Surfers Blocked by CDBaby
Donna W. Hill November 18, 2009
When Mary Sten-Clanton of Dorchester, Massachusetts booted up her computer
in early September, she intended to visit the online music store CDBaby and
purchase “Unconditional” by easy jazz/easy pop vocalist Lisa Ostrow. Mary
had used the site many times to sample and purchase new releases from the
independent recording artists who pay CDBaby to sell their music. Once she
arrived at Lisa’s page, however, she noticed a problem. She could no longer
listen to samples of the songs. Mary, who is legally blind, uses a “screen
reader” (text-to-speech software) to navigate the internet. CDBaby was
always accessible to her before. She decided that she would buy the CD
anyway, since she was familiar with Lisa’s music. She couldn’t do that
Mary’s initial e-mail to CDBaby went unanswered. She recently returned to
the site to see if the problems had been fixed. They hadn’t.
“I always find it particularly frustrating, and even hurtful,” Mary says,
“when a company whose Web site has always been perfectly accessible suddenly takes that access away. CDBaby used to be very accessible. It worked well, and didn’t seem to need a makeover.”
CDBaby is the oldest and largest online outlet for indie recording artists.
When musician and circus clown Derek Sivers started the company in his garage in 1998, accessibility was part of his level-the-playing-field philosophy. He sold the company to pursue other ventures, however, and the
new leadership redesigned the site in July without regard for its blind customers and musicians.
Lisa Ostrow, a Harvard grad who was born blind, is concerned about her blind fans as well as other blind musicians who count on CDBaby. She worries that this issue will cause blind fans to go elsewhere such as Amazon or CDUniverse. She believes that blind artists, who are now unable to easily
update their CDBaby pages, will also lose valuable revenue because they
won’t be able to directly impact their own sales presence.
” It’s not only the importance of our blind fans that should cause CDBaby to sit up and take notice,” says Lisa, ” the blind artists, too, are being ‘handicapped’ by the inaccessibility of the site as it exists now. We are
not ‘handicapped,’ but it is the inaccessibility of sites like CDBaby that
tie our hands and make it more difficult for us to get our jobs done. As for
our blind fans, of which there are many, the level of frustration that they
encounter when visiting inaccessible sites, is a guarantee that they won’t
be back again.”
Contact Lisa Ostrow at: http://lisaostrow.com/
Other blind customers have also contacted CDBaby. A blind country and folk
music fan from Buffalo, New York, who prefers to be known only as Cay, wrote
to the company shortly after the new launch.
“I first got a response that they had lost all their email and to re-submit,” she explains, “So I wrote again. They didn’t respond to me. I really enjoyed the site. Many years back I recall there was a problem on the
site where I couldn’t access it and they were caring. Now they don’t care
about blind customers.”
Ken Lawrence is a New Jersey-based music critic. He recently received an
e-mail from Girls on Film, an electronic/dance group, announcing that their
new release was on CDBaby. Unable to preview the music, Mr. Lawrence, who is
blind, wrote to the company.
CDBaby’s response states, “I’m sorry our update removed the functional use for our blind customers. Our programmers are all in house and are looking forward to making it more friendly to the blind. Unfortunately, there are a few other programming issues they need to finish first.”
A few other programming issues? When Mary Sten-Clanton telephoned the
company in October, she learned from a customer service rep that sighted
customers were also having trouble with the new design.
“Apparently, people are trying to pay for their CDs and getting thrown back to a previous page,” Mary says.
Additionally, visitors to CDBaby – whether sighted or blind — are no longer
able to contact the artists.
Mary wonders what “improvements” they were trying to incorporate. Others
like Ken are baffled that CDBaby’s “in house” programmers haven’t been able
to sort any of this out yet.
Lawrence is a member of the National Federation of the blind (NFB), the
nation’s oldest and largest organization of blind people. NFB provides
advocacy, rehabilitation services and conducts research through its Jernigan
Institute in Baltimore. Ken, who hopes to go into radio one day, fosters
relationships between sighted independent recording artists and the blind
community. Some of the sighted artists he has reviewed include Laura Berman,
Amy Allison and Kathy Phillips. One of his friends, a sighted CD Baby
artist, singer-songwriter Jenifer Jackson, wrote to CDBaby on behalf of
blind fans. Blind fans can preview and purchase her music at:
Jenifer received a response which raises more questions than it answers.
