There’s been no shortage of digital services in recent years promising new ways for musicians to connect with fans. As the music industry has flattened, technology has flourished, with new tools for independent and DIY artists sprouting up all the time online and in the App Store. But what are the consequences as startup culture and music culture become more closely intertwined?
One, according to the founders of CASH Music, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower artists to build sustainable careers using digital methods, is that artists suffer from the frequent turnover of flavor-of-the-month technologies. Another is potentially more problematic -- the digital economy, much like the recorded music industry before it, could create permanent friction between the interests of entrepreneurs and the artists who depend on them.
“What I hear from artists is a sense of helplessness,” says Maggie Vail, co-executive director of CASH Music and former GM at the independent label Kill Rock Stars. “They feel like they’re being left out of the conversation and that all of these decisions are being made without them.”
CASH Music was born out of a collaboration between Kristen Herh of the band Throwing Muses, Donita Sparks of L7 and Jesse von Doom, a programmer and graphic designer who had done work for Kill Rock Stars and other independent labels and artists. The company offers free, open-source software that allows artists to make custom websites, collect emails and stream, distribute or sell their own music, among other things. CASH Music clients have included Sleigh Bells, Iron & Wine, Metric and The Lumineers, to name a few.
“Kristen and Donita were saying that they wanted to make music their whole lives and needed a better way forward.,” says von Doom. “They were jealous of their friends with 9-to-5 salaries. So we built a custom platform that let fans support Kristen directly with a paid subscription service… After that, we had all these tools that became CASH Music.”

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Independent artists have thrived with the rise of digital music consumption over the last decade. Merlin, the digital rights organization that represents thousands of small and independent labels internationally, reported in May that 73 percent of its labels saw their revenues increase in 2012, with much of that growth coming from streaming and download activity. 
Services like TuneCore, the digital distributor, and TopSpin, the digital marketing platform, have built lucrative businesses by helping artists and labels capitalize on the shift to digital. But Vail and von Doom stress the importance of a free and open-source option for artists. They liken CASH Music to the non-profit web browser Firefox, which helped prevent excessive privatization of Internet access in the ‘90s.
“We can’t be bought and our code can’t disappear,” says von Doom, noting that CASH has no shareholders to satisfy, instead relying on grants and donations. “We really believe that artists should have an option that connects directly to their own PayPal account and allows them to control all their own data without having someone jumping in the middle.”
Part of improving the digital prospects of artists is education -- getting professional musicians to go DIY when DIY means learning Javascript and hosting your own web servers. To that end, Vail, von Doom and their 16-member board of artists began a series of events called CASH Music Summits this past August, bringing artists and technologists together for a series of workshops and hackathons.
CASH Music Summits this year took place in Portland and Los Angeles, and a recently successful Kickstarter campaign will bring them to Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Seattle in 2014.
“We were at a conference in 2012 where there were all these tech and industry people talking about building solutions for artists, but there weren’t any artists in the room,” says Vail. “We think everyone will benefit when artists and technologists can collaborate in a real way.”