Culture

Jumping Off Cliffs

Photo by Dark Rider. Licensed CC0/Public Domain.
Photo by Dark Rider.
Licensed CC0/Public Domain.

We tend to think about the arts, pop culture especially, as a reflection of the world around us. That’s fair, but they are so much more. Art directly creates our culture, driving ideas and enabling communication that goes far beyond language alone. Music is especially primary. I can remember the songs from my childhood, from my wedding, from every time in my life. Depeche Mode saved a twelve year old me from depression just like Fugazi later saved me from a life in suits making money for assholes.

Another tool that shapes us is technology. In an increasingly digital landscape technology, code especially, starts to hold undue leverage and privilege. With the rise of web powerhouses we’ve seen centralization of functionality. Small kingdoms made of services that define how whole sectors work. Developers build tools for people, but not with them. Software is written with a set of assumptions and decisions made by the people writing it, not the people using it.The result is a web that has the potential to be empowering for everyone working only for the few. The digital revolution was more of a failed coup, and the new bosses are mostly the same as the old bosses. Everything’s changed except the ownership.

Luckily the backbone of the web is open by design. It’s a great leveling field, and taken advantage of correctly the web can be used to fix itself.

Before I go any further let me give you some context. I work at a nonprofit organization called CASH Music. We exist to create opportunity for artists, to help musicians build sustainable careers through free and open tools and knowledge. We’re working directly with musicians to build a world where they control their own future.

We’ve built tools that power email-for-download, direct digital and physical sales, download codes, and more. You can download everything we make or just use it on a free (now and forever) hosted site. Everything connects to your own accounts so there’s no new middleman and no cut taken. It’s your career, your data, your business.

The most important part is that it’s open.

And this is what I’m here to talk about. Open. What is open? You might have heard about open source code, and there are also open business models and open data. But first let’s talk about the core idea of open. And I’ll admit: 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. It builds benefits for the individual from the greater good, not the other way around.

So first let’s look at open models. I’ll call out a couple people we’ve worked with in the past: Run The Jewels and Kristin Hersh. Both were careful to build around their audiences in ways that felt natural, but with clear goals in mind.

Run The Jewels famously gave away their first album. Then their second. And then their third. (Well the cat sounds remix album might not count as a full third. But you know how it is with cat sounds remix albums.) Each time they gave away a record they asked the fan for an email address. They built up a following bigger than all but the biggest artists (and bigger than most of them too.) They use this soapbox not just to sell merch, but to talk about things that really matter to them. Mike and Jaime hit political issues that most artists shy away from — because they own their own platform. They’re genuine and authentic, and their audience has rewarded them by buying tickets, vinyl, and merch as fast as they can post it.

And Kristin. Without Kristin Hersh there would be no CASH Music. It was her idea for a fan subscription service that started us rolling. A little over seven years ago she decided she was done with the industry but not with music. She started releasing all her new demos as works in progress, using open Creative Commons licenses, free to fans new and old alike. She borrowed a page from NPR and offered a few different support tiers to her audience, with subscribers getting perks like physical releases in the mail, guestlist for shows, and even credits in the liner notes. These subscribers made it possible for her to keep booking studio time, turning demos into proper album releases, and even write a couple books. She didn’t gate away her music, she found new ways for her audience to grow and support her.

These are just two stories but there are so many more, each one unique to the artist and audience involved. And that’s the point. Both start with the core idea of open, of sharing and building a relationship with the audience, then making something that works for the artist.

Now it’s time to talk about open source, or how software is made. Actually fuck that. It’s time to talk about how software is paid for because like so many things this comes down to money. Making software is expensive. Really expensive. At first. But after the software is made, maintenance is relatively inexpensive. As software matures money is spent on incremental fixes or on new features that build on top of what’s there. The big hit comes during creation, meaning there’s a massive cost up front followed by generally smaller figures tailing off unless major new development happens.

You need to build a business model that takes all of that into account and spread out the costs to your users (or advertisers) (or funders) over time. History tells us that once that cost is attached in a proprietary for-profit context it generally doesn’t go down over time. So there’s an odd effect where your expenses go down while your revenue goes up. And that places artificial demands on your own growth to justify a rising price tag, even though you’re really still covering the initial costs.

