Not to mention the psychic toll that being on a major label can take on an artist. "Nothing makes anyone happy," Mann recalls. "As an artist, you start to think, 'Maybe I'm not that good.' To go from that to being nominated for awards, getting great reviews and a great response from fans makes you think, 'Hmm. Maybe I've been hanging out with the wrong people.'"

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