Buffalo News
Wednesday, January 29, 2003
Section: NEXT Page: N6

A diamond stud sparkled from the hole pierced above Cameron Balon's lip as she stood writing addresses on label after label of the padded envelopes. She has spent days of her winter break coming to this Righteous Babe record company mailroom so she can help send out "Evolve," the newest disc by Ani DiFranco.

Balon, 18, is a part-time assistant and promoted intern who admires the Buffalo folk singer for her songs about feminism and love and how women's minds are more important than their looks. As Balon made notes on a clipboard, one of DiFranco's older songs, "Hello, Birmingham," played low from the computer speakers. In front of her a cabinet was stuck with blue, green, yellow and red magnets of the label's "Righteous Babe" logo of DiFranco in a victory pose. Balon once saw it as a tattoo at a concert and told its wearer that she had a job here. This made the woman explain how the music soothed her after a rape and Balon was amazed to hear such a personal story from a stranger.

She's heard other stories about how DiFranco's music gets people through life's struggles, which makes her think that when her afternoons pass in the old brick two-story office on a downtown side street, she is doing important work.

"It's not that it's boring," Balon said. "It has to be done."

In the last two years that this punk-rock-loving girl has worked at this folk-rock record label, she discovered her ambition.

Now the idea of getting into the music business tugs. She is a freshman this year and toys with leaving Buffalo State College next year so she can be a more-specialized music industry major at Fredonia State College. But she'd rather stay close in this city that has the headquarters DiFranco founded 12 years ago.

"It's a small, local record company that won't swallow up musicians like it's nothing," Balon said. DiFranco produced and sold her own records so she could control her music, and not hand it over to big-time record labels.

"It's one of the coolest jobs in Buffalo," said Balon. Here her love of music, philosophy and fashion sense fit. Some of her fellow employees -- about 14 -- work in jeans and knit caps and sport "sleeves" of tattoos on their arms, or brown hair with streaks of red.

Balon, who dyes her bobbed hair black, says she pierced the spot above her upper lip close to the same place as Marilyn Monroe's beauty spot in tribute to the actress who made movies as a natural size 12 person and not as a starved super skinny star.

Tattoos on the inside of her wrists were paid for with money she saved from this job. "Prorsus," on the right, and "Gladius" on the left, are her translations of the words "Straight Edge," the name for a lifestyle some punk-rock fans adopt.

She chose its drug-alcohol-and-cigarette-free ways in high school, a year or so after eighth grade when she first heard DiFranco's "As Is" on the radio and liked what the lyrics said about being loved, faults and all.

By freshman year, Balon's interest in music got stronger. She thought it was cool to hang out with juniors who were going to punk rock shows where kids joined in as bands sang and yelled about anger, joy and sadness. While other teens were drinking at keg parties, Balon was out at another basement jam.

Junior year, the year for signing up for internships at Hamburg High School, she was curious about the music business and Buffalo's most famous record label. How did a small company know how to do everything right off the bat?, she wondered.

The school coordinator made the calls and Balon made the resume and cover letter for an interview with label manager Mary Begley. Begley listened to Balon talk of her past jobs as a store clerk and her favorite DiFranco song -- "Not a Pretty Girl" -- about how there's more to a girl than prettiness.

"You can start next month," Begley told her.

It was the summer before her senior year and the internship coordinator warned her to expect the worst and most menial of tasks. Balon returned the tapes and CDs young musicians sent in hoping to get signed by Righteous Babe. She stuck labels on CDs. She made a scrapbook of the different displays in record store windows. She liked all of it.

Every small thing she did helped explain the record business. She hadn't met the singer she worked for, but Balon thought the company needed her. When she'd tallied up the 100 unpaid hours she needed for school credit, high school wasn't over so she kept going for another 200.

And then, one winter night, she spotted DiFranco as she was walking out. Balon stammered and tried to stop her. "I'm your intern," she said, freaking out and feeling a little bit dorky.

The world-traveling-record-making-Rolling Stone subject turned. She stood with Balon in the cold. They talked about the snow. Afterward, Balon was gleeful, teasing a friend, "If you had picked me up, you could have met Ani."

Sometime after that Balon was trusted with her heroine's guitars. She "graduated," accepted a paying part-time job and unloaded a van after a show. "What if I hurt one?" she thought. "I'll be fired." Carefully, she carried the guitars up the stairs to the office where she intends to keep on working during college vacations.

Her favorite song has changed. Now she likes the one about how being in love can feel like having your brains sucked out and how a person should be flattered to have another person's love.

As she's been mailing and typing, she's been thinking about working in Righteous Babe's promotions department. College stations play the most DiFranco. She wants to talk disc jockeys into getting more music out there to more people. Working here like this, she said, is her little way of doing something big.