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21 February 2012, 16:37
The H Half Hour

The H Half Hour: Interview with CASH Music's Maggie Vail

by Dj Walker-Morgan

It raised $30,000 in 72 hours on Kickstarter with its plan to disrupt the music industry using open source, but what is the CASH Music project about? The H talked with co-executive director Maggie Vail to find out.

The H: How did the CASH Music project get started?

Maggie Vail: CASH Music started about five years ago when Jesse von Doom was asked to build several different tools around the same time for different people. The name came from a subscription service idea started by Donita Sparks and Kristin Hersh, now a board member. Another idea was a secure streaming site for me – I was then the VP of indie label Kill Rock Stars. Neither felt complete until they were put into context as an open-source suite for musicians. He built the tools slowly over the years, working on various projects on spec, put together an amazing board of directors, and then came up with the idea of the need for the platform as non-profit about a year or so ago. I moved from the board in the co-ED role in July and we've been building that, and the organisation, hard ever since.

The H: CASH Music says it plans do for musicians what WordPress did for bloggers. What kind of tools are you initially focusing on for musicians?

MV: We are working on the basics really – downloads, streaming, secure streaming, email collection, secure log-ins for fans and/or press, tour dates, guest list organisation, etc.

The H: You seem to be aimed at already slightly web savvy internet musicians. Is that just a feature of the current stage of development of CASH Music or will you, like WordPress, be doing a hosted version?

MV: In the end our goal is to allow anyone with any level of technical knowledge complete access to all our tools. Each release of the distributed platform will become easier and easier to use. It's just one file uploaded to install and then managed by an easy to use backend. We are also working on a hosted version of the platform that will truly allow access to anyone. We think it's important that artists do have their own sites but we also know that it's not always going to happen, so hosted is necessary.

In fact, Kickstarter is raising funds for that hosted version. The hosted version will remain free if you bring in your own payment and storage API keys and we'll teach people how to do that on their own. We are very much committed to not requiring a percentage of anyone's income. If someone wanted to donate that to us or a lump sum of some kind to keep the org sustainable that is amazing. But we will never require anything like that.

The H: Have you considered building code so "n% to the CASH/the operators" is easy to do? A kind of tithing option for those who want to do it that way.

MV: Exactly what we're thinking. In the hosted platform we'll give an option for artists to donate a percentage back to the organisation and we'll even give them a verified badge so they can tell the world. For the distributed version we've talked about making a smart donation page that an admin could visit, see total sales that have gone through the instance, and donate a percentage of that. Obviously we're trying to build a lot of value that can't be measured simply in sales, but we like the idea that money would come in after an artist has made money.

The H: The CASH Music software is open source; are you seeing any community building up around it? What skills would you like people to bring to the code?

MV: Artists, yes, but less on the developer front. We haven't focused as much as we need to on that. It's a critical part of our future, but first we've been working to make it easier for developers and even non-technical volunteers to get involved. We are finalising our roadmap right now and will be focusing on developer outreach soon.

The H: I'd assume from the code base that PHP and JavaScript skills would be something you will be looking for? And maybe a talented documenter or two who can write accessible manuals?

MV: Exactly. Maybe even starting with documentation – we're doing our best to generate docs as we code, but the more walkthroughs, code examples, and general explanations the better. We'd like to make it simple to get new contributors and that starts with helping coders understand what we've built so far.

The H: What has Mozilla's WebFWD brought to the project?

MV: WebFWD has been invaluable to us. They've given us guidance, advice, helped us solidify our mission and our messaging, and just in general showed us an example of how open source and non-profit can revolutionise things. They've got an amazing vision of open models – non-profit and for-profit – changing the world for the better.

The H: We notice your board has internet superstar Jonathan Coulton on it. What's the make up of the rest of the board?

MV: Jesse did a fantastic job of setting up the board. These are amazing people:

... and as you said Jonathan Coulton.

The H: What milestones do you have for 2012?

MV: Our goals for 2012 are slightly ambitious, but that's our style apparently. We'd like to finalise and release both the distributed and hosted versions of the platform, begin work on the education element of our mission, teaching artists more about, and how to use, the web, hire someone to focus on developer outreach and really get a vibrant community, and begin to make the org self-sustainable.

The H: And for you personally, is there a milestone you are looking forward to hitting?

MV: There are many but I can't wait to see the next major distributed platform release which will include the commerce element. I am excited to see people using it to sell their music directly to fans and keeping 100 per cent of the proceeds.

The H: And when would CASH Music be ready for that band I've been keeping in my garage to use?

MV: Depends on what you're looking for – if you have your own site, very soon; if you want to have a page on our hosted version, probably this fall.

Developers and others who want to work on the CASH Music software can find the code on the project's download page with links to its github repository and issue tracker. CASH Music accepts donations either directly or through their Kickstarter page.

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