Jesse Von Doom: Artists Need CASH

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 1 November 2019

Featured Image
Created by Rex Hammock (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jesse Von Doom was awarded a Shuttleworth fellowship to develop and grow CASH Music: a platform enabling working musicians to take control over their careers, work towards sustainability, and reduce the increasing daisy chain of go-betweens taking a cut of their earnings.

His work helped artists improve their reach by making better use of the web and overcome the technical challenges and expense of sharing files, connecting with their audience and posting events online. Most importantly, it allowed them to be free to evolve on their terms; independently, without the restrictions imposed by major labels or the compromise of seeking mass appeal. We spoke to Jesse about his background, his reflections on the fellowship, and the outcomes of his experience…

“You don’t realise what the Shuttleworth Foundation is until you meet the other fellows. We are all part of it as much as anyone, and I have never felt the kind of support I got from this group of people.”

Rethinking Artist Sustainability

“I truly believe the arts are how we get society as a whole to rethink perspectives,” says Jesse Von Doom. “Or at least, accept different perspectives. You might not be ready to hit the streets with banners, be a radical, and take down a government - or even take political action. But you will listen to someone who artistically reframes things.

“Art brings us closer. It’s not surprising that we live in a highly-charged, politically divisive moment, and at the same time, there are no consistent touchstones for culture.”

It’s hard to argue against Jesse’s position when you listen to the music coming from the major labels these days. What we need is a modern-day Marvin Gaye and a What’s Going On to rally around. What we’re getting is box-ticking committee-written lyrics and insipid songs about parties going off. Catchy tunes, for sure, but where are the voices of protest, counterculture and political struggle that once made up a small but significant part of the mainstream?

To hear music with genuine meaning, anger, or just sheer experimentation, we rely on independent artists and labels. All of them - even those with huge followings - face enormous challenges to make a living from the craft in today’s climate. Despite years of dedication and hard toil, there is an increasing social attitude that the music they share is not the result of ‘real’ labour. Every musician hears the ‘get a proper job’ refrain a million times over from the moment they pluck a six-string or start punching patterns into synths.

There is profit in music, but the real money-makers are rarely musicians; the industry has always been stuffed to the gills with middlemen looking for a cut. And the contemporary additions of technology services and the new gatekeepers of streaming make matters worse. Few can sustain a career on Spotify’s payment of pennies-per-thousand plays. Musicians are forced to make a choice: find money from other sources and other jobs, or water down their art and cater to the play-it-safe big labels. Either way, we all miss out.

“I’m a big proponent of all flavours of art,” explains Jesse. “But music has this unique way of completely and utterly melting into our lives. Think of a day with music not being there. You have to sit while your barber’s cutting your hair, or you go to the coffee shop, or the bar…and it’s silent.

“And all of that pop music we hear, that’s the stuff that unites us. Music is the easiest way to get the arts into your life. And you have to give musicians a little something, right?”

The Project: CASH Music

The ideas behind the Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders (CASH) were thrashed out during a set of discussions on artist sustainability between Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses, Donita Sparks of L7, and their managers, Bob Fagan and Billy O’Connell. Jesse - who had built something of a name for himself developing websites and designing album covers for musicians - was invited on board.

“When I got involved in 2007, it was like a Patreon-type deal,” he recalls. “It was a little like Bandcamp, except five or ten years before they existed. What we were doing was ahead of the curve, and we were doing it in a small, quiet way.

“Kristin got more involved with what we were building, and eventually, we realised we could turn it into something. That was the beginning of CASH.”

The idea of enabling musicians with independence had huge merit. In the decades before the new millennium, pockets of bands and artists from everywhere embraced a DIY spirit. Skinny punk anarchists made a racket in 1970s London bedsits. Black kids from downtown Detroit cranked out sparse techno on cheap drum machines in the ’80s, while Congolese Afrobeat bands played rudimentary instruments and amplifiers built from junkyard scrap. The indie labels of the 90s followed suit.

Musical movements flourished everywhere, and artists enjoyed full control over their sales, distribution, and dealings with fans. Most importantly, they set their own rules. Their music was expressive art, politically charged, and in complete opposition to bland commodity.

Then, the Internet economy exploded. The new reality of selling music online meant independent artists and labels had to change to survive. And despite new technology having massive impacts on the industry, the changes benefited the consumer, not the creator.

Working with yet more middlemen - website builders, e-commerce platforms, and, eventually, streaming services - became a necessity. Almost all of these services came at a high cost to musicians - paying 10-20% to a proprietary platform every time you sold an album from your website was not unusual. To counter this, Jesse pushed for CASH to become an open and nonprofit alternative.

