Editor's Note: To play the Weed files on this page, you'll need a recent Windows Media-compatible music player. On Windows, compatible programs include Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, MusicMatch Jukebox, and Winamp 5.08. These files do not yet play on Macs, but Mac support is promised soon; see the Weed FAQ for details.
Admit it: you'll get the same little thrill saying "Weed file" to your friends as you do saying "Acid" in reference to Sony's loop-based music creation software. But that's where the drug innuendoes end when it comes to Shared Media Licensing's Weed (Weedshare.com), an ingenious new service that lets people audition, buy, promote, distribute, and get paid for sharing their favorite tunes online. All without breaking the law.
Weed files are stored in rights-protected Windows Media format, so any recent PC can play them without additional software. (Mac support is promised soon.) Unlike iTunes and other downloading services that cough up only short excerpts, the Weed system lets each file play three times in its entirety before asking the listener to buy it. When that sale is made, unlocking the file, the original artist receives a whopping 50 percent of the purchase price.
But here's the brilliant twist: the person who previously purchased the file gets 20 percent of the money. The next sale nets that person 10 percent; a third sale pays five percent. (Shared Media Licensing takes 15 percent of each transaction for administrative fees.) By the sixth first-level referral sale of any given Weed file, the initial sharer is actually beginning to turn a profit on his purchase. Co-founder Steve Turnidge compares it to buying stock in a band: the better your picks, the more money you make.
Indeed, once you purchase a Weed file, you're free to do what you want with it. You can burn it to CD or convert it to an unprotected format like MP3 so you can load it into devices like iPods that don't support rights-managed WMA files. You could even--although this would be illegal--share the unprotected MP3. But the Weed developers are betting you won't, because doing that would cut off your potential revenue stream from future sales. "Instead of punishing fans who don't respect artists' rights," they note, "we think it makes more sense to reward those who do."
"The biggest distinction with Weed is that the store is in the file," explains Turnidge. "The store moves along with the song." The Weed e-commerce system works by linking the artist's ID and those of the last three purchasers to the file; payments are made through PayPal.
With topics on Weed's FAQ like "My Weed Account," "Creating a Weed File Garden," and "How to Weedify Your Songs," you'd think that there was nothing but the sweet smell of ganja at this virtual company's many home offices. But for the forward-thinking team, made up primarily of ex-Microsoft and Real Networks employees who developed this new music-distribution technology, it's all about the organic music, geometry, and botany, baby. For the inside scoop, I called Turnidge at his Seattle office and studio.
After visiting just a couple of sites, I found Weed files for hundreds of indie artists, along with Heart, Chuck D, Sky Cries Mary, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and Trey Gunn of King Crimson. Who are some other popular artists who are Weedifying their songs?
Eric Clapton, Kurt Vonnegut, the former Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, and Terrence Trent D'Arby--who is now known as Sananda Maitreya--have Weedified songs. Kufala Recordings is making their entire library of live "authorized bootleg" Lime Wire jams available as Weed files, as well.
Why isn't Microsoft carrying through with its own development of this concept?
Microsoft views the Weed technology as a great innovation on the Windows Media DRM [digital rights management] platform and they encourage independent software vendors to do things like this independently.
Some of the artists' Weed pages out there are reminiscent of the ones a decade ago on IUMA (the Internet Underground Music Archive), one of the earliest online music sites for musicians. What is your biggest hurdle at this stage?
One of the big challenges for Weedshare is that it's still nascent and it's still growing. For example, our Mac client is just getting rolling this month, so you're seeing the fringes of the whole thing, just the beginnings. Those songs you mentioned were on sites called "Weed file gardens." I'm a huge fan of Jellyfish, Imperial Drag, and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. myself, so my own Weed file garden is just one of many places where fans specifically into those bands can listen to and buy their Weedified songs. I've even put Roger's Imperial Drag band demos up for sale.
So everyone can be a music distributor now?
Yes, that's exactly right: the distribution is distributed. You can even put a bunch of songs on a USB key and take them with you to a friend's house or party. If someone likes one of the songs, they can purchase it right there.
Can someone sell Weedified videos or digital photographs, as well?
