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Protest Platforms: CASH Music Helps Artists Navigate World Rife With Corporate Exploitation

Protest Platforms is a three-part series examining what it means for music to protest today.

Platforms have always helped to shape protest music. Independent artists, punk labels, and do-it-yourself (DIY) organizers have long suggested that the means through which music is created and distributed carries as much political weight as the content of the songs: by subverting the status quo, producing their own platforms (labels, outlets, shops), and creating alternative worlds.

What do these ideologies mean in today’s hyper-mediated digital culture, as music communities grow beholden to centralized and exploitative platforms like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Spotify?

In the first installment, we featured the music streaming cooperative Resonate. The second installment featured Mat Dryhurst and his project Saga, which advocates for artist autonomy on digital platforms. The third installment features CASH Music, a a non-profit that provides open-source tools for artists and labels to distribute their work.

“Taking millions of dollars from venture capitalists to exploit artists is never going to wind up in the artists’ favor,” Jesse von Doom says over the phone from California. “Ever.”

Von Doom is a co-founder and former executive director of CASH Music. Since 2007, the organization has provided free code to artists to build websites with shopping carts, email-for-download fields, tour dates, and more. Run the Jewels and Bikini Kill are amongst the artists currently using CASH tools.

These types of tools have long made up the fabric of how music communities interact online, but it’s historically been at the whim of external corporations. CASH’s idea is to provide free code, remove the middlemen and their fees, and give artists more control.

The idea for CASH started with two musicians: Donita Sparks of L7 and Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses. It was 2006 (a pre-Kickstarter, pre-Patreon music world), and they wanted to create a subscription service for fans to support their work.

Sparks and Hersh reached out to Von Doom, who was working as a freelance designer and developer, making things like band websites and album artwork. Together, they built a tiered subscription service, which Hersh still uses to maintain a sustainable music-making practice to this day.

Around the same time, Von Doom was also helping the label Kill Rock Stars rebuild its website, making code for things like secure preview streams and listings. He realized he could pool all of the tools he coded and make them freely available to whoever wanted them, with no strings attached.

“At the beginning, the idea was, take this, copy and paste it, change it, make it your own,” Von Doom explains. Together, the CASH co-founders decided to start a nonprofit by and for artists, making all of the tools open-source, meaning that “we wouldn’t have any copyright-able trade secrets in the code.”

The openness of the early internet was promising and empowering for artists, but as the digital world became more centralized and corporate, run by VC-funded, data-driven startups, that promise faded; the relationship between artists and digital platforms grew increasingly exploitative, and the relationships between artists and fans became defined by private business interests.

“Artists deserve agency over their own way forward,” Von Doom contends. He sees CASH as a protest not just to music industry shadiness, but also more generally to the state of internet platforms: “The way that the internet is being shaped by Silicon Valley is all about centralizing knowledge. It’s all about sales and advertising.”

This environment thrives on big data and dilutes all music down to content. “When you subjugate something and call it content, that means it’s contained,” Von Doom suggests. “I don’t want art to be contained. I want it to be free and to run around and be weird and messy.”

CASH works towards its mission through education, specifically teaching artists about the shifting music business with its editorial outlet Watt.

“We believe musicians have been ripped off and treated poorly since the dawn of the recorded era,” explains Maggie Vail, the organization’s current executive director. “And it only seems to get worse in the digital era, when it should have gotten better, if people hadn’t gotten so greedy.”

Vail started her career in music working at the independent punk label Kill Rock Stars, a label that was created as a response to the predatory major label system. CASH helps artists to stick to those types of values in a digital economy and resist new forms of corporate exploitation of art.

Repeatedly, Vail watched musicians build communities on platforms that routinely fail to generate profits and then shut down. This left artists disoriented, sometimes cut off from their messages and contacts.

“What’s going to happen when somebody sells? What happens to all of your relationships?” She recalls an artist who was an early adopter of MySpace Music, with 80,000 fans: “One day he woke up, and they were just gone.”

“We have to think critically about where we build our communities, what data we give to corporations, and how (not if) they plan on monetizing us,” Vail said at a 2016 conference talk. Venture capital funded platforms have become obsessed with the concept of scale, she explained, meaning a company’s ability to grow. “Not all businesses scale. Not all art scales. Scale is a shitty measure of impact, and demanding scale from every part of the web guarantees we’ll lose out on the small things that change lives.”

Making a living as a musician today requires tracking tiny payments from disparate streams of income. It also requires more touring than ever. It is exhausting, which is why the educational aspect of CASH is uniquely vital, according to Vail.

It is also crucial during a moment where convenience has affected the way people interact around music online: “You should be able to self release and do things on [y]our own terms. But instead we’ve just fallen into habits. We just fall into Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, or Patreon, or Spotify.”

Patreon, she notes, is becoming a platform monopoly as well, one that has presented issues for anarchist and anti-fascist groups. Radical groups like It’s Going Down have been kicked off. They’ve also kicked sex workers off the platform. CASH is working on an alternative.

“These tools really aren’t that hard to build and to use, but we’re all super intimidated by code,” Vail notes. “There is this culture of ‘only certain people can do it’. That will change. That’s the exciting part to me. In the next 10-15 years, when kids who are learning how to code in school right now are all getting out, there will be waves of them subverting the corporate endowment paradigm.”

CASH Music is perhaps most radical because it doesn’t posit itself as a prescriptive solution for all artists; instead, it’s a resource that artists can use to create their own system that works for them on their own terms. “It’s protest, but it’s protest in service of optimism,” Von Doom adds. “I think that we can do better.”

*Disclosure: I previously contributed two articles to Watt, including a piece about the streaming economy that partially inspired this series.

Liz Pelly

Liz Pelly