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Don't Call Her an Entrepreneur
 

"Capitalism," sings Ani DiFranco, "is the devil's wet dream." How's that for a CEO mission statement?
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Page 4 of "Don't Call Her an Entrepreneur"

The breakup came in 1995, as DiFranco's career began to blossom. She was drawing ever larger crowds, the major record companies were calling, and her seventh album was coming out. Her hard work was taking a toll, however. She had been on the road more or less constantly for half a decade, playing as many as 200 gigs a year, and the strain was getting to her. Hoping to relieve the pressure, she and Fisher hired a sound engineer, who would also serve as her road manager and driver. What neither one of them counted on was that she and the sound guy, Andrew Gilchrist, would fall in love.

DiFranco broke the news to Fisher over dinner one night at a restaurant in Buffalo. "She was very straightforward, as always," he says. "She said it wasn't working out between us, and she was in love with Andrew."

"I told him, 'I guess I have to fire Andrew," DiFranco recalls. "Between a business manager and a road manager, who did I need more? But Scot said no." In 1998, Gilchrist and DiFranco got married. Fisher, despite the misgivings of his friends, continued to run Righteous Babe. "Everyone who cared about Scot was telling him it was insane to stay on as my manager and business partner when I'd dumped him as a lover," says DiFranco. "And he had to ride through that without the respect of the people he was working with. My booking agent was like, 'Ahh, the jilted boyfriend who won't let go."

"It was very hard," says Fisher. "But I thought, if I can do this, I can do anything."

Through it all, the company kept growing, and DiFranco's star kept rising. Between 1995 and 1999, annual sales of her albums more than tripled and her new releases started appearing regularly on the Billboard charts. The gross receipts from her concerts placed her tours among the top 50 in the country. She appeared on the covers of national magazines, was nominated for her first Grammy for best female rock performance, and even showed up in animated form on King of the Hill.

When Fisher licensed 32 Flavors to NFL Films for commercial use, there was an immediate backlash.

Fisher, meanwhile, faced the complex business challenge of trying to capitalize on opportunities without making it appear as though DiFranco was selling out. He didn't always succeed. In 1998, for example, he agreed to license one of DiFranco's songs, 32 Flavors, to NFL Films. When the song appeared in promotional spots, there was an immediate backlash. "I wonder if Ms. DiFranco thinks that supporting the stereotype-perpetuating cheerleaders of the NFL can be justified by the fat royalty check in her mailbox," lamented an erstwhile fan on one of the dozens of websites dedicated to DiFranco's music. While DiFranco defended the licensing decision, Fisher made no excuses: "It reminded me how careful I need to be."

To be fair, there was no model for what he was trying to do. He made it up as he went along, and he stumbled from time to time. At one point, he decided that the company needed professional management and proceeded to hire a chief operating officer who then hired a chief financial officer. Along with adding considerable overhead, the new guys brought a different corporate ethos. Plus, the new COO began angling for Fisher's job. Eventually Fisher got rid of them.

With regard to marketing, his instincts were sounder. Hoping to expand Righteous Babe's customer base, he focused on reaching the gatekeepers who controlled access to the market -- the music press, programmers at radio stations, buyers for music stores. With DiFranco's encouragement, he worked to upgrade every aspect of the operation. Style mattered. The goal was to look professional without coming across as slick. That also applied to the catalog that the company began sending out to fans. "Scot was very clear about what he didn't want the catalog to be," says Ehmke, the writer. "He said, 'Think about the fans at home. They've been getting funky post cards, and then suddenly they get this full-color catalog with all these things to buy. It can't just be about cramming merchandise down people's throats."

And there was plenty of merchandise. First came the T-shirts, which DiFranco had long resisted. Sweatshirts and tank tops soon followed, as did everything from coffee cups to refrigerator magnets to several Ani DiFranco songbooks. With all that stuff to sell, Fisher had reason to worry about overwhelming fans. He came up with the idea of including a letter, called the "Hey Folks" letter, that would explain the changes, as well as update recipients on goings-on in the Righteous Babe world. Ehmke worked hard to develop the right voice for it. "We wanted it to be very down-to-earth," he says, "sort of my version of Ani's writing voice."

In 2001, DiFranco and Fisher decided to invest in better CD packaging. The rest of the industry, of course, was moving in the opposite direction. With album sales plummeting, ostensibly because of downloading, major record companies were cutting back on packaging costs. But at Righteous Babe, designer Brian Grunert was told not to think about cost. The new packaging he and DiFranco came up with -- lavishly illustrated booklets and CD holders in slip cases -- gave customers another reason to buy albums rather than download them. And, oh yes, Grunert and DiFranco won the Grammy for best packaging in 2003.

Righteous Babe also continued to expand its eclectic roster of artists -- known in the company as the Babes, though several are men pushing 70. Arto Lindsay brought a distinct samba/bossa nova flavor, reflecting his Brazilian upbringing. Utah Phillips told folk stories, accompanied by DiFranco's guitar. Drums & Tuba did improvisational jazz. Hamell on Trial, a self-described "anti-folksinger," contributed an album of "punk acoustic rock." While Fisher and DiFranco would have been thrilled to see any of the albums catch fire, they knew they couldn't count on it, just as the artists understood that Righteous Babe couldn't afford to spend much money on them. What the company could provide was support. "We could get them into record stores, do some promotion, put out posters, generate some buzz," says Fisher. "It helped the artists, and it made things more interesting for the staff."

Then again, there was always a chance one of the albums would take off, and as time went on, Fisher realized that the company needed all the income sources it could find. After 1999, album sales at Righteous Babe began to decline steadily, as they did throughout the industry. Although DiFranco's new releases continued to debut high on the Billboard charts, each did so with fewer sales than the one before. Overall, annual sales of Righteous Babe albums fell 50% from 1999 to 2003. Then, quite unexpectedly, an opportunity came along to enter a whole different business.

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Last updated: Sep 1, 2004

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




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