A Conversation with Derek Sivers
Derek Sivers: Frank.
DS: How's it going, man?
PM: It's good to talk with you, man. It's been way too long.
DS: Yeah. Hold on. I just got a cup of tea in the next room. Let me go get it, I'll be right back. I've just been glued to the computer for so many hours...
PM: I was just looking at your profile on the site, and I forgot that although you're a consummate musician, you're also a consummate programmer.
DS: Yeah, these days it feels more like programmer than musician. I mean, at my core I still think of everything as a musician. I said to a programmer friend of mine recently, "You know, as much as I love programming--and I can sit there and talk tech for hours--as soon as you remove music from it, I lose all interest."
DS: I can spend 200 hours learning a whole new programming language, but it's only because any time I'm checking out all the examples, or I'm writing little tests, or I'm learning this new language, I'm doing it as it applies to musicians, whether it's a HostBaby thing or a CD Baby thing.
DS: If I were to all of a sudden start doing this to calculate interest rates at a bank or something, I'd have no interest in programming all of a sudden. So it's really music that's still at the core of everything I do, even if what I'm spending most of my time doing these days is writing programs that help other musicians get their music out there.
PM: And God bless you that you're doing that.
PM: That turned out to be a pretty good idea you had back there in 1998.
DS: Yeah. Well, I'd say that it's the self-serving itch that needed to be scratched. I mean, I was just trying to sell my own thing, and I was surprised that there was nobody else who'd sell my CD for me. I really looked high and low--I guess in, really, '97 when I was looking for myself--just trying to find any online business that would sell my CD, and there was none. None.
DS: And so I just made this thing to sell my own CD. But still, I wasn't even looking at that in some kind of opportunist way, like "Ooh, I should start a business." It was still doing it for myself, and I told some of my friends, "Hey, if you want, I'll sell your CD, too, on my band's website."
PM: And I forget where you were then, before Portland?
DS: Woodstock, New York.
PM: Woodstock, ah. So you still have a lot of friends up in that area?
DS: No. [laughs]
DS: Well, see, the thing is, I have a lot of friends back in New York City. I lived in New York City for pretty much ten years, and I moved up to Woodstock, 90 minutes north of New York City, as my way to escape the city. But almost as soon as I moved up there--that was '98, that's when I started CD Baby--and I just couldn't handle the winters, man. So I only really lasted in Woodstock for two or three years.
PM: Right. You didn't ever run into an old friend of mine, tremendous singer up there, named Leslie Ritter, did you?
DS: No, I don't think I know her.
PM: Or Scott Petito? Great musician. He has a studio in--
DS: Oh! Well, of course I know Scott Petito.
PM: They're a pair.
DS: Okay. Scott's been on CD Baby forever, I must know Leslie, too.
PM: Considering that you only deal directly with independent artists, the stats that I reacquainted myself with are staggering! I mean, 90,000 artists--
PM: --a million and a half records, and 14 million dollars paid out to Indie musicians.
DS: Crazy, isn't it?
PM: It's unbelievable.
DS: I mean, I never expected... You know what's funny? When CD Baby was nine months or so old, I hired my first employee, that was John Steup. He's still the VP of the company today. He occasionally pulls out and makes fun of this email I sent him back in the beginning of '99 when I was saying, "Man, can you imagine, we might need to really prepare. This thing might get huge one day. I mean, we might have 100 artists here."
DS: "And we might need a third employee. And can you imagine if this thing grows to, like, 100 artists and three employees--I mean, we're going to have to figure out how to network these computers together and share our Filemaker database."
DS: "I mean, this stuff might not fit in the bedroom anymore, so we might have to look into getting some kind of a shed or something like that."
DS: To me, that was the idea of this thing growing huge: 100 artists and two people running it. Yeah.
PM: Wow. I mean, you remember, as I do, the Nashville company, Songs.com--
PM: --that no sooner had it grown to 300 artists or so, it sold to Gaylord Entertainment for $1.2 million.
PM: And then six months later, it was shit-canned because Gaylord thought they'd bought some part of the mysterious future that proved a mystery to them.
DS: Well put, yes. Yeah, Songs.com, man... I say that when I started CD Baby there was literally nothing else out there, but Songs.com was right around that time. They didn't really have an open policy, it wasn't like anybody could just go in there and sell their stuff... But yeah, I really looked at Songs.com kind of like an older brother or something. While I was just poking along in my bedroom doing CD Baby, they seemed to be doing it more seriously, and it was so weird when that officially closed down, and Paul sent that email to the ex-members recommending CD Baby. That was really heartwarming.
PM: And that reminds me of something I mentioned to my brother this morning, that one of the many beautiful facts about CD Baby is that they've always been nonexclusive.
PM: Always been, "Hey, people, it's a tough world, sell your music wherever you can, but sell it with me."
DS: Yeah, to me that's just a given. The core thing to remember is that CD Baby was a rebellion against traditional distribution. I really feel that most music business models that are out there today were created from the top down, you know, somebody with a million bucks and a desk and some pull, designing some system where the musicians are just pawns in the system. The musicians either have to play by the rules handed to them or get out.
DS: So when I realized that this thing was going to be a business, my real goal was to make it a utopian distribution system from a musician's point of view.
PM: [laughs] That's unbelievable!
DS: So, to me, that's what's kind of interesting, is holding it true to that ideal. I was designing this thing with the idea of helping twenty artists get their music out there. And I didn't care if I made a dime from it, because I was making my full-time living making music. So of course, I didn't want to start a business, I was--
PM: You were playing!
DS: I was playing, I was producing, I was touring. I was doing it, man. I bought my house in Woodstock with the money I made touring.
PM: Amazing. continue