Ani DiFranco is sitting in her dressing room at the Chicago Theater, six hours before a performance, and she wants to set the record straight. Money, she says, had nothing to do with her decision to reject all those offers from major record labels and start her own business. Nor did she turn down the offers out of fear of losing her artistic freedom. So what was it, then? "I didn't want to participate in what big corporations are doing to society," she says. "My decision not to work with a major label was not about me. It was about something bigger than me."
There are, in fact, quite a few things bigger than Ani (pronounced ah-nee) DiFranco. She is, well, diminutive, although she hardly seems that way when she comes charging onto the stage at the start of a performance, her brown dreadlocks flying, her guitar blazing, her body twisting and turning in a blast of energy. Legions of fans can't get enough of that energy and the music that goes with it. And yet, for all her artistic success, it's often her commercial ventures that get attention -- much to her chagrin. When Ms. focused on her business prowess in citing her as one of "21 feminists for the 21st century," she fired off a letter of protest to the magazine's editor: "Imagine how strange it must be for a girl who has spent 10 years fighting as hard as she could against the lure of the corporate carrot and the almighty forces of capital, only to be recognized by the power structure as a business pioneer."
It is, however, a designation she can't escape. Her record company, Righteous Babe Records, is one of the few successful artist-created labels around, having sold more than 4 million of DiFranco's records and put out CDs by more than a dozen other performers. And it's no ordinary company. In an industry dominated by giant corporations, Righteous Babe has the look, feel, and smell of a small hometown business. Staff members, for example, respond with handwritten notes to the thousands of letters the company gets from its customers, DiFranco's fans. In return, the company elicits a level of devotion seldom seen in business. Customers go out of their way to protect it, patrolling the Internet and reporting on websites that try to sell unauthorized recordings of DiFranco's music. Some fans are so passionate about the business that they come from as far away as Australia and Switzerland, not to see DiFranco perform, but to visit the company headquarters in Buffalo. "I'm standing here in total awe," wrote one visitor from Los Angeles in the guest book.
And it's not just the fans. Talk to the company's record distributors, its printers, the manufacturers of its CDs, the concert promoters, not to mention its employees, and you realize that DiFranco and partner Scot Fisher have tapped into one of the most underappreciated forces in business, namely, the power of community. To do that while maintaining great margins is quite an accomplishment -- especially for a company whose CEO believes, as DiFranco sang on a recent album, that "capitalism is the devil's wet dream."