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An interview with Maggie Vail / by Will Meyer

The word “platform” is often fetishized by alternative thinkers and technology pundits alike — but what does it mean? When I consider this word, I immediately think of a table: the desk in my room covered in records, magazines, and books. Other times I think of a raft, a homemade vessel carrying people down a river. A soapbox to stand on. As the word “platform” has taken on new meaning in the digital age, it has morphed into a fancy way to say the app on my phone or its “web version” better optimized for my computer monitor. And with that comes all sorts of consequences we need to think about: data mining, the surveillance state, and the booms and busts of venture capital.

But we can push back: platforms can be reclaimed, repurposed, and used for exciting projects. Platforms can be used to subvert capitalism. Here in The Media, platforms have been discussed in interviews with Astra Taylor and Holly Herndon, who both suggest that creating alternatives to dominant data-driven platforms has a radical potential.

As participants in a music community, how do we make this interrogation of platforms more tangibly relevant? Can punks team up with coders to create spaces that make more sense for our communities and radical values systems? As it turns out, this is already happening. See: the non-for-profit, open-source music sales platform CASH Music, developed by Maggie Vail and Jesse Von Doom in a former elementary school in Oregon with the legally binding objective of helping musicians (and not enriching investors).

“Music is everything to me… this is how I know how to fix it,” Vail says over Skype, reflecting on her own path: her years of involvement in the Olympia punk scene, playing in bands and working as a publicist at Kill Rock Stars. Her own experiences are vital in understanding the spirit she brings to CASH Music.

Over the course of our interview, Vail and I talked about everything from her current projects—playing bass in the Portland punk trio Hurry Up, co-DJing the show Strange Babes, helping run Bikini Kill’s record label— to the future of music, the meaning of punk, to the legal details of a 501c3 and how musicians can get the education they need to have have successful careers. Alternatives to the dominant “platform” have the potential to define the future of music as well as the future of capitalism, and Maggie is helping to build that alternative.

How did CASH Music start?

CASH was started in 2007, and became a nonprofit in 2008. It began with my partner Jesse Von Doom, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses, and Donita Sparks of L7. They wanted to start a subscription service for artists, kind of modeled like a CSA is for farms. The idea being, you support an artist monthly or quarterly in exchange for demos or music. For Kristin, she lets people get on guest lists for shows, that kind of stuff. It’s how she makes her living to this day. This was the very first project. They pulled Jesse in because they knew he was a very excellent coder.

I was at Kill Rock Stars at the time and Jesse was redesigning the KRS website. I was working on the posthumous Elliott Smith record, New Moon, and thinking, “If I send this out to press, it’s going to leak.” But we needed to do press around the record because we were giving most of the proceeds to an organization here in Portland called Outside In that helps homeless youths. So I wrote to Jesse and asked, “Is secure streaming possible? ” He said, “Yeah. There is something that kind of exists, but it costs a lot of money. Let me just build something for you.”. He built this secure streaming piece which I then used for years for press at KRS.

CASH as a nonprofit hadn’t started yet, but Jesse was building all of these different tools, and thought , “Why don’t I put all of this together, and make it open source? Why don’t I build the most basic layer of music technology, and make it free and open for musicians?” That was the beginning of the platform idea, and the beginning of the nonprofit idea. Everything from download codes to shopping carts to tour date mangement. All of that stuff exists out there in the world, but it’s all in disparate places and different platforms and often those pieces costs money.

So there’s the CASH Music Platform - an entirely free, open-source collection of tools for artists and labels to sell, share, and promote music directly to their fans. And then CASH Music itself exists as its own entity, a not-for-profit that cannot be bought or sold. Everything we do has to be mission-driven and our mission is to help artists become sustainable in the digital age. We legally can’t do anything that doesn’t push that mission forward.

How is CASH Music a response to greater forces in the music industry?

I worked at a record label for nearly seventeen and a half years—a record label that I deeply believe in, that existed in a time when we were trying to create a culture outside of the mainstream. It’s wasn’t just like we wanted to put out records, and be on the Billboard charts, and win Grammys. We wanted to create a community where people were able to express themselves and talk about real things that were going on in the world—and also establish working careers. It was about labor practices in a lot of ways.

