[21 August 2008]
Twenty albums and 4.5 million copies sold almost entirely by word of mouth.
That’s no easy feat for a 30-something folksinger. Especially when that folksinger has spent a career defying the lure of major labels and running her own record company, all the while keeping a devoted following of socially engaged and musically inclined fans.
But acclaimed independent artist Ani DiFranco is facing a daunting set of challenges these days: she is, in her own words, running a horse-and-buggy business in the age of the automobile.
Ironically, DiFranco’s trademark buck-the-system approach to making music is now working against her. As someone who started off selling cassette tapes out of the trunk of her car, and who has counted on making albums that sell in stores or at her shows, DiFranco is now reeling from a paradigm shift in the industry that is increasingly leaving independent labels in the dust.
“We sell a certain amount through iTunes, but it’s just not the same,” said DiFranco. “Everything has changed. We sort of came up under the old system—making records, putting them in record stores—that’s kind of what I know how to do and what I love to do.”
The problem now, she said, is that the age of the album is gone. In its place is an industry smarting from a consumer base less interested in buying packaged CDs and instead turning to the Internet to illegally download songs or swapping burned music with friends.
“The indie world has almost evaporated ... It’s kind of like our whole community is dying around us,” said DiFranco. “Record-buying isn’t what it used to be.”
While some independent artists compensate by allowing their music to be used in advertisements, the Buffalo-based singer-songwriter said she committed a long time ago to not going down that path.
“We’re struggling,” said DiFranco. “We’re trying to figure out how to shift with the times. Basically, it’s my life touring. Playing show after show is like my bread and butter.”
And along with the nonstop touring comes a new addition to the crew: Petah Lucia, Ani’s baby daughter, who was born in January.
DiFranco took seven months off from touring to have Petah, which was “by far the longest I’ve had off since I was teenager. I thought that I would go totally stir crazy, like I would lose my whole sense of identity ... Truthfully, I didn’t. I’m in love.”
So what happened when DiFranco finally took a breather, after touring almost nonstop for 20 years? She got cracking on delayed projects, which resulted in the release of her first book of poetry, Verses, and her first retrospective album, Canon, which contains three-dozen songs spanning the years 1990-2006, as well as five re-recorded tracks.
“Those are two retrospectives I put together while I was sitting at home fattening up,” said DiFranco. “It was an intense time of reflection that I haven’t had in so many years. That was really useful, to sit down and shut up and think about what I’ve done.”
Photo: Jason Hickerson
Still, taking seven months off from touring delivered a major financial blow to DiFranco’s company, Righteous Babe Records. While the label is home to a mix of other lesser-known artists, DiFranco’s tireless tour schedule is what keeps the business afloat.
“The reality right now is that I can’t stop touring,” she said. “I’ve got to keep bringing home the bacon for the team ... I don’t know what the future of RBR is, honestly.”
In addition, toting a baby along on tour adds a “daunting” dimension to DiFranco’s tireless schedule. But, she says, the time that mothering takes away from songwriting is worth it.
“My songs have slowed down a little bit, my new record is taking longer because of her, but I say all of this happily,” said DiFranco. “While I can’t maybe produce as much music while I’m caring for her, she doesn’t just take my energy. She gives it all back.”
So for now, DiFranco is back on the road again, with a packed summer tour ahead of her, with baby in tow and with no clear plan on the direction of her company. And for the time being, the singer/songwriter appears to be taking things in stride.
“It’s just a reality,” she said. Between having a core audience and a hope that her music-making can bend and change with the times, “Maybe if I cross my fingers, I can count on having a job.”
If Plan A doesn’t work out, DiFranco floated the idea of narrowing the scope of her company to putting on live shows in her Buffalo-based performance space, Babeville. She and her manager saved the building from being demolished and have spent the last few years renovating it into a concert space and arts center, as well as making it the headquarters for Righteous Babe Records.
“We’re thinking maybe focus on putting on live shows and sort of shift our energy there, and just make music happen in Buffalo, you know, our hometown, shift away from the record company a little bit,” she said.
But the Little Folksinger Who Could doesn’t appear to be headed into Plan B just yet. And, in trademark fiery fashion, DiFranco dismissed the idea that the growing demands of being a company executive and a new mom could be eating away her edge when it comes to railing against political or social injustice in her songs.
“My political mission is as acute as ever,” she said. “For me, in addition to kind of looking at the world and trying to engage in my society politically, having the kid around sort of makes me check in with myself. I think you’re all busy trying to fix the world, but what about yourself?”
Pointing to touchy themes addressed in her new songs, DiFranco said having a baby helped her to address negative feelings about body image and “my own self-loathing ... my girl baggage.”
Photo: Jason Hickerson
Having a child was a wake-up call that “I cannot pass this self-loathing on,” she said. “It makes me want to turn inward, like wow, I’d better check myself and get my heart right. And not all this stupid stuff I’ve been trying to unlearn for all these years.”
Weighing in on the larger political scene, DiFranco took a swipe at President George W. Bush as she marveled at the idea of having an “intelligent, articulate, thoughtful person” back in the White House, should Barack Obama take the slot in November. Still, she said the Illinois Democrat isn’t progressive enough for her to campaign for.
Obama faces “an incredible amount of pressure” to back the nuclear power industry,” DiFranco said. “I think that’s something that just needs to stop yesterday.”
Not one to shy away from talking about sexuality, the singer/songwriter also gave her two cents on another politically sensitive topic: gay marriage.
“I think the gay community should get smart and drop the word ‘marriage,’” said DiFranco. “Do you really need to change every right-wing Christian to make sure you get your equal rights? Eyes on the prize, we should be sticking to getting equal rights.”
Speaking of equal rights, somebody small needs to be fed. And sound check awaits. And off goes DiFranco.