“It felt important to set a precedent,” he explains. “It made clear we were mission-driven first and foremost. That our mission would never be superseded by how we make money or serve the agenda of a board looking for ROI.”

“I just thought somebody had to build a platform for artists that was free, accessible and open,” he continues. “I don’t think open is a virtue in and of itself, necessarily. I think it’s how you attack corporations and industry. It’s how you take apart and dismantle closed business models based on sleight of hand. It’s a magician’s thing: ‘We came up with this trick. We can show you it works, but we won’t show you exactly how it works.’

“But the music industry’s biggest problem is the legal precedent. If you look at copyright, it goes back hundreds of years - the entire time we have been publishing and producing music. It even predates recorded music, and all those legal precedents - until voided - are still valid. The very first idea of intellectual property starts with music publishing rights and builds on top of that.

“Open source aspect is a way of dealing with this on a global scale. Creative Commons licensing is smart and solid. You can make a lot of money from your music without exploiting that copyright the same way it’s traditionally been done. And it doesn’t hurt you from licensing it for film, TV, or other things.

“We never made it an exclusive CC thing, but we pushed a lot of people toward that direction. And even for the folks that wanted to retain full control, I still thought it was best to do all of this from a platform that is free, open, accessible, so the artists can control and dictate what is best for them.”

Finding the Foundation

The development of CASH progressed nicely during its first few years, and funding arrived from a variety of crowdfunding platforms. A few high profile corporate patrons got involved, and help arrived with Maggie Vail (former VP of the Kill Rock Stars label) joining Jesse in 2011. Prominent artists continued to get on board, while the CASH principle of ‘artist sustainability’ became a talking point in the industry. The platform began to attract serious attention from potential backers.

“We turned down quite a bit of VC interest at one point,” Jesse recalls. “They would throw a figure at you over dinner, and you would think wow, that’s a lot of money. And we were told if we switched to a for-profit model, we would get backing in a heartbeat.”

It must have been tempting. Despite the impressive inroads CASH made, it struggled from the same old problems experienced by small nonprofits. Money was a constant issue; lack of it a constant threat. As the music biz veteran on the team, it made sense to pay Maggie a little, but Jesse was surviving on side gigs and little else.

A little help finally arrived with a Shuttleworth Flash Grant, awarded by Mark Surman. These no-strings-attached, $5K grants are given by fellows to social change makers working on eye-catching, inspiring projects. In later years, Jesse would have the opportunity to make his own nominations, which included future fellow Astra Taylor. Back then, the grant provided some much-needed relief.

“I was literally at the end of my road, and that Flash Grant helped - a lot,” says Jesse. “I also got talking to Mark about the Foundation, and he said I should apply for a fellowship. I met Jaisen Mathai at a Web Forward event, too; he said the same. So I recorded a video and put in an application.”

Jesse’s fellowship idea represented an exciting new area for the Foundation. In terms of system change, there are few bigger dinosaurs than the music industry. Could openness play a significant role in an industry that gave birth to the concept of intellectual property? And could it offer us a compelling alternative to the current monoculture, currently spoonfed to us by just a few big and powerful companies?

We funded Jesse because musicians need help to retain their independence and be outspoken for everyone’s benefit. He shared the same DIY ethic as the culture he wanted to reignite in music and saw the opportunity to push for system change from the bottom up. His passion and belief in art as a driver for social movements and a vehicle for shaping culture was a compelling narrative. Jesse was awarded a fellowship in 2014.

The fellowship story

“CASH had just run a Kickstarter campaign,” says Jesse. “It was a last-minute Hail Mary, and we had been successful, but the future was not looking good. We operated in a blurry area: not a traditional nonprofit that attracted grants and working in a space dominated by startups with access to investor funds.

“I remember that call from the Foundation. They told me they were pleased to offer me a fellowship, but at the time, I had no idea what that meant. Eventually, I understood…and it was a lot bigger than I realised.

“Suddenly I had access to all this money, I’m obligated to go to two events over the next year, and the Foundation is flying me to Budapest. I was freaking out.”

The funding enabled important work on recurring donation subscriptions, secure streaming players, and improvements to email campaigns, voucher code, and social media feed services. CASH took another important step forward with a new initiative. Called Watt, it was a blog offering educational guidance and advice to musicians about their careers, specifically around working with technology.

Attention also turned to make CASH a sustainable operation in its own right. The principle of community served as inspiration for a new model of self-sufficiency as the end of Jesse’s three-year fellowship approached. CASH opened itself up to its members, who made a small monthly donation. In return, they got exclusive downloads, curated content, and merchandise, while also having a say in the future of the organisation. There were, however, significant challenges.

