Image courtesy of CASH Music
Six years ago, Maggie Vail and Jesse von Doom launched CASH Music, a nonprofit with the express goal of building open-source tools to help musicians reach their audience—and make a living. Vail originally cut her teeth at the Kill Rock Stars label, while von Doom’s background was in web development. Both wanted to streamline the musician-to-audience experience. And so they made the CASH (which stands for Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders) platform open-source, allowing artists and labels to build networks in their own unique and flexible ways.
Last month, CASH Music joined forces with Webo Lab to hold a hack/build/make day to see what sort of tools people could build in the service of music. Hoping to attract even more ideas for music’s future, Vail and von Doom just launched a Kickstarter campaign for CASH Music’s 2014 summits. They see these events as venues where various industry figures and attendees can trade ideas on what works and what doesn’t for music as a business model. Ultimately, they want these summits to become dynamic loci where the realities of music meet the possibilities of technology.
Vail and von Doom recently spoke to me over the phone about CASH Music’s past, present, and future. For them and others involved, the open-source platform and summits give musicians and industry folks the best shot at sustainability in the face of flawed streaming services and piracy. You won’t hear Vail or von Doom complain about the internet, though. Their motivation is to foster creative solutions built by creative people. While their belief that the internet is music’s friend instead of its enemy is refreshing, there are no guarantees of success.
Von Doom and Vail
Motherboard: Can you dive a bit into the origins of CASH Music for those not familiar with the project?
Jesse von Doom: It started six years ago as a project, and has existed for about four years as a nonprofit. Basically, it had its genesis with a conversation between Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses and Donita Sparks of L7 back in 2006. They were talking about new ideas on how to create a way forward for music. It was inspired by how CSAs find a way to support farmers and keep their output going. That led to their idea for a subscription model for themselves.
I knew Dave Marcizo, the drummer for Throwing Muses, and through these weird and whacky connections I got in touch with Kristin and built out her subscription service. At the same time I was working for Maggie, who was at Kill Rock Stars. We were building a secure stream environment for an Elliot Smith record that just couldn’t leak. We had all of these tools and it snowballed from there. We just started putting it all together, realizing that we didn’t want to build another business on the backs of artists. We wanted to get these tools out to artists. Slowly, we built a platform that could be used by anybody and everybody. We then realized the value of education and outreach.
What is the goal with the CASH Music summits?
Maggie Vail: We had a few CASH Music summits in Portland this summer, and they were amazingly positive events. I’ve been in the music industry for 20 years, and I worked at Kill Rock Stars for seventeen years, so I’ve been to a lot of conferences. They often devolve into complaining, fingerpointing, and a little bit of wallowing. The CASH Music summit was the first time I was in a situation where people were really excited to talk about what’s next, and what’s happening, and what the possibilities are. It was a really different experience.
What makes our conferences different is that we’re focused on bringing musicians squarely into the conversation about the future of music. Often they’re not invited. You go to a conference and there might be a handful of musicians in the room. Our goal was to bring musicians into this conversation with technologists, so they can meet the people who are building internet platforms for music.
The CASH Music goal is to help musicians, as well as traditional players like labels, publicists, and managers, develop a healthy open-source music industry online.
Von Doom: There is also something special about seeing someone like Corine Tucker or a member of The Thermals talking to someone high up at Google or Rhapsody; or all of the open-source Mozilla people and local developers in conversation. The vibe is that we’re all people, we all have problems, so let’s talk about the issues surrounding artists because that is the thing we need to take care of right now. If we don’t do that, then the entire idea of tech in music is just back catalog work.
The idea of a “sustainable future for music” is really interesting. It’s a good bit of problem-solving instead of simply blaming pirates for the waning fortunes of the music industry. Even better, it’s decentralized.
Von Doom: Absolutely. The idea is to encourage that. Tech is complicated, but so is music. In fact, music is arguably more complicated as a business model than tech could ever be. The thing about the way we’ve done this is the slow-cooking approach. Everything people tell you to do with your startup, we’ve done the exact opposite. Instead of a minimum viable product, we’ve built a giant platform. Instead of finding our three most important customers, we’ve worked with all players. We want to make sure we’re talking to tech, labels, musicians signed to labels, independent musicians, etc.
Across the board there are common problems, and we’re trying to solve those problems. I’m actually really bored with the debate about whether streaming is bad or good. The fact is that streaming is, and it’s what we have to work with and work around. I don’t think it’s as good as it could be, but it’s part of the puzzle. We’re not trying to find the future for music, we’re trying to find a whole bunch of things that will help you find your own future. There has never been a model that works for everyone.
