Brian Zisk has been a long time community activist and a mainstay on the
Internet scene since before the web began. Not only has he been a long-time
participant in The Well, he has published the
Brian Zisk is also a respected member of the Musictech and Pho communities. We met him at all three of the Internet conferences we attended this winter. Often he was on panels speaking about the power of Internet radio. Jenny cornered him in a sunny Austin cafe to learn more about the development of Icecast, his work with Green Witch Radio and his views on paying artists in the post copyright age. This is the first of what we hope will be several lively discussions with Brian.
JT = Jenny Toomey
BZ = Brian Zisk
JT: I want to ask you about Internet radio, but let’s begin by asking you what got you interested in working in the Internet in the first place?
BZ: Well I love computers and I love how people interact. I’ve been a big fan of computer conferencing for years and I’ve watched people communicating on networking systems such as The Well.
JT: Explain what The Well is.
BZ: The Well is an online conferencing system that was established by a bunch of writers and artists. It’s a way that you can communicate “many to many” or “one to many”. For example, there could be a conversation where I post something and someone posts something later and then I can come back the next day and respond. So we can have these ongoing conversations over time that unfold based on what’s added and based on events and personal interactions and all that sort of stuff. The Well is broken down by conferences — for example, music or news — and then there are subtopics within those. You can start a topic about anything you want that’s related to the conference and then people will talk about that, if there’s interest. I’ve hosted some of these conferences myself, like, for example “Tickets”, and “San Francisco”. I had had another business previously which I had gotten rid of so that I could come out to California to do computers just as the web was starting.
So anyway, it made a lot of sense to me — the dynamics of how people were all communicating through computers — and then the Internet took off. I loved how an individual would have the ability to publish information to everybody in the world who wanted it and it just really seemed like it made sense to me. I mean, if I want to put something on NBC I don’t have a chance in hell, but if I want to put something up that anyone can access, I can now do this. It just made much more sense as a way to distribute information and I got involved in a lot of things.
For example, I had a friend call me from Chiapas while there were tanks rolling in and there was no news about it in the States. So I took down what he said and sent it to the proper Internet newsgroup, and all of a sudden Time Magazine was calling. So immediately it became news because reports were coming out about it, whereas before the Internet, there wouldn’t have been any way to distribute information so quickly. You know, beforehand someone from Mexico would try to call Time with information and Time would be like, “whatever”. But here it’s like…
JT: Well, it’s legitimized because it’s written…
BZ: Right, because there are people who are acknowledging it as the truth.
So then I started doing a number of projects online. I began publishing
JT: Now is that site set up to self-publish, where people go to your site and just plug in information? How much maintenance do you have to do on that?
BZ: I do a bunch of maintenance because it’s picks, so it takes a bunch of time every week. But it’s worth it, you know. People send us picks and events and we get some out of the paper, but mostly we try to list events that you won’t find in the paper, like all sorts of alternative interesting events. It’s “picks” as opposed to “list every event people submit”. It’s a way we help the bands, the promoters, the venues, and the fans. It really adds something to all these people’s existence so, ultimately, enough comes back to me to compensate me for the fact that I put all this effort and money and time into it.
There is no revenue that’s derived directly from the site, but at the same time if I go and meet someone that I want to do business with, they may be like, “Brian Zisk, I’ve been reading your stuff for years.” So I do it out of love and it’s great. It helped me to understand that if you can contribute to your community, good things will come back to you. It doesn’t have to be monetized directly because if I said, “Hey, I need to get $20 a year for the newsletter” then I’d only reach a couple hundred people.
JT: And you’d get only a certain kind of person, too.
BZ: Right, and at the same time it wouldn’t be like, “Brian is doing it because he’s cool,” it’d be like “Brian’s doing it because he’s a money grubbing dude.” So I can grow my money other places and here I can…
JT: …be generous.
BZ: Exactly. I have this site called
JT: Now that’s really interesting, let’s talk about that later though…let’s do the radio stuff first. I looked around a bit at the transaction site and I sent it off to Kristin and she was fascinated.
BZ: Great, I love to hear that. So, back to
We quickly realized that in order to broadcast music we had to work with various formats like Real Audio or Windows Media, and they were all really problematic and not fun to use. So we figured the first thing we needed to do was come up with an open source way to play Internet radio.
