Berkeley Offers Alternative Ways to Buy Music

Friday December 12, 2003

We’ve heard a lot lately about how the recording industry is increasingly dominated by a few large conglomerates, producing fewer and fewer choices for listeners and less and less income for artists. 

If you’re looking for alternatives to buying music from the big boys, you can find them in and around Berkeley. Here are four selections from many possibilities which illustrate how you can support independent artists with your buying dollar in a variety of ways. 

The most innovative solution to the problem of excessive consolidation in the recording industry is offered by a new Berkeley Internet company, Magnatune, whose first release was in May of this year. I found their website (magnatunes.com/) when I was trying to figure out how to buy baroque cellist Phoebe Carrai’s recently released CD of Bach’s Cello Suites. Carrai, though based in Boston, appears frequently in Berkeley with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. 

Magnatune’s slogan is “we are not evil.” Founder John Buckman explains the whole concept, at great length, on the company website: “The goal is to find a way to run a record label in the Internet Reality: file trading, Internet Radio, musicians’ rights, the whole nine-yards.” What this means is that individual listeners can download uncompressed CD-quality music, and they are asked to pay “what you think this music is worth,” though there is a suggested price. Musicians retain the copyright in their work, and keep half of the buyer’s payment. That’s half of the gross, not a minute percentage of the (usually non-existent) profits, which musicians get from conventional labels. There are also elaborate schemes for licensing for commercial use. 

The Magnatune website tells you much more than you ever expected to know about the way it all works. Clicking on “statistics” gives detailed sales breakdowns for the 75 artists currently represented by 145 albums on the company’s list. They are unusual offerings in a thoroughly eclectic list of genres. Selecting “Sales by Genre for this week” shows what’s selling in ten diverse categories, from Classical at 40.41 percent of sales, through Electronica (11.75 percent) down to Punk: (0.42 percent). 

Of course, if you’re not Internet-savvy (probably not all baroque music fans are!) you can just go down to The Musical Offering at 2430 Bancroft Way and pick up a CD. It’s produced by Britain’s Avie, a similarly artist-friendly company, in partnership with Magnatune. 

Next, there are still a few somewhat independent big labels out there. Dave Ellis, who would deserve the title “Pride of Berkeley High” if there weren’t so many other fine musicians who could also claim it, has an edgy jazz offering on the Milestone label, produced by the legendary Orrin Keepnews, the founder of the label as a New York independent. Milestone was acquired by Berkeley’s own Fantasy in the 1970s, so it now could be considered a local label, though part of a larger enterprise. Dave’s latest CD release is called State of Mind, and it can be purchased directly from Fantasy’s website without going through a distributor, though it is also available in stores. Details at: www.fantasyjazz.com.  

Berkeley has a remarkable number of venues for what’s most often called “roots music,” and many of the leading performers live here. Suzy Thompson has played for more than thirty years in most of the popular groups, such as Any Old Time, Klezmorim, the California Cajun Orchestra, and the Bluegrass Intentions. She’s recently released her first solo fiddle CD, No Mockingbird, which mixes her own compositions with music from a great variety of American roots sources from the 1920s and 1930s. It can be purchased on-line (nativeandfinerecords.com) or by phone (559-8879) from Albany-based Native and Fine Records. For those who want to walk into a locally-owned music store to make their purchases, El Cerrito’s Down Home Music at 10341 San Pablo Ave. is the place to go. On Saturday, Dec. 13, Suzy will be a guest on West Coast Live (KALW 91.7 FM), which will be broadcasting at 10 a.m. before a live audience from Freight & Salvage Coffee House, 1111 Addison St. You can probably pick up a CD there, too. 

Finally, the simplest route. Many musicians now make their own CDs and sell them at their gigs. Smooth and silky Louisiana-born saxophone player Jules Broussard, who can be heard most Wednesday nights at Berkeley’s Downtown Restaurant, brings along his 1995 CD Love Note, proudly listing his name as copyright holder, which he offers to interested fans for $15 cash on the spot. Just go down to Downtown (2101 Shattuck Ave.), listen to some music, and give Jules your money.