Vail: Those of us who work at labels often wish there was one, though. [laughs]
Which is why the feedback at this summits is so vital.
Von Doom: Right. Let’s hear 200 opinions at the same time and see what bubbles up. It helps us incredibly with the platform’s development.
Is there a good cross-section of music industry players at these summits?
Vail: Yeah, totally. There were a bunch of Portland labels at our Portland summit, and there will be many major labels at the Los Angeles event this Saturday. That summit is pretty industry-heavy as well as musician-heavy.
Von Doom: We have people RSVPing from major labels all the way down to two-person labels for the Los Angeles summit. That is why we’re going to different cities—to get the majors to one summit and the rad indies to the others.
Right, you’re taking the project to them, not the reverse.
Vail: Exactly. We’re not going to ask people to travel to us. It doesn’t work. People don’t have flexible schedules or extra money in the bank to do something like this. Our hope is to bring it to every major city and learn as much as we possibly can about different major regional themes and genres. We want to involve as many different people as possible.
So, if you’re a small label or independent musicians, how would you start building your platform out with CASH Music?
Von Doom: First off, the software has been written from the ground up to be a lot like a WordPress type of thing, where we provide a free web version as well as a downloadable version that you can install and run on your own server. If a band or label signs up for our beta, what happens is that they drop in their email and set a password. Then they get two choices out of the box: they can do an email-for-download campaign, or a digital sale campaign where they can sell any file they want using their own PayPal address, Amazon S3, or Google Drive account.
Bands can do that stuff right out of the gate, but they can flip the switch into advanced mode at any time and start getting other things. The idea of the platform is to work with the services that already exist out there, rather than saying we want to dominate the market. We’re always working on new payment and file hosting methods, and we’re working on new fanclub and subscription stuff as well. You can embed any of these elements on other sites like Tumblr. Ideally, bands will be able to plug in all of these tools anywhere they like.
Although it seems you guys had already created a lot of these tools before launching CASH Music, I’d imagine Mozilla’s expertise really helped in making the platform open-source and flexible. When did they get involved?
Vail: Mozilla got involved in 2011.
Von Doom: We were part of their WebFWD accelerator program, which is aimed at helping open-source startups. They’re really smart and wonderful people who opened up their facilities and resources to us. I think we’re still the only nonprofit to have done it. We were kind of the space monkey test pilots. They’ve helped us out in so many ways by giving us grants to put on big events like the ones in Portland. They understand the idea of starting an open-source nonprofit because that is what they are. We also got some help from the Google Policy team.
Vail: They just wanted to see us exist. So, they give us money, which was really generous and important to the organization.
Von Doom: Same with the Shuttleworth Foundation. Great companies have come out in support of us. You find grants where you can. We really believe in not charging money for what we do. That’s maybe a hard road, but we’ve tied events to the real world in a way that makes sponsors pay attention.
Has awareness of the platform grown in the last few years?
Von Doom: Yeah, I’m really happy with it, although it’s not as big as other startups. Obviously, we’re also targeting local musicians, and they’re smaller in number. We’ve seen about 3,000 to 4,000 people download, install, and play with the pieces of software we’ve designed. On the platform beta test side we’ve seen about 2,000 people sign up to run campaigns.
We’re still working with a lot of labels, including a bunch of indies. The email collection tool was recently used by Sleigh Bells to promote their show in New York. The Hush Sound used it to sell a bunch of singles. Last week we saw the rapper Mike Jones tweet about us. So, it’s been very rewarding to see others using this stuff.
You’re live-streaming the upcoming summits. Is this a first for the nonprofit?
Vail: Yes. We didn’t livestream the Portland summit, but the demand for it grew out of that event. I’m over-the-moon excited about the LA summit, where Mike Watt and Pascalle Finette will talk. Mike was in charge of WebFWD and was at Mozilla for a long time, and he has now moved on to Google Giving, which he just announced last week. Pascalle was the first person who put open-source in terms of people, and what it can do for them and licensing. Pascalle has a lot of passion, and he made it really click for me. They’re going to have a conversation about open-source, punk, and community building, and that’s really exciting for me.
Vse von Doom: For the first events, we set out with the goal of involving the world even though it was only going to be a room of a few hundred of people. We didn’t really want to broadcast the whole thing. We wanted to create a small, candid environment where people could speak their minds and not feel that they had to toe the company line. So, we’re still going to make sure the conversations on the floor are quiet, but we will live-stream this educational content for the world. Then we’ll archive the stream and get write-ups on what happened.
Eventually, we’d love to have the educational side of what we’re doing turn into more of an ongoing online series, including editorials and videos to involve new voices. This whole thing works by getting brilliant folks to lend their voices and ideas.