Can open source reinvent the music business?

San Francisco band Severed Fifth wants to create a new template for success.

Under the traditional music model, bands create an album, sign their distribution rights to a record label, and the label distributes the music and benefits from the majority of sales. Recent economic problems
and the advent of digital distribution and file sharing have squeezed labels for cash, which has limited distribution and marketing. Consequently, bands have suffered by losing their
distribution rights to companies that no longer have the funds to effectively distribute their music.

This poses a few unfortunate outcomes for bands. First, they lose control over their distribution, and if a label is not doing a good job, this can cripple a band’s ability to spread awareness of their material. Second, labels typically provide tour support if a band
sells a certain number of units. However, low investment in distribution translates into limited sales, meaning bands won’t get to tour and raise that awareness. Finally, bands usually make money through tours and merchandise sales. With the labels not providing adequate marketing and distribution, bands are not sent on tour, so they don’t make much money. The net result is that the romantic dream of a record deal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s widely acknowledged that the music industry is broken, but I believe the black clouds we’re under actually provide a tremendous opportunity for bands, record labels and fans. That’s why I formed a project called Severed Fifth, which aims to change the music industry similar to the way open source has changed software.

Severed Fifth

Changing the rules

Severed Fifth is a band that I formed in the San
Francisco Bay Area. However, it’s a different kind of band. Outside of creating music for folks to enjoy, Severed Fifth has two goals:

  1. The first is to put open distribution and community at the heart of the band, and to use these elements as catalysts to build growth, awareness and expose the benefits of what I am referring to as the Open Band approach.
  2. The second goal is to use these elements to build success around Severed Fifth, so it becomes a great example of how an Open Band approach can work. I want other bands and musicians to be able to point to Severed Fifth and say, “If those guys can do it, so can we!”

Many moons ago, there were hollers in the software world of, “If that Finnish chap can rally the troops to make an operating system, heck, I’ll take
the same approach for my database app.” I want to optimize Severed
Fifth to be an example that not only appeals to open source and free culture fans, but regular bands in the trenches can point to it too.

Open Band Three Tier system

Severed Fifth is a music project with three core principles, which I
have labeled as the Open Band Three Tier system:

  1. We give the music away freely: Like open source, this encourages redistribution and awareness, and empowers fans to harness the content, share it with friends, and ultimately bring more listeners to the band (in the same way open source has exploded in popularity due to the free availability of content for users to test and assess if it works for them).
  2. We build community: I have taken my experience in community
    to build a community around Severed Fifth. This helps fans feel part of a project they can contribute to. We have done this in the form of the Severed Fifth Street Team.
  3. We socialize Severed Fifth Fair Pay: We encourage people to pay what is
    fair and reasonable to them to help support the band. This is powered
    by PayPal and anyone with a piece of plastic in their wallet can
    contribute. Thanks to the free availability of content and the community feel, people gain a closer connection to the band. In turn, they are more likely to contribute. We have already seen many financial contributions from fans.

This idea is simple. In a recording industry environment that is
widely regarded as ineffective, if we provide a solid example of a
band that provides free access to content (which significantly lowers
the barrier to attract fans) and empowers those fans with a
community, this results in a wider fanbase that feels a closer sense
of commitment to supporting their favorite bands. Of course, the same approach could be applied to other creative endeavors: publishing, art, video and more. My goal is to make Severed Fifth a successful and repeatable template.

The story so far

We have made good progress thus far. In October, we put out our 11-track “Nightmares By Design” demo for free. The album is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, so you can share it with your friends, remix it, and otherwise enjoy it. Response has been very positive, with people not only enjoying the music, but also taking advantage of the rights. They’ve been spreading it around, putting it on YouTube videos, and making ringtones out of it.

We have also invested a lot of energy in building our community. As noted above, we created the Severed Fifth Street Team. These passionate fans have been putting Severed Fifth posters up in local areas, getting the music played on local radio and in clubs, and spreading awareness online. We have seen tremendous examples of people feeling
inspired to contribute: Rob Kielty produced a Severed Fifth Android
, Virgil Brummond is working on a Severed Fifth fanzine, torontomario has created many Severed Fifth wallpapers, and Bungee Brent contributes photography.