“I am so sorry!” begins the letter, “We are aware that our website upgrade
was actually a huge downgrade for the blind. Our site used to be VERY user
friendly, and I think that it was overlooked by our programmers. It IS a
priority though, and we are working on making a dial up site that will be
readable. This isn’t going to happen anytime in the next 2-3 months, but we
ARE working on this and it is an issue that is not being ignored! … We
were really proud of how accessible our site was before for the blind, and
we would love to have this fixed so we don’t loose these customers.”
One wonders how “really proud” they could have been. Apparently, not proud
enough for the issue to have entered their minds when their in-house
programmers redesigned the site. Furthermore, a “dial-up site?” According to
Sten-Clanton, whose husband is a computer programmer, it’s likely to be a
separate text only site which will be accessible for mobile phones as well
as screen readers. This concerns Mary. She once tried Amazon’s text only
site and found that many of the features of the main site were missing.
“In that case, I just went back to the regular Amazon,” says Mary, “Since
Amazon is accessible to begin with.”
And, they’ve committed themselves to not fixing the problem for at least two
or three months? That’s well over six months from the new launch. This lag
means no holiday purchases by blind consumers and no holiday revenue from
those sales for struggling blind musicians.
Hit particularly hard are artists with Christmas albums which have a direct
appeal to blind consumers. Veronica Elsea of Laurel Creek Music Designs in
Santa Cruz, California has her Christmas CD, “We Woof You a Merry
Christmas,” performed by The Guide Dog Glee Club, on CDBaby.
“I just can’t understand,” says Veronica, “what they think the actual gain
is. I can’t understand why having a mouse hover over something is an
improvement over a standard link. My sighted friends don’t get it either.
Thank goodness I can at least tell blind customers to come to my web site to
buy CDs, but I was really counting on CD Baby as the most accessible place
to purchase the mp3 download version of the album.”
Contact Veronica Elsea at: http://www.laurelcreekmusic.com
The holiday pinch is also an issue for the NFB’s Performing Arts Division
(PAD), a volunteer-run non-profit. http://www.padnfb.org
Revenue from “Sound in Sight,” a multi-genre compilation of eighteen original tracks and covers donated by blind recording artists, helps fund
PAD’s projects, such as the Mary Anne Parks Performing Arts Scholarship.
PAD’s President, Dennis Holston, a Manhattan-based talent recruiter who is
also blind, wrote to CDBaby expressing his concern and offering to help the
company restore the accessibility which blind consumers and recording
artists have long enjoyed.
In their response, CD Baby ignored Holston’s offer of help and encouraged
him to have people use the company’s toll-free number: 1 800 BUY-MY-CD (289-
6923). This only helps if the customer already knows that they want a
specific recording, however.
CDBaby’s response to Mr. Holston attributes the problem to flash
technology,” but they appear to be unaware of some important facts.
“The unfortunate thing,” the letter to Holston states, “is that our website is now flash-based programming which we are hearing is incompatible with reader programs.”
“Flash is a product of Adobe,” says Wes Majerus, an access technology specialist with the NFB’s Jernigan Institute in Baltimore, “It can be made accessible, if Adobe’s accessibility guidelines are followed.”
The Accessibility Issue in Context
Many blind people feel that CDBaby is treating them “like second-class citizens.” To understand why this is such a big deal to blind consumers, we need to look at three things: how the internet is used in modern society,
internet access and the realities facing blind Americans.
People rely on the internet for everything from shopping and social networking to research and career advancement. According to Majerus, there are laws which mandate that government web sites be accessible, but the vast majority of sites are not under such obligations. Internet access is a major
issue for blind computer users, because it places unfair and unnecessary
restrictions on their ability to lead full, productive and independent
The NFB’s Access Technology Center has guidelines and resources for those trying to make their sites accessible. Their Accessibility Web Certification program acknowledges sites which have made significant improvements. There is also a form to report inaccessible sites. Visit:
According to Majerus, the majority of problems encountered by blind net surfers involve improperly labeled forms and images which don’t have
associated “alternate attributes” tags, which enable text-to-speech software
to recognize them.
The CDBaby problem comes during a year in which blind people have lost many
crucial services and programs. Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic closed
seven studios which produced textbooks for students, and the American
Foundation for the Blind closed the New York Talking Book Studios, the
nation’s oldest – and, according to many, finest – producer of recorded
books for the Talking Book program of the National Library Service for the
Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), part of the Library of Congress.
