CASH Music Delivers Free, Open Source Tools For Musicians: an Interview with Maggie Vail

“We’re building a totally free platform of tools for artists and labels to sell, share, and promote music directly to their fans. We feel it’s vital that all musicians have access to basic web tools that are free, open, and theirs to own.”

CASH Music, a non-profit organization that builds open source digital tools for musicians and labels, is headed by Maggie Vail (formerly of the Seattle/Portland indie label Kill Rock Stars) and Jesse von Doom. Together, along with a small team of supporters, they have set out to level the digital playing field for artists by making tools that musicians would actually want and need to use, as opposed to what faceless, corporate tech companies dictate to them.

Could you explain what CASH Music has to offer artists?

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The most important thing is that we’re a non-profit and all the tools we’re building for artists are open source, meaning that anyone can use them and build on them and then share that back with the community. We feel strongly that this is not something where people need to be making money off the backs of artists. This sort of distribution chan

Executive Director Maggie Vail

nel should just honestly be direct to fans, and in a way that means actually the fans and the band – nobody in the middle.

So there are no gatekeepers in the way.

Yeah, and we want to make it as easy as possible for artists to use themselves. It’s not quite there yet, and that’s why we’re raising the funds through a Kickstarter campaign for the hosted version of our platform. By “hosted,” we mean that it lives on our servers, anybody can sign up with an email address and have a page with all the functionality needed to sell, stream, promote, manage tour dates, manage mailing lists – all that kind of stuff.

So right now CASH’s platform is a download that you would install yourself, on your own web server, correct?


Yes, and we did that first (which is a little bit backwards for most start-ups) to make a point: we believe that the most valuable relationships you’re going to have are going to be directly on your own site. Maintaining and owning that information is really important. We’ve only released version one [of the platform] at this point, and it just has email collection, tour date management and social feed management – we can bring in your Twitter and your Tumblr and all those sorts of things fairly easily. The next version is coming soon; that will include commerce – the big part that I know everyone’s been waiting for –

Shopping cart type stuff?

Yes, and each iteration is going to be easier to use.

Let’s take a step back. How did CASH get started?

There were a couple of things that happened at the same time. Jesse von Doom, who is my co-Executive Director, and I started working together about five years ago. Right after that I was working on the posthumous Elliott Smith record, New Moon, and getting ready to send it to press and radio. I was thinking, ‘Is there any way you could do a secure streaming site? Does that exist? Can you do that? Do you know how to?’ Jesse, being who he is, went above and beyond and built this really amazing streaming site. You could see when people logged in, you could see how many times they logged in – that made follow up so much easier. That site became one of the many tools that the platform, that CASH has been doing for many years.

The other piece was when Kristin Hersh [Throwing Muses] and Donita Sparks [L7] were talking and decided that they wanted an easy way for artists to set up a subscription service, where you buy into something and you get songs later – you can support an artist year round. This is actually what Kristin does, and that’s pretty much how she makes a big part of her living these days. So those two things were sort of the beginning of all this.

How much technical know-how would an artist need to get up and running with the tools?

Well, ideally, and in the end, you’re not going to have to have any. With the hosted version you just need an email address. For the distributed version, it’s going to work with WordPress and Tumblr, so you could conceivably make your site on super-easy-to-use platforms and then just plug in these functional elements into those places, and you’ll have a fully working website that will do all of the things I mentioned before.

Because we are non-profit, we don’t need everybody to use us exclusively; this is going to be a very open platform. It will be compatible with all services – as many as possible – so if you feel more comfortable with your stuff living there, or if you want set up your own Amazon S3 account, you can just go ahead and sign up for one. We’ll teach people how to do that because it’s really important to own where your stuff lives.

What aspects of CASH are you most proud of?

That we exist [laughs]. It’s kind of a wild idea – actually, it’s not a wild idea – it’s a really basic idea, but because you can’t make tons of money on it people think we’re crazy. Neither Jesse nor I are looking to get rich. Really we just want to have a job where we can do artist advocacy.

What areas could CASH improve on with future iterations of the service?

We go to people and say, ‘What do you need? What do you want? What would be useful to you? Do you want to be able to get this management? How do we do this to make your job easier?’ I think that’s going to be a lot of what we’re going to be doing in the future. We’re doing these Hack Days where we sit designers and developers down with musicians and say, ‘Go crazy. You guys just go nuts and figure out how to build something that will work for musicians.’

With other competing services – those two parties don’t really talk to each other.

No, they absolutely don’t! The programmers and developers try to develop things they think artists want and the artists have all sorts of suggestions that don’t make it to the developers, so there is a disconnect.

What else is in store for the future with CASH?

I think we’ll move into a little more education and, like I said before, teaching artists about things like Amazon S3 servers and why you want to own your stuff and how to do even basic coding. Understanding that sort of thing is going to appeal to some artists. Some won’t want to do it and of course we’ll always have options for [them]. I think it should be very interesting, what the future holds. We have a lot of grand plans.

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