Coming from that background, I saw the industry change out of necessity in reaction to file sharing. There was a justification that a lot of people used: “well, labels are terrible and evil.” I tried for a lot of years to explain to people how independent labels are doing something better and doing something different. And this doesn’t hold true across the board, there are a lot of fucking shitty independent labels too; I know some of them that don’t pay royalties regularly. But it was a different kind of world, and watching the world that I love so much really, really change was disheartening. With CASH Music, it is good to be part of something looking forward and thinking about what we should build, rather than just reacting to what’s happening.

When you’re working at a label, you hear about these new services — we heard rumors about Spotify coming to the US for years, and it took a long time for them to get the major labels to agree to the license, the terms. When you’re an independent label, you just sort of sit around and wait for the major labels to do the license, and then the service will come to you. And usually, it’s part of Merlin, which is an organization that advocates for independent labels. Same with A2IM, in America -- they might approach them and start talking to them about terms for independents. And they’re usually not great terms. When you don’t have The Beatles or The Stones or Led Zeppelin, you’re not considered as important; even though, at this point, independent music is about 50% of music sales in the U.S.

When Jesse asked me if I wanted to be on the board of CASH, and later on when he asked me if I wanted to join him as his partner, it was a serendipitous thing. I was thinking about leaving KRS, and then got laid off. It was the summer of 2011, almost five years ago actually, that I came in and started doing this. I couldn’t think of a better thing to do than create my dream job and try to create solutions that work for musicians, and work for independent labels, that work for the community that I believe in so much. It seemed like a natural extension of where I come from with punk and Kill Rock Stars. I had a friend who was like, “You should apply for this job at Microsoft, we’re really interested in you.” And I was like, “Noooooooo.” (Laughs.) I’m not going to take my decades of work and give it to you - my name, the things I believe in. I’m not going to do that.

Something I appreciate about CASH is that you don’t ask anyone’s permission, but rather you are building an alternative instead of complaining about existing platforms. Not asking permission and creating alternatives is obviously a principle of punk. Do you feel this project is guided by punk principles, and if so how?

Punk means different things to different people. I grew up in Olympia and the punk scene there informed my view of punk. Punk to me was always more just about community, taking care of each other. It was about worker’s rights, it was about LGBT rights, it was more about building a better world. And a world outside of capitalism. Hyper-capitalism at least. KRS was and is a capitalist business; selling records is.

Something I was noticing about Hurry Up and CASH Music and KRS is that it’s all very collaborative work. In these different domains you’re always working collectively with other people. What is it like always collaborating or do you just not know a different paradigm?

Yes. Absolutely. And that’s true of Bikini Kill as well in their label. I’m running it with the four of them.

I just don’t know a different paradigm. I enjoy it. I’m one of those people who thinks the more something is a collective of ideas and thoughts, the better it is. I say that and I’m totally going to try to write a solo record this spring, so we’ll see what happens with that. I think, especially in the case of CASH, the more voices we have, the more people we have working on the project, both coding wise but also on the educational side, and on the organizational and support side, the better. If we want to fix something that works for the entire music industry, and works for all different kinds of artists, then we need to be listening and talking and working with all different kinds of artists.

For CASH, who do you see your constituents as? Who do you hope to reach in the future?

We have an artist-in-residency program that we started last year, and there’s been an unofficial one that’s always been there. Every tool that we’ve built has always been directly in collaboration with people who needed it. So the idea is these things are being built, people are actually using them on campaigns, and we can see what works and doesn’t work. We started an official program for that last year, and the first artist involved with that was Run the Jewels, for their Run the Jewels 2 record. We powered their email-for-download campaign, which is how they gave their record away to fans, saying “If you want our new record, it’s free, just sign up for our newsletter.” Our tools powered all of that, which was really awesome to see because it was at a much larger scale than anything we had ever done before, and everything worked out great. We had built CASH with HUGE scale in mind, but we had never tested it.

For Bikini Kill, the label, we did another reissue last summer, and we used the CASH shopping cart in its beta form to try that out. We found a couple of bugs that were nice to find before it went public. It’s going public in the next couple of weeks. That’s the big release from us, a totally free shopping cart for artists to use. We’ve also worked on the admin so it’s easier to publish and change your pages, because we give everyone a hosted page for free. And we have also created Tumblr and WordPress themes, so essentially you can make a totally free website with CASH tools, if you’re at that stage of building for your band. That stuff is really exciting to me.