Open source software is built with public collaboration. Even in an organization like ours where most of the development happens internally, we publish the code publicly under a license that lets anyone see, change, and modify the code. Sometimes people even come by with a bug fix. All of this further reduces maintenance costs and adds a guarantee that no matter what happens to the developers you’ll always have access to the code.

But perhaps the most interesting part of open source is the social aspect. The price tag doesn’t rise unreasonably because anyone can simply take the code as is. Instead you slowly grow a community until you’ve got something shaped more like WordPress or Linux — massive and vital software powering huge swaths of the web with significant contributions from a volunteer community. All built around the principle of sharing and collaborating first. It doesn’t preclude commerce, but it changes the defaults.

With open software you still have to deal with massive time and money costs up front, but without raising the price against a lowering tide of maintenance costs. You build community over customer base, and the growth curve looks entirely different.

It’s not that proprietary software is bad. Some of it is very good. But a lack of open options can cripple whole chunks of the web for all but the technical elite.

But I’m supposed to be talking about music, preferably with a poignant rallying cry.

We have to fight the rampant and exclusive commercialization of the arts. Neither making money from music nor making music for money are wrong, but seeing music as nothing but content or commodity is. If you have the chance to reshape the world and you force creativity further under the thumb of commerce then you’ve fucked up.

Let’s say you’re an artist looking to make a career with your music. Fuck a Friday, release it whenever you want. Don’t like a service or company? Don’t give them your music. Every fake MBA in shouting distance tells you to maximize exposure and go for a wider audience. Stop listening. Go for your audience. Make your plan. Make your music for you and your people and build something lasting together. That’s sustainability.

Shape the model yourself. You have to find a balance between art and commerce. You can’t build a model that kills your art but you also need to think about paying the rent. You have to craft a business that can grow with you and your audience, and above all you need to make sure neither of you are left behind. To do it well you need to be in control — you need to own the infrastructure — to know your business won’t be taken from you.

In the digital age, owning infrastructure means owning software. To truly own software you have two options: build it yourself or embrace open. Building means money or time, probably both. It means having the skills to code and applying them as your full-time job. In most cases it means compromising your art which is a non-starter. So while I love the idea of code literacy, I really hope this inspires musicians to think about open as much as signing up for programming classes.

Beyond the inherent stability of open models, the core concept driving open also combats one of the more disgusting aspects of our digital future: the commoditization of music. As the industry moves towards all-you-can-eat sources like streaming, torrents, or whatever comes next; the music itself is pushed down. It’s just that much more “content” being leveraged for profit by corporations at the expense of the people who created it. Sure, this has always been true but when you sell vinyl there’s a physical thing and an idea of ownership we all understand.

With digital ownership is messy. So the field is shifting. Instead of charging for the thing, the new model is charging for access to the library of things.

Only in music would Friday releases be framed as anything other than a press dump. The truth is the focus isn’t on the artist, but on the service, the consumer. If you want the focus on you, on your art, then think about the access point. When you actively share something directly with your audience you build something you control. By remaining at the center of that sharing you remain the center of your audience. And by leveraging open software in the process you control the system. It can’t be bought, sold, shut down, or acquired. It’s yours.

Instead of relying on a closed system controlled by someone else, with someone else’s vision and ideals, you can build a fully open ecosystem for your music. You can build it together with others and pull together a landscape where you can truly experiment and try new models and new ideas — alone or together. You’re building new experiences for your audience, not just at scale but at purpose.

This isn’t the easy path. This isn’t even the path next to the easy path. It won’t happen because you wrote a long essay about “how Spotify should really work.” This means creating something. This means approaching business as art.

But it’s real. It happens when we build new things together, when we embrace new ideas, when we hold hands and jump off cliffs together. There’s an act of faith in creating anything new but that’s where we are. It has to be okay for us to experiment, to try new things, to fail, and to learn from it all. We have to have faith that we’re smart enough to change how we work and build a better future.

This is something we have to do together. A collaboration not just between artists and audience, or artists and technologists, but between all players. That means saving room for the labels and services who come to the table willing to work towards a better future — an open future where artists have more control over their art and their livelihood.

Art, open, and commerce can not only coexist but thrive together. I’d argue they need each other now. It’s up to all of us here to find a balance between them and protect it, nurture it, and grow a better future for music. There’s too much on the line to fail.

Music drives our culture. Let’s head somewhere better. Let’s jump off a cliff together.


Originally written for Medium.