Gay artists sing out

Will a new gay label help deserving musicians reach a wider audience or merely pigeonhole them?
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It was Amy Ray, the straight-talking lesbian singer-songwriter with the Indigo Girls, who perhaps best summed up one of the main challenges facing gay musicians.

"Gay musicians aren't marketed to the mainstream as, 'Hurray! Here's a new lesbian band, aren't they cool?' Instead, we are the subject of painstaking scrutiny and strategising to figure out how to overcome our image," she wrote in a blistering essay several years ago. "Being gay is not considered an asset at most record labels, indie or major. When the record label finally takes advantage of the gay press, it's because the mainstream press won't touch the band."

Such a twisted situation could be set to change after one of the world's leading music publishers recently announced plans to establish a new record label that will develop and promote gay, lesbian and transgender artists. The label will be called Music With a Twist and already gay and lesbian musicians are predicting the new venture could make an important difference.

Established as a joint venture between Sony Music and Matt Farber, the founder of an American gay cable television network, the label will not only publish albums of new material and compilations by existing artists but talent scouts will be dispatched across the US to discover up-and-coming artists who are creating a buzz within the gay community.

"While there's no such thing as 'gay music', there are many gay and lesbian artists who want their identity embraced," says Farber, president of Wilderness Media and Entertainment. "To not only embrace them as artists but as individuals. It really is just a home for the artists."

He adds: "This is designed to be authentically gay but with mainstream appeal. Twist will be the label where artists can take pride in their orientation as well as their artistry. The increasing visibility of gay America makes this the perfect time for this venture, which will provide valuable resources to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) artists."

Farber, the founder of the MTV Networks gay channel Logo, likens the new imprint to those specialist urban music labels that focus on hip-hop or rap or Latino music. He says it plans to sign artists covering a range of genres as well as issuing compilations when it launches later this year - probably in June to coincide with the national Gay Pride month in the US. Its first release will most likely be a compilation.

Sony Music chief executive, Don Ienner, says: "I've known Matt for many years, and it's been a true pleasure to watch him grow into an incredibly creative and effective business executive. I look forward to working with him and the Twist team as we identify and develop the best new artists from across the country, and find the broadest audience possible for their music."

From the perspective of Sony, which is also sponsoring a syndicated radio show produced by Farber's company that went on air for the first time last weekend, the new arrangement makes overwhelmingly good business sense. With CD sales in the US falling - last year they tumbled by seven per cent as sales of downloaded tracks for MP3 players soared - this could be an important way of developing a market that has traditionally been viewed as lucrative.

From the perspective of gay artists - many of whom are signed to small independent labels - the new label offers the prospect of serious money for marketing and promotion, the back-up that only a major publisher can offer and no small amount of security. There is also the underlying hope that their music will reach a larger, broader audience. Melissa Ferrick, a Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter who came out in 1995, has recorded with both independent and major labels. While she sees it as a way for Sony to increase sales, she says this will obviously also have a benefit to the artists.

Speaking as she prepared to go into the recording studio this week, she said: "Maybe a 14-year-old girl who normally listens to Mariah Carey will listen to a compilation without knowing the artist is queer and they will like the song and say 'I don't care if they're gay'."

Ferrick, whose first two albums were recorded with Atlantic Records after the label opened a gay marketing department to promote the likes of herself and kd lang, says there is always the danger that gay artists could be pigeonholed by signing up to a new "gay" label. But given that many artists are already pigeonholed in such a way, the most likely outcome would be that LGBT artists would have the opportunity to reach a wider audience.

"A Madonna or Cher track, a Depeche Mode remix, will sell records," she says. "If there's also underground artists such as myself or a Bitch, truly independent acts, that music will get heard by people who wouldn't necessarily buy those records."

And one key difference in the relationship between the new label and many of the acts it will be seeking to sign, she says, is that those artists are already getting by and will be in a stronger position when it comes to negotiating their contracts. "I think there are lots of people who have worked out how to do it on our own and are doing quite well and don't need to have second jobs," she says. "I think the suits are going to have to respect what the independent artists are doing."

Indigo Girl Amy Ray's essay was written in response to a New York Times article headlined "Queer as Folk" which sought to make the case that the burgeoning rise of "new folk" music represented the true voice of lesbians. She disagreed, strongly, saying that the more political her music had become, the less air-time it had received on the radio. She added: "It's never really a good time in the mainstream music industry to be a queer girl with a guitar."

At least not, perhaps, until now.