Open source is a method by which many people will work together on a project in exchange for the challenge of building the software. It’s the polar opposite to what happens in the traditional software industry where there may be ten companies working on the same thing and they’ll each have about two guys working on it and they’ll all be racing to do something better than everybody else. With open source you can collaborate and have all twenty people working on the same thing. Basically it’s a way that people can cooperate and build a structure that works for everybody, as opposed to competing and having a structure that only works for a smaller number of people.
So we figured we needed to build an open source streaming media server
because both Real Audio and Microsoft are really hard to work with. Immediately
after we decided that we needed to build this software we discovered some
people who were already working on it. There were three under-22-year-olds
— one was at Berkeley, one was at the University of Texas and one was
in Sweden — working on software named
I immediately sent them fan mail and t-shirts, invited them to share our booths at conferences and trade shows. They were very happy to get the support. They had just started this, like, three weeks before, but we felt what they were doing was so important and so far on the right track that it would be so much better to team up. In fact, we immediately hired them. Well, we hired two of them. The third one ended up in the army in Sweden and there wasn’t much we could do about that. But he is still working on the project and he will come work for us when he finishes, we hope.
So anyway we immediately said, “We want to meet you guys and we’ll offer to share our booths with you at The New York Expo and SXSW because you created this great software that we are now using to broadcast. If we were using Real Audio or Microsoft we’d have to pay a huge licensing fees but since we’re using your software we can do it for free.” In other words, “You’ve done this thing for us for nothing so we’re going to share this booth with you if you want.”
So Jack, who is the project leader for the Icecast software project came to the 1999 South By Southwest show and shared Green Witch’s booth. We were taking musician’s CDs, making them into MP3s and broadcasting them, both into our booth area and out to the Internet. It was a smashing success. The bands loved us. All these great bands (and some that weren’t so great) who couldn’t get radio airplay in the traditional world, well, we had them on Internet radio that same day. We hired Jack and 48 hours later he had finished whatever college he was going to and he came straight out to San Francisco.
So then we had a platform for running Internet radio which we used. Suddenly hundreds of other stations and bands began to use this software as well. So the technology evolved and Jack was able to make it better. Whereas originally the software just streamed to MP3 players, eventually we figured out how to make it work on the Real Audio Players and the Windows Media Player, and now it works on most other players. So now you can use our software to stream an unlimited number of streams to the Real Audio player. It sounds better than streaming using the Real Audio software, and it’s free.
Another interesting aspect of this software has to do with legal broadcasting
limits. There are a lot of issues about what you are allowed to do and
what you are not allowed to do when playing Internet radio. If you are
playing any major label stuff you have to sign what’s known as a
J: What kinds of things are you doing and not doing?
B: Well, you’re not allowed to play more than, I think it’s 3 songs in one hour by one artist or four songs by one artist in three hours? You’re not allowed to announce what music is coming up. There are a lot of restrictions that make the consumer’s experience less than it could be. You aren’t, for example, allowed to let the consumer choose the music, I mean, there are a lot, a whole lot of things which we’re not allowed to do. Anyway, we built software that automatically manages playlists in such a way that it keeps your station compliant with the Statutory Webcast License.
If someone broadcasts major label stuff that is not in compliance with the Statutory Webcast License, that’s between the people who did the illegal stuff and the people who enforce that. However, we at Green Witch Radio were very careful to stay in compliance. So we would broadcast music from major label artists, but we had an indie channel as well. At times we put the two groups together. So you might be hearing the Rolling Stones and then you’d hear Sir Millard Mulch. Musicians really seemed to like that diversity. At the same time we were extremely non-corporate. We had a “mysterious green” DJ who would determine what was played on all the stations. We had no advertising and we figured if we just built this thing that was phenomenal it would all work out in the end. So by building this Icecast software and making it available, musicians, if they have a little technical savvy, now have the ability to build their own radio broadcast channels around their music.
JT: So they can just download the technology and broadcast music from their own site if they want to?
JT: So we could set it up so you could listen to just Simple Machines Radio on the Simple Machines site if we wanted.
