To hear Fisher tell it, building a record company is a lot like, say, painting houses. "As a housepainter, you're in a small community and your reputation precedes you," he says. "So you'd better do a good job. What I learned painting houses was more relevant than going to law school." That's because small communities impose a kind of accountability that he believes is missing in the music business. He tells a story of a well-known promoter who produced a concert that DiFranco did with Bob Dylan. "We found out that he was adding a $5 parking fee to every ticket even though the parking came free with the venue. It was a sneaky way for him to make some extra money without giving anything to the artists. You couldn't get away with that in a small town."
Indeed, old-fashioned, conservative, small-town values lie at the heart of Righteous Babe, its founder's politics notwithstanding. Fisher says it begins with DiFranco herself. He tells of an urgent request she received in the middle of a tour, asking if she could write a song for a scene in My Best Friend's Wedding. It was a Tuesday, and the movie people needed the song by the end of the week. DiFranco delivered the finished package on Friday, with the song synced to the scene. "That's the way Ani is," Fisher says. "People might not like her music, but no one could ever say she was unprofessional or careless. I always wanted the office to be as professional as she was."
There are comparable stories about the company's loyalty. In 1995, for example, Fisher met with Michael Koch of Koch Entertainment, the leading independent national record distributor. Securing national distribution was critical to Righteous Babe, as it is to any independent label. The problem was that Koch insisted on exclusivity, and Fisher and DiFranco didn't want to abandon two distributors of women's music that had promoted her when she was largely unknown. Koch said there was no choice. "Okay," Fisher responded, "then we can't do a deal." Ultimately, Koch gave in.
Similarly, DiFranco has been using one company, ESP Inc., to manufacture her cassette tapes and CDs since she did her first demo tape in 1988 -- when ESP's owners were operating out of a basement. Today it's a 40-person business putting out 140,000 CDs per week for a variety of clients. Same thing with promoters. Darcy Greder, for one, put on her first Ani DiFranco concert in 1992 at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill., where she is associate dean of students. About 150 people showed up. Six years later, she was handling concerts of as many as 5,000 people. She still produces DiFranco's shows in central Illinois. "That's their philosophy," says Greder. "Dance with the ones who brought you."
One could argue that such loyalties have prevented DiFranco from reaching a larger audience. Certainly they have been maintained at a cost. But she and Fisher don't believe in having strictly business relationships. The company almost seems to shy away from them, striving to relate to customers and suppliers as individuals and friends. "That's why we handwrite the responses to letters from fans," says Fisher. "That's also why we decided not to outsource our 800 number. When customers call in, they speak to someone in the office." And it's why Righteous Babe puts all of the roadies on salary and gives them full benefits -- a practice virtually unheard of in the industry. It all contributes to the feeling of community and the sense of mission that Righteous Babe has been able to leverage so effectively. "People really believe in this idea of building an alternative not just to giant record companies but to the increasing corporatization of American culture," says Ron Ehmke, a writer and former employee.
While Fisher credits DiFranco for providing the inspiration and setting the example, DiFranco credits Fisher for turning it into a business. "There would absolutely be no Righteous Babe without him," she says. "He's my nearest and dearest, my life partner." The odd thing is that they stopped being a couple many years ago.
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