August 16, 2005

Music store bangs the drum for free software

Author: Sean "Nz17" Robinson

Online music site Independent Music Online promotes various free, libre open source software (FLOSS) projects on banner graphics throughout its site, including Mozilla Thunderbird,, and jlGui. And not only does this music service "walk the walk," it also "talks the talk": Independent Music Online itself is thoroughly powered by FLOSS. The servers run Mandriva, Apache, and PHP, and all of its music is in the popular, free (and digital rights management-free) Ogg Vorbis audio format. owner and CEO Patrick Hefner said his company chose Ogg Vorbis for many reasons: first, because DRM is an unfair limitation on digital music; second, because Ogg Vorbis provides for a better compression ratio and sound quality than similar formats, saving the site on bandwidth usage; and third, because Vorbis is an open, free format, allowing users to use the music as they see fit. "Ogg Vorbis is superior in quality to other formats, such as MP3 and WMA, but most importantly, Ogg Vorbis is something that is supported in Linux. You can find an MP3 RPM, or you can compile it from scratch if you want, but Ogg Vorbis is something that almost every media player for Linux supports. I won't go into the nightmare it is, trying to find a good WMA codec for Linux."

Of course, many customers aren't running Linux. "I knew when we started getting Ogg into the Windows world was going to be tricky, because people use different media players. Some use WiMP (Windows Media Player) or RealPlayer, or iTunes, or Winamp. Luckily we have been able to find easy-to-install codecs for all of those programs (Winamp supports Ogg by default anyway). So it hasn't been as difficult for Windows as I thought it would be."'s primary focus is not on the big-name, RIAA-backed musicians, but on lesser-known independent artists. All of the artists have small biographies on that link back to the artists' own Web sites, and the majority of the site's written content appears to be interviews with and coverage about these musicians and the events in which they participate.

Hefner says, "We are here because we are trying to make a way for independent artists to get their music out, and not have to sell their souls to do it (or send them into bankruptcy). We are believers in independent music, and want to see it become a viable commodity and competition for the mainstream."

While Independent Music Online offers a wide variety of genres, its selection is somewhat limited, as it is growing its artist base. However, it already covers genres such as adult contemporary, heavy metal, funk, blues, and electronica.

The process of buying music is simple enough. One just goes to, and follows the link to its music store from the home page. From there, one can listen to all the music in the store before making a purchasing decision. The sample music is not mere clips as can be found at numerous other online music sources, but actual full versions of the songs available for purchase. These files are played using the free Java music player jlGui, which has an interface that should be familiar to anyone who has used Winamp or XMMS.

Users have the choice of buying a single piece or adding it to a shopping cart for later purchase. Either way, user can purchase the music using the PayPal online payment system, which is the site's only payment option. Why PayPal? "Truthfully? Because [business partner Michael Brown] and I already had PayPal accounts," Hefner says with a laugh. "We also went with them from the standpoint of user share. I would think that more people have a PayPal account than any of the others."

Not all of the music tracks in the music store are for sale; much of the music is available for free download, at the option of the artists. "Some of our artists place their demo versions up for free, then replace them with their studio cuts when they are done," Hefner says. "It's a great way for a band to introduce themselves to listeners."

Hefner says artists who partner with get a larger percentage of the profits from each sale than those who sell their work through the larger online music stores. "The reason why we are able to give so much back to the artist is because we use open source software, which reduces our overhead. We have also cut out the middlemen as much as possible (i.e. managers, publishers, agents, etc.). We have no contracts to lock artists in to us; they are free to leave at any time. Right now we split sales with them 60/40, but the band's percentage increases as they sell more music until it caps at 50/50. The only rights to their music that we ask for are the rights to sell them as digital downloads. If a band wants to sell its CDs through another online store, they can do that. We aren't going to tell a band that they can only go through us. That isn't fair to them."

Not all of the profits accrue to the bottom line. "We make donations to Mozilla,, and Mambo fairly often," Hefner says. "These people have brought us quality products, and we feel that it's the least we can do. We currently use Mandriva 10.1, PHP 4.3.9, MySQL 4.1, Apache 2.0.x, 1.1.4, 1.9.113, Firefox 1.0.x, and Thunderbird 1.0.x."

Hefner says the music store part of the site has been live for about seven months, but the site itself has been up for about three years. "I worked and tinkered and it went through many changes, even was an online label at one point, before settling on the music store."

Hefner says plans for the future may include a streaming "radio station." In fact, he says, "we originally had a station up and running, but found it too taxing to run that, and the music store, and recruit artists and labels, and work out advertising, etc. But we recently made a connection with Cygnus Radio to work on an indie music show with us. We are really looking forward to it."

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