Also, the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind, which — for over one
hundred years — produced Braille and recorded compilations of selections
from current periodicals, has been downsized into a social network for blind
people with links to articles about blindness. To the horror of many, this
measure was taken by the Ziegler’s board in order to funnel large sums into
vision research. NFB President Dr. Marc Maurer estimates that only 5% of all
reading materials are available in formats which blind and low vision
citizens can access.
In addition, the year began with the publication of a disturbing report
about illiteracy among America’s blind citizens and the devastating effect
it is having on employment and income. Efforts to engage the public on the
issue have had limited success.
On March 26, 2009, the NFB published “The Braille Literacy Crisis in
America: Facing the Truth, Reversing the Trend, Empowering the Blind” — A
Report to the Nation by the NFB’s Jernigan Institute:
The research finds a statistically significant link between Braille literacy
and a blind person’s likelihood of finding employment, obtaining post
graduate degrees and earning over $50,000 a year. Even though some blind
people are successfully employed as lawyers, engineers, mechanics, chemists
and in many other fields, the unemployment rate for blind Americans of
working age is over seventy percent. Of those who work, however, over eighty
percent read Braille. Nonetheless, Braille literacy is being neglected in
the nation’s schools.
Congress acknowledged the severity of the crisis by authorizing the Louis Braille Bicentennial Silver Dollar as part of its commemorative coin program
which supports two non-profits each year. Proceeds from the sale of the
Braille coins support the NFB’s Braille Readers are Leaders campaign.
Despite a year-long campaign which included NASA launching the coin into
space onboard the Atlantis, the Braille coins, unlike other commemoratives,
have not sold out. Time is short. The coin, the first to feature tactile,
readable Braille, is only available through the end of 2009. Currently, the
program stands to receive far less than the $4 million maximum set by
Congress. Visit the US Mint at: http://www.usmint.gov
Update from CDBaby
In a mid November phone interview, CDBaby representative Joel Andrew, who
has been with the company for seven years, calls the accessibility issues a
“total oversight” by the company. He explained that the new launch has had
many problems not the least of which was that major glitches caused CDBaby
to be in violation of its contract with its artists.
“For a while,” Andrew says, “They couldn’t even tell if we owed them money.”
Addressing these issues has been the company’s main priority. According to
Andrew, fixing the site has been like “trying to move a whale.”
Mr. Andrew confirmed that the company is, indeed, considering a text-only
site. He was not aware of the concerns some blind customers like Sten-Clanton have about that. He also had no idea that there was a way to make flash accessible. He said that he would pass on the information to the
programmers, adding that he and the other people at CD Baby are activists.
“CDBaby has always been and continues to be a strong advocate for
independent musicians. We are totally in support of the activism that is
going on with regard to accessibility,” he said, “the way people are
organizing to bring their concerns to the forefront.”
Some problems impacting sighted customers and artist have been addressed.
Nonetheless, blind people cannot expect that their issues will be resolved
soon and certainly not in time for the holidays.
Other blind CDBaby recording artists include Neal Ewers, Kevin Reeves, Sarah
Alawami and the author of this article.
Donna W. Hill is an author, singer/songwriter, recording artist, speaker and
avid knitter in rural Pennsylvania. Donna started her music career as a
street performer in Philadelphia´s Suburban Station, a center city commuter
hub, where she sang for thirteen years. Hear clips from her third recording,
“The Last Straw” at:
Born blind from Retinitis Pigmentosa, she has a black Lab guide dog named
Hunter. He is her forth guide from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in
Smithtown, NY. She taught herself to read Braille after graduating from
college with a BA in English Lit. She uses a computer with the popular
screen reader, Jaws for Windows.
Donna works to foster understanding of and improve opportunities for blind
Americans, as a volunteer publicist for the nonprofit Performing Arts
Division of the National Federation of the Blind: http://www.padnfb.org
An 18-year breast cancer survivor who found both tumors herself, she also
promotes self-exam. Her articles cover a wide range of topics including
politics, literature and humor.
She is working on her first novel — a fantasy. Her other interests include
playing piano and guitar, writing music, knitting afghans for her local
interfaith ministries and traveling with her husband Rich and Hunter. She
has also written several editorials about the Harry Potter books for
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