Giving artists control of their music

CASH Music is a non-profit alternative to the major online distributors

Making a living as a musician has always been tough. For many artists, the Internet represents an opportunity to seize control of their businesses on their own terms, challenging both old and new music monopolies that dominate the sale and distribution of music.

The digital revolution turned the music industry on its head, but now streaming services are consolidating power. Spotify has a worldwide lead on subscribers and is looking to buy Soundcloud. Apple’s acquisition of Beats in 2014 to make Apple Music puts them in competition. And Amazon recently launched Amazon Music Unlimited. When monopolies control what music is available to listen to, and pay artists thousandths of a cent per play, how can a musician make a living?

Non-profit CASH Music in the United States has developed a suite of free online tools for artists to market and sell their own music and communicate with their fans. In short: to take control of their careers.

CASH Music executive director Maggie Vail was vice president at cult alt-rock label Kill Rock Stars, before joining CASH founder Jesse von Doom. “The most important part of any musician’s business is the relationship between themselves and their fans,” Vail says.

CASH Music’s Maggie Vail and Jesse von Doom. Photo by Taryn Mazza

Vail believes that an artist’s online home should be totally under their own control. And that’s exactly what CASH is making possible through the use of open-source tools they’ve developed specifically for musicians and creatives. Users of the service include internationally renowned artists such as Lenny Kravitz, Andrew Bird, Metric and the Lumineers.

When legendary hip hop trio De La Soul used the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to fund its new album, there was no tool for them to digitally deliver the album to backers or track it on the music sales tracker SoundScan. So CASH built it. De La Soul’s “And the Anonymous Nobody” landed at No. 1 on the rap charts in August 2016, and soon the delivery tool will be rolled out to all users.

As a former touring musician herself, Vail approaches her work from a pro-artist perspective, and cautions users that corporations don’t always have the best interests of musicians at heart. Vail anticipates that control of streaming music will be further consolidated in the future, and worries what will happen if corporations control even more of what we listen to.

Being a non-profit is CASH’s guiding principle: their software will always be free for artists. With just three and a half full-time staffers, CASH has about 12,000 active platform users. To date, the project has been primarily funded by von Doom’s Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship.

“It’s a slow boil, but we’ve been able to grow sustainably,” Vail says.