Scot Fisher is a tall, quiet, somewhat diffident man who works out of a cluttered office at Righteous Babe's headquarters. At 43, he still dresses like the construction guy he was when he first met DiFranco. Although he is usually referred to as her manager, the term does not do justice to the role he plays in her business life. Besides looking out for her career, he is the chief architect, co-owner, and operating head of Righteous Babe and its six component businesses, including a touring company, a retail operation, a music publisher, a real estate developer, and a foundation, as well as the record label. Together they do about $5 million in sales, mostly from DiFranco's CDs and her touring. (Profits are harder to figure but probably run a bit less than $1 million a year.) Yet another venture, a concert venue, will open next spring in a restored church down the block, which will also house a jazz club, an art gallery, and the headquarters of Righteous Babe. In addition to complementing the other businesses, the concert hall represents a hedge against the uncertain future that Righteous Babe and all record companies face these days. "I'm in the buggy business, and it's 1905," says Fisher. "It would be insane to count on CDs being here in 10 years."
"I'm in the buggy business and it's 1905. It would be insane to count on CDs being here in 10 years."
He wound up in the business almost by accident. Back in 1988, he was the co-owner of a small construction and housepainting company, and he'd recently moved into an apartment that the girlfriend of one of his partners was sharing with a woman she'd gone to art school with, an 18-year-old folksinger. One evening, he went to see his new housemate perform at a local bar. "It was sort of obligatory," he says. "Then she started to play." Nine years her senior, Fisher soon became DiFranco's confidant and mentor. Along the way, they fell in love. At some point, Righteous Babe entered the picture. "In the beginning, it was more of a joke than a real business," DiFranco says. "You know, 'Yeah, uh-huh, I got a record company. You're looking at it."
In retrospect, it's not surprising that she would gravitate toward entrepreneurship. She'd been figuring out how to make her own way in the world from an early age. At nine, she was spending Saturdays busking at the local farmers' market. At 12, she was making and selling cards of pressed flowers to earn money for horse camp. At 15, when her parents divorced, she moved out and lived on her own, largely supporting herself. Only once, in 1991, did she come close to signing with an established label, backing out as soon as she read the terms of the contract.
And yet, even without a contract, her fame spread. By the end of 1993, she had released five albums under the Righteous Babe label, and they were setting sales records at the folk festivals where she performed. Thanks to her constant touring, she was developing a loyal following, especially among young women, many of them lesbians who identified with her feminist lyrics and considered her one of their own. But Righteous Babe existed pretty much in name only. It had no structure, no organization, no full-time employees, and no office. DiFranco's albums were getting very little radio airplay and couldn't be found in most record stores. On top of that, she'd had a major falling-out with her business manager.
Into the breach stepped Fisher, who had been studying law while DiFranco was working on her music career. "I figured I could always be a lawyer," he says. "When would I get another chance to manage Ani DiFranco?" DiFranco, for her part, had doubts about having her lover take charge of her business affairs. "In the end," she says, "he just sort of declared himself my business manager." Fisher says they had an understanding that he'd step aside if it turned out he was wrong for the job.
There was, in fact, little reason to believe he was right for the job. He lacked experience, credentials, and credibility in the music business. "It took [Ani's agent] Jim Fleming a couple of years to tell me that the first time I called, he thought, 'Omigod, it's the boyfriend." Fisher says. "But I knew where I stood. I knew people didn't respect me. I'm from Buffalo. I'm used to it."
BO BURLINGHAM: Burlingham joined Inc. in 1983. An editor at large, he is the author of Small Giants. Burlingham is also the co-author with Norm Brodsky of The Knack; and the co-author with Jack Stack of The Great Game of Business. @boburlingham