The Magnatune revolution

About the author
John Buckman is the founder/owner of the record label Magnatune, and organiser of the peer-to-peer book exchange BookMooch. He is a member of the board of directors at Creative Commons and the advisory board of the Open Rights Group

Four years ago, inspired by the open-source movement, I launched Magnatune - an internet-based record label based on a model I called "open music". At the time, the major-label music industry was on a self-destructive rampage, destroying companies that attempted new business models and trying to create an all-pervasive "permission society". Their customers hated them, and "piracy", far from being seen as anti-social behaviour, was viewed as a strike against injustice: copying music illegally as facilitating the demise of a malevolent system.

Against this backdrop, I use the slogan "we are not evil" for Magnatune, to encompass everything I wanted the music business to be. This is stronger than Google's "don't be evil", which is a recommendation, a goal, but not a rule. "We are not evil" means that we won't ever do anything evil, but it also insinuates that someone else in the music industry is evil. It also means - and with interesting results - that Magnatune can't get involved in certain parts of the music business (for example, physical CD distribution) because those areas demand its participants to be evil or they don't have a chance of surviving.

John Buckman is the founder/owner of the record label Magnatune, and organiser of the peer-to-peer book exchange BookMooch. He is a member of the board of directors at Creative Commons and the advisory board of the Open Rights Group

This is the second of a series of articles around the annual iCommons summit in Dubrovnik, Croatia, on 15-17 June 2007:

"
This year, the (summit) brings together pioneers of the free Internet to make sure that, at its crossroads, we guide the world along a path that will enable the kind of free culture and decentralized innovation that has characterized the early years of the Internet."

openDemocracy's
introduction to our project in relation to iCommons, and to the workshop we are hosting at the Dubrovnik summit, is here

Also published on the eve of the summit

Tom Chance, "Free culture: tumble down the walls"
(11 June 2007)
Just as some people would rather not pirate Microsoft software, and instead use a free-and-libre alternative, I thought that an audience might exist who would pay for music, if they morally supported it. Being "not evil" meant treating potential clients well:

  • let them listen to everything before buying (how else might they decide that they like our unknown artists?)
  • WAV/FLAC files (why pay for something that sounds worse than CDs?)
  • no digital-rights management (who would want to finance the growth "permission society"?)
  • Creative Commons licensing (it wouldn't be "open music" otherwise)
  • most controversially, let the buyer determine the fair price to pay for the album, given that the musician will get half of what you choose to pay.
In the first few months of Magnatune's launch, I was blissfully happy when we sold two albums a day. Someone had found us!

And then the RIAA did us a great favour.

By suing grandmothers and welfare moms, and with the major labels following every strategy that sounded like "point gun at foot, pull trigger repeatedly", the public was suddenly clamouring to hear about potential futures for music that were not quite so dystopian.

And so Big Media got interested.

Over a two-year period, every major national news outlet covered Magnatune. USA Today ran two-thirds of a page, a Wall Street Journal columnist opined, and Die Zeit, El Pais, the BBC and Le Monde all grandly asked: "Is this the future of the music industry?"

What Magnatune does is definitely not the future of music industry, but I think it will be part of the future. Specifically, where Magnatune has done well has been in niches like classical, electronica, and world music. Genre pockets at Magnatune, like 1980s heavy metal, rockabilly-inspired "high-energy rock-and-roll" thrive, and nostalgia seekers for late-1990s Warp Records-era ambient (think "early Aphex Twin") find the music they love at Magnatune.

The most successful business at Magnatune has music licensing. I was inspired by the GPL business models of MySQL and others, where a broad, free-use license helps foster wide acceptance and interest in your product in the early stages, which then translates into commercial licensing revenue (for MySQL) or tech support fees (Cygnus) when the GPL-licensed technology becomes a crucial part of using a company's profit-chain.

Magnatune's 128k MP3s are licensed under a Creative Commons "by-nc-sa" license, which allows sharing, and non-commercial use for free, as well as new works to be created as long as they are also licensed under the same Creative Commons by-nc-sa license.

I thought that perhaps filmmakers might use our music during production, and while looking for distribution. If a film is shown for free there is no cost to use our music: that's how the Creative Commons license works. But if a film gets picked up for distribution, an automated music-licensing-shopping-cart at Magnatune gives a fair, non-discriminatory price; and we never exercise creative control over a film, something unheard of in the music business.Also on Creative Commons in openDemocracy:

Siva Vaidhyanathan, "Creative Commons: making copyright work for democracy"
(13 June 2005)

Yochai Benkler & Christian Ahlert, "Mining the wealth of networks"
(27 April 2006)

Tony Curzon Price, "iCommons for beginners"
(20 June 2006)

Becky Hogge, "What moves a movement?" (27 June 2006)


This has worked remarkably well. Over 1,000 films have licensed our music in our four years of business. One, which features all Magnatune music, was nominated at a film festival for "best movie soundtrack". More exciting to me are all the unexpected "underground" uses of our music, which our permission-not-required, low-cost approach have enabled. For example, wedding videographers regularly use Magnatune as a soundtrack to the DVDs they make, and instead of charging to video a wedding, they attend the wedding for free, and then sell the DVD to the relatives. It's these new uses that are most interesting, because we're enabling new creative ideas to emerge, creating value where there was none before, and helping create a freer, more diverse culture.

What's next? Every month we receive 400 album submissions, and pick ten truly great albums among them. We now have over 250 artists signed with Magnatune, but I'd like to see us get stronger in certain genres, and increase our diversity further. We've just started to crack into Hollywood, where music licensing is a billion-dollar business, by licensing to two "big budget" films, and I hope to do more.

Magnatune currently pays about 100 of its artists around $3,000 a year. That's enough to keep these musicians going: it pays for new recording equipment and the ability to record new albums. In the future, I'd like to see us support two-thirds of our musicians in this way, and perhaps if Magnatune continues its success, we can completely support a few dozen musicians in their creative careers, and contribute a little bit of interesting "open music" to the planet.