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September 19, 2005
The Music and the Message
By Rebecca Ruiz
Singer-songwriter Tori Amos managed to develop a business strategy that allows her the independence she needs while presenting challenging ideas to her listeners.
On a chilly fall evening, Tori Amos walks confidently onstage, her trademark red hair flowing as she greets screaming fans at the Chronicle Pavilion in Concord, California. In the final stretch of a nationwide tour to support her recent album The Beekeeper, she remarks how it's nice to be in a state where she can play what she pleases without being thrown out.
It's unclear whether Amos has ever been so blatantly censored, but the 42-year-old singer-songwriter has a history of raising controversial issues. This evening, which happens to be the fourth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, she delivers a moving cover of John Lennon's Imagine. Amos mentions that the audience should be worried when people propose banning the song from radio, which Clear Channel did after 9-11. She played it back then, too.
Tori Amos has spent the last 15 years of her career trying to sell music without selling out. The classically trained pianist turned pop confessionalist prefers to think of herself as in the business of ideas instead of in the business of making a lot of money.
"The music and the message is foremost for me," said Amos, who has sold 12 million records. "I want you to take away ideas. That is my mission, my life. Yes I'm in the music business also, and I have to play a serious game of chess."
That delicate balance has required Amos to fuse the roles of musician and businesswoman, a difficult feat in an industry where labels wield most of the power and women are often relegated to supporting acts. Still, Amos has created a career on her own terms and developed a strategy that could serve as a blueprint for singer songwriters who crave longevity and independence over flash-in-the-pan popularity.
"It's emotional blackmail to say if you're a good businesswoman and a musician, you're betraying your music," Amos said, defending singer-songwriters who are criticized for being perceived as too business savvy. A difficult lesson at the start of her career taught Amos that controlling the business aspect of her music was essential.
Y Kant Tori Read, Amos' first album, which debuted in 1988, was a disaster. Under pressure from Atlantic to become the trend du jour, Amos donned a leather bustier and a frightening glam rock hairstyle on the cover. The album bombed, selling only 7,000 copies. Amos viewed the out-of-body experience as a watershed moment.
During the recording of her second album, Little Earthquakes, Amos was a daily fixture at the label. "I was making sure that every decision fit with who I was and what the music was and I took responsibility, whereas I think I pulled the blinds over my eyes years before," Amos said. The album, a raw take on sex and religion, received critical acclaim and sold 2 million copies.
Nearing the age when the industry often tries to quietly escort its female artists to the stage door, Amos has already survived threats from Atlantic, her former label, to shelve her work until she was too old to play.
The dispute arose in 1998 when Amos confronted the label about the limited support of her work. She later discovered that her promotional concert tickets, normally used as an incentive to give an artist's songs more airtime, were used in exchange for promoting other label acts. The bitter altercation was another turning point for Amos.
"I had to look at the truth. If they're going to see you as a commodity, then you better look after the commodity. I had to understand how the game was working," said Amos. After fulfilling her contract she left Atlantic for Epic in 2001 and wrote A Sorta Fairytale, her most successful Billboard Adult Top 40 song to date.
Despite this success, and the recent unexpected resurgence of Carly Simon and Carole King, two founders of the female singer-songwriter genre, the holy grail of radio play for artists like Amos is more elusive now that the days of the Lilith Fair are over. With certain notable exceptions, artists of that era like Paula Cole, Natalie Merchant and Shawn Colvin have largely disappeared from mainstream music.
This summer two of the genre's stalwarts, Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow, signed deals with major companies offering high levels of visibility. Morissette agreed to star in television and print ads for Gap while also pre-releasing an album through Starbucks. Similarly, Sheryl Crow gave Dell permission to use her upcoming single in an ad campaign.
"Sheryl is no different than Tori," said John Witherspoon, Amos' manager. "If you're trying to sell records and you're not Mariah Carey or an American Idol, you're struggling. They get played, but not as much." Witherspoon admits they've turned down cross-marketing deals in the past to focus instead on projects that highlight the music.
This approach -- trying to sell records without selling out -- has meant keeping Amos visible in different ways. They've created other cross-marketing and branding opportunities such as Piece by Piece, an autobiographical book co-authored with rock journalist Ann Powers that charts Amos' creative process. The book, released within weeks of the debut of her latest album,The Beekeeper, peaked at number two on The New York Times bestseller list. Amos also recently launched a self-owned merchandising line, which allows her to be in direct control of the products bearing her name and face.
Additionally, Amos has worked on several soundtrack projects including Mona Lisa Smile, for which she also made a brief appearance as a big-band singer. Witherspoon declined to elaborate on future plans because of current negotiations but said to expect potential film and TV projects, as well as a Rhino box set.
Amos, who stays involved in every move regarding her business plan, sees a distinct difference between self-promotion and letting desperation guide the decision-making process. "Cross-marketing and understanding who you are is one thing," she said, "but it's another thing to start betraying your art because you think that what you are isn't going to get played anymore."
To ensure that her music is indeed paid for and played in a digital world, Amos has stayed abreast of online sales. This has been particularly important in recent years as album sales steadily declined. In 1999, she pioneered digital sales by releasing an Internet single for 99 cents. For the past few years, Amos' albums have come with exclusive bonuses like charms and mini-DVDs to discourage burning, and her releases continue to perform strongly online. (The Beekeeper debuted at number one on iTunes.)
A loyal fan base often known to convert non-believers has been equally as crucial for Amos. Armed with 140,000 email addresses of hardcore fans, Amos and Witherspoon put a premium on word-of-mouth marketing, and reward productive fans with front row tickets and behind-the-scenes glimpses.
Fifteen years ago, Amos was just trying to convince label execs that "a girl at the piano" was profitable despite the decline of female singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush. Lacking a discernible career path, Amos managed to develop a business strategy that allowed her the independence she needed to evolve gracefully while presenting challenging ideas to her listeners.
"These ideas need to be put out there and discussed," said Amos, referring specifically to a song on her new album entitled "Mother Revolution" about mothers of wartime soldiers who don't agree with the current agenda. "I'm not asking you to follow these ideas that I put out, but I think it's essential that people come out of a daze and become their own independent thinkers, and that is what I do."
Rebecca Ruiz is a freelance writer based in the Bay Area.
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