New Internationalist

Songwriter musicmaker storyteller freak

Issue 359

Whether it’s about the boardroom or the bedroom, US folksinger Ani DiFranco has inspired millions for over a decade with her politically charged music and her intensely personal reflections on a range of issues. At just 19 years of age, this folk singer and songwriter from Buffalo, New York did the unthinkable in the music business- she started her own record label. Righteous Babe Records, established in dilapidated downtown Buffalo, soon churned out highly sought after DiFranco albums and warded off numerous overtures from eager profithungry record companies. With her independence and artistic freedom intact from corporate predators, DiFranco toured incessantly and built up a grassroots word-of-mouth following that has mushroomed over the years. The following letter to Ms. magazine perhaps best articulates her vision of the potency of music and the importance of challenging corporate power.


 Photo: Petra Arnold
'If you put your personal ambition before your political commitment, your work becomes commercialized: they end up turning your culture into a clothing line. If you really want to challenge the system, don't get into bed with it.' Ani DiFranco and Maceo Parker (former saxophonist for James Brown). Photo: Petra Arnold

So I’m poring through the 25th anniversary issue of Ms. - on some airplane going somewhere in the amorphous blur that amounts to my life - and I’m finding it endlessly enlightening and stimulating as always, when, whaddaya know, I come across a little picture of little me. I was flattered to be included in that issue’s ‘21 feminists for the 21st century’ thingybob. I think ya’ll are runnin’ the most bold and babeolishious magazine around, after all.

Problem is, I couldn’t help but be a little weirded-out by the paragraph next to my head that summed up her me-ness and my relationship to the feminist continuum. What got me was that it largely detailed my financial successes and sales statistics. My achievements were represented by the fact that I ‘make more money per album sold than Hootie and the Blowfish,’ and that my catalogue sales exceed threequarters of a million. It was specified that I don’t just have my own record company but my own ‘profitable’ record company. Still, the ironic conclusion of the aforementioned blurb is a quote from me insisting ‘it’s not about the money’. Why then, I ask myself, must ‘the money’ be the focus of so much of the media that surrounds me? Why can’t I escape it, even in the hallowed pages of Ms.?

Firstly, this ‘Hootie and the Blowfish’ business was not my doing. The LA Times financial section wrote an article about my record label, Righteous Babe Records, in which they raved about the business savvy of a singer (me) who thwarted the corporate overhead by choosing to remain independent, thereby pocketing $4.25 per unit, as opposed to the $1.25 made by Hootie or the $2.00 made by Michael Jackson. This story was then picked up and reprinted by The New York Times, Forbes magazine, the Financial News Network, and (lo and behold) Ms.

So here I am, publicly morphing into some kinda Fortune 500-youngentrepreneur-from-hell, and all along I thought I was just a folksinger!

Ok, it’s true. I do make a much larger profit (percentage-wise) than the Hootster. What’s even more astounding is that there are thousands of musicians out there who make an even higher profit percentage than me! How many local musicians are there in your community who play gigs in bars and coffee shops about town? I bet lots of them have made cassettes or CDs which they’ll happily sell to you with a personal smile from the edge of the stage or back at the bar after their set. Would you believe these shrewd, profitminded wheeler-dealers are pocketing a whopping 100 per cent of the profits on the sales of those puppies?! Wait till the Financial News Network gets a whiff of them!

I sell approximately 2.5 per cent of the albums that a Joan Jewelanis Morrisette sells and get about 0.05 per cent of the airplay royalties. So obviously if it all comes down to dollars and cents, I’ve led a wholly unremarkable life. Yet I choose relative statistical mediocrity over fame and fortune because I have a bigger purpose in mind. Imagine how strange it must be for a girl who has spent 10 years fighting as hard as she could against the lure of the corporate carrot and the almighty forces of capital, only to be eventually recognized by the power structure as a business pioneer.

I have indeed sold enough records to open a small office on the half-abandoned main street in the dilapidated urban center of my hometown, Buffalo, New York. I am able to hire 15 or so folks to run and constantly reinvent the place while I drive around and play music for people. I am able to give stimulating business to local printers and manufacturers and to employ the services of independent distributors, promoters, booking agents and publicists. I was able to quit my day job and devote myself to what I love.

And yes, we are enjoying modest profits these days, affording us the opportunity to reinvest in innumerable political and artistic endeavors. Righteous Babe Records is no Warner Brothers, but it is a going concern, and for me, it is a vehicle for redefining the relationship between art and commerce in my own life. It is a record company which is the product not just of my own imagination, but that of my friend and manager Scot Fisher and of all the people who work there. People who incorporate and co-ordinate politics, art and media every day into a people-friendly, subcorporate, woman-informed, queer-happy small business that puts music before rock stardom and ideology before profit.

And me. I’m just a folksinger, not an entrepreneur. My hope is that my music and poetry will be enjoyable and/or meaningful to someone, somewhere, not that I maximize my profit margins. It took 15 years and 11 albums getting to this place of notoriety and, if anything, I think I was happier way back when. Not that I regret any of my decisions, mind you. I’m glad I didn’t sign on to the corporate army. I mourn the commodification and homogenization of music by the music industry, and I fear the manufacture of consent by the corporately controlled media. Last thing I want to do is feed the machine.

I was recently mortified while waiting in the dressing room before one of my own shows. Some putz suddenly takes the stage to announce me and exclaim excitedly that this was my ‘largest sold-out crowd to date!’.

Oh, really?’, I’m thinking to myself, ‘that’s interesting… too bad it’s not the point.’ All of my achievements are artistic, as are all of my failures.

That’s just the way I see it. Statistical plateau or no, I’ll bust ass for 60 people, or 6,000, watch me.

So here I am, publicly morphing into some kinda Fortune 500-youngentrepreneur- from-hell, and all along I thought I was just a folksinger!

I have so much respect for Ms. magazine. If I couldn’t pick it up at newsstands my brain probably would’ve atrophied by now on some trans-Atlantic flight and I would be lying limp and twitchy in a bed of constant travel, staring blankly into the abyss of the gossip magazines. Ms. is a structure of media wherein women are able to define themselves, and articulate for themselves those definitions. We wouldn’t point to 21 of the feminists moving into the 21st century and define them in terms of ‘Here’s Becky Ballbuster from Iowa City, she’s got a great ass and a cute little button nose…’ No ma’am. We’ve gone beyond the limited perceptions of sexism and so we should move beyond the language and perspective of the corporate patriarchy. The Financial News Network may be ultimately impressed with me now that I’ve proven to them that there’s a life beyond the auspices of papa Sony, but do I really have to prove this to you?

We have the ability and the opportunity to recognize women not just for the financial successes of their work but for the work itself. We have the facility to judge each other by entirely different criteria than those imposed upon us by the superstructure of society. We have a view which reaches beyond profit margins into poetry, and a vocabulary to articulate the difference.

Thanks for including me, Ms., really. But just promise me one thing - if I drop dead tomorrow, tell me my grave stone won’t read:

ani d.
CEO

Please let it read:

songwriter
musicmaker
storyteller
freak.

Ani DiFranco
Listen to Ani’s anti-war poem ‘Self-Evident’ on the peace not war website.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Songwriter musicmaker storyteller freak

Leave your comment