The music industry is changing and so is its distribution and structure of success. What used to be a corporate model run by wealthy labelheads is now broken down into a more complex and less predictable system, causing people in the business to really question how musicians can achieve their goals in today’s world. Perhaps the successful business ventures will be those that change with the system, adding new, attractive ideas that build on what we already have and what we lack. One person at the head of change is Maggie Vail, a former Kill Rock Stars employee who has recently embarked on a new, ambitious project, CASH Music.
As stated on its website, “CASH Music is a nonprofit organization that builds open source digital tools for musicians and labels.” The company’s mission is to “help educate and empower artists and their fans to foster a more viable and sustainable future for music.” CASH stands for Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders. The web-based platform is similar to WordPress, allowing free web-hosting for musicians and providing them with portable tools to use on their own sites.
Vail’s broad background at Kill Rock Stars (including experience in mail order, radio, publicity and artists and repertoire) helped her garner the perspective and skills necessary to spearhead such a daunting venture. The entrepreneur is working with business partner Jesse von Doom, an autodidactic website coder who has been building tools and webpages for musicians for the last decade.
The idea behind CASH Music started in 2007 when musicians Kristin Hersh and Donita Sparks approached von Doom about building a subscription-based service for musicians and fans. The goal was to have fans be able to support their favorite artists so that artists could live outside of the usual record release/tour grind and continue to make music. Von Doom’s tech expertise evolved into 90,000 lines of code for CASH Music. Vail has been working with von Doom since the beginning; the two collaborated on the Kill Rock Stars’ website and on a secure, leak-proof streaming system for journalists when Elliott Smith’s New Moon was released.
News of CASH Music first spread across the country with the creation of the company’s Kickstarter: a successful campaign that raised an impressive $60,609–twice as much as the intended goal–in order to fund the hosting portion of the website. As Vail says, “CASH Music is really, truly needed in the current music tech climate. After spending more than a decade of my life helping artists navigate the internet, I know how unwelcoming it is for them most of the time. By making the whole basic layer of music tech free and open, we are giving them back some power.”
Power is indeed currently the biggest element of change in the industry. Each band is created (more) equally in today’s model of success, not having to succumb to a great system of major-label bureaucracy or any single media giant. To help bands use their power to their advantage, CASH Music provides specific tools that websites like Myspace and SoundCloud have not yet supplied. Vail explains:
“There is no easy way for artists to sell, stream, get download codes, manage tour dates, guest lists, contact lists, collect emails for newsletters…basically everything a band needs to have an effective web site. Just google five of your favorite bands and more likely than not you’ll get their MySpace page first or second and a band page that doesn’t have a lot of info on it. It’s not easy and at a time when bands should be engaging directly with their fans more, it’s really sort of insane to me that something like this hasn’t been done yet.”
Vail’s and von Doom’s goals are transparently positive. A key part of CASH Music is that because the company is a nonprofit, they are not driven by financial gain, but by the artists’ satisfaction. The project is versatile, allowing users to incorporate additional outside services like SoundCloud and MailChimp.
The website is user-friendly, smart, cost-free, but most importantly, it seeks to tackle a new way of supporting musicians–something Vail has strived for during her career in the industry:
In the early ’90s those of us working at independent labels were really trying to build something outside of the status quo. Many of our artists wouldn’t speak to mainstream press…they would only deal with zines, or some wouldn’t have their records go through distribution with a corporate owner. There was an idea that we could try and make our own music business that was parallel but different. That stuck with me to this day and informs the way I look at things a great deal. I am a punk at heart.
CASH Music’s portable tools are already available for download on the company’s website. Vail and Doom are aiming at launching the platforms’s complete hosting service by the end of the summer.