Issa Reinvents More Than Music Sales The Canadian singer-songwriter's "self-determined pricing" strategy for selling her songs predates Radiohead's. But it's only one of the ways that Issa, once known as Jane Siberry, is adapting to the Internet era in music.
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Issa Reinvents More Than Music Sales

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Issa Reinvents More Than Music Sales

Issa Reinvents More Than Music Sales

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Here's an introduction to a musician who changed her name, changed her sound, and helped changed the way we buy music. Her name was Jane Siberry. And years ago, she stopped putting out CDs and started using what she calls self-determined pricing on her Web site.

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers has a profile.

(Soundbite of song "Calling All Angels")

Ms. JANE SIBERRY (Musician): (Singing) Oh, a man is placed upon the steps and a baby cries.

JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS: The music of Jane Siberry has drawn an avid following since the early '80s. As a singer/songwriter, she's often compared with such free spirits as Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Laura Nyro. This is a duet with K.D. Lang from Siberry's 1993 CD, "When I was a Boy," is perhaps her best known song.

JANE SIBERRY and K.D. LANG (Singer): (Singing) Calling all angels, calling all angels. Walk me through this one. Don't leave me alone. Calling all angels, calling all angels.

Ms. SIBERRY: (Singing) We're trying. We're hoping. But we're not sure how.

RODGERS: Today, Jane Siberry could easily be trading on her musical past, but she's chosen to leave it behind. In 2006, she emptied and sold her house in Toronto, even shredding her old letters and photographs. And she renamed herself Issa.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SIBERRY/ISSA: (Singing) Why, where, what, if, a train is coming, a train is coming, a train is coming. Who…

RODGERS: On a recent U.S. tour, Issa sang almost no Jane Siberry songs. Backed only by a keyboard player, she came across as a strange and mesmerizing combination of jazz singer, poet and performance artist — the furthest thing from a pop singer touring to promote her latest record.

Ms. SIBERRY: This is all my clothes and everything is in here.

RODGERS: The morning after a show in Philadelphia, Issa showed me the small backpack that contains most of her belongings.

Ms. SIBERRY: My clothes, I didn't want to look like I was a backpacker and, you know, wearing mountain co-op stuff. So I wear really elegant expensive boots and shoes, but only one pair and one beautiful suit. And one - you know, so it's a different way of doing things. I think, because I'm an artist, part of my job is to be a barometer, an antenna. It's in the air and it resonates with a lot of people to lighten up.

RODGERS: The rebirth of Jane Siberry as Issa, the way she tells it, is not just about clearing away the glut and clutter of modern life. It's also about reinventing the way musicians sustain themselves in the Internet era. In this respect, she's been way ahead of the curve.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SIBERRY/ISSA: (Singing) In my own world, bring myself to bed.

RODGERS: In the mid-'90s, well before the record business began its precipitous decline, Siberry left Warner Bros. to start her own label. Two years ago, she stopped selling physical CDs. And she started allowing fans to download her music and pay whatever they wanted or nothing.

Ms. SIBERRY: The response from people is so positive that it confirms that it's the right way to go, and I'll sink or swim by it. People say, I can't believe you trust us, or, thank you for not making us feel like the minute you take off the brakes, we're going to shoplift everything.

RODGERS: Issa's Web site gives statistics on what it costs to produce her music and how much fans are paying for it. The average payment is around $1.25 a track, considerably more than the standard 99 cents.

Ms. SIBERRY: I didn't do it as a business model, although I have a feeling that it will help me do what I want to do. So, but if you see it as a way to further manipulate people into emptying their pockets, I think it'll get a balancing reaction.

RODGERS: Issa still doesn't make much money from downloads. Touring and licensing, she says, are her bread and butter. But to Issa, the point of self-determined pricing is to circulate her music more widely and to create a direct way for fans to support her. In fact, Issa's fans can now support her even more directly by subsidizing a day in the studio. So far, patrons have given more than $10,000 for the recording of 33 new songs, essentially advancing her the money the way labels used to do.

Mr. TOM NEFF (Fan): She genuinely, has a genuinely warm relationship with her fans. They love her. We love her. And so that's one of the big reasons this works.

RODGERS: Tom Neff is one of Issa's patrons. He's such a long-running fan that he ran the first Jane Siberry e-mail list some 20 years ago.

Mr. NEFF: When she says, hey, I'm going to try this new thing, we trust her, you know? We know she's not doing a number on us. And we know that the experiment is going to be worth a shot.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SIBERRY/ISSA: (Singing) I remember the river. I remember the river. I remember the willow. I remember the willow. I remember the wind. I remember the wind. Everything was peaceful.

RODGERS: These days, Issa is taking the self-determined pricing idea even further. She's making the prototype of her Web store available for other musicians to use for, of course, whatever they want to pay. She also plans to introduce something called creative currency. In exchange for a download, you can choose to do a good deed and her site will automatically post your choice for others to ponder.

Ms. SIBERRY: I think we're returning to more of the original vibration of music and creativity through the removal of this distortion called the music industry. That's where we're heading. And it'll cut out a lot of music if people ever expected to make money. And people will even cut down on the songs they put out. Maybe put three songs out in your whole life, you know, no rush to do it.

RODGERS: So Jane Siberry/Issa has truly put herself out on a limb, building a radically new kind of music career under a new name with no label or manager or publicity machine, all the while roaming around with little more than a backpack, laptop and cell phone. Issa calls this reverting to a troubadour state. She acknowledges that it may or may not prove to be sustainable.

Ms. SIBERRY: I'm just opening the doors. And a lot of this is new to me — thinking about it, and letting go again and again and again, trusting that if I'm meant to continue working as a musician, it'll happen. If I'm not, then pull out the life support.

RODGERS: For NPR News, this is Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SIBERRY/ISSA: (Singing) There is peace. There is trust. There is…

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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