Ever since the first file-sharers started swapping MP3s on Napster, there's been a lot of talk about how the Internet would radically alter the structure of the recording industry. With CD sales steadily going down, there are signs that that prophecy might actually come to pass.
CD Baby is an example of what things might look like in the post-label future: Instead of relying on a major label push or hoping someone stumbles across their Web site, artists can reach CD Baby's market without having to deal with labyrinthine distribution deals or deceptive cash advances from record companies. Online since 1998, CD Baby only sells albums by honest-to-goodness independent musicians, charging artists a flat fee of $4 per CD sold. The albums on the site are all self-released, and while the total sales are still modest (the site has sold 2.5 million CDs thus far), Jack Johnson, Amos Lee and Regina Spektor all got noticed selling their wares on CD Baby. The Pixies, Hall and Oates and Vanilla Ice all sell there, too. The easily searchable site allows users to browse by genre, popularity or even by "mood" (the Motet's "Live" is listed under "for a sunny day") or "occasion" (soul-jazz musician Sean Haefeli makes music "to have sex to").
Yes, musicians have always tried to sell their music on their own, but it's never been this easy -- all a musician needs is access to a CD burner and adequate postage. The site asks that artists send in just five copies of a CD to get started, and e-mails the musician as more are needed. As Chuck Eddy has pointed out: "The biggest music story of the '00s might be a newfound democratization of production, owed both to the ease with which CD-R and MP3 technology allows bands who play Maine county fairs or suburban Ohio strip malls or backwater Louisiana roadhouses or Vancouver armory dances (assuming there are still armory dances in Vancouver) to record their music and the ease with which the internet helps them promote and distribute it internationally, bypassing record labels."
Don't be mistaken -- with the site doing several million dollars a year in sales (it's grown from one employee in 1998 to 70 this year), CD Baby is not an altruistic operation, but hey, the bands playing the Maine County Fairs and Vancouver armory dances need the cash more than Clive Davis does. Check it out.
-- David Marchese