Backdoor Boogie

30,000 bands can't be too wrong -- CD Baby hands 'em independence

Fatigo is a very young Valley band, having only formed a year ago. It has one self-released record to its name and is slowly building a reputation for its eclectic nature in small clubs now. But it has sold enough of its debut CD, Pero los Chivos!, locally and out of state to land gigs in New Mexico.

Fatigo's secret to spreading news about itself beyond its quirky dive-bar shows can be found on its packaging. The band handed out copies of Pero los Chivos!in the Gammage Auditorium parking lot before a Beck show last November. And on the flap of its CD was insignia for the Web site www.cdbaby.com, a national distributor for unsigned bands.

"I see their name popping up more and more now at shows," singer-guitarist Mike Montoya says. Indeed, the CD Baby name is becoming increasingly synonymous with "we're broke, we have no deal, but we work real hard and want you to buy our music."

More impressive is the story of Black Fire, an obscure, Flagstaff-based Navajo band of two brothers and a sister whose Native American brand of incendiary punk (Joey Ramone recorded with them before his death) has started to attract a grassroots following, as well as several hundred album sales through CD Baby. And that translates to a nice, if modest, profit for a very, very non-mainstream band (Indian emo? What's that?), according to CD Baby's vice president of operations, John Steup. Concrete Blonde, acid-rockers Eels, and Grant Lee Phillips, formerly of Grant Lee Buffalo, have all found similar success through the site.

"They're right [for using the CD Baby service] no matter what, whether or not they have something musically we like," Steup says. "We don't make judgments. There are people out there who are going to want the music. We treat the artist like they should have been treated all along."

So what the hell is CD Baby, exactly?

At its heart, it's two guys in Portland, Oregon, who run a 20-employee online music retailer. A frustrated musician birthed it. Its office, says Steup, is a converted warehouse close to Portland International Airport. The management occupies a left-hand corner, and the rest of the floor is dominated by racks of CDs, cardboard packaging, reams of bubble wrap, and several workers scampering to find the day's orders among the tens of thousands of discs. The company's Web site is similarly lo-fi, with lots of white space, lower-case fonts that run larger than they should, and big, cumbersome boxes to display the product.

"Nobody here drives a Maserati, but it's not like we're dirt poor," Steup says. "I rent a house. I have one car. We're doing okay."

Yet for all its slapdash qualities, you should admire CD Baby. The retailer's business model is a success story for everyone involved. That model has not raised feathers with the major labels the way digital downloading has – no copyright issues, but what about the money issue? – nor has it attracted overwhelming attention by the national media. To wit: For a one-time fee of $35, anyone can advertise a record and keep a supply of discs in the warehouse, and for every CD the company sells on your behalf, it keeps a flat fee of $4. The rest of the sale belongs to the artist.

If a band sets a sale price of $15, it makes a profit of $11 per album through CD Baby. A $15 CD that sells 4,000 copies – about the most a CD has sold at the Web site – translates to $16,000 to CD Baby and $44,000 for the artist.

"It's just all about persistence and getting off your butt and doing it," says Fatigo guitarist-singer Montoya. Pero los Chivos!is one of hundreds of Arizona CDs available on the Web site. From the Valley, that list also includes the hip-hop collective Drunken Immortals and emo gems Tolerance. "We're trying to get in a position where we'd have enough leverage to compete and so we didn't have to grovel for anything," Montoya says.

CD Baby stores 30,000 different albums, many of which undoubtedly suck (easy-listening atmospheric soundscapes by a 9-year-old from Des Moines, anyone?). Still, statistics reveal the site has sold nearly 350,000 discs to date, a bounty of $2.66 million for the artists. Perhaps more impressively, CD Baby has done almost nothing to promote the artists who use it.

Visitors to the Web site will find a rather plain opening page. With 30,000 albums to sell, it's impossible to feature them all in a coherent way, so CD Baby goes for a minimalist approach. Even the big names don't get their products promoted over the lesser lights. "We've had high-power players ask us, What can we do to end up on your front page?'" Steup says.

Instead, CD Baby groups some titles under thematic headings: music to have sex to, albums that sound like soundtracks, music for stoners and so on.

In other words, CD Baby gives the Montoyas of the world a conduit to prove themselves on their own terms; there's no bullshit, just empowerment.

That runs counter to the practice of the majors, which seem intent on making their signees commodities, burying them in a storm of legalisms and ripping them of the financial glory they seek. Just ask A Tribe Called Quest, who, after Jive Records got through with them, famously saw almost nothing from their 1991 hip-hop classic The Low End Theory.

Which isn't to say that it always sucks to get signed. If Columbia calls Fatigo tomorrow and offers to put their music in a million homes with the snap of its fingers, the band probably ain't turning that down.

With an explosion of CD Babys, however, who would really need the majors to make decent money? The combination of MP3 swapping and touring helps pump the music to the masses, and with enough talent and drive, the support will come. The street success of MC Hammer years ago, the Dave Matthews Band in the early '90s and, more recently, Napster darlings O.A.R. proves that. People will buy the scratchiest vinyl out of a phone booth if they like you.

Fuck the A&R man. If Kick & Scream had a shred of musical talent, its record sure as hell would be up there now. Christopher O'Connor

Got a problem with Kick & Scream? Let's hear it. Contact the author at his online address: christopher.oconnor@newtimes.com.

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