A lot of [artists who use the platform] come from the world that we came from — friends that Jesse and I have been working with for a long time. I would like to see CASH grow outside of that for sure.

How does working at CASH differ from working at Kill Rock Stars for you personally?

It feels way more personal to me. I never owned KRS. I was the first full-time employee, and my band was on the label, my sister’s band was on the label. It was all very important to me, but it was never mine, it belonged to somebody else. It belonged to someone I cared deeply about and visa versa. At CASH, Jesse has been very open and receptive to us building it together and I love that part of it.

Music is everything to me. It literally is everything. I grew up with a musician father and he played drums, and his drum set was in our living room, and I remember crawling into it when he was practicing one morning. I crawled into his bass drum and I totally feel asleep when he was practicing. I just wanted to be in the middle of the beat. They took me to see shows starting when I was four. It’s just been the center of my life. Helping people create the best music that they can is really important to me.

There is an element of financial stability to that -- that is something I learned working at a label. When artists are able to quit their day jobs or even have like part-time smaller day jobs when they came home from tour, they were able to create better music. It was just very obvious to me. And I want to hear better music! I want to hear something new. I want to hear something different. I want to hear everyone’s voice. that’s the passion that exists behind it for me for sure.

What are the education initiatives that CASH Music is working on?

Our vision of education works both inside the platform—teaching people how to use the tools, how to build your website, examples of how other people use it, that kind of stuff. And then having a different theme every quarter. We’re launching with something called “Culture, Independence, and Empowerment”. There will be how-tos, first-person artist stories on the public facing side of things. Musicians for years weren't being talked to, they were just kind of talking to industry or talking to each other or talking to fans. I’ve been to a million conferences and it was very unusual to see musicians part of that conversation. It was booking agents, it was label people, but it was never really, “Hey, I’m on tour for 200 days a year, I actually have some insight.”

Making sure that those voices are heard and being pushed out is important. And also to each other. Our vision for education is for artists mostly, but it is also to the music and tech industry, and also, more importantly, to fans. I think we’ll do enough public facing, interesting things with it that people will want to come read. There’s how-tos, there’s first-person narratives, but there’s also going to be journalistic deep dives into what’s going on. Let’s talk about how VCs fund music startups, and why it’s kind of nearly impossible to remain independent or viable with that kind of money.

The way that money works – the way funding works — affects how businesses are run and in turn affects how the industry works as a whole. There are lots of music startups that have just gone away, and that’s only going to keep happening over and over and over. Because it’s based on fake money. It’s bizarre. All these businesses that have no way of making any income. Spotify has had one profitable quarter the entire time they’ve existed. One. It was last year in England. That’s it. What did they get in VC funding? A half a billion dollars this year or something insane.

What are the politics of CASH music? It is obviously organized around the idea of selling music, and it does exist within a capitalist framework. Do you see working within the system as the best way to reform it? Or do you see that there’s an outside strategy too?

We want to invest in creators of music. We want to give them tools and the knowledge that they need to create whatever career that they want. If you want to give away your shit for free, that’s fine. And maybe you do really well on tour, and that’s how you make your money. It is really personal what musicians want to do with their career. Maybe they don’t want to have a career, period. Maybe they just want to create and release things. That was the other part of working at an independent label, realizing that there are different outcomes that people wanted. There is always this assumption that everyone just wants to be a rockstar — but I worked with a lot of people who refused to do interviews. I worked with a lot of people who didn’t want to sign autographs. That background is why I’m so passionate about not necessarily saying there’s a future of music. That’s a fucking lie. There are many futures of music. The same thing doesn’t work for everybody. It never has. The future needs to look as varied as the past does, if not more so. That’s our vision for why the tools need to be flexible and open. And why education has to be open in that same way.

Do you feel like musicians are undereducated when it comes to these things?

It’s very difficult to find this information out. I was doing research for years on this, while getting our side of things ready. I’ll Google something like mechanical royalties, which is just a type of royalty that’s kind of hard to explain, which is why when you Google it you get wrong answers all over the place. There isn’t one central, trusted place that you can go to to find this information out. Lot’s of times they’re written with very alienating vocabulary. And then there are places that do it but are for-profit businesses that then want you to do something after you read it. They tell you all about how music publishing works, and then at the end, “Sign up for our service...“

We want to make sure our tools are the best tools you can use, but since we don’t charge anyone for them, if you think something else works better for you, that’s fine. It puts us in a unique position to be able to speak the truth. We don’t have to rely on advertisements for our education. So in our journalistic and educational output, we can talk about whatever we want. We can really go deep and weird on stuff if we want to. We don’t have to worry about clicks or any of that.