BZ: Yes, and you could make your own playlists and you could do live broadcast. You could do whatever you want. So that really helps move it along because previously your options were something like Real Audio where you’d have to pay $60,000 for a decent sized licensee and now, instead of that, it’s free.
We’re also big on interoperability. Whereas if you had the Real Audio player it wouldn’t work to play Windows Media. If you had the Widows Media player it wouldn’t work with Real Audio. Icecast, on the other hand, would work with all of the above. So we had something that A) was free, and B) reached more potential clients than any of these other programs. You either had to pay for or you had to use…
JT: Their software…?
BZ: With Icecast you can run it off a Unix box and if you’re not using a Unix box as far as I’m concerned…I mean all the solid servers we’ve ever run have been on Unix. So Microsoft is like “Yes, you can use our stuff for free but you’ve got to pay hundreds of dollars for an NT license. I know this is talking more about the software side…
JT: Well it’s really interesting.
BZ: Yes, it actually is. But our real aim is to try to figure out how to get more money directly to the musicians because we just have seen so many people get screwed by the record industry. So many artists sign away their rights and they get an advance and no one ever sees another dime. I mean, they get the statement and it’s like, “Oh, we sent the VP to your show in a limo so we deducted money from your royalties.” I mean, it’s just horrifying what goes on so we have to find ways to get the musicians better compensated.
I’m actually fairly opinionated on that because it’s absolutely vital. However, a lot of people draw the conclusion that because it’s absolutely vital you need the record companies to take 80 percent so they see their self interest and they will protect the artist. Yeah, that’s a funny one. I mean, I’ve seen occasions where an artist basically records something, they get no backing by the record label, the record sells nothing, the band is totally screwed and, just to fuck over the band the label will pick up their next album.
BZ: So the band will have to break up because there is nothing else they can do. So there has to be ways to get musicians more directly compensated. Now a big problem is the so-called “piracy issue” and the fact that the Record Industry is going on about how there has to be these secure formats for music.
JT: Tell me about that.
BZ: Well, Jenny, if you can hear music you can make a copy of it. There is no such thing as secure music. You can take a CD and, using Real Jukebox or some other program, you can turn it into an MP3 and then you can distribute that all over the internet. Is that fair to the musicians? Is that just? Is that illegal? All of these are important questions that are, sadly, almost beside the point from a technological level. People are going to make MP3s and, in fact, they are making them. Furthermore, with programs like Napster and open source Napster-style software as well as with traditional or internet radio, I can listen to music 24 hours a day essentially for free. So there is a precedent for the belief that music can or should be free.
Now a lot of people are trying to address this issue of so-called piracy by suing people or by getting kids’ internet access cut off at colleges or trying to intimidate the entire listening population. I think those attempts are doomed to fail.
I have a very different approach to the problem. I’m not 100 percent, but I’m 70 percent sure we’re going to be able to pull it off. And my approach is, “Let’s find other ways to get the musicians compensated, because if we can do that the rest of the problem becomes pretty much moot.”
JT: Okay, so what are these other ways that you’re talking about?
BZ: Well, truthfully, if we trusted the government more, and they weren’t going to censor artists and do things like say, “You said dirty words so you don’t get paid,” I think a tax that was directly redistributed to artists would make perfect sense.
JT: By this do you mean the same kind of tax that was added to blank cassette tapes in order to compensate artists for lost sales in the whole home taping crisis 15 years ago?
BZ: No, not like the cassette tape thing, but basically more like a $200 tax for everyone. We’re talking about tens of billions of dollars that would be redistributed to the artists. I don’t have the numbers with me but I’m pretty sure that artists are not getting that much money now.
JT: I can’t imagine that. That doesn’t seem like a solution to me.
BZ: Well, especially due to the fact that we can’t trust the government to administer a situation such as this.
JT: See this is my criticism, Brian. I know you want to pay the artists, but all the solutions that people keep suggesting of ways that artists can get compensated, other than the traditional method of being paid for the purchase of songs are either A) humiliating, or B) patently unfeasible.
BZ: And I totally respect your opinion and I respect it much more than almost anybody’s on that.
JT: Well that’s nice. Thank you. I’m just telling you because I want you to go out there and figure this thing out.