In addition to this work, the community has come together to build
awareness across many online resources such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, Reverbnation
and more. Throughout these resources, the community has contributed videos, graphics and advocacy — each person is harnessing their own skills to grow awareness of the band.

To get a good feel for the progress so far, we have released two short videos summarizing 2010 and the recording campaign. See 2010 Recapped and Severed Fifth Recording Campaign – Jan 2011 Update.

The next step

Being based in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are fortunate to be in
the epicenter of heavy rock and metal. We are also fortunate
to have a number of well-known and experienced musicians act as
advisers to Severed Fifth. They bring a wealth of experience to Severed Fifth, and while they are not paid in any way, hey have a real belief in what we are doing.

One of these advisers — who has possibly the most significant experience of the group — sat down with us shortly after we released “Nightmares By Design” and said: “I think you guys have a real shot at changing how things work. First, because the time is right for the style of music you play. Second, because the band is a tight unit musically and socially. And finally, the industry really is broken and it needs the kind of change you’re advocating.”

His belief in us came with a caveat, though. “If you are going to
bring real change and be taken seriously, you need to compete on the
same production level as professional bands,” he said. “I
believe you guys have the music and style nailed, but ‘Nightmares By
Design’ is a great sounding ‘demo,’ and you guys need a great sounding
‘album’.” He said we needed to re-record the album in a professional studio if we really wanted to bring about change.

He was absolutely right. While we are all proud of “Nightmares By
Design,” it does sound like it was recorded in my home studio (which it was). After doing some digging around, we determined it will cost around $5,000 to record the album. We started the Severed Fifth Recording Campaign to help fund the recording. In just over a month, we have raised nearly $2,000, with some fans contributing as much as $300 each.

Our next step is to get into the studio in the first few weeks of
February to record the album for a late February or early March release. The new album will also be released under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license. After release, we are planning a significant outreach campaign to take Severed Fifth to the masses.

More help needed

While we are still very much at the beginning of the road with
Severed Fifth, the feedback from the community and many people
actively involved in the industry has been hugely supportive. I
believe that we have a real shot at achieving this, but we can’t do it
alone. If we are to build this groundswell of interest and make
Severed Fifth into a truly persuasive template for other bands and
artists to use, we need as much help as possible. If any of you can
help with publicity and advocacy, please get in touch with me at “jono AT severedfifth DOT com.”


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  • Brent Rockwood

    Best of luck, but let’s not forget the most important thing. The music should not suck.

  • And don’t forget about Josh Woodward! He has a very similar approach to Severed Fifth.

  • I applaud the efforts of Severed Fifth to try to spearhead a movement to revitalize the music industry using an socio-economic model that fostered enormous innovation in the software industry.

    However, as in the Open Source movement, the various independent producers would never have succeeded on their own and benefited greatly from the likes of Apache to incubate rising stars and SourceForge to indiscriminately give them a place to distribute their material, to name but two significant players.

    In addition to the three tenets proposed above, I suggest a fourth tenet which aims to develop support infrastructure for music producers _and all other associated music industry personnel_ such that a broader range of musical genres can make the transition with greater ease and confidence thus finding greater acceptance across a wider community. It kinda fits in with the second tenet, but I feel it’s much broader than just community around the band.

    You could draw an analogy between a track drop site like SoundCloud and SourceForge as a raw distribution mechanism, but that can only partially capitlise on the artist and the material as item sales. In much the same way that Fonality captialises on Asterisk, private interests _could_ vie for the rights to promote and tour popular open source artists, without rights exclusive contracts and deals.

    The next wave of label producers won’t think of their artists as property. They will see themselves as service providers to the music industry. VARS, ISVs and OEMS to the musical creatives and their fans, support industries generating revenue from networking, adapting, promoting and distributing. It won’t totally eradicate the current big labels, in much the same way that Open Source hasn’t seen the death of Apple, Microsoft or Oracle. But it will force them to compete on different terms and perhaps even drive them to become more service oriented to attract the business of the many smaller players.

