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Vonda Shepard’s Playing It Close to the Jacket

Vonda Shepard is known for her association with “Ally McBeal.” Now the singer-songwriter wants to be thought of alongside Ani DiFranco.

Following DiFranco’s model of circumventing the major record labels, Shepard has turned down several deals offered by big companies in the wake of the 1.2. million U.S. sales of her album of songs she’s sung on “Ally McBeal” in her role as the title character’s tuneful muse. Instead, she’s decided to release her next album independently, a la DiFranco, the feisty folk singer whose indie label Righteous Babe Records has become a shining example for artists frustrated by the ever-more-corporate music business.

“The last thing I wanted was a big paycheck but no inspiration or support,” Shepard says of her decision.

Inspiration and support are no problem with Jacket Records, which is run by her manager, Gail Gellman. With “By 7:30,” due in stores April 20, Shepard fulfilled a longtime ambition of working with producer Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega). And the first single will be “Baby Don’t You Break My Heart Slow,” a duet with Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls.

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“She made the record she wanted to make,” says Gellman. “I believe in artistry and songwriters and want to keep that alive in her. I didn’t see that in the corporate companies. There it’s about money and profit and how fast you can turn it out. . . . The major labels seemed to want to keep her in a pop vein.”

The paycheck isn’t likely to suffer either. By hiring marketing and promotion services as needed rather than having to account for the relatively high overhead of big-label releases, Shepard will make triple the money per album sold than she would with a major, says Gellman.

Music business attorney Don Engel, who is not associated with Shepard or Gellman, says the trade-off of big-label muscle for more artistic and financial control is appealing to more and more artists--especially ones whose music or audience are becoming increasingly marginal to the merger-saddled big labels’ need for massive sales.

“It’s more and more viable,” Engel says. “I don’t know yet how well it would work for a very successful, broad-based artist who sells [millions] of records. But I have a client who can sell a few hundred thousand, maybe, and I got offers from majors and [the client] said, ‘What the hell do we want to do with the big companies?’ ”

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Of course, few artists have the platform of a hit TV series with millions of viewers weekly. While Shepard and Gellman know that matching the “McBeal” album’s numbers is a long shot, the new album will certainly benefit from the connection. “It’s Good Eve,” an album released through Jacket before show creator David E. Kelley put her on the tube, has gone from selling just 9,000 copies initially to nearly 100,000, and two earlier albums, originally released by Warner Bros. Records and now reissued on Jacket, have also found new fans. Kelley has said that he will use some of the new material in the show.

“Even though we sold only 9,000 before, it meant something to me to do that record outside of the corporate world,” Shepard says. “Now with the tornado of ‘Ally McBeal’ throwing the door open, we have the opportunity to keep doing that and reach more people.”

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ALL THAT JAZZY: Will Smith may have become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but his erstwhile partner in the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince is still a deejay. With Smith a top box-office attraction in addition to a hit record-maker (with sales of more than 3 million of his “Big Willie Style” solo album), Jazzy Jeff is at home in Philadelphia working on his first solo album, a collection showing off his turntable, sampling and production skills with an array of guest collaborators.

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Among those on board are De La Soul, hot new rapper Eminem, the Roots, King Britt and Common. Smith will also appear on one track.

“I’ve never stopped deejaying,” says Jeff, 34, whose real name is Jeff Townes. “Never stopped making underground mix tapes. It got to the point where a lot of people I know started saying, ‘You should do something.’ And Columbia Records gave me the opportunity.”

He says that the album is a chance to “turn back the clock to when people were making beats and using samples and scratching hooks in,” with a nod to the styles he worked with back when 1988’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” made DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince one of rap’s first big pop crossover acts.

A few months ago, the pair reunited for shows in London--"no dancers, no big production, just two turntables and a microphone like how we started,” says Townes, who is hoping for more.

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“I’m trying to twist [Smith’s] arm to go out on the road,” he says. “He’s got the bug, so we’ll see.”

What about the prospect of Townes, who appeared for a while on Smith’s hit sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” following his friend to the big screen?

“No, I’m a music guy,” he says. “I enjoyed the television stuff, but music was always in my heart.”

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OUT OF PRINT: Musician magazine’s current cover story is about such new technology as MP3 electronic delivery system, and how it’s making this a time of “out with the old and in with the new.”

Unfortunately for the publication, which for two decades has been highly respected for its in-depth coverage of a wide spectrum of music makers, it’s out among the old. Parent company Billboard Publications Inc. has ceased production of the monthly, with no expectations that it will resume.

“For once, rumors of our death are not exaggerated,” says executive editor Mark Rowland, who worked for the magazine for 15 years. “In general, circulation ran around only 100,000, though not even that much recently. But it was always really popular among musicians, a magazine with a weight disproportionate with circulation. Major artists who didn’t do many interviews would say, ‘I want to be in Musician.’ ”

Musician was also one of the few publications that drew no lines in terms of genres.

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“I remember doing a profile of Miles Davis one month and then [pop group] Roxette the next,” says Rowland, who will at least temporarily work on other Billboard projects while also moonlighting as a producer of VH1 “Behind the Music” specials. “But more and more there’s been a move toward narrowcasting in media. The problems that ultimately afflicted it are generally applicable to any generalist magazine these days.”


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