BZ: Right, and that’s what I’m working on. Um so what I’m hoping to do (and again I think we need to run the numbers better) but I think we need to come up with some sort of charitable organization where people can get a tax deduction for donating either directly to musicians or to a fund that is redistributed to musicians.
JT: But what I really hate about that idea is that then people who are actually professional artists who have previously been compensated for providing a service become charity cases and dependent on the whim and generosity of others.
BZ: Is that better or worse than having music be commerce?
JT: It’s worse.
JT: Because we live in a capitalist society and every one else in the culture is at least hypothetically being compensated based on their labor. Whether they are being compensated fairly or not, there is the notion that, “I can do this amount of work and that work will be valued at some specified amount and I will be compensated based on that work value.” So in this economic system, that’s how everyone else is being paid. I really don’t believe that it does the artist much good to isolate them further from the real world. To say “What you are doing isn’t work. What you are doing is this other thing that we will subsidize with charity.”
BZ: Well, what about politicians?
JT: Well, we all know how well that works with them. I also don’t necessarily think that the majority of artists are greedy enough to take care of themselves the way the politicians have done.
Think about, for example, the model of Ben & Jerry’s. What I really like about them is that their altruistic business model is airtight, no matter what opinions their consumer base holds. The purchasers of Ben & Jerry’s do not need to be politically aware, or liberal, or idealistic in order to support the causes. It’s a setup whereby if you like ice cream you can buy it from them based on the quality of that product and then Ben & Jerry, who have the idea of how to use that profit for good, will build that into the structure of their company. Now if we made it a requirement for you to be politically aware to buy the ice cream or, in the case of music, if we made it a requirement for the purchaser to be a fan in order to purchase a song it would absolutely diminish the audience.
BZ: Yeah, but I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is…there are a lot of ways that money can come into the fund. The government, foundations, rich dudes who just made $20 billion in the Internet kicking in $1 billion. You can even have businesses where established record labels say, “This is a great idea so we’re going to donate 10% of our sales into this fund.” I’m also not saying in any way that this has to replace the current system.
JT: No, that’s just what everyone else is saying…
BZ: This can be complementary to the current system.
JT: Well, I would love complimentary streams of income for artists.
BZ: To tell you the truth, in ten to fifteen years I don’t see the sales of CDs totally going away.
J: Really? You don’t? I sort of do.
B: I don’t currently see any interface on the computer as intuitive as pulling a CD off a shelf and popping it into a drive.
J: What about voice recognition where you can say to your computer, “Turn on Beck”?
B: I still think that it will not give you as full an interface access to your collection as seeing the 2000 CDs.
J: I disagree. I mean, I’m not someone who’s particularly tech-loving but I had a sort of epiphany when I had to review one of the Jukebox software programs for The Washington Post. Within about five minutes of working with this program converting a CD and playing it back I thought to myself, “Wow, it’s all changed. I totally understand it now.” And this is Jenny Toomey we’re talking about. I’m someone who put out vinyl records, many of which were really extremely packaged.
But to the same extent when I moved into my very small apartment last year I took every one of my CDs out of their jewel cases and stuck them into CD notebooks because I had no room and no interest in stuff. So the notion of taking all of those thousands and thousands of CDs and having them listed alphabetically in the small space of a hard drive where I no longer had to dig for that Cat Power CD in order to hear it is a very attractive proposition, even to me. If it’s attractive to me, I’m assuming it’s going to be even more attractive to people who have no investment in the materialistic fetish of CD.
BZ: I agree with you that there will be a huge number of people who do that. But they you also have people like my mom, who still refuses to get an ATM card because she thinks it’s too complicated. You know, she’s a partner in a law firm and no dummy, but she’s never going to move away from CDs.
JT: She doesn’t have an ATM card?
BZ: She does not have an ATM card.
I really believe is that the reason people have such limited taste in music is because CDs are so expensive that you can only afford to buy stuff that you already know and like. So the major benefit of music being essentially free eventually is the fact that we’ll have access to whatever music we want whenever we want it. On a consumer level, that is just so much better than only being able to listen to the music that I already knew well enough about to like enough to have gone out and purchased it. So I think the consumer benefit of MP3s is immeasurable.
