Maggie Vail has had a unique view of the world of indie music. Her older sister Tobi played with the quintessential riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. For seventeen years Maggie worked at Kill Rock Stars, the iconic indie label of Olympia, Washington. She toured with her band Bangs, gigging with Sleater Kinney, The Gossip, and The Donnas. These days she plays with Hurry Up, her trio with Kathy Foster and Westin Glass of The Thermals. But what’s she’s working on now, as co-executive director of CASH Music may transform how bands do business.
Not long ago Lady Gaga’s manager Tony Carter told WiredUK about his plans for Backplane, a new service that would essentially replace record companies by allowing Gaga and other stars, not to mention sports teams, a way to interact directly with their fans, owning all the information, instead of having to share it with companies not only taking a piece of the pie but using the artist for their own promotion. Backplane is a social media platform for celebrities. While it felt good to read about Tony viewing Interscope as a “dinosaur museum,” as an indie musician Backplane leaves me out in the cold. Again.
To earn U.S. monthly minimum wage of $1160 from Spotify an artist must have 892,307 plays a month. Fractions of pennies in long lists don’t add up to much. Most musicians can’t afford to pay for a website with the kind of functionality Backplane will have. Very few of us have the technical expertise to make our own. Many websites say they can solve that problem, but most of them do very little. Bands wind up carrying percentages like parasites. If your desire is to reach a large audience you have to start applying leeches.
Since the world wide web arrived musicians have all shared the dream. What we thought the net would be. A direct portal. Each artist’s own little store right there on the web. As easy as a WordPress site. But here we are decades into the development of the net and the dream has not been achieved. Instead we’re asked to sign up with so-called direct-to-fan platforms that nickel and dime us and use our work for their own promotion.
Carne Ross has talked about how corrupt institutions don’t need to be repaired, they need to be replaced by a better way of doing the same thing. Here and there in film and music you run into companies that are the modern equivalent of the great old indie labels of yore, people who want to be fair, help the artist flourish, respect the process, driven by passion for the medium, instead of only for profit. Enter CASH Music “just looking to fulfill a service and a need,” as Maggie Vail has said. CASH stands for Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders. It’s a non-profit with a noble goal: to build a true direct-to-fan platform, easy to use, totally open, and free.
Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses and Donita Sparks of L7 started CASH Music in 2007. They were looking for a secure way to stream their content. They hired Jesse von Doom who happened to be working with Maggie Vail on a project for Kill Rock Stars, the posthumous Elliott Smith record New Moon. Soon they were inspiring each other to dare to dream of a way to free musicians form the odious conditions caused by exploitation on the net
Over the next five years they built open source digital tools for Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman, Wild Flag, Iron and Wine, Calexico, Zoe Keating, Domino Records, Fat Cat Records, Saddle Creek Records, and Kill Rock Stars, over 160 projects. So far CASH Music’s biggest cash infusion came from a Kickstarter campaign, which brought in more than double the thirty thousand dollars they were looking for.
CASH Music will allow bands to sell MP3s, vinyl, shirts, and other merch, it will handle email collection, tour dates, mailing lists, social network feeds, streaming (public and secure). As musicians we’ll be interacting directly with our fans without the middlemen. We’ll own the information about our own traffic. The distributed platform will be released in July to be followed by new tools and updates. Phase two is the hosted version, allowing artists without the technical ability to manage a website the opportunity to use the same tools in simple modules.
What advantages does being a non-profit give CASH Music?
We can’t be bought or sold, we won’t need to pay any investors back, and it will live on without even Jesse or I working on it. The idea is to basically give away a whole layer of basic technology and there isn’t a for profit business model in that really. The open source element is to me just as interesting as the nonprofit side. We are giving away the source code – it will live on no matter if CASH does or not. The license we’re using for the code also means that if anyone else takes our source code and builds something better on top of it, it has to be shared back to the community. We are giving power to musicians and hope that it helps balance things out a little better.
How will CASH Music work? Walk an ignorant musician through the basic ideas step by step.
The hosted version will be very simple – you will sign up with an email address, set up your paypal, and storage accounts and a multitude of tools that will be at your disposal. Want to sell a record? Easy – upload your music, cover art, track listing, set a price, etc and there you go. Want to give away a song to people who sign up for your newsletter? Upload the track, choose which newsletter (if you have more than one), add text et voila. The idea is to take these tasks that are simple and put them in the hands of artists to directly interact with and reach their fans.
