Brian Felsen

CD Baby president in the midst of Istanbul mayhem

June 12, 2013: 2:27 PM ET

For Brian Felsen, the "Turkish Spring" represents the ideals of his indie-music company.

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FORTUNE -- Brian Felsen, president of the indie-music service CD Baby, is in the middle of the mayhem in Istanbul, where he's been tweeting his observations for several days as clashes between police and protestors turned more violent. "Direct gas hit. Incredibly debilitating & disorienting," he tweeted on Tuesday. "Guy next to me shot w canister, bloody mess. Thousands of cops circling."

Appending the hashtag #oocupygezi to his tweets, Felsen is in full support of the protestors, who assembled in Gezi Park a couple of weeks ago to display opposition to plans for a building on the park's site. Police cracked down on the protest on May 31, which succeeded only in transforming the protest into a more generalized opposition to the government and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom they accuse of trying to impose authoritarian Islamic rule on the secular state. Erdogan has characterized the protestors as a small, unrepresentative group of malcontents and "thugs" and has accused them of trying to tarnish the government's reputation.

Felsen's wife, Elif Savas Felsen, is an Istanbul native who is also tweeting events (in Turkish) from the scene. The couple, who live in Los Angeles, made the film Coup a 2000 documentary about the military interventions and coups in Turkey between 1960 and 1997. "Coup examines the degree to which abstract ideals (such as 'freedom of speech; and 'human rights') are actually applied in a country facing political exigencies," say the film's promotional materials, which sound like Felsen could have tweeted them today (if not for the character limit). "Even if such rights exist on paper, there are practical consequences of asserting them in a nation where the stakes are so high."

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In an email interview, Felsen said his presence in Istanbul was serendipitous. He and his family visit Turkey every summer for a month or so but happened to make the trip earlier than usual this year. They arrived on June 6 when the protests were still peaceful and, Felsen says, "all celebration and not much violence." On Tuesday, "we hurried to Gezi Park to support the protests -- and all hell broke loose."

That's when he started tweeting pictures and his observations, also posting to Facebook. "10 minute fight where we shot fireworks," he tweeted at one point on Tuesday. "cops shot tear gas, People vomiting. Eyes burning, tongue tastes like cayenne, chest tight."

"A woman just wrote our blood type on our arms in case we need a quick transfusion, he tweeted, attaching a picture.

Felsen believes that his company represents the ideals of the Occupy Gezi movement. He tweeted: "Spending the day getting tear gassed in Turkey. Freedom of expression transcends politics. Express your highest self! @bookbaby @cdbaby."

He expanded on that via email: It's "necessary," he wrote, "whenever possible, to sing loud and clear for the right to sing loud and clear." CD Baby and BookBaby "aren't particularly political brands," he wrote, but "it's important to me that a company whose core mission is to encourage and enable the distribution of art should, at a minimum moral baseline, take a stand for freedom of expression." The company's mission is "to enable people to get their voices out there, to sing the highest songs of themselves, without censors or permitters and gatekeepers."

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CD Baby was launched in 1998 as a way to give independent artists the capability to circumvent the big music labels ad keep more sales revenue for themselves. Its founder, Derek Sivers, set out to build what he called a "utopian" online store for indie artists. In 2008, the company was sold for $22 million to Disk Makers, where Felsen was director of business development. In January, Stephens Capital Partners acquired AVL Digital, which includes the "Baby" companies and Disk Makers.

CD Baby charges artists a fee of $49 per album or $12.95 per single. It keeps $4 of every album sale, or 9% of download proceeds. The company is "growing faster than ever," Felsen said via email, with more than 300,000 artists selling offering about 5 million songs. BookBaby, which operates in similar fashion, offers about 13,000 titles. The company has "very diversified" revenue streams, according to Felsen: physical and digital music distribution, web hosting, the original retail site, licensing, royalties, and more.

On Tuesday evening, Istanbul time, Felsen tweeted that as he was exiting the park, he saw "Many wounded, and the police helpfully fired tear gas on us and the ambulances. Hurt all over." Things have quieted down for the moment, according to media reports, and Felsen himself. "Today, I'm very much glad to be working from home and breathing the fresh air," he emailed. "It is (so far) quiet, but the situation changes on a moment's notice."

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