So what I see is, yes, a whole lot more people using these digital jukeboxes and Napster and all that stuff. But I do not see that replacing the CD player for everyone. I think it will increase CD sales in the very short term. What many people are saying now is that music is a 100 billion dollar a year business that’s trapped in a 40 billion dollar body because of the limitation of the market. Even with all this proliferation of Napster and Internet radio and digital jukeboxes, CD sales are still up.
JT: Yeah, but this is only the first year of it. I mean, we are still in a period where there are a lot of people who don’t have access to this technology. But as people work in offices where they have 24 hour access to the Internet and fast connections, I think that regular exposure to the technology just changes our relationship to it. I mean I’m someone who put out a lot of vinyl records. Right up the end of our label’s life we put out vinyl just based on the aesthetic that surrounded that. And everyone in that community said, “Oh, vinyl will never go away.” But you know what? It is going away. Even as it gets fetishized, it’s almost gone. There’s not a place to sell it at most record stores. Most chains will not carry it. It’s more and more expensive to make and fewer consumers have turntables. I think it will be much easier to lose the format of CDs. I mean, we’ve only had about a dozen years to get familiar with them, and their associations are so much more clinical than vinyl ever was.
BZ: I absolutely agree that it’s eventually going to go away but I definitely see it not being immediate… How old were you back when within a year or so everyone was supposed to have an airbag in his or her car?
JT: I don’t remember.
BZ: Well I remember seeing these films back when I was five: “Within two to three years every car is going to have an airbag. ” Well, it took another twenty plus years. It’s taken me a while to come to this conclusion. A year ago when I was at South by Southwest I was sure that CDs were going away. But considering the fact that I still buy CDs, and considering the fact that the major reason that people don’t buy music by an artist they like is because they don’t know that the new CD has come out. Considering the fact that you are going to have all these technologies like Napster and newer models that will incorporate purchasing the CDs into the process of searching for MP3s.
So if you wanted to look up The Rolling Stones you would get to a page with all the free MP3s and a link to purchase the CD. It’s going to get much easier to purchase music in the future. Now if you like something, you go to your online record store and you get it in the mail the next day, so even if there isn’t a cool CD store in your town you can still shop. You can go to MyMP3.com even though the recording industry is trying to shut it down, you can order a CD through them and you can listen to that CD right then and there. I just don’t believe CDs are going away as quickly as everyone says they are.
I mean it’s pretty interesting because I wrote a whole paper a couple of years before the Internet happened about my vision of the future. I suggested that we were going to have these cartridges that looked like cassette tapes that just had all these chips with music on them. So you would either bring them into a store to download or download through your home computer and that would put the music on there for you so you would eventually have a “tape-sized” thing that would hold, like, 100 CDs.
JT: Yeah, they are talking about that now with the kiosk models where you go to a store, plug your Rio-like apparatus to the kiosk and download any record in the world.
BZ: Yeah. I don’t think that’s going to happen at this point.
JT: It seems really cumbersome to me.
B: Yeah, it seems really cumbersome and now that we’ll all have networked home computers it’s a whole different thing. Hey, I could be wrong. Maybe the whole CD buying thing will go away, but at the same time CD buying will not totally go away until you can get everything you want online. That in itself is a huge impediment. The record companies are slow to put their entire catalogs online until they can be sure that the music is secure and safe from piracy. That means we’ve got to wait through this whole SDMI stuff.
Furthermore, how good are record companies at developing software? Well, are they as good as Microsoft is? No, but even Microsoft is unable to secure music. They came out with their secure format and almost immediately someone released “unfuck.exe” which removed that security immediately. So if Microsoft can’t do it, why do these record companies think they can do it?
Now, in addition, if you as the consumer…Jenny…! (Brian is now bellowing with enthusiasm in this open-air restaurant)
JT: Brian, do you feel strongly about this?
BZ: Probably as strong as anyone in the industry. If you, Jenny, want to buy some music you’ve got two options. Buy the CD or buy the electronic version which, sure looks like it will be the same price as the CD version. Now let’s look at the limits. If you buy the electronic version you can’t play it on your CD player. If you buy the electronic version and it has some Digital Rights Management you put it on a different computer and maybe it doesn’t play anymore. What if your hard drive dies? Maybe you’ve then lost your entire digital music collection for good.