CASH Music is now part of Mozilla’s WebFWD program. How did that come about and what does it mean for you and for Mozilla?
We heard about WebFWD through mutual friends and actually ended up being the first ones in the program. Mozilla is also a nonprofit, open source company so we felt like we could use their expertise and advice. Neither Jesse nor I had any experience in either department. They have been really helpful in setting us up with experts when we have questions or concerns. They’ve taught us about the importance of the developer community in an open source project, found us great lawyers, etc. They understand exactly what we’re doing and why and respect our passion.
What are some of your future plans for CASH Music? Will your platform be redesigned for filmmakers or other uses?
The platform can be used for anything really – our focus is on music but because it’s open source it can be easily adapted for many uses: film, ebooks, visual art, etc. I love that aspect and I hope to see other people take it on. We have many, many grand schemes and plans. Jesse and I are nothing if not ambitious. First off, with the release of the hosted platform in October, we’ll be expanding the educational element of our mission with a free membership. Membership will include access to message boards, blog posts, videos, etc about all the issues important to artists. We want to take much of the mystique of the music business away and teach artists how to do many of these things themselves. How does publishing work? What is a mechanical license? These are all questions that we want to tackle and teach.
What was it like to grow up around riot grrrl?
It was inspiring. I spent my rebellious teenage years being a cheerleader – I had a liberal family and that was how I chose to rebel. Riot grrl and Bikini Kill more specifically brought me back to who I was. It was too exciting and powerful not to want to be a part of all the amazing music and community that came out of Olympia in the early 90’s. By the time I had moved into a punk house in 1993 though riot grrl meetings weren’t really happening anymore. So I was a little late for that.
Your grandfather, father and sister being drummers, you were a drummer with the Slatternlies. But when Bangs formed in 1997 you switched to bass, What do you like about bass?
I’ve always listened to the bass most when listening to music. I love the heaviness, the steadiness, the drive of the bass. I’m also really good at it, I was never good at drums. I could keep a beat but I lacked the ability to let go enough for it. When I play bass I can shut off the critic in my brain and just play/write. It’s the best feeling in the world.
Who are your favorite bass players?
Favorite bass players: James Jamerson, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Kathy Valentine, Vern Rumsey, Josh Fauver, Kathi Wilcox, Kathy Foster, Mike Watt, etc etc. I really just love watching someone who owns it and all of these people do for totally different reasons. The bass is a subtle instrument and the best players understand that – they know that the pause can be as useful the strum to the overall song.
You spent seventeen years at ground zero of indie, kill rock stars, the record label of The Gossip, Bikini Kill, The Decemberists, Elliot Smith, Sleater Kinney, and many other worthies a few famous many wonderfully obscure. You had a front seat for the transformation of the music business, what did you learn that the rest of us should know?
The music business has transformed some yes in all those years. I never would have imagined that indie labels of similar mindset/size as KRS would be winning Grammy’s or topping Billboard Charts. Honestly, in many ways it was disappointing to me when the independent music community started aping the more traditional music business model. I loved the punk attitude of the 90’s where we were trying to actually create our own culture with our own community. College and community radio stations, indie distros, all ages clubs, fanzines, mom + pop record stores, scenes connected all over the world, mail order, etc. I know the problems with that – it was disorganized and of course many all ages punk clubs ripped off artists just as much as big rock clubs did, etc. I know part of my feeling is nostalgia but there was a bit of magic in it for a moment. We felt like we were changing the world by creating our own. Maybe in some ways we sort of did but in many ways we failed too. Ultimately, the majors are still winning – look at the deals that they are making with streaming services. They don’t actually care about fractions of pennies per play if they own equity that they don’t have to share with their artists.
I loved your idea for Interviewregrets.com, where musicians could clarify misquotes, omissions, or I suppose foot in mouth moments. Any plans for such a site down the line?
Oh man, I still totally want to do it. Maybe when there’s more time!?! We all have had that, no?! It’s the worst feeling to get off the phone and feel like “why the fuck did I say that?!” or read a quote that is nothing you would ever say EVER. I told The Raincoats about it one night after a curry dinner in London and they were sooo into it. Yeah, I probably should…
What’s next for your new band Hurry Up?
We are recording a 10″ right now – it’ll be released on the Army of Bad Luck label out of Atlanta, GA. Hopefully in the fall?
Written by Tamra Spivey
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.