Issue #6 April 2005

An interview with
John Buckman,
CEO of Magnatune

John Buckman is a musician, entrepreneur, philosopher, and world-traveller in addition to his role as executive at Magnatune. After a long career in academic and big-brain pursuits, Buckman helped found Magnatune and continues to spread the word about fair, free (as in freedom) music. Buckman will be giving a visionary keynote Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at the Red Hat Summit.

Tell us a little about Magnatune and its origins.

Magnatune was born in April 2003. I was concerned that for much of the music I enjoy, the business of music appeared unsustainable, so that other genres would soon be disappearing in the way that classical music has in the past 20 years. With Magnatune, I wanted to find a business model where interesting music could survive and prosper, which meant that the musician gets paid, the record company survives, and consumers pay an affordable price for the music they love.

What is Magnatune's affiliation with Creative Commons?

Magnatune's motto is "We are not evil". I have a chance with Magnatune to create a totally new model for a record company: one who treats everyone ethically and fairly. The Creative Commons license, which applies to all our music in 128k mp3 format, is part of that goal. From a commercial perspective, the CC license gives us great marketing exposure, with everything from Podcasts to web sites like WebJay, iRate and Last.fm playing our music for people, building our fan base. You know, it's much easier to get people to pay for your product if they like what you're about.

Magnatune has been called the 'Open Source iTunes'. Is that accurate?

No, iTunes carries all the music it can, and has no editorial voice, and no quality control. What Magnatune is, is an "open music record label". We pick the artists we want to release, and accept about 2% of what is submitted to us. We are much more like Red Hat Linux, which takes the best from the work of thousands of contributors, and collects everything into an accessible, useful platform. Magnatune does the same with music: we pick the best music, and package it into a web site where anyone can listen to all our music before they buy, and besides getting unusual and excellent music, they get a copyright-protection-free full-quality (WAV, MP3, FLAC, OGG) download. Buyers get to name the price they want to pay for the music, and the artist gets half the money.

When I started Magnatune I explicitly consulted the OSI's "open source definition" to make sure that Magnatune followed those goals. As a programmer, I've used other people's source code countless times, so I know how important values such as the OSI's "No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor" are to anyone creating new works.

No-one has ever applied the Open Source Definition to the music business. I did. That's what Magnatune is about.

Magnatune seems to have embodied open source ideals and values, but within a media company. How has the open source model affected the way you have structured your business?

Simply put, I want Magnatune to be the Linux of the music industry. Just as Linux is conquering the closed-computing movement (epitomized by Microsoft), I hope that an open music record company (Magnatune) will slowly conquer the closed-music world, epitomized by the 5 major record labels who control almost all music sales today.

Open Source isn't just about making source code available. It's a general approach to creative works, and how they interact with a larger community. For example, with Open Source Software, you take it for granted that your users will evangelize on your behalf, that close creator/consumer interaction will lead to a better offering, that new and unexpected uses are a positive force. All these values and effects can work in the music world.

So how is business?

Sales are strong, but more importantly, our growth and name recognition is increasing geometrically. Today (April 2005) Google reports over 350,000 web sites linking to us. 6 months ago we had less than 100,000 and a year ago it was only 20,000 sites. We're the top Google hit on many music-related search terms. No-one can mention music downloading on Slashdot without some fan of ours promoting Magnatune in the discussion, and this is typical of many music discussions all over the world. We're only 2 years old, and in the 12 billion dollar a year music industry, it'll be a while before we make a significant financial impact, but the trends are clear and there for the reading. Even better, we're starting to see Magnatune inspired record labels forming for specific musical genre, so I think our business concept is beginning to be legitimately believed to be sound.

Browsing through your playlists it looks like you have a focus on quality over quantity. How do you choose which artists are featured?

Yes, if the music doesn't amaze you, why would you buy it? There world is filled with mediocre music, and in that contest, the best marketing would probably win.

Instead, I sign only music that, if I heard it on the radio while not paying attention, it would drag my mind to what was playing and I'd scream "my god, I have to buy that!". I read comments like "Magnatune doesn't just have great music, they have some of the best music I've ever heard in my life" and I know that I'm accomplishing that goal.

One thing to bear in mind: when you're accepting music from anyone and anywhere, you'll get a lot of submissions (about 400 per month) and there are a lot of extremely talent people out there. And there are more interesting music genres than radio-oriented pop.

As a visionary speaker at the upcoming Red Hat Summit, what are your plans for your address?

Anywhere a closed business model reigns supreme, I think open source principles can be applied to reform and remake that industry. Magnatune is 20 years of open source lessons, applied to the music business. I want people to understand the broader implications of Open Source concepts, and how they can be applied to new areas of human endeavor. Music isn't the only business that can be revolutionized this way, let's apply the "Linux Lesson" to other fields!

You are also hosting a session called 'Surviving Slashdot'. What's that all about?

That's about my smarty-pants conviction that with a ton of servers and the time-proven LAMP open source platform, I could survive any web site load thrown at me. I was wrong, and when Magnatune was first mentioned on Slashdot, it took several days for the site to become usable again, and we lost out on the opportunity to reach many people who wanted to check us out then and there. Since then, I've done a lot of research on how the LAMP platform can be architected and tweaked to handle a much larger load, and would like to share what I've learned.

If you were to build your own personal soundtrack, what tracks would you include?

I know it sounds pat, but I only sign things to Magnatune that I love. I carry an iPod with me of the entire Magnatune catalog as MP3 VBR files, and listen to it all day.

That being said, I did start Magnatune because of the personal experiences of several musician friends of mine, who are all on Magnatune. My wife Jan Hanford, who does New age under her name, as well as Electronica under the name Human Response, as well as world-rock musician Beth Quist, and classical artists Phantasm and Jacob Heringman.

Tell us your wildest musician story since starting Magnatune.

Business 2.0 Magazine was doing a story on the Creative Commons and Magnatune, and wanted to feature a musician, and promote them with multiple full page stories. They absolutely fell in love with Cargo Cult and wanted to feature him. Well, it turns out that the musician who is Cargo Cult lives in Slovakia and runs the family restaurant. They flew a photographer out of Slovakia, and there he is, in all his rocker glory, in the pages of this American magazine. I mean, the guy is an absolute genius, and no-one would ever guess to find talent like his in Eastern Europe, in a country which didn't even exist a few years ago. Well, there are these amazing MP3 musician/trading sites in Slovakia, and while I can't read the language, I can play MP3s and I've found a half-dozen incredible musicians from that country, and they're among my best sellers! That's the power of the Internet!

(photo: Sheila Newbery)