Daniel Rubin: Downloading: Business killer

Jim Musselman, of Appleseed Recordings, sits with many of the CDs he has produced for musicians. (Photo: Tom Kelly IV / For the Inquirer)

Jim Musselman, who runs a socially conscious record company out of his East Goshen house, is releasing a new Pete Seeger CD Tuesday, one that features, among other things, a duet with Bruce Springsteen.

Chances are, that's the only song you'll hear off that album. And, you'll have gotten it for free.

Today, 95 percent of all music that's downloaded is pirated, industry groups report, which explains the pained expression on Musselman's face as he sits at Chester County Book & Music, a once-sprawling cultural mecca that plans to shutter sometime soon.

"Downloading killed it," Musselman says. He's 52, a former social activist who made his bones working for Ralph Nader, and a music lover who now puts out records by vinyl-era favorites who, as he puts it, still have something to say.

For 15 years, Appleseed Recordings has released CDs by the likes of Donovan, Jesse Winchester, Roger McGuinn, and Tom Rush. For tributes and benefits, Musselman has wrangled contributions from some of the biggest names in the business. Springsteen joins Emmylou Harris, Tom Morello, and Dar Williams for Seeger's album, A More Perfect Union.

What happened with the latest David Bromberg CD release shows the music business' troubles. A 2007 comeback by the string virtuoso sold 20,000 copies, which is healthy by today's indie standards.

Emboldened, Musselman coughed up a budget that allowed Bromberg to fly around the country to record in Los Angeles with Los Lobos, New Orleans with Dr. John, Chicago with Keb' Mo', and Woodstock, N.Y., with Levon Helm.

Even before it was released, that CD was available on 165 illegal downloading sites, each making money from ads. The album sold half as well as its predecessor.

"Nobody would walk into a shoe store and steal a $100 Nike shoe, because it costs them a fraction of that to make, and say 'We're fighting the man,' " Musselman complains. The laws don't help the business, he says. And little aid comes from lobbyists for such giants as Google, Amazon, and Comcast, which are hooked on the money they make from selling ads, devices, and access to the Internet.

Musselman, a divorced father of a high-school-aged daughter, found his worldview shaped by an encounter with Nader. The Villanova grad was finishing law school at Syracuse, where he was president of his class. Nader was the commencement speaker. After the talk, Musselman approached the advocate, hopeful for a job. There was no job.

"I basically wrote him 15 letters. He kept turning me down."

The 16th time was the charm, and Nader invited him to Washington to help with his campaign to put air bags in cars. This was a subject dear to Musselman: Two of his friends had died in car crashes.

Musselman spent three years barnstorming for that cause, eight total with Nader. He learned something about patience in 1983 when President Reagan rescinded a regulation that would have required auto air bags. While Musselman felt defeated, Nader figured that by pointing out the savings in keeping workers safer, he could get the government to buy 30,000 cars with air bags.

Musselman took such lessons in persistence and pluck to the music business, which was just starting to tank when he arrived.

It took only three finely honed letters and calls to Springsteen manager Jon Landau to persuade the rock icon to consider recording a song that would honor Seeger, "We Shall Overcome," which Springsteen personalized with simple addition of the word darling.

Springsteen has since given Musselman four more songs. He's the rare star, Musselman says, whose word is gold. Nader is the other.

People will let you down, he says as we leave the shop. He remembers a quote from an anarchist and patriot named Ammon Hennacy: "Before you call someone a hero," he says, "make sure they're dead."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin