Vanessa’s Test

COSTA MESA — Vanessa Jourdan used up her lunch hour June 20 to race down to Best Buy at the Metro Pointe at South Coast shopping center to check for a new CD on the rack. She didn’t intend to purchase the album, but when she found it, she examined the front and back cover intently and snapped one picture after another on her cellphone.

The CD, “Eternal Things,” was Jourdan’s third album — and she had taken advantage of RegionalCD, a program that permits independent artists to submit their work to be sold at Best Buy. Jourdan, a member of Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa, didn’t expect to make much money off record store sales; most of her minimal earnings come from people who buy her songs online. Still, she couldn’t help but feel giddy seeing her work on the rack between Janis Joplin and Journey.

“It’s something I never imagined would happen,” said Jourdan, 32, a Texas native who has been pursuing a music career for a decade. “Reality is never what you expect. But this is something I will tell my grandkids about. Grandma had a CD in Best Buy.”

Like many independent musicians, Jourdan has no agent, contract or connections in the major-label world; she works during the week as an administrator in an autism therapy program in Irvine. That hasn’t stopped her, though, from putting her work on the shelf with the Kanye Wests and U2s of the industry. With a number of websites making artists’ music instantly available throughout the world and even Best Buy stocking independent discs on the shelf, doing it yourself has become easier than ever in pop music.

Getting rich, of course, is another matter. The consensus among many observers and experts is that the music industry is in a steady decline as CD sales drop and illegal file-sharing on the Web proliferates. Rolling Stone published a two-part series last summer on the market’s financial woes, even quoting an anonymous industry source who declared, “There won’t be any major labels pretty soon.”

Geoff Mayfield, a senior analyst for Billboard magazine, considers that idea absurd. CD sales, he said, still count for more than 80% of the music sold every week, and downloaded tracks play the same role 45s did a generation ago: namely, singles, which may entice listeners to purchase entire albums later. And while Mayfield agrees the digital era provides independent artists with more opportunities than ever, he doesn’t foresee the giants disappearing any time soon.

“Kids discover music on the Internet now the way I used to discover it going to a music store,” he said. “So, in that way, it helps fledgling artists a lot. But even though the mass audience has unlimited choices, they only get exposed to so much.”

Still, for a fledgling artist, exposure is no longer a matter of playing one gig after another, stacking CDs in the car trunk and trying to lure fans to the local indie store. In the 1990s, Napster and other websites began offering songs online for free, and Apple introduced iTunes — considered the dominant industry downloading site — in 2001. CD Baby, which launched in 1997 to market work by independent artists, began distributing music digitally in 2004; according to the company’s website, it has sold 4.4 million CDs and paid $79 million to artists to date.

And even with consumers downloading more music every year — according to the statistical firm Nielsen SoundScan, digital track sales leaped from 581.9 million in 2006 to 844.2 million in 2007 — niche markets continue to thrive. The Japanese Motors, a Costa Mesa-based surf-rock band, recently released their first track on a vinyl single. The band plans to release its first album on vinyl as well — and package it with a coupon to download the songs for free.

“It all depends on the customer, the consumer,” said Mary Begley, the manager of New York-based Righteous Babe Records, which independent singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco founded in the 1990s. “I’ve met people who don’t buy CDs at all, and I know people who don’t download at all. I think the landscape is shifting, and it’s just trying to figure out the ratio.”

For Jourdan, getting an album made is a personal passion — and one she’s thrown herself into three times, even at the expense of a steady income.

The singer-songwriter, who grew up in Riverside and recently moved to Huntington Beach, recorded her first album, 2001’s “Give Me a Stage,” with a friend who ran a makeshift recording studio in the backroom of a sewing shop (The album’s liner notes thank the two women who ran the business.) Three years later, she followed it with “Wanderlust,” most of which was recorded in the back of a warehouse.

Both times, Jourdan and her producer, Paul Antony, played nearly all the instruments themselves — in part because they were proficient, and in part to save money on backing musicians. Jourdan overdubs most of her own harmonies on the records, sometimes laying her voice down three or more times.

During the two years she worked on “Eternal Things,” Jourdan didn’t have a full-time job, barely eking out a living as a restaurant hostess and high school substitute teacher. She finished the album early in 2007, but didn’t have enough money to have it duplicated. Eventually, she scored a job at the Kids Institute for Development & Advancement and mailed copies of the CD to those who had pre-ordered them, attaching a note with each one thanking her fans for their patience.

Since then, Jourdan said, some of her most fulfilling moments have come from looking her albums up online and seeing where they’ve landed. Many downloading websites are affiliated with others, and Jourdan’s songs have ended up on CD Universe, Music is Here, MusicStack and other sites she didn’t even know existed.

Best of all, that wide distribution can turn into sales — even if some of the sites keep a large amount of the proceeds for each track.

“Some of the numbers I’ve seen are just a fraction of a number,” Jourdan said about her payments. “But it means people are listening to it.”