This story begins in 1997. I was a professional musician, age 27. I was making a full-time living just playing music — playing lots of gigs around the U.S. and Europe, producing people’s records, playing on people’s records, and running a little recording studio. I was even the musician and MC for a circus.
My bank account was always low, but never empty. I made enough money to buy a house in Woodstock, New York. I was living a musician’s dream.
I made a CD of my music, and sold 1500 copies at my concerts. I wanted to sell it online, but there were no businesses that would sell independent music online. Not one. I called up the big online record stores and they all told me the same thing: The only way I could get my CD into their online stores was through a major distributor.
Music distribution was an awful racket. Getting a distribution deal was as hard as getting a record deal. Distributors were notorious for taking thousands of CDs, and paying you a year later, if ever. Record labels with deep pockets would buy expensive promotional placement, and the rest of us would just sit in the bin. If you didn’t sell well in the first few months, you were kicked out of the system.
It’s not that distributors were evil. It was just an awful system, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
So when the big online record stores told me they couldn’t sell my CD directly, I thought, “Ah, screw it. I’ll just set up my own online store. How hard could it be?”
But it was hard! In 1997, PayPal didn’t exist, so I had to get a credit card merchant account, which cost $1000 in setup fees and took three months of paperwork. The bank even had to send an inspector out to my location to make sure I was a valid business. Then I had to figure out how to build a shopping cart. I didn’t know any programming, but I copied some examples from a programming book, with lots of trial and error.
Finally, though, I had a “buy now” button on my website! In 1997 this was a big deal.
When I told my musician friends about my “buy now” button, one friend asked, “Could you sell my CD, too?”
I thought about it for a minute and said, “Sure. No problem.” I just did it as a favor. It took me a couple hours to get him added into my system. I made a separate page for his CD on my band’s website.
Then two other friends asked if I could sell their CDs. Then I started getting calls from strangers saying, “My friend Dave said you could sell my CD?” The calls and emails kept coming. I said yes to all.
Two popular online music leaders announced it to their mailing lists. (Bryan Baker from Gajoob, and David Hooper. Thanks, guys!) Fifty more musicians signed up.
This was meant to be just a favor I was doing for a few friends. Hmmm…