Jamendo, a Global Commons for Music

There is a growing category of Internet-based companies known as “open businesses” that deserve far more attention than they are getting. These companies incorporate the spirit and mechanisms of the commons into for-profit business operations. To the either/or mind, which insists that everything must be public or private, profit-making or nonprofit, the idea of open business sounds like an oxymoron. But as it has been said about Wikipedia, “It works in practice, just not in theory.” While we wait for a theory of open business to be written, it’s time to open our minds to some new realities.

Jamendo is one of the more interesting open businesses that I’ve encountered. It is a Luxembourg-based music-sharing company with a huge international following. (The name Jamendo is a mix of the words “jam” and “crescendo.”) The site is not a music retailer, but a repository for free music — with a business model overlay to pay the bills. It makes most of its money from “tip jar” donations from fans and from advertising on the Web pages and streamed music. Ad revenues are shared 50-50 with artists.

The Jamendo community now has more than active 200,000 members from around the world and the website has 500,000 unique visitors each month. Part of the draw is a catalog of nearly 6,000 albums and 75,000 music tracks — all free and legal.

The site offers many sophisticated tools to help fans identify the music they like. There are some 56,000 member-written reviews, custom playlists, community ratings of albums and “folksonomy” tags for albums and songs. Fans are actually urged to download music through peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent because it reduces the company’s bandwidth expenses for music streaming.

As part of its commitment to musicians, the site has a forum for artists and listings of concerts. Software developers can integrate their own applications into Jamendo’s platform, too.

What’s striking about Jamendo is its nonchalant international feel, as if it were only natural to browse for “deathmetal,” “powerpop,” “hypnotique,” “ambient,” “psytrance” and “jazzrock” on the same site. These are just a few of the scores of folksonomy tags that can be used to browse the catalog. A folksonomy, a cross of the words “folk” and “taxonomy,” is a system for attaching metatags to digital files in order to develop a taxonomy for accessing works. As the tags accumulate, novel categories emerge from the “bottom up,” reflecting fans’ vocabularies about music, rather than through top-down marketing categories.

“We are a Babel, not a label,” said Sylvain Zimmer, Jamendo’s co-founder and chief technology officer, at the iCommons summit in Croatia this June. He says that India and Japan are heavy downloaders of Jamendo music. Complete, official versions of the site are available in French, the original language for the site, and now English and German. Incomplete versions of the site are available in Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish and Italian. Jamendo hopes to start Swedish, Czech and Ukrainian versions soon.

Virtually all the albums on Jamendo use one or more Creative Commons licenses, which are critical to the company’s business model. The CC licenses enable the albums to be legally shared. Just as the Wikipedia community helps root out errors in that amazing reference source, so the Jamendo community identifies music that is incompatible with CC licenses (because it might contain digital rights management, for example) and music that may violate the CC NonCommercial license.

For musicians, Jamendo is more of a global platform for exposure than a money-making venue in its own right. But in the Internet age, public exposure and good “discovery mechanisms” (like user recommendations and folksonomy tags on content) are often the best way for artists to connect with the commercial economy — i.e., paying audiences, advertisers and conventional record labels.

In July, Jamendo attracted investment support from a venture capital fund, Mangrove, which should propel the company into new prominence as a hybrid business/commons platform. Laurent Kratz, the founder and CEO of Jamendo said, “With this funding, we plan to become the undisputed global player of free music. More than a music sharing platform, we are economically supporting and promoting the Long Tail of music.”

Bravo, Jamendo, from another friend of the commons.