The music industry needs to embrace open technology or accept that it will continue to lose control, influence, and money to Silicon Valley.

That feels like a nice strong statement to start with. It gets to the point, feels a little dangerous, but offers a ray of hope. Frankly, that’s exactly where most of the industry finds itself right now. Technology has transformed how people listen to music several times over and with each change comes an evolution of the industry. Change and evolution can both be good — and we’ve seen a lot of good — but they also bring their fair share of struggles. Artist income is down. Seminal indie labels have closed their doors. And streaming is looking more and more like a loss-leader battle between major tech companies with artists and industry peering on from a safe distance.

This battle feels new and important and like it might reshape the world around us. But so did Direct To Fan. And MySpace. And Napster before all of those. The thing is, every time tech shifts it affects music and it often does reshape our world. What no one mentions is that the world is constantly changing shape under our feet, just very slowly.

The problem isn’t that the world is changing, but that power keeps shifting to larger and larger companies while musicians and labels see less of the overall revenue the industry generates. We face a future centred around massive media companies, each ringed by near infinite  fractions of pennies spinning in their orbit. The sheer mass of these companies draws the industry downward in a dangerous spiral, no matter their intent.

But it’s not too late to put the artist at the centre. If we do it right we can build a future that works for all the players — even those giants you see in the distance.

Most of the growth around music technology has been fueled by venture capital or massive corporate money, favouring models that require millions of users and explosive growth. These are all-or-nothing strategies focused on becoming the default listening platform. Listeners outnumber artists by at least a couple orders of magnitude. They are the priority for streaming businesses. Listeners want catalogue, and they want stability. Acquiring catalogue is expensive and time consuming. Finding stability discourages innovation, even favoring stagnant feature sets. Streaming companies will not be the centre of artist-first innovation.

What about the other companies, you ask? The ones that focus on other aspects of the business? They’re smaller, backed by venture funds expecting a healthy return on investment and a path to a real exit. That sometimes means an IPO, but more often means an acquisition. Usually by one of those giants from the last paragraph. These companies are built from the ground up with closely-guarded technology their only advantage. They’re the Topspins and the BandPages. Good people doing good work but in a bottom-line system that pushes competition over collaboration. The companies fold, get acquired, and the tech disappears — at best living a half life as a feature in a new, ill-fated product launch.

With either type of company, musicians give up revenue and have to hope for some kind of long-term value. This is the cycle that will continue until the industry embraces open technology. Collaborate, don’t compete.

Streaming is something that has to happen outside the label and artist world. Listeners want a comprehensive catalogue. That means pulling label and artist catalogues together, wrangling distribution, and other ugly bits that can’t start inside the traditional music industry. But labels and artists hold a distinct advantage: their piece of that comprehensive catalogue. Right now it’s their only leverage, but mix a strong suite of technology into things and we can start to find high ground for artists.

This can only happen once labels, artists, and managers understand and embrace open. That tired “our new D2F platform will be the best out there” line? Stop. No one gives a sh*t about the minor tweaks to a webstore your interns made in-house. At best it’s incremental progress but generally it’s buggy and derivative. The commercial platform play for artist retail is a downward spiral. Every major label (and most of the indies) have cobbled together some kind of D2F platform to serve their artists. They are all mostly the same.

Imagine if all that effort were focused on one coordinated technology push.

Do it. Actually imagine it.

Take labels of all sizes, artists, their managers, and their audiences and imagine a world where they were working together on tools that give artists more power and fans a better experience supporting the music they love. You think Warners would miss being able to claim they built their whole web store stack internally? Would all of the hundreds of janky download code systems rolled into label websites be missed? What about those band sites with glitchy email signup forms that may or may not lead to a mailing list? Trade all of that for more efficient tools, power and data in the hands of people who can help artists with it, and the leverage to force tech giants into putting artists at the center of their models.  

Open is innovation. Open means labels, artists, and managers can focus on what matters: connecting to fans and building a sustainable future for music. Open means leverage.

Now here at the end I’ll admit that I am biased as f*ck. I’m the Executive Director of a nonprofit called CASH Music. We build free and open tools for working musicians, empowering them to build new models in their careers. We’ve worked with amazing artists like Bikini Kill, Run The Jewels, Throwing Muses, The Joy Formidable, and so many more. It’s an honour, and a thrill to see new strategies providing opportunity for musicians who change lives with their music. It’s even more exciting to see tens of thousands of people sign up to use these tools we built hand-in-hand with artists, all offered for free with the code published publicly for anyone to download, build on top of, or use as they see fit.

But I’m not writing this to sell you on CASH Music. We don’t do the work to win the market, but to show the power of open. Our nonprofit mission is to empower artists towards sustainable careers. That sustainability won’t come from the latest startup, from lawsuits, or from a new industry power play. It’ll happen when we put artists back at the center of the music industry, supported by open tools and standards anyone can tap into.

We all managed to agree to let vinyl spin at 33⅓ RPM. Things are a lot more complicated now, but if we agree to work together on open tools the speed of innovation in this industry will increase and we might just find the groove.


Photo: Piotr Piatrouski © Shutterstock

About Author

Jesse von Doom is Executive Director of CASH Music, a non-profit which builds free and open tools for working musicians.


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