Open for business

by SF Team, 3 October 2016

Featured Image
Created by Christian Heilmann (CC BY 2.0)

How CASH Music is giving musicians their independence back

Four years ago, we wouldn’t have thought we’d fund a music venture. Like most people, we tend to think musicians are doing fine because there’s so much music around. But that’s like thinking journalists are fine because there’s so much news on TV. When culture is centralised in big, closed silos, we lose diversity, and we lose touch with parts of ourselves that we once treasured. And soon we don’t even notice what’s gone missing. At best, the soundtracks to our lives become poorer. Far worse, it gets harder for musicians to inspire political and social change. It’s no accident that independent music is associated with more politically and socially outspoken music: big business plays it safe and rewards those who play for the dominant monoculture.

The last time you downloaded music for free – who, you? – you probably wondered briefly how musicians make a living. Most of us shrug and say ‘ticket sales’. Honestly, we usually have no idea. You know who also can’t figure it out? Musicians. Between a sale and their bank account, once everyone has taken their cut a musician might as well not have a bank account. Behind all the fanfare of the music industry, if you listen really hard, you can hear the faint sound of a musician grinding her teeth in her sleep.

Musicians are, mostly, not business people or coders. But to sell music you need to run a business, and for that – there’s no way around it today – you need tech. A website, online sales, online marketing, and social-media tools are as necessary today as a mic in a stadium. So musicians have little choice but to rent that virtual gear from big companies. Think Apple. Spotify. Bandcamp.

This is not new. For thousands of years musicians have shared revenue with business people to get their work to paying audiences. Over time, their work gets centralised and controlled by those business interests in increasingly one-sided deals.

Pre-internet, says Jesse von Doom, the co-founder of non-profit CASH Music, musicians were reclaiming their independence by saying, as he puts it, “fuck this let’s get some glue sticks, steal some copies from Kinkos, and call a pressing plant.” But when music migrated to the web a few years later, the cost of running a music business online was suddenly incredibly high again. And, in search of online audiences, musicians queued up to buy services from big business.

In 2007, Von Doom teamed up with musicians Kristin Hersh and Donita Sparks to replace those big-business services with free software – as in beer and as in speech – that musicians could own and manage themselves. Soon afterwards, Bikini Kill Records manager Maggie Vail joined the team, too. They’d go on to build systems for running websites, fan subscriptions, email campaigns, voucher codes, merchandise, social media feeds, tour dates. Run it yourself, or fire up a free CASH Music dashboard and hook up your PayPal, Google Drive and Mailchimp accounts.

Of course, tools aren’t much help if you don’t know how to use them. And for the CASH Music team, that’s more than knowing about Paypal and MailChimp. Their new blog, Watt, is already an invaluable collection of concrete guidance and fist-pumping rallying cries. If you’re a musician, you’ll love how much these real people care about you. If you’re not, you’ll want to fetch that old guitar from the attic.

At the heart of all their work is a deep-seated belief that music needs openness: both music the industry and music the art. “I’ll admit”, he writes, “there’s a sort of hippie zen bullshit angle to open that’s undeniable. Open isn’t a set of well-defined practices and rules, but a way of thinking that shifts your internal defaults. An open world thinks in terms of sharing and collaboration first, exclusion second.”

Importantly, this openness makes it easier, not harder, to make a living from music. There’s ‘cash’ in CASH Music for a reason. Being open is not about working for free, but working for freedom.

In less than a year, our funding for CASH Music will end. We’d love to go on, if our model made that possible. One way or another, others will pick up where we leave off, because they know that building open technologies takes money, just like public roads and bridges do. In fact, it takes more money to create open technologies than proprietary ones, because open-source projects are harder to run: they require more time, more management of collaborators, more documentation, and stricter adherence to open standards. When you’re open, you can’t take short-term short cuts, because you can’t hide them like proprietary systems can. And because open tools can’t be monopolised, they are rarely funded by venture capital’s pyramid schemes, so every dollar has to go further.

Despite being expensive up front, once they’re created, open technologies have an exponential impact: they are a foundation for further tools, and they become the free infrastructure on which artists can build sustainable careers. Eventually, like the Internet itself, they should be so ubiquitous that we take them for granted. That would be nice.

Go put on an old, forgotten album and see what it does to your mind. What forgotten treasures it unlocks in you. Perhaps the gift of a distant memory. Perhaps an urge to change something that’s messed up in the world. When we talk about helping musicians, we’re talking about guarding their independence, so that they can keep guiding us back to what we love and need most in ourselves.

Posted in open