It might not be too surprising to learn that country music legend Merle Haggard released a simple-yet-raw album last October that wound up on both Rolling Stone and Salon's "Best of the Year" lists for 2000. And it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that the disc, called "If I Could Fly," was released on an L.A.-based label.

Sure, probably Capitol, right? Didn't Haggard always record for them?

Not any more. Instead, Haggard has hooked up with a tiny punk rock label sequestered near Sunset and Vermont that is branching out to record the kinds of tunes that have fallen off the radar of the mainstream music industry, and the radio stations that support it. Further, this label is making savvy use of the Internet to market to niche audiences, proving the Web has a role to play in music distribution outside the question of whether sound files on Napster should be legal or not.

The label in question is Anti, an offshoot of now-venerable Epitaph Records, which began in punk's heyday in the early 1980s, recording bands like Bad Religion and the Vandals. Eventually, Epitaph spawned other labels and, as the age of 'N Sync/Backstreet Boys-style pop dawned, Anti was born.

"Anti developed out of Epitaph's desire to poach major-label artists," according to Jason Henry, official "spokesdude" for the Echo Park-based labels. "But we didn't want these artists under the Epitaph label for obvious reasons."

The obvious reasons are that Anti didn't want to misrepresent either the labels, or the new artists. In other words, they didn't want record buyers to assume that folks like Tom Waits the first troubadour to sign with Anti or Haggard were suddenly banging out speed metal chords or covering tunes like Lee Ving's "Let's Have a War."

What they wanted was to take artists with similar sensibilities "he's an outlaw," Henry says of Haggard, "we are, too" and pay more attention to singers and songwriters "who tend to get lost in the major-label shuffle."

Lisa Voldeng, chief analyst for Digital Mogul and Uberbabe Media, which this month launched a regular digital music report, said that "for artists who already have a following, there's some leverage" in going with smaller labels.

Indeed, when Anti approached him, Haggard "was sitting on a huge amount of material he'd been recording for the last 10 years," Henry notes, selling some of it, and announcing tour schedules through his own Web site.

The Web has continued to play a role in the new album's success. "The Internet is a promotional tool," Henry maintains. "It's really helped develop the projects. We've been able to effectively use it as an alternative pipeline."

For Haggard, Anti has created a marketing campaign that's more like "Bob Dylan, than Shania Twain," Henry said.

Most of that publicity has come in the form of virtual word-of-mouth, the spreading of favorable reviews, for example, and updates on Anti's own minimal-yet-slick Web page.

Henry said that Anti isn't interested in selling the music itself in digital download form, which analyst Voldeng agreed is probably a smart strategy for now.

"The Internet will eventually become a utility," she said. "Entertainment will play out digitally in other ways."

Voldeng buys into the Epitaph/Anti philosophy that the entertainment business must hone its ability to cater to specific groups.

"The mainstream (music) industry is not serving their audience," she said. "It's all superficial, fluffy candy."

Large labels, like Capitol/EMI, and the Warner Bros. and Universal groups, "have maintained a death grip on traditional distribution," she said.

For artists such as Waits, getting out from that death grip he used to record for Warner/Elektra has been a career rejuvenator.

"We're really proud that ("Mule Variations") has been Tom's biggest-selling album to date," Henry said.

Officials at Warner/Elektra declined to respond to Voldeng's assertion that major labels exert a "death grip" on artists.

Haggard, meanwhile, is touring in support of his new album, earning the kinds of reviews he hasn't seen since his "I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink" and "Red Bandana" days of the late 1970s and early 1980s..

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