A Different Stream

Zoë Keating Wants to Disrupt The Music Industry — In Artists’ Favor

SF Weekly (Cover Story)feature-1-44cc1d7ed8801999

It was springtime 2015, and Zoë Keating was staring at rabbits.

Through the curved window of the Georgian house outside of London, Keating, a critically acclaimed independent cellist, and Imogen Heap, a Grammy-nominated singer, watched the animals on the lawn. The house belonged to Heap, who grew up there and later purchased it from her parents. Although it was surrounded by all the tropes of the English countryside — rolling hills, bluebells, and the wild rabbits — it was only a few miles outside of London in a government-protected swath of wilderness. If they looked closely enough, the women could see the city in the distance.

It was Keating’s second day as Heap’s guest. Or maybe it was her third. Ever since her husband’s death two months earlier, she had trouble keeping track of time. “It was all a blur,” she recalled months later.

For much of 2014, the 44-year-old cellist — a former computer programmer who has built a respectable career and massive online following without ever signing to a label — had tended to her husband, Jeff Rusch, who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in May 2014, and taken care of the couple’s five-year-old son, Alex. She’d graced the cover of The Strad, a magazine for string musicians, a few months before Rusch’s diagnosis, but now her music career was on near-total hold: She cancelled a national tour in the U.S., delayed finishing her upcoming third album, and had to solicit the help of musician Jeff Russo to finish composing the soundtrack for the first season of the A&E TV show, The Returned.

After Rusch’s death in Feb., the last thing Keating wanted was to be alone in the Sonoma County house where he died. So she and Alex packed their bags and headed to Dorset, England, where the rest of Keating’s family lived. “I asked myself, ‘Where is the most comforting place in the world that I can go?'” Keating recalls. “And England was where I had to go.”

For a month, she and her son recuperated at her aunt’s sprawling countryside house. And slowly, she recovered. She started blogging again — something she hadn’t done since before her husband’s death. She even edged back into performing, booking a few stateside shows for the following month.

Toward the end of her mourning, she traveled to the greenbelt in southeast England to stay with her friend Heap, who had just given birth. The pair met in early 2006 via an email Heap wrote after buying one of Keating’s albums. (“I just got your CD in the post today and it’s just beautiful,” Heap gushed. “I very much hope to see you play one day.”) They began a correspondence, and a couple of months later, Keating joined one of Heap’s tours as an opening act and background cellist.

Nine years after that email, the pair sat across from one another at the kitchen table in Heap’s childhood home. Heap’s newborn, Florence, sat in a baby bouncer on the floor, while Alex peered out the window, enchanted by with the bunnies. Conversation flitted from family concerns to more quotidian topics, before narrowing in on shop talk. The women discussed projects they were currently working on and debated the way best way to release a song in the digital era of music streaming and faltering record sales.

“For all my life, there’s always been a new musical format,” Keating says. “We had LPs, then 8-tracks, then cassettes, then CDs, then MP3s, and now streaming. And we were both kind of wondering, ‘What’s next?'”

Both musicians were disgruntled with the current upload-and-stream tactic of disseminating music online. It was confusing and complicated because, as independent artists, they had to upload their own songs and negotiate separate deals with each streaming site. Plus, the pay is paltry: For every song streamed, artists earn around one one-thousandth of a cent. Instead of being paid directly by streaming and purchasing sites, artists must wait for performance rights organizations to compute the streaming and download royalties, which arrive by mail six months later. Being a recording artist no longer paid the bills, and the only way to stay afloat was through constant touring.

“We had the same concerns in common,” Keating says. “No one’s thinking about the creators or about what kind of music world we would like to create, so we decided to band together.”

They called their mission “Mycelia,” after the fibrous fungal web some mushrooms form below ground, making them the largest living organisms in the world. Mycelia’s goal would be to put power back in artists’ hands by finding an alternative means for releasing music to the public.

But exactly how they would do that was not clear, and Keating left England without a plan in place. Back at work in America, Keating continued to hash out ideas, and the pair eventually settled on a piece of open-source technology called block chain.

Block chain, which keeps a ledger of transactions and makes peer-to-peer file sharing fast and easy, was well-known in the techie world as the basis for bitcoin, the digital currency. But block chain had never been used by the music industry before, so could it even work? And if so, how?

Keating lives in a remote 1920s redwood bungalow in an unincorporated Sonoma County community called Camp Meeker. To get there, you drive down narrow, two-lane roads that wind through a forest so damp the tree trunks are green with moss. Once the forest clears, you drive past a fallow field and entrances to vineyards, over creeks and through the small, hippie town of Occidental. A wooden welcome sign carved with the words “Camp Meeker” announces I’m finally close to my destination, after an almost two-hour drive from Oakland, and after a few wrong turns down one-way dirt paths, I arrive at Keating’s humble abode.

She’s standing outside when I arrive, dressed head-to-toe in black, with her silver bob parted to the side. (Though she was born with red hair, she started going gray in her 20s, a common trait in her family.) For years, she experimented with her hair, dyeing it red or orange, or rolling it into dreadlocks. For a while, she even combined the two styles, sporting a fauxhawk with short henna-red dreads on top and her natural gray clipped close to her skull on the sides. But after moving to Camp Meeker from San Francisco in 2007, she decided to chop off the dreads and keep her natural hair color because she was tired of local teens asking if she had weed.

It was a fight to let her hair go au naturel. “I had family members and close friends who warned me not to let my hair be gray in public,” she says. “They thought it would be damaging for my career.”

They were wrong. Her debut album, One Cello x 16: Natoma, charted at No. 1 in the classical section of iTunes four times, and her follow-up, Into The Trees, peaked at No. 7 on Billboard‘s classical chart. She’s composed soundtracks for more than a dozen films and TV shows — including The Secret Life of Bees, The Returned, Breaking Bad, and Manhattan — as well as ballets, plays, commercials, dances, and radio programs. Her compositions, which are rhythmically dense and emotionally cathartic, have racked up awards and grants from the Independent Music Awards, San Francisco Artfest, Creative Capital Foundation, and Belle Foundation, and have earned her seats on the boards of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy, Magik Magik Orchestra, CASH Music, and even a place at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Although Keating has played the cello since she was 8, she didn’t pursue a music career until adulthood. After studying liberal arts at Sarah Lawrence College just north of New York City, she moved to San Francisco in 1994. Through a temp agency, she got a job working the front desk of a six-person software start-up called Perspecta. Instead of answering the phone, which she hated, she taught herself how to write HTML, and eventually created a website for the software company. Her knack for coding and her abhorrence of secretarial duties led the company’s CEO to upgrade her position to software engineer, which taught her how to code.

Keating never gave up on playing the cello, however. Plagued by debilitating performance anxiety since childhood, she discovered in college that if she played in a group, she was less prone to freezing up and “falling apart onstage.”

Through friends, she joined the all-female rock-pop band Van Gogh’s Daughter and played for other bands that desired a bit of “rock ‘n’ roll cello” in their music. She also experimented with techniques that went against her classical training, such as making grating or sawing motions when she played, thwacking the bow against the bridge, or tapping the sides of the cello.

“I thought the cello was so versatile that I just started experimenting with how I could get different kinds of sounds,” she says. “It also helped me relax because I knew I didn’t have to do it exactly the way it should be — because there was no ‘should be.'”

She joined the cello-driven indie-rock band Rasputina in 2002 after answering an ad on the Internet Cellist Society’s website. She toured with them until 2006, but when she turned 30, she decided to strike out on her own. To get her name out (and also to pay the bills) she booked small shows herself, toured locally in a Volkswagen camper, and sold a home-recorded CD on her website and at performances.

For most artists, the next step would be to sign with a label, but Keating had no interest in doing that. Even as record companies and record stores bemoaned competition from Napster and other online “sharing” platforms, Keating recognized the freedom and power the Internet provides musicians.

In 2003, iTunes opened its doors to unsigned artists, allowing them to sell their music in the same marketplace as bestselling and signed artists. Keating was one of the first artists to sign up. Her debut EP,One Cello x 16, shot to No. 1 in the iTunes classical section almost immediately, and, as she later wrote in an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, “stayed in the Top 20 for so long, I stopped paying attention.”

Through monthly payments from iTunes — ranging from $6,000 to $10,000 — Keating was able to pay for the Camp Meeker house (which she jokingly calls “the house that iTunes bought”). The house also doubles as her music factory: Still unsigned and DIY, Keating records every song in her home studio, makes her own album art, and mails CDs herself.

She also owns the rights to all of her music, and remains staunchly independent, still uninterested in signing to a label. She was approached by an indie label in 2010 that wanted to sign her, but she turned down the offer.

“At that point, I was like, ‘Why?’ I couldn’t think of a reason to sign,” she says.

Her main motive was financial. By signing to a label, she would lose a percentage of her income (which, for album sales, could be as much as 30 percent). If the label had an audience that was larger than the one she was reaching on her own, then signing would be worth it financially. But Keating wasn’t sure that they did.

Keating is proud of what she’s been able to accomplish on her own, despite the many hurdles she faced: She doesn’t sing, she was over the age of 30 when she started, and she plays a non-classical style of music on a less-than-common, mostly classical instrument.

“In the end, I felt like it was up to me to do it on my own,” she says, “because there wasn’t a pre-existing place for me in the music industry.”

Though the Internet initially boosted Keating’s career, in recent years, it’s become more of a hindrance. Streaming and online radio stations like Spotify and Pandora have weakened sales for Keating and other artists. Instead of buying albums, listeners now stream them for free.

And royalties from streaming make the sting of losing out on album sales no less painful. Spotify pays $0.0011 per play, YouTube pays $0.0003, and Apple Music pays $0.0013. Do the math: A song has to be played almost one million times for an artist to make a mere $1,000.

How many artists are streamed that often is a mystery. In fact, little is known about royalty rates from streaming sites because most companies do not release that information — and few artists are willing to talk about it.

In 2011, Keating, whose yearly iTunes sales dropped from roughly $88,000 in 2006 to around $50,000 in 2014, decided to do something about this. She published her annual income from royalty checks in a publicly shared Google Doc, resulting in a slew of articles and publicity for her.

“There was very little hard data about what artists were making,” she says. “If you’re a small-time artist, you’re probably kind of ashamed and want to be seen as doing better than you are. And if you’re a big-time artist, you’re probably not allowed to talk about it because you’re under contract. So I realized I was in a unique position where I could talk about anything I wanted to and I didn’t feel like I had a lot to lose, so I just started publishing my earnings, and I hoped other artists would start doing the same.”

But meager pay wasn’t the only thing about music’s digital age that bothered Keating. Many sites — notably Spotify and Pandora — hid listeners’ demographics from the artists. There was no way for an artist to know who was streaming what, or where.

In a 2012 blog post called “What I Want From Internet Radio” on her personal website, Keating harped on this quandary, lamenting the fact that these services profited from artists’ work but didn’t give them any data in exchange. (In November 2015, Spotify changed its policies and unveiled listener data in a portal called Fan Insights, a little over a year after Pandora launched a similar service called Pandora AMP.)

Keating also has issues with the way the music industry is structured. In order to get the royalties from streaming services, artists must be members of performance rights organizations, which in the U.S. is likely either American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) — of which Keating is a member — Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), or CESAC (formerly the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers).

The PROs are essentially middlemen who handle the logistics when radio stations or streaming services play copyrighted content on behalf of the copyright holders. In exchange, the PROs take a cut, divvy up the payments, and mail the artists their pay.

Meanwhile, the logistics of putting the music up on the streaming sites is left to Keating. “It’s really complicated,” she says. “You make the music and then you have to upload it to every single site, and then you get all these different royalty checks and all these different deals you have to agree to.”

The lack of information available when a song is uploaded online also bothers Keating. When people still bought records, cassettes, and CDs, all of the album’s information — who produced it, who sang the backup vocals, who owned the publishing rights, etc. — was generally available in the packaging and liner notes. But now that everything is digital, much of that information is missing.

“This information should be widely available and less opaque,” she says. “Not to mention tons of people are not getting credit where credit is due.”

Shortly after her tête-à-tête with Heap, when the pair decided to do something about the convoluted music industry, Keating attended two events: the music festival Further Future and the music conference Canada Music Week. It was there that she learned about block chain, through both direct and overheard conversations with other people. When she received an email from Block Chain Summit inviting her in June to play cello on Necker Island, Virgin mogul Richard Branson’s privately owned isle, she decided to attend to learn more about the technology. And she was sold.

“Suddenly, I was immersed in the world of block chain on a private island in the Caribbean,” she says, “and I felt like, ‘Gosh, this could really solve our problem.'”

Block chain is a database with no central server. Instead, it records data across multiple nodes, and users both provide and store the data. It’s also a piece of embeddable technology that can be added to things, like a digital song, to keep a ledger of its transactions.

For years, block chain’s most well-known use has been for bitcoin, as a means of creating a paper trail of transactions and facilitating bitcoin payments. That’s the other cool thing about block chain: It not only keeps track of data, but — when combined with self-executing agreements called smart contracts — it allows the transfer of money directly between two parties without the involvement of banks, governments, or any institution at all.

The more Keating and Heap learned about block chain, the more they realized how perfect it would be for the music industry. In one fell swoop, block chain could solve multiple industry problems by expediting payments, making it easier for artists to keep track of how many listens they’re getting for a song, and providing more information about a song to listeners.

By cutting out the PROs, artists could especially benefit from the new system because one fewer party would be taking a percentage of the streaming royalties.

