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A couple of weeks ago, I received an email out of the blue from a man who claimed to have a globally accessible online professional quality recording facility on his kitchen table. The setup had cost him US$20. Pardon?

Free culture

I have to say, this piqued my interest. As an ex-sound engineer and record producer, I am dubious of any claims about professional quality recording facilities sitting on anyone’s kitchen table. Things like acoustics, trained ears, good microphones, professional judgement and experience all still go a long way in my book.

That said, I firmly believe it’s possible to also create professional music on an absolute shoestring — and this was as far as I’ve ever seen it pushed. I’m very familiar with trying to get good sound out of old technology. Working in student radio in the late 80s made sure of that.

But the cheap kit was just the tip of the iceberg.

Tom Poe, Vietnam veteran living out amongst the corn fields of Charles City in Iowa is an activist for an open source approach to the online environment — especially when it comes to making and sharing music.

He’s the director of the Open Studios project, and a staunch advocate of open wifi networks, net equality, Creative Commons licensing and community-based recording studios.

And I thought that was interesting, so I asked him a few questions.

You’ve set up a professional studio for around £10 (US$20).
How on earth is this possible?

That’s an excellent question. Everything that used to be done in a major recording studio, using analog-based equipment, can now be done with little more than a computer, sitting on your kitchen table.

I receive a small pension, so an expensive computer is out of the question. I squeezed out enough money from my budget to sign up for basic DSL service. This allowed me to send out requests to email lists, asking if anyone was going to upgrade their home computer, and, if they were close enough, would they let me have their old computer.

I got an older PIII desktop computer, monitor, keyboard, cheap speakers, and picked up a cheap microphone. I then purchased a set of CDs from Cheapbytes.com, and installed the Fedora distribution system on it.

Fedora is a Linux-based operating system that is mature enough, all I had to do was to place the first CD into the CDROM drive, and enter the same sort of information one does when they load Windows. Once I had a working system, I could then connect my DSL, and go visit the Planet CCRMA software website.

Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (just type the acronym, CCRMA, into your favorite search
engine, and you’ll see the link above), has some of the world’s most authoritative research experts in the digital audio and video arena.

The work they do, gets packaged into a bundle of software applications and tools that enable a user to download this freely available work to their desktop.

There are tons of kids in elementary school that know more about the applications than I do. I’ve got all this extremely sophisticated software on my computer, and yet, somewhere I have to find someone to help me figure out how to use it.

Well, it turns out, there is plenty of documentation for each application. There are plenty of email lists for asking questions, and there is one email address to contact, which will act as a global help desk, and get any and all answers to any and all questions.

Tell me about your computer setup. Why use Linux?
I use the Fedora system, which in turn, uses the Linux kernel. The Fedora system sits on top of the Linux kernel. When I screw up, I screw up the Fedora system, not the kernel. That means, I could conceivably never turn my computer off (reboot). I could read the error log, correct the error, and keep right on trucking.

Once again, there are many email lists for asking questions, and the list members will tell me what error logs to look at, and how to fix the problems. None of this costs money, so, in essence, I’m running an extremely sophisticated computer, and not having to spend a nickel.

What does happen, though, is, whenever I have a few pennies, I send a donation to some of the thousands of volunteers that have helped me.

It’s a community thing, rather than the proprietary pay and pay and pay thing. Because this is a voluntary donation, I don’t count it as a cost. Does that make sense?

There’s a second point to make. Linux has historically been thought of by most, as being a geeky world. That just is no longer true. If a user can only point and click, they can use a Linux-based system as easily as they can use Windows. The difference is, they have a whole lot more technology to choose from than when they use Windows.

That’s really important for independent musicians and artists. In fact, today, we have all the major film studios, major recording studios, and major broadcast networks using the very same software for their work, that I have on my computer. That is amazing, I think.

Here’s one list that will blow your mind. You just gotta love it!

So tell me more about Planet CCRMA. You say they give their cutting edge studio technology away for free?
What those folks are doing, is truly extraordinary. When I follow the directions, I end up with something like $20,000USD worth of software for audio and video creation.

I can create a CD, DVD, tv show, radio show, audio podcast, video podcast, set up a streaming server for music, or tv, or radio, even create full-featured films. I can create global fund-raising campaigns, world-class marketing campaigns, and the list goes on.

Although the researchers at Stanford are busy pushing the envelope of technology, they have translated that work into something useful for everyone, of every age level. The applications are the world’s most sophisticated.

Yet, when you think about it, those applications are designed with the professional in mind. The idea is to do the most with one click, possible. That means, a child can click, and learn to read/write music using the world’s most complex software. As she progresses, she’ll simply expand her understanding of that one application, and never have to learn how to use another one. Ever.

Time is money at the professional level. The world’s most sophisticated audio and video software is not supposed to be difficult to use. Having said that, some things are just not easy to do. But, what’s exciting, is knowing that anyone can start at a very high level, create high quality work, and not have to spend months or years getting to the starting gate.

Aren’t old computers too slow for this kind of thing?
You better believe it. It’s really a pain, when you have an older PIII desktop computer that’s on its last legs. What takes others a matter of seconds, takes me hours. I have to break up my audio tracks into segments, then combine them. Same for video editing.

And, since it takes no time to reach the upper limit of what my cheap desktop can handle, I have to be pretty disciplined, and save my work every few minutes.

But noone cares whether you have a cheap, older computer, or a new powerful computer. My advice is to start with whatever you have, and move up to the good stuff, when you can.

Why use Creative Commons licensing?
That’s a very good question. When the world discovered the computer, something remarkable happened. History tells us the Gutenberg Press empowered the People. Books could be copied and distributed, and the People could share them, and become empowered.

With the advent of the computer, the cost of copying a book dropped to zero.

In fact, copying anything like music and art and knowledge dropped to zero. Every single individual in the world could now obtain anything, and they didn’t need to spend a penny.

History will tell us, somewhere down the road, the Computer empowered the Individual.

In 2004, a group of lawyers from Stanford, Harvard, and UC-Berkeley Schools of Law, got together and created the Creative Commons licensing options. If the licensing options are used for works uploaded to the Internet, the world will be able to know just what they can and can’t do with another’s works.

If everyone used the licensing options, we might not have the confusion we do, today. But, the RIAA, the MPAA, the major
record labels, and corporate content providers won’t use them. If they did, they know that they would lose a lot of unwitting customers!

So, as they continue to try to take control of the Internet, and change it into their own distribution channel, to control what we listen to and view and share, just like they did in the past, we have to put up with their misinformation and lies and fraud. For independent musicians and artists, Creative Commons Project is a truly great way to set up a business approach that maximizes the use of the Internet to create worldwide audiences.

Licensing works is one thing, but online hosting can be expensive for community organisations…
The University of North Carolina set up the ibiblio.org project. If anyone has a contribution to society, and wants the ibiblio.org project to host their web site, they’ll do it for free. Unlimited disk space.

Students and staff will be the site’s IT staff, and provide the contributor with enterprise-level services.

So, an independent musician does the low-ball approach with a cheap desktop computer, but gets the best of the best for high quality creations out of it. Then, the independent musician sets up licenses for their works, uploads them to the global repository, The Internet Archive — and now those works will reside at one address that will always remain the same.

Next, if the independent musician wants to set up a really interesting site that grows as she grows, she simply needs to adopt a social cause, like support cancer, or support victims of Katrina. This will qualify her to work with the ibiblio.org project.

Imagine being able to set up your own Internet radio station that plays your music, and your friends’ music. How about an Internet TV station, that plays your music videos?

Ready to start your worldwide fan club? Delegate stuff for them to do, like line up gigs, sell your stuff online, whatever.

The software the RIAA uses to manage their business has counterparts that can be installed and managed by your fans that are savvy about such stuff. The possibilities are endless.

Plus, whatever cause you choose to support will benefit.

So tell me about Open Studios.
Making music, and setting up a digital recording studio on your kitchen table, and setting up an account on Archive.org, and licensing your works, and setting up an account with the ibiblio.org project, and… well, it’s overwhelming.

To address this, a small group of folks got together back in 2002, and started a nonprofit project. Open Studios would act as a global help desk.

An independent musician, standing on a street corner, with no money, could contact Open Studios, and say they wanted it all, but would need to be walked through every step, every detail, get all the technical support, all the training to use the audio and video software, all the steps to license and archive their works, every fan club development detail, everything.

If Open Studios didn’t have an answer, they would reach out and get the answers. Nice, eh?

There is no fee. All services are free. We’ve had lots of inquiries, worked with many, and when they get comfortable, they move on. That is basically what we do. Behind this work, is our mission. Our mission is to replenish our precious Public Domain.

In the Digital Age, the term ‘public domain’ means something a little different than it used to.

We’ll save that discussion for another time, since I have an entire manifesto I’d like to throw out on the topic.

Net Equality sounds like a good thing. What does it mean?
Technology keeps exploding around us. Recently, it became possible to plug in a little box into a wall socket, and have your home light up in a wireless mesh network cloud. Once plugged in, any other computer within range, would be able to sign onto the network, and wirelessly connect through to the Internet.

The cost of the little box is $49USD.

If you live in an apartment complex, and there’s a DSL connection in the middle of the complex, everyone in the complex can share the cost of that single DSL connection. Maybe the provider of the DSL connection won’t permit that to happen. But, maybe they would.

NetEquality.org works with low-income populations to use the little boxes to create wireless mesh networks in low-income projects.

When we look closer, what we see is a really cheap way to create a “branded” network. I bought one unit, spent $49USD plus shipping. Now, if anyone wants to join my network, say, my neighbor, all they have to do is take my order number, go to NetEquality.org, and purchase a unit for their home. They then become a member of my “branded” network.

If I’m an independent musician, I place my music and stuff on the splash page, and everyone on the network can sign on, and see my work. If my uncle in Florida purchases one of my “branded” network units from NetEquality.org, and plugs it in, down in Florida, he’ll sign onto my splash page, even though I live in Iowa.

That means a worldwide “branded” network for every musician’s fan club can be created.

So, suppose a fan in France purchased a unit, plugged it in, and created a wireless “hot spot” around their business where they work. When a customer comes in, and checks their laptop to see what “hot spot” connections are available, your “branded” network will be listed.

When they sign on, they’ll “discover” you, your music, and might become a fan.

From where I sit, if an independent musician doesn’t invest in obtaining an account number/order number to pass around to fans, they’re missing out on a huge opportunity.

Is it fairly easy to set up?
The little boxes are called Meraki units. The geeks that originally designed them started the Roofnet project while attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These Meraki units act as Access Points/Nodes for wireless mesh networks. They automagically hook up, when they get power.

There’s no technical expertise beyond being able to plug in a lamp. When there’s a problem, just unplug the unit, and plug in another.

So, students and housewives and senior citizens could conceivably volunteer to maintain and operate a community-wide wireless
mesh network. I’m now trying to convince my community leaders to support one in my small community in Iowa.

Imagine, Internet speeds of 1Mbps to 54Mbps for the measly amount of a one-time fee of $50USD, plus a monthly sharing of a group of well-placed DSL connections around town.

We figure for our community of 10,000, that monthly cost will drop to $12.50USD.

How would you go about using that to promote your music?
One thing that comes to mind, and I know nothing about marketing, would be to sprinkle as many units as I could afford around the world.

I would start with one unit, and place it someplace that has a DSL connection, and wants to try out the “hot spot” concept. Then, whenever I got enough to buy another, I’d do it again.

Let’s imagine I could play the guitar, and convinced Joe over at Joe’s bar to let me play a gig or two. I’d take $49USD from the gig, and buy a unit. I’d then convince Joe to create a “hot spot” in his bar. Then, whenever someone came in, they’d sign onto my splash page, and “discover” me, find out where I’m playing, etc.

What’s a splash page?
The splash page is where the user signs on, and when connected, sees the initial page for the network on their computer. This is but an electronic billboard, and let’s the network coordinate special events, news, etc., just like a web page.