“I won’t lie - I got my ass kicked a few times,” explains Jesse. “There were legitimate disappointments. It’s tough to move from scrapping all the time to suddenly having an abundance. And that money doesn’t get you as far as you think if you want to hire people in the States.

“And - I think - the biggest mistake I made was to show the actual vision of CASH right from the start. We should have offered a paid service and told people to go use it, slowly revealing more depth in strategy and ethos. That was the right approach. I’ve learned over the years, sometimes showing the entire trick is a mistake. Trying to explain to musicians, the industry, and everyone else that we had this massive vision to topple the music industry didn’t work. I think you have to give them Step One instead of going straight to 20.

“So that was a mistake, and I accept that. And it took its toll on some aspects of my life, but I also grew. I found out exactly who I was and who I could be during the fellowship. It changed my life.”

New beginnings

Post-fellowship - and after ten long years of heading up CASH - Jesse felt he had taken the project as far as he could. He made the bittersweet decision to step down from his Executive Director position, handing over the reins to Maggie Vail. He still sits on the board and volunteers his time to help develop the platform, playing a support role from the sidelines.

“There’s life in CASH, although it’s difficult,” reflects Jesse. “I like to think there will be a resurgence for this idea in the future.”

While CASH has its problems, it is still a going concern and provides exceptional service to its community. And our investment in Jesse continues to reap the rewards.

At the heart of his project was the idea to make an Internet more open, democratic, and for everyone. “I hate the idea that building for the Internet is only for highly technical people,” he says. “It has to be a genuine public resource.

“So, CASH was a subset of the work I want to do. The arts being prominent in the world is important to me, and I believe artists can drive that work. I want to give up control to musicians as much as possible

“But the broad work I want to do is use open tactics to focus on ‘boring’ technology. Every time I hear someone say about the importance of the blockchain, I want to walk away. Sure, it’s super exciting; but let’s make sure that everybody who wants to put a file on the Internet can do it.

“FTP is not as easy as you think it is. Dropbox is not the solution. These things are not the way forward. It shouldn’t be a paid service that then pays hosting fees just to store a file on the Internet - that is beyond stupid. Too much innovation is driven for the sake of it, and too little is focussed on making human lives better.”

“So I want to take the web and what it has become and open that up. Make it so you don’t have to be a programmer or have big money in your pocket, or subscribe to 25 different small services. Instead, let’s build all the basic building blocks that anyone needs. And that includes the stuff we did at CASH: taking payments, working with your audience, posting your events, hosting, and sharing your files.”

This shift in focus led to Jesse taking on a two-year charge as Digital Director at the Mozilla Foundation, which ended early in 2019. And he has recently taken on a consultancy role, working with other prominent organisations.

Perhaps most importantly - from the Foundation’s perspective, at least - Jesse remains an engaged and committed member of the Shuttleworth community. He plays an essential role as ‘buddy’ to new fellows, welcoming and advising them as they set off on their unique journeys. And he is a constant source of guidance and insight to anyone who needs it.

Final thoughts

“The work we are doing is really important,” says Jesse of the fellowship community. “It’s intertwined and interlinked in a critical way. I think there is a core group of us that want to continue working together and changing the world. We’re slowly but surely finding how the commonality ties us together and how we can use it to make a massive, massive change.

“You don’t realise what the Shuttleworth Foundation is until you meet the other fellows. We are all part of it as much as anyone, and I have never felt the kind of support I got from this group of people.

“I find myself wanting to give back as much as possible. It is corny, but it’s akin to family. If a fellow says, ‘I need you here now’ well, I’ll get on a plane. I don’t have many friends I care about as much, let alone colleagues. These people have had my back for years.

“We haven’t figured it out yet - but I do think the Foundation will be a massive part of the solution. And I extend that to mean the fellows, the alumni, and the whole team.

“That combination of Helen, Karien and Jason and their thinking about how you take a bunch of people that are unfundable elsewhere and support them and turn them into a force for good… it’s like nothing else.

“I came into the fellowship at a transformative time. The team were thinking about how do we move away from that ubiquity of software for software’s sake, and how they could move to a new space where we can be culturally relevant and approach things in a new way. And over the years, it’s definitely shifted.

“There’s more care and attention paid to the culture as a whole rather than individuals doing their separate work. And it’s got more political and more impact-driven. When I look back and think about every bit of stress and hardship, and things that didn’t feel positive at the time - all of it is more than worth it to be part of this.”

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