    It will be the birth of a new wave of creativity and innovation in music production and enjoyment. I look forward to contributing to the ideas of the pioneers in this time of change.

  • *Cough* *cough*

    Sounds exactly like the recipe used by filmmaker Nina Paley for her feature film “Sita Sings the Blues”. The financial model has been successful so far. She makes the details — both the recipe and the results — available at .

  • Sounds cool, where does your system stand on Content ownership? i mean, with your band being opensource music does that mean i can use your Music on youtube videos? or in a movie that i decide to sell commercially without asking your permission?

  • That won’t work for serious music. First of all, metal as well as rock bands are ego orientated. There must be a leader, a conductor in the center of it all. Secondary, too many ideas never make any good music. Look at all those super groups. Their lives were very short. That’s a good idea for kids, metal fans only but not for real musicians who want to get credits for certain songs they made – belonging to them, coming from their brains and made with use of their skills.

  • DjD

    This is great! I downloaded your demo albums and they are really good. I keep playing them so that’s a good sign. I’m looking forward to the professionally recorded version and I hope you manage to raise enough money in time.

    Loki: – yes, but with a few conditions.

    NINa: Severed Fifth retain all credits for the content they have created because the licence under which they distribute their music requires attribution. Also, kids and metal fans make up a large proportion of music consumers.

  • JC

    Great! Best of luck guys.

    BTW, to me statements like ‘That won’t work for serious music’ reminds me precisely, like you guys said, Linux. They said Linux would not work for serious implementations, and there you go. So I would not play the fortuneteller and just enjoy Severed Fifth’s music and see what happens.

  • I agree with JC, there should be no negative vibes here. The musicians using the old model are not making any money, so what does it hurt to forge your own path. I’ve been writing about “music as a marketing tool,” not a product for years. I’m glad to see someone take the initiative.

    @NINa – I’m gathering Jono is the leader! Real musicians? Metal isn’t real? You’re also saying that because they’re giving it away they don’t want credit for their compositions? Or that the music they’ve created wasn’t from their brains or made with use of their skills? Huh?

  • I’ve already posted my message to another article about this band… I’ll re-iterate, because we would really appreciate your help!

    We are E U C A R Y O T E, and are starting what we call a “band of bands”, which is the closest we could get to the idea of an open-source band. Contrarily to most approaches, we are aiming at a paradigm shift in the practice of music.

    In brief: bands are too many to share the big pie of today’s music industry and still manage to make a buck. In answer to this, and the other reasons that make us despise this industry, we would like to operate more like an open label: several bands sharing one name, and all music co-owned by all members.

    At the core of the concept, is the possibility of creating original songs, but also giving room to the covering, re-writing and evolution of such songs. This would give the listener the opportunity of acquiring “updatable songs” – every time a new version is available, the song grows.

    Please visit our test-page, read our stuff, listen to our first band’s music, let us know your thoughts about the concept, and please spread the word to any musicians you think would be interested. We would also love to reach out to developers who would like to help out on the project. There is a serious challenge in creating such new formats for new ways of producing music.

    We welcome all, and are way past style considerations – all music is great when pulled from the bottom of one’s self!


    E U C A R Y O T E

  • We at IMRadio applaud your creativity and efforts. IMRadio is open source radio. We air all musicians with origingal music in our radio rotation for free. We’d be honored to air Severed Fifth on: Keep up your great work!

  • Someone Somewhere

    Music is far older than copyright. Music is meant to be shared, to be preformed, to be communal, it’s older than humanity it’s self. For as long as humanity has existed we’ve made music, and the idea that the only motivation to make music is money is both extremely recent and false. The motivation to make music is innate, and biologically ingrained, because it attracts perspective mates, and induces pleasure, in both the performer and the audience. Even if no one ever made a dime off music again, we would still be motivated to produce music, because the reward for producing good music would be what’s it’s been since before humans walked upright, your choice of many and desirable mates.

    I think it’s a hoot when record companies claim there will be no more music without them. There has been music for millennia before them, and there will be music for millennia after them.

  • Arseny Hofman

    Jono Bacon’s music is now available here, so you can listen to it: