NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ingrid Michaelson has an engaging stage presence, a growing catalogue of catchy pop tunes and a voice made for television, where her songs have played on a top-rated drama and catapulted her to prominence.
She does not, however, have a record label.
A product of the modern music business who markets her music on MySpace and sells it on iTunes and CD Baby, she is one of the few independent musicians to win commercial success without a record label behind her.
While some already famous artists are going independent — notably Madonna and Radiohead — Michaelson, 27, is a rare example of an independent who is becoming famous.
For her, it’s a question of control, both creative and marketing. “I’m not going to run around half-naked and that whole thing. That’s just not my personal preference,” Michaelson told Reuters.
Since the advent of digital music, file sharing and Apple Inc’s iTunes, big record companies have lost their omnipotence and artists are inventing new ways to reach audiences. But few find fame without a label and those that have — like British indie rockers Arctic Monkeys — have ended up signing a deal anyway.
“I have to commend her for having the courage to stay independent and not be seduced,” said Wayne Rosso, chairman of the ad-supported digital music service Mashboxx. “She will truly break the model and change the business to some degree.”
Michaelson's break came when a music licensing firm, Secret Road, discovered her MySpace page (here). Three weeks later, her song "Breakable" played on an episode of ABC television's Grey's Anatomy, which attracts 20 million viewers each week.
Three more of her songs played on the show, including an extended version of “Keep Breathing” during the closing minutes of the season-ending episode last May.
An even bigger boost came when “The Way I Am” was used in an ad for Old Navy clothing stores, which Michaelson’s publicist said catapulted her album “Girls and Boys” to No. 2 on the iTunes chart and the single to No. 3 — rare heights for an independent release.
As well as selling downloads on iTunes, Michaelson and other independents have turned to sites like CD Baby (cdbaby.com/), which manufactures compact discs and sells them online. Artists get a cut of $6 to $12 per album versus $1 to $2 in a typical record deal, CD Baby says.
These challenges, as well as illegal file-sharing, which puts music online for free, have led to a steady decline in traditional retail sales of music, from $13.2 billion in 2000 to $9.2 billion last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
The big record companies — EMI Group Plc; Sony BMG; Vivendi subsidiary Universal Music Group; and Warner Music Group — may be down, but they are not out.
“Record labels provide a lot of valuable services. Things like discovering the artists and promoting the artists,” said Michael Gartenberg, vice president of Jupiter Research in New York.
“It’s easy to put your stuff out there — that’s the nature of the Internet — but so many people are putting their stuff out there it’s hard to get discovered.”
Nevertheless, similar stories to Michaelson’s are sure to follow. CBS last year launched CBS Records in part to discover artists to use on TV shows, a cheaper alternative to established acts, and in turn to use TV to promote them.
Michaelson, from the New York City borough of Staten Island, said she may sign with a label some day but is wary, having heard stories about record companies exploiting artists and bitter disputes over money.
At a sold-out performance in a 400-capacity room at New York’s Knitting Factory in November, she fronted a five-person lineup at the piano, delighting an audience heavily populated with young women singing along.
An upcoming show, on December 19 at the 575-capacity Bowery Ballroom, was sold out a month ahead.
“The live show is where it’s at,” Michaelson said. “I like making people smile. If I have that power right now, who knows how long it’s going to last, and I feel like ‘why not?”‘
Editing by Eddie Evans