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The Creation of Susan Greenbaum

Used to be that spending a Friday night at a bookstore was about as cool and exciting as drinking Darjeeling tea. But things are different on a recent weekend at Borders Books. It's packed with folks out for a great time. People are marking their territory with coats strewn on chairs. There are the 20s types sporting trendy sideburns or platform shoes, couples still in their business clothes sipping cappuccinos, a few kids racing around and hiding under their parents' tables. There are even a few seniors, and one "regular" who sits in his wheelchair, smiling expectantly. Pretty soon it's standing-room only, the horde of people stretching way back past Cookbooks, beyond Gardening, around World Atlases, almost to the music section which is - ironically - where the big guest of honor first started selling her music. OK, maybe not the big guest of honor. Because Susan Greenbaum, one of Richmond's hottest performers, the one everybody is here to get a piece of, is only 4 foot 10 on a good day. But tonight, as she finally lights up a huge smile and takes her spot in front of the mike with her band, she looks out over a crowd that thinks her blend of pop and folk music is absolutely gigantic. Download Susan Greenbaum's songs from:mp3.comEverything But You (4.1 MB)One More Angel (4.1 MB)Wake Up! (4.9 MB)Two Days in Paris (4.4 MB) Throughout the hour-and-a-half set, Greenbaum belts out a few covers, but mostly serves up original work, intermingled with her trademark short people jokes, giggles and assorted tales. Nobody's talking through her numbers. Instead, they look riveted, eager to return the glow coming off the little blond woman strapped to the acoustic guitar. When she finishes playing "Everything But You," now widely familiar thanks to local radio play, it's wild applause. The tallest guy in the crowd holds his hands over his head in a circle. "What are you doing?" Greenbaum calls out, looking genuinely confused. "It's a standing O-vation," he yells back. The crowd hoots in agreement. "Thank God. I thought you were giving me a big zero!" Not likely, if you ask Alice Mahoney, one of Susan Greenbaum's most rabid local fans. She leans in to whisper what almost every fan echoes: "She has such a beautiful voice, her music makes me feel so good, and she is such good person. I'm in awe of her. I don't think anybody deserves to make it more than she does." As the set ends, a crush of people heads toward the stage to say hello, get a CD signed, or bring a little gift. It will be a full hour of handshakes and small talk before Greenbaum and her band-mates can squeeze their speakers, guitars and amps into the back of her Chevy Cavalier and head home. It's pretty much the same scene wherever the Susan Greenbaum Band turns up. If you've not heard of Susan Greenbaum, don't worry. It's probably temporary. Only two years ago, she traded her life as a well-heeled marketing director for the tightrope act of life as an unsigned musician. At the tail end of the wave of Lilith Fair-inspired female musicians, it seemed a risky move to become another "chick with a guitar" in what is still largely a boy's game. But what's becoming apparent about Greenbaum is that she plays by her own rules, reinventing the game of how women make music and build careers. And with the recent explosion in music technology, she has some advantages that musicians, male and female, didn't have just five years ago. So far, Greenbaum has made live appearances with Livingston Taylor, John Fogerty, Sister Hazel and the Allman Brothers. She's cut two full-length CDs, landed a national touring gig with Borders Books and Music, and raced up the charts at MP3.com, the music industry's most popular music-through-your-computer site. Her brand of folk and pop has proven completely radio friendly, too. So much so that the big cheeses at B103, Richmond's Top-40 station, added her song "Everything But You," a pop tribute to the emptiness of middle-class trappings, to their play list — a list that's almost exclusively for artists from big record labels. It's been enough to make both Atlantic Records and Universal Records perk up their ears and contact her for a preliminary look. Just last November, MCA, a Universal label, flew her up to New York where — dry-mouthed and a little unnerved — she went through the ritual artist's showcase and played her heart out for corporate execs. No deal this time, but she's now on their radar. And new labels are contacting her all the time. [image-1](Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)Susan Greenbaum What's shocking — more than the speed of things — is actually that it's happening to someone who's probably as square as the captain of your high-school calculus club and as down to earth as you could imagine. Her personal resume: Grew up in Kansas City, Mo., the daughter of a used car salesman and teacher. No parental angst visible. An A-average student who began in pre-med at Harvard before graduating with a degree in American literature. Lowest grade ever was a B. Currently volunteers in a nursing home, playing music for patients who suffer from Alzheimer's and other ailments. Plays a mean rendition of "The Red, Red Robin." Old jobs have included medical