World's Smallest Record Label Works with World's Largest Retailer

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College English professor turned songwriter attempts to make popular culture.

Luke Powers is a college English professor who specializes in the study of Popular Culture. Most recently he delivered a paper on Bob Dylan's self-fabrication (i.e., compulsive lying) at the Popular Culture Association of America's April 2006 meeting.

From the semiotics of the Cola Wars to Transgressive Scrabble, Powers was just a student of popular culture until recently—when he decided to produce his own “popular culture.” A songwriter and sometime performer, Powers launched a record label and publishing company. He named his experiment Phoebe Claire Publishing, LLC, after his daughter.

The professor discovered that while producing culture was relatively easy, making it “popular” has proved more difficult.

In his quest for popularity Powers enlisted professional singer Sandy Madaris (Wet Willie, Jody Payne) and Austin-based session-musician/producer Tommy Spurlock (Rick Danko, The Band, Rodney Crowell) to “cut” an album of Powers-penned songs.

The resulting album was released as “Way Back Home.” While working with session musicians and music industry “egos” proved a bit of a trial for the mild-mannered professor, he was pleased with his pop culture product. A number of songs received airplay on indie radio stations in the U.S. and Europe and the album garnered favorable reviews.

“We even got played on an NPR affiliate pledge-day,” Powers enthuses, “that's pure pop culture gold!”

Powers was delighted but also somewhat flummoxed by the reception. “For some reason, the songs got popular in Belgium and Hungary. I'm sure there's some deeper inter-cultural meaning I haven't sussed out yet.” The Tennessee native and Vanderbilt graduate opines: “There might be a connection between my 'Southern-ness' and their 'Belgium-ness.' Who knows?”

But going from pop culture critic to pop culture purveyor did entail risks. Powers explains, “Once you jump feet first into popular culture, it's hard to remain objective about what you're doing. Every time you get an email of another sale from CDBABY.COM, you want to do a Tom-Cruise-sofa-jump!”

While he has not yet made it to Oprah's radar (although he does teach at her alma mater), he has reached another landmark. In an attempt to find Bob Hope's original recording of “Thanks for the Memory” (“Not Memories,” he corrects), he stumbled upon “Way Back Home” for sale on Walmart.com.

“I felt like Alice going through the looking glass,” the befuddled professor muses, “each of our songs for sale for 88 cents.” Always a supporter of mom-and-pop stores rather than big-box chains, Powers felt a twinge of guilt. He also wondered who was getting the money from his sales.

“I bought the song 'Rockin' at the End of the World' [which features an apocalypse with Jesus appearing in a Trailways bus]. Just to see what would happen. A further step in the experiment, you know. I don't know how much of that 88 cents I'll actually get, but I'm dying to find out.”

Phoebe Claire Publishing is planning to release a second CD this summer. On "Picture Book" Powers works again with Tommy Spurlock as well as guest musician Garth Hudson of The Band. “I'm singing this time,” he says, “Sandy was sorta like my Joan Baez, now it's time for me to step up to the mike. It was scary having a musician the caliber of Garth in the room.”

"Picture Book" is currently available by request as a promotional copy through Powers' website http://www.phoebeclaire.com. It will be available for general release on CDBABY.COM this summer.

And Walmart.com?

“The first step of my marketing plan is just to get people to listen to the thing. Maybe get some reviews. A little airplay. Hopefully get some bites from the English-speaking world. And then on to Belgium and Hungary. Anything's possible. After all, the internet is a virtual riddle wrapped inside a digital mystery wrapped into a binary-coded enigma.”

“The way to Walmart.com,” he reminds us, “is darker and more fraught with peril than the path to Mordor.”

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