How is CASH music funded? Is there anyone that you have to answer to?

Not really. Jesse has been a fellow in something called the Shuttleworth Foundation for the past two years. They are a South African organization run by Mark Shuttleworth, who is a billionaire, and he wanted to fund open-source projects. For years we were getting money from places like Google and Mozilla who saw the open model as being an interesting one that they wanted to support. Mailchimp has been really supportive. We did two different Kickstarters and raised like $100,000 that way. Jesse and I are such sticklers, we will never do anything that compromises our vision. We’d rather do something else than do that.

The beauty about CASH is we don’t really need a lot of money. We aren’t a large organization. There are three of us working full-time. Once this tech is built, and once this educational stuff is going, it will even get easier. We don’t have to be a huge organization paying developers a ton of money -- the bouncy castle, the cafeteria outside. We’re not like that.

What other efforts do you see as improving the lives of musicians?

I’m super happy that Future of Music Coalition exists. They’re doing important work in DC with policy. Those are slower things to change but also very important. I’m excited that Bandcamp is hiring really great writers. I’m not certain bands should be using it as their entire store, but if it’s another digital outlet, I think that’s awesome, and one that does discovery, even better. There’s Distrokid, which is cool. You pay $20 a year and you can release as much as you want through their system to all of the digital outlets in the world, there’s no percentage taken.

I wanted to ask you about the Internet democratizing music and culture. Astra Taylor (also a Shuttleworth fellow) writes about how the Internet maintains the same systems of power and influence as its pre-digital counterparts. Can you comment on how for the same amount of energy on my end I can access Hurry Up or Rhianna, but then there is this huge discrepancy in who is heard. How do you see that balance of power getting shifted, and does CASH Music plays any role in that?

In an ideal world, we help to decentralize things in a certain way. That’s kind of our role, because there is a real mass centralization that is happening, and I think that’s only going to get worse. I talked about Spotify not having a profitable quarter except for one. I really, truly, deeply believe that the streaming model is not a good business model. I don’t think that those businesses can survive. I think that it’s too much bandwidth, it’s too much licensing, it’s paying a lot out.

Artists complain about streaming royalties -- and they are LOW -- but those businesses are paying 70% out to rights holders, and lots of times they’re labels, they have to pay equity on top of that, so they’re giving them a part of their company. So I truly believe that streaming is not a model that can work for anybody but a large corporation that is looking to use it as a loss leader to sell or bring people in for other things. I think the only people who can win this are Google and Apple.

This means some very serious things about the discovery of music and the distribution of music. As a customer, if streaming is really the only way you want to hear music, it might end up being very difficult for you to find music, especially if, and this is already being talked about, if Apple starts signing artists directly. If they become a label, that it is a corporation that wants you to do one thing, and that’s listen to their music.

What’s in it for Apple? They cut another middleman and make a little more money? But they’re a hardware company?

Right. They’re a hardware company. Music has always been this thing that brings a cachet to people; that’s why brands are all over SXSW. They want to be all over music because it’s cool, it’s emotional, it means things to people.

And here, I think it’s being used to sell Apple products: iPods, iPhones, computers. I don’t know exactly what the endgame is here, and I can maybe be a little bit paranoid about that, but I don’t think I’m wrong. I know enough about the math of how things work, that I think that’s the way it goes.

I find that terrifying, as a person who often likes things that are outside of the mainstream. I don’t know exactly, but this is the way I know how to fix it. Allow artists to do this stuff on their own and build up their relationships with their fans directly, and also change the conversation that happens around music to go ahead and support their favorite artist, whether that’s buying a download directly from them for five dollars, or going to see their show or deciding that you’re a very big fan and that you want everything they’ve ever done and becoming part of a subscription service.

I would love it if there was a way to support artists directly inside a streaming platform — like a ticket to a show, a limited edition 7-inch, a shirt, something that goes above and beyond just passively listening. That’s another part of our vision is making some type of open marketplace where people could pull in offers from CASH artists using an open API (application program interface) and into their service. I’ve used streaming. I like streaming just fine. It’s just important to me that there exists an alternative to what’s going on.

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