copywriter, free-lance jingle writer for Stride Rite shoes, and vice president of communications for Chesapeake Corp. No tolerance at all for drugs, not even caffeine, which can send her spinning faster than a hit of speed. Could this yield our next pop diva? Maybe. Thanks in part to suit-and-tie skills she picked up in the corporate world. Ten years ago, she would have been selling her CDs out of her trunk and sleeping in her car, as she played every hole in the wall in order to build a fan base. Instead, she's used technology to reach far beyond the walls of even the trendiest club — and woo fans in places like Turkey, Australia, South Africa — any place where an everyday music lover happens to have Internet access and time to click around. Just over a year ago, urged by Planetary Records here in Richmond, she made a decision to sign up with MP3.com. In a nutshell, MP3 is the legal method of getting music through your computer — a respectable version of Napster - the profit-eating beast that the recording industry, in typical reactionary mode (of course, the industry also was initially against 45s, cassettes and CDs), will probably succeed in squashing out of existence. It works like this: Log on, download the software, choose an artist, click, here comes the music through your speaker. If you've got the right equipment, you can even burn the songs onto your own CD. Every time that happens, you get good music, and the artist gets about a nickel - not to mention a potential album purchase. Fast, cheap, simple. What's not to love? For Greenbaum, blazing the trail was a little scary at first. Wasn't she basically signing away her right to make money on the songs posted? Finally, she was persuaded to see it as the techno-geek equivalent of giving away free CDs and doing a free show or two — a necessary evil for a new artist. She decided to exchange short-term dollars for big-time exposure. And that's just what happened. Charles Gowin, a fan who is a Web designer, uploaded her music, got her into the acoustic-rock category - well known for attracting curious, mouse-clicking listeners — and got Greenbaum on the good MP3 bulletin boards. Within a month, her single "One More Angel" hit No. 1 on the acoustic-rock chart and No. 4 on the overall rock chart — where it stayed for two months. As of this writing her music has garnered 98,192 plays, earning her almost $7,000. Clearly, Pandora's music box is open, and it's a sure bet that even testy record labels will have to come around and embrace what listeners and musicians like Greenbaum have already discovered. "What's attractive about MP3 is that you don't have to buy a $15 CD for the three songs you like," explains Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg. "Now you can make a CD that has a play list of only what you want to hear. Primarily, people aren't inherently dishonest. They aren't looking necessarily for free music, like Napster. What they want is to finally have a way to get only the songs they want." It's a sign of Greenbaum's reliance on the Internet that it was Mossberg, one of the top technology journalists in the country, who gave Greenbaum her biggest national exposure to date by dropping her name in a review of digital recording equipment. (He called her "my favorite Internet musician.") But MP3 has one major drawback: It's enormously crowded. Even Mossberg finds it almost impossible to weed the good music from the bad on MP3. The sheer number of artists on MP3 makes it nearly impossible to distinguish between an accomplished musician and a teen-ager's garage band. He discovered Greenbaum by accident while he was experimenting with the site. Now, though, he includes her in his list of favorite artists, sending her songs via e-mail to friends who might have the same taste in music. It's also true that MP3 is helping not only new musicians, but also a whole generation of people desperate to break out of the Listener Hell of strict radio formats that play the same songs ad nauseam. Better still, nobody has to be packaged as a va-va-voom bombshell to get a chance. In fact, in the new digital marketplace a would-be star may not even have to be alive to break out, according to Maria Villafana, music critic at the Washington Post. She points to the huge popularity of jazz artist Eva Cassidy, who died in 1997 at age 33. Thanks in part to the Internet and grassroots fans, Cassidy - who never ventured far from her Maryland home - has been posthumously thrust to the top of jazz charts, competing with the likes of Erykah Badu. From her chair, Greenbaum is happy to use the MP3 site as a way to mainline a huge, diverse fan base. Thanks to nifty links, anyone who finds her on MP3 can connect to her website (designed and kept current by a friend, Bill Farrar), sample songs, order CDs direct, find out every gig she'll have for two months coming, and - most fun for her - e-mail her with feedback on her music. "It's incredible to log on and get these e-mails from Australia or Japan saying they love your stuff," she says. "I even had one from Iran. You know, I'm a Jewish woman. All I can say" — she starts to laugh — "is that there is somebody incredibly brave in Iran." Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2
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