Maggie Vail and Jesse Von Doom are the executive directors and cofounders of CASH Music, an open-source toolkit for helping independent musicians support themselves.
Project: CASH Music
Start by talking about Bikini Kill, which wanted to encourage more women to start bands, and to create a safe space while demystifying publishing and recording. That ethos led to a DIY mindset around everything from the music to the flyers and promotional materials used to promote these bands.
At the same time, the Internet was rising. But in the years since, there has been a distinct shift to a much more commercially-driven internet with closed APIs as compared to the early days of people discovering Netscape and HTML. At the same time, there’s an expectation now that sites and apps are something made by professionals, instead of independent, non-technical creators.
Jesse offers extensive background on Kristin Hersh’s history as a pioneer of independent recording and distribution, especially through use of the Internet, where her career is now supported directly by subscription sales to fans.
There’s a brief explanation of how music licensing breaks down when a song wants to be used by, say, Gossip Girl, and then a segue to explanation of mechanical royalties, and how it is a relic of the player piano era. Maggie has talked to artists who’ve sold hundreds of thousands of records, but have no idea how these things work.
Artists have to understand marketing and sales and promotion and publicity and distribution on top of their actual art. And it’s not easy. Xiu Xiu was always going to be too abrasive to succeed as a major label act. “The idea that all art has to scale… is actually kind of a problem.”
What CASH has built is a non-profit, and all of the tools they make are free and open source. They’ve been building the entire platform slowly for five years in collaboration with the people who will actually use it, growing from one person to one and a half people.
The actual platform has to be ubiquitous, and so was created in PHP to run anywhere, and manages all your third-party connections and APIs. The platform itself has a consistent API and a web admin and framework for apps to sit on top of the stack.
The eventual goal is an app-store style experience, either centrally-hosted (as they’re building now), or self-hosted. And it supports everything from direct digital sales (they don’t take a percentage) to streaming.
The narrative that there is a good-vs-evil battle going on in music is overly simplistic. The RIAA may be a bunch of dicks, but there is a lot of useful parts to the old system, with models that go back 300 years and are still viable. So we need to get as inclusive as possible in buliding our solutions.
“Disruption” has been oversold – it’s as easy as shouting “fire” in a crowded room. But fixing things is what’s really hard. The innovations of the tech industry can save creative industries and keep supporting artists, and this can be a start, not an endpoint, to building new systems that work.