News Column

Pickathon handles the music, Cash Music might soon help them release some of it

July 28, 2013


July 28--Zale Schoenborn has music he'd like you to hear. All kinds of music.

"We're sitting on mountains of stuff," he says.

As the founder of Pickathon, Schoenborn, with his partners, used to assemble a compilation of each year's best performances. You can find them all on iTunes. All the way up to 2010 -- and not a note available since.

That's two years and nearly 180 sets of music sitting on hard drives. This year's festival begins Friday at Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, features headliners like Andrew Bird, and Feist, and the mountain of music will get a little bigger.

The problem has nothing to do with distribution. It's easier than ever to release music to the public. The problem is paying the musicians. A 15-track compilation means at least 15 rights holders who have to be paid, and in perpetuity.

"That should be done by robots," Schoenborn says.

Amazingly, it isn't. It's done by old-fashioned accounting with spreadsheets. It's time-consuming and complicated, and Schoenborn says he worries that if they mess it up just once, it will hurt the festival's reputation with musicians, a reputation vital to its existence.

Easier, then, to punt -- until you can figure out how to go for it. With a little help from Portland's Cash Music, the figuring out might happen this fall. Cash's mission is straightforward: Provide easy-to-use, free-for-all Web tools that help musicians do business. Its board is made up of tech thinkers and musicians.

"It's a fairly simple equation," Jesse von Doom, Cash's co-executive director, says of dividing royalties. It's a process his partner in Cash, Maggie Vail, knows well from her days working at the Kill Rock Stars label (and playing in bands on the receiving end of royalties).

But splitting the money is so time-intensive, and there are so many buckets waiting for pennies to drop, musicians give the job to an accountant or, in the case of a small record label, spend a ton of time that could be better spent on music.

"Kind of exactly why we have these computer things," von Doom says.

Since launching in 2009, von Doom has written more than 110,000 lines of code, building tools that help musicians manage email lists, distribute music and, most importantly, sell music, merchandise or anything else someone might want to buy.

Singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh, who's on the Cash board, has started using a new tool that enables recurring billing. Basically, fans can buy a subscription to Kristin Hersh and receive her music, guest list spots at shows and other perks.

"We see that as a key for some kind of success for somebody," von Doom says. "I don't know that it's going to work for everybody."

But that's part of the new landscape. Different approaches work for different people.

Recently, Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich, and Atoms for Peace, very publicly pulled their music off Spotify, saying the service took advantage of many bands that can't afford to be taken advantage of.

"I'd argue that exposure and discovery aren't worth a thing if you're not driving the attention back to a place where the artist can take advantage of it," von Doom wrote on Cash Music's blog.

His solution was simple: Put a button on Spotify that allows users to buy directly from an artist. Simple, but unlikely.

That's where he and Vail are coming from, however, and it's near where Pickathon lives. The festival gets by, and gets bigger, first by treating the musicians well and making it an experience fans want to be a part of. That's not easy. Outdoor music festivals are largely uncomfortable.

Pickathon does as well as you can do, which is why Schoenborn has been sitting on all that music. While more music is being made at the festival, Cash will host a summit designed to get musicians and tech types together with no worry about who's watching.

It won't be streamed. It won't be recorded. Vail and von Doom hope it leads to a more honest discussion than the all-star panels that go down at places like South by Southwest.

And then it's back to work coding. By September, they hope to have an early version of the royalty system that will help Pickathon start to move some of the music it's stockpiled. Like the musicians, Schoenborn says it's the music Pickathon does best.

Technology should take care of the rest.


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