“With all those royalties and all those middlemen, there’s less money in the system across the boards, but especially for artists,” Keating says. “Block chain could upend the system in the artist’s favor.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit to using block chain would be data. Listeners could continue streaming music for free, but now artists could have access to user data, and get paid potentially higher royalty rates.

As Vinay Gupta, a software engineer researching block chain technology for a company called Ethereum, points out, “There’s no reason that musicians should be living in the worst time ever for music at the same time that fans are living in the best time ever for music.”

Revolutionary though the idea may be, Keating and Heap are not the first people to speculate about introducing block chain to the music industry. Startup companies — including Ujo, Ethereum, and PeerTracks — are exploring the idea of using the open-source technology in some fashion. But there are a few roadblocks faced by every effort to use block chain to disrupt music, including Keating and Heap’s Mycelia — as evidenced by the fact that all of these ideas are still prototypes and have yet to launch in beta.

To start, block chain is difficult to fully explain. “There are tons of thing that block chain enables that we have no English language construct to use to discuss it,” Gupta says. “As a result, we can’t get people to adopt it, and actions are slowed because people can’t get a handle on the stuff.”

Keating’s software background makes her uniquely well-suited for understanding the technology, but then again, most artists aren’t Keating. Steve Lawson, a solo bassist in the U.K., says he “probably understands 60 percent of it.” Singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton describes block chain as “one of those things that I have to look up over and over again to remember what it is.”

But perhaps the biggest obstacle is that no one knows how to incorporate block chain into music. In October of last year, Keating flew to London for a Guardian-sponsored hackathon, where there were hopes of creating a platform for block chain-embedded songs. Heap’s single “Tiny Human” was used for the event and available for free download on her website, becoming the first ever song to be embedded with block chain. According to George Howard, a music industry entrepreneur who wrote an in-depth article on Mycelia for The Guardian in July 2015, the results of the hackathon are “ongoing. It’s an iterative process.”

Comparisons between the early Internet and block chain are heard often. “It reminds me of the Internet in 1995 where it was like, ‘This thing seems cool, but what does it really mean?'” says Howard.

And while Mycelia was initially envisioned as some sort of nonprofit organization or website, it does not yet exist, either. “To be honest, not much is happening now,” Heap says. “It’s all very theoretical.”

There are those, like Howard, who are hopeful that block chain-based technology will snake its way into the music world sooner rather than later. “Many of these streaming services are desperate to have a better solution to paying out royalties and being more transparent than they are right now,” he says. “It would actually be in their interest to use block chain technology, and I would not be surprised if, in the next six to 18 months, a major streaming service integrates block chain technology in some capacity into their business.”

Keating has a different idea about how block chain could work. “The only way for this to grow is for a country to make a test bed for this to work in,” she says. “And then that country could be the leader on embedding songs with block chain.”

Her belief is that if only music streaming and purchasing companies adopt block chain, “there’s always going to be somebody that’s going to get the short end of the stick.” If governments were to implement a state-sponsored program that encouraged artists to upload songs embedded with block chain, then the results wouldn’t sway in anyone’s favor, she says. It would be the perfect testing environment to see if block chain could work on a large scale.

But convincing an entire country to implement an experiment in poorly understood technology to benefit artists is easier said than done.

Two years before Keating heard the word “block chain,” and before her husband’s illness and death prompted her soul-searching in the English countryside, she was already hatching a plan to change the music industry.

Late one October night in 2012, after putting her son to bed, she sat in her living room and crafted a blog post called “Towards a Manifesto.”

She mused about forming “a lobby, a coalition, [or] an advocacy organization” to campaign on behalf of artists. No current association for record labels, media companies, royalties, and streaming and Internet radio companies explicitly represents the rights and needs of artists.

“We can’t just hope that the interests of music and technology companies will always magically align with ours,” she wrote. “We have to participate in the process.”

Although Mycelia has a long way to go before it’s a reality, Keating thinks she’s finally found the answer to the conundrum she posed that autumn night. “I feel like my previous life working in technology, along with my experience as an independent musician makes me kind of uniquely positioned to campaign for this,” she says.

Others echo this belief. “Zoë is very technical and has a really good grasp on the issue,” Howard says. “She’s basically a cultural bridge because you need somebody involved that’s deeply embedded on both the tech and music sides. And as far as I can tell, that person is Zoë.”

Revolutionizing how the online music world works wasn’t on her mind while tapping out her thoughts over a mug of Egyptian mint tea. But it’s clear, based on the wording of her blog post, that she knew she’d instigate some type of change.

“Just like artists can’t pin their hopes on being ‘discovered,’ no one can help us but ourselves,” she wrote. “I’m an optimist, and I’ve always believed that we can make the world we want to live in. But there’s the rub: We have to make it.”

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