It gets your info in front of a lot of folks that might not otherwise learn about you. If the local grocery store puts their “branded” network out there, folks would sign on, and find out about sales, coupons, etc., without having to find the site on the Internet, since it’s automagically brought up as the first page one sees when they connect.

Okay, but I’m still not clear on this community-based recording studio idea.
Remember when I talked about Open Studios as a global help desk? That’s one of our projects. Another interesting project, is the community-based recording studio.

It works like this: If someone lives in a neighborhood that doesn’t have free recording capability, Open Studios will help set up a community-based recording studio. We’ll assume there’s no money available.

We’ll walk the volunteer through all the steps to obtain a donated computer, set it up to make a CD, and provide all technical support and training to get them to record a CD. Once they have the CD, they can take it out into the community, let folks listen and see what high quality that cheap approach/starting point can do, and gain support for building a center where everyone in the community can come in and make CDs, DVDs, tv shows, radio shows, podcasts, etc.

I lived in Reno, and the local arts society got a $10,000USD grant from the city to create one CD. Had they had a community-based recording studio, just imagine what they could have spent that money on!

For no money, they could have made as many CDs as they wanted, and the money could have been spent supporting independent musicians and artists.

This all sounds very hippy. What about people who actually want to make money online?
Hmmmm. Good question. To make money online, I think the musician or artist might be disappointed.

The Internet is designed to communicate, not act as a distribution channel like a record store.

It’s one of the most remarkable developments the world has ever known. The independent musician or artist is able to reach a worldwide audience instantly. It’s the ultimate “radio exposure”, as it is one station, and it does not discriminate.

Having said that, if a musician sets up a web site, uses the tools and opportunities the Internet provides to get their works listened to, or viewed, then the money is excellent. A CD costs a couple bucks, plus shipping.

Sell a CD to just 20,000 of the 2 billion users of the Internet around the world, and pocket close to $200,000USD.

If it takes a few months, that’s great. If it takes ten years, that’s still pretty good return, considering there’s free web hosting, no money for recording, etc.

Fan Clubs are probably the one money-making idea that seems to be pathetically underused. Fan Clubs are independent musicians’ sales force, marketing department, administrative department, legal counsel, executive board, all rolled into one.

Who’s more loyal, more willing to help, than the typical fan? Put them to work, and money-making just happens.

If you are an independent musician, and you have no money, sign up with Cafe Press, who’ll sort out merchandise for you online. They take a hefty cut, but they also provide everything up front. Assign your fans to sell your stuff, split the take, and build your base.

It won’t take long for them to add new stuff, great stuff, run campaigns, whatever.

Like I say, I sure wish I had the slightest amount of musical talent.

How much technical know-how do you need to get all this up and running?
Overall, between setting up a digital recording studio, and starting a wireless mesh network, one would need to be at least nine years old. We feel confident that that’s really all the know-how needed.

Is this an American-only thing? Can anyone else get involved?
Everything covered above is available globally. I should point out, that there are sixteen developed countries that are further along with high speed connections that range up to 500 times as fast as our country’s pathetic DSL speeds. They pay a fraction of what we pay.

Estonia has better broadband access than we do.

In Japan, they have wireless access everywhere. They use their cell phones to go into a store and buy something, then their cell phone conducts the transaction. On the other hand, everything we do is ideally suited for even the most remote areas in the developing world.

A couple years ago, there was a fellow in Ghana. He didn’t have a computer, but he did have access to cybercafes and email.
He literally had to choose between eating or skipping a meal and paying to read/send emails. We set him up with a singer/songwriter here in the U.S. They collaborated, and his first song was put up on the Internet within a year.

It all sounds a bit too good to be true. What’s the catch?
There is a catch. No money is needed. What is needed, is a determination and patience to go through all the steps.

It can take a long time, be frustrating, and seem like a fruitless exercise. However, once done, it then becomes a matter of tweaking the web site, adding new features, spending lots of time with fans, and letting the Internet do the work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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What does this mean for you? Are you a community musician or an independent organisation with a social objective? Let us know what you’re doing with online technologies in the comments.