Now, what are your options if you buy a CD? Well, if you buy a CD and make a digital file out of it, you can put it on any device you want. You can share it with a friend. You can play it on a CD player. It’s just so many more options. I cannot believe that consumers would choose digital versions as long as unencumbered CDs continue to exist and the majority of the history of modern recorded music is available in this format and there is not even a way moving forward that we will be able to encumber this format. So I cannot see any reason why someone would buy an encumbered digital file unless it were significantly cheaper.
People come up with new models. For example, “Oh look. We’re going to have this great new format which lets you play the song three times and then if you want to hear it a fourth time you will have to pay for it.” That’s insane to me. How could you more encourage someone to make an illegal copy of music than to say, “listen to it and you can’t make a copy of it but next time you aren’t going to be able to hear it again if you don’t make that copy.”? So in many ways, in my opinion, Digital Rights Management is doing more to encourage piracy than it is to prevent it!
So yes, I do feel strongly about it and I’m still trying to find anyone who can convince me otherwise. I’m willing to poke holes in my own argument. For example, I’m interested in the opinions of people like you who feel it’s degrading to musicians and who do not buy into the argument that we can find a way to redistribute the money. Considering the fact that I am not 100 percent sure that we can redistribute the money I know I am playing with the whole culture and musicians. Do I have the right to do that? I’m still not sure of that yet. At the same time I am sure that this Digital Rights Management stuff is not going to prevail.
Then another issue that has come up fairly recently is the question, if you figure out a way to compensate the musicians, how are you going to compensate the producers? You know I am happy to point out the holes in my argument because that’s the only way that we’re going to be able to figure it out.
JT: Well, with regards to producers… if you are a punk rocker you think that producers should get paid a fair fee for making the record and they shouldn’t have ever been given further compensation through points on the record in the first place. Or if they want to be given a songwriting credit or a portion of the mechanical royalty because the band considers them a member of the band that’s fine. But I believe that the only reason “producers getting points” ever became a standard facet of the major label music industry is because the greed of the other areas of that industry just trickled down and seeped into the relationship between the producer and the artist. The best producers working out there, in my opinion, do not take points.
BZ: We need to find new models where I love an artist so I subsidize them for 6 months to make a CD.
To be continued….
More About Brian Zisk
Brian Zisk has been a long time community activist and a mainstay on the Internet
scene since before the web began. Not only has he been a long-time participant
in The Well, he has published the
J: So Brian, what made you want to join the Future of Music Coalition?
B: For a long time it’s been obvious to me that the economics of the commercial music industry have not been beneficial to the great majority of artists who work within that system. Ideally the music industry exists in order to connect the musicians to the people who listen to music and to ultimately compensate the creators of that music for, some would say, for the content they create. I would say that it’s actually more for what they add to the culture. Sadly, however good the industry has been at connecting artists with fans, they have very often been lacking in the areas of compensating the musicians.
In the past, one of the biggest hurdles that artists faced was getting distribution of the music to the consumers because of the expense (and controlled distribution channels) involved in pressing the discs, shipping them to the stores, handling the returns, and dealing with the marketing of the music. Now that we are dealing with this new distribution medium, it is potentially much easier for an artist to connect with their fans and their constituency. A big problem has been that since it is such a new medium, there are few established mechanisms in place for flowing compensation back to the artist.
Mechanisms did exist (however poorly) in the traditional music industry. A small percentage of the sales revenue was flowed back to the artists. Considering that many musicians live on very little money, the mere fact that any money was flowing back to them often seemed satisfactory, or the only potentially successful option possible.
So now that we have these new methods of distribution that give artists the opportunity to begin to step away from the commercial terrestrial distribution structure, it is vitally important to find ways to compensate artists so they can begin to fully take advantage of this new system. If we don’t find a way to compensate artists they will have no reason to leave the existing structure, no matter how inadequate it may be.
J: Being underpaid is better than not being paid at all.
B: Exactly. The technology-savvy fans have found great ways to spread free access to music. The problem is that there is such a small quantity of artists who are also tech-savvy that they have not been able to participate in the discussion and work together with the technologists to develop models where they can both have access to these new forms of distribution as well as the ability to be compensated for their work as musicians.