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Sam Phillips pushing forward with music even if the music industry pushes back

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Sam Phillips would seem like the prototype for an embittered artist left behind by the implosion of the music industry. Except she's not.

She's adapting. Besides writing songs, she's learning how to design album covers, to manufacture vinyl records, to decide which services where it makes financial sense to sell her music. She maintains an online community of fans, once offering a subscription where they could get one new song a week for a year.

At 52, Phillips has figured out a way to keep doing what she loves and make a living from it.

"Growing up in this town ... I've seen people win really big and lose really big and to me that's not the point," she said. "It's to keep going and do the work and make the music, especially now when I feel that music has been devalued by corporate people, when creativity is being devalued."

After a youthful run as a Christian singer under her given name Leslie, Phillips hit her stride with four discs of critically adored and intricate pop music in the 1990s, produced by then-husband T Bone Burnett. A generation of TV fans discovered her through the scores she composed and sang for "Gilmore Girls."

Her new album "Push Any Button" rivals her peak years in quality.

The most ear-catching song, "Pretty Time Bomb," addresses the corrosive impact of celebrity that some listeners tied to Miley Cyrus since it appeared around a certain twerking incident.

"I wasn't trying to sock anybody in the eye," Phillips said, "and certainly there were people who were bigger offenders than Miley."

With no record company behind her, Phillips made the disc on her own. But it doesn't sound DIY. She has a full band, with horns and strings, using the 1960s era Los Angeles studio team the Wrecking Crew as a model. Some of the people she hired to work on "Gilmore Girls" returned the favour to help make recording more affordable.

The subscription service, "Long Play," was more stripped down. Some 1,700 fans paid $52 for one new song a week delivered via email. Besides being a commodity, it was an exercise for Phillips in producing work more quickly.

Phillips makes her music available for commercials and movies, like when Ralph Lauren used "I Need Love" for a fragrance spot. Her only regret? "I didn't love the perfume," she said.

"It seems a lot of things conspired to make it difficult to make a living and you have to roll with that," she said. "There's no stopping that. It's just what happened. Maybe there's something to learn from that. Instead of us mourning the old business, maybe it would be better to work harder to write better songs, to be a little more adventurous in the face of all the roadblocks."

A fellow musician, Pat DiNizio of the rock band the Smithereens, saw his income from catalogue sales slice to about one-tenth its size once the idea caught on that music could be readily found for free online. It forced him to be creative. He made individual recordings for fans, signing and numbering them like paintings, and played in fans' living rooms. DiNizio admires Phillips' music and how she's been able to keep making it.

"It's much easier to give up and take the easy route than continuing what you were meant to do in the face of adversity," he said. "By continuing what she is meant to do she is uplifting the spirits of so many people who enjoy the music."

Phillips said she would advise young aspiring musicians — people like her daughter, now in high school — to concentrate on creating a community of people who like your work. Take your time: Phillips started singing at age 16 and put out an album at 19. She said she "started out pretty wobbly" and was a late bloomer.

Phillips said it's important to keep creating, so new things can direct listeners back to old things.

"I have my eyes on the future," she said. "I have my eye on what I want to leave behind."




David Bauder can be reached at or on Twitter@dbauder. His work can be found at

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