Veteran blues singer Chris Whitley recently received his first royalty check. It's not that it took him so long to break into the recording industry - he put out three previous albums with Sony - he just needed to step away from the big time and sign with an itty-bitty independent label run by a twentysomething from his Manhattan studio apartment.
"It costs $1 million to $2 million to release an album" on a major label, explains Brandon Kessler, the young man who started Messenger Records in his Columbia University dorm room three years ago. He signed Mr. Whitley last year.
"If you're not making money by the second album, chances are you'll be dropped" by a big label.
Musicians often start out with independent releases hoping to get attention from the major record labels, the home of big advances, music videos, and red-carpet tours.
In reality, the star treatment at major labels is usually reserved for, well, a few stars. Hundreds of bands that get signed as hopefuls are left to make it on their own without much promotion from the label. For an artist like Whitley, with a small base of fans, the dream of stardom often ends in sagging sales and a telephone that won't ring.
With the recent merger of Polygram and Universal Music, the six major labels became five (the others are Sony, EMI, BMG, and WEA - Warner/Electra/Atlantic) and 300 bands lost their contracts. As a result, hundreds are taking refuge at smaller labels that they hope will nurture their careers. "Artists are realizing their careers are fragile. They want to be on a label that's passionate and will seek out their audience and use innovative marketing techniques," Mr. Kessler says.
But how can a label like Messenger, with nearly no money and no staff, compete with the likes of Sony?
Instead of advertising, Messenger uses its Web site (www.messengerrecords.com) to attract fans with video clips, sound bites, and the occasional cybercast concert. Visitors can read articles about the bands, follow tour schedules, and use a list of local-radio-station phone numbers to call up and request songs.
Kessler and his part-time helpers, mostly interns, tailor how they promote each album, which they can do since Messenger only releases two or three per year.
"With a big record company, some people are going to be working on your record just because it's their job," Whitley says. "With Brandon [Kessler], it has been pure enthusiasm. He's incredibly unjaded."
Whitley had to forgo an advance when he signed with Messenger but has been rewarded with three European tours and a steady income.
To promote Whitley's "Dirt Floor" album, Messenger tapped into an existing Whitley fan e-zine (e-mail newsletter) to recruit volunteers from all over the United States and Europe. In exchange for signed posters and T-shirts, the 250 informal reps spread the word about the album at their local record stores and on college campuses.
"[The fans] get the prizes, we get the record sales, and the artist grows in popularity," Kessler says.
A system of local representatives is common for labels, but Kessler says his crew is different.
"We wanted the people who spend hours on the [Internet] chat site arguing over which guitar string Chris uses in a certain song," he says. "Those are our reps."
Personalized distribution is a cornerstone of successful independent labels. "Most of the time the major labels rely on a distributor, who will call a store and say, 'Do you want this?' The store will either say 'Yes' or 'Never heard of it,' " he says. "I spend a lot of time on the phone with record stores explaining, 'This is a kind of magical, mystical album that's been missing.' "
The grass-roots formula confounds the major labels.
Whitley's Messenger Records release has been reviewed by magazines from Rolling Stone to Entertainment Weekly.
"All raves," reviewer David Bowman wrote in Salon, an online magazine. "Whitley [also had] a spread in Esquire [June 1998]. One wonders how many publicists ... Sony hires to get the same results for [Mariah] Carey."
Messenger was aiming to sell 10,000 of Whitley's "Dirt Floor" CDs. Instead, it has sold 25,000, far outpacing the 16,000 copies Sony sold of his last release.
In the spring, Whitley opened for blues singer Jonny Lang, and last fall he opened for part of Alanis Morissette's tour. "She handpicked him," Kessler says. "Her personal assistant heard the buzz on the album, went to a sold-out show in Los Angeles, and gave her the album the next day. Then we got a call. That is grass roots."