The story of an online music distributor run by (gasp) -- musicians.

Bringing Up Baby 

The story of an online music distributor run by (gasp) -- musicians.

There was a time when a major record label run by a man with no previous experience in the music business would have seemed ludicrous. But with the chairman of Sony Music, Tommy Mottola, resigning a few weeks back to be replaced by Andrew Lack, the former head of NBC, those days have faded like the career of Mottola's biggest albatross, debt-bringer Michael Jackson. By now, we've all learned that the music industry is as bottom-line-oriented as any other business, but enlisting a guy like Lack -- who knows as much about music as Jimmy Fallon does about being funny -- to run one of the world's biggest labels came as something of a shock, even to the most hardened critics.

Not that it should have. These days, labels crank out records the way GE does toaster ovens. Albums aren't even albums anymore, they're "units," and even artists have learned to speak of their craft as if they were hocking widgets.

"Musicians will call and ask about things, and they'll say, 'Well, I have product to ship,'" sighs John Steup, vice president of operations for online music retailer-distributor CD Baby. "I interrupt and say, 'No, it's not product, it's heart and soul. You have sweated to death over this; then to call it product is so demeaning.' It's so much more than that."

At least it is to the folks at CD Baby. A somewhat novel company that's caught fire in the past two years, the Portland, Oregon-based enterprise has become the second-largest online distributor of music, trailing only Amazon.com, and now has over 30,000 bands selling their wares on its website (cdbaby.com). How it works: For a one-time fee of $35, CD Baby will build the artist a page on its site, stock the artist's discs in its warehouse, ship CDs out to customers, and provide info to musicians about who bought their record, so that artists can stay in touch with fans. The company also runs a sister site (cdbaby.net) that provides musicians with business advice and helps acts locate publicists, promoters, and other such assistance. For this, the company takes $4 from every disc sold, while the rest of the proceeds go straight to the band. So if a group sells a disc for $15, it makes $11. Considering that most major-label acts are lucky to see 80 cents for each CD sold, this is a pretty good deal.

And dozens of Cleveland bands are beginning to agree.

"It's very musician-friendly and good for independent musicians especially," says Cleveland singer-songwriter Tracy Marie, who's used the service for more than two years. "You can make way more money than you would if you were on a label."

Adds Dave Hill, frontman for rockers Uptown Sinclair: "It definitely sells records, and you can communicate with them very easily. You can have some kind of ongoing relationship or dialogue with an actual, specific person there, which is not really the case with a lot of other online music-sales sites."

And therein lies the key. CD Baby was founded in 1997 by a musician, Derek Sivers, as a means to circumvent the increasingly impersonal label system and serve as something of an advocate for artists. Since then, CD Baby has sold more than 350,000 CDs, netting various bands close to $3 million.

All this noted, it's not as if CD Baby is without its flaws.

"The downside is that -- like a lot of the MP3 sites -- buyers have to wade through a lot of releases from unknown bands," says Carla Nocera, manager of Cleveland's Ether Net. "I'm not sure if they have hit upon the best search methods yet, in order for people to find new music that they are willing to take a chance on buying. Also, the cdbaby.net site provides a lot of information for artists, but some of their recommendations for resources have been a little dubious."

Nevertheless, by creating a more welcoming environment for artists, one where they can more easily reap the rewards of their own work, CD Baby has become one of the few refuges for artists outside the corporate oligarchy that major labels and mainstream radio have become.

"It puts the power in the hands of the musicians instead of the labels, which are struggling right now to find out what to do with the Internet," says Steup. "Their models don't work anymore; nobody wants to pay $22.50 for a CD."

With CD Baby, nobody has to.

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