Weed will support all kinds of files and file formats, even text files and software. In fact, I did just that myself using this amazing imagery by Jos Leys, a fractal mathematician. I took his images into [Sony] Vegas and used [Propellerhead] Reason to auto-generate some heartbeat sounds to create a video of his fractal art--basically static photos turned into a video that's then put into Windows Media format. It's a three-dollar Weed file for a seven-minute experimental video that I like to think is compelling. You can see the video at WeedArtGallery.com. [See QuickTip 2 for more on this project.]
You've said the Weed concept was sourced in geometry and cellular automata. What does that mean?
Weed is pretty much based on sacred geometry--a symphony of threes in this case--and cellular automata where simple rules generate complex implementations. Sacred geometry is the mathematics that underpin art and life: the Fibonacci series and the Phi ratio, for instance. A lot of information is available directly from the geometry. We soaked ourselves in this stuff at the very beginning of the company: the way seeds naturally unfold and other organic growth patterns display elements of sacred geometry. Generally, that informed our design of the three payment levels, the three free plays, and so on.
Cellular automata has been one of the main areas of study in chaos and complexity theory in the last few decades. You have simple rules repeated over and over and the results are very dependent on initial conditions. Stephen Wolfram's book A New Kind of Science goes deep into the details of cellular automata. Fractals are in the same family--change one starting point, and a whole different image appears.
How does that equate to a Weedified song sprouting in the world?
Each of these files, based in these theories and concepts, transforms into different types of organic communities.
You also mentioned the importance of Weed and "vertical markets" in your first email. What does that mean?
It's the latest layer of thinking I'm implementing with Weed. Most mass marketing, historically, has gone out to the horizontal market, which means reaching everybody. You place an expensive Super Bowl ad and hope enough of the people respond, a very small portion of them, because that's when you make money. But that's costly and risky up front, and to everyone else who saw that ad who didn't like the content, it's noise. It has nothing to do with what they're interested in. It's inefficient and expensive.
And bothersome. The ads are largely why I got rid of my television--that, and all the interviews.
Yep; it's data smog. It's that typical, horizontal "top of the pyramid" thinking that, in the music industry, looks like this: all of the hit songs are fabricated from the top few percent of the industry, the big labels, and then slammed like electroshock therapy to the heart to revitalize the market and make it jump back into shape as a business. Then, as that horizontal market collapses back down after the initial release, there are all these vertical markets left behind that are actually the devoted, paying fans of the artist. Those are the best fans who buy everything a band releases.
Can you describe that visually?
It's like poles on a plane, really. Are you a techie? You know, poles and zeros?
Okay, picture an inverted funnel: the top now is the vertical market. Jellyfish, for instance, is at the head of one vertical market that's really strong because 13 years later, their fans are still debating about them and they're all really hungry for anything at all to do with Jellyfish. The Imperial Drag demo tapes we released on Weed are a great example of some amazing music that any Imperial Drag or Jellyfish fan would love to hear but never will in the old traditional music pyramid scheme. So Weed generates vertical markets.
What do you mean when you say buying Weed files is like buying stock in a band?
You're sending money directly to the artists' accounts, 50 percent of each sale, and you can share it with others to make money for yourself for listening, too. Most artists, even the top ones, make no more than a very small percentage per CD, so as a fan you're making a much bigger difference to the artist this way. For instance, I can take my Weed Garden to a friend's house and ask him if he's heard the Reverse Engineers, this great power trio of brothers who sound like Rush with Peter Murphy on top and sing about science. If someone there at the party likes them they can actually buy it right there. There's even a new interface we're working on that allows you to watch how your Weed Files are doing out there.
Like watching your online stock portfolio?
Yes; in fact, we're even working on putting a ticker-tape sort of thing into the interface.
There's the botany concept: you're actually sitting there watching your Weed Garden grow.
That's again the resonance with the name. The vertical market is very personal; it's one-to-one marketing.
It's cool that, in addition to paying artists and fans, the file-sharing component of Napster is retained with Weed and it's legal.
Yes, and just like Napster in terms of instant gratification, you can share a great new song with friends without breaking the law. We're there now with Weed--this is the base of the new pyramid.
In addition to co-founding Weed, Steve Turnidge is an experienced mastering engineer and a talented musician who designed numerous music products for Rane. He shared these tips on mastering and encoding music for Weed.
"First, when mastering for any compressed file format, make sure your levels are well in check," he warns. "Even limiting to 0dbfs generates clipping in compressed files. Also, I recommend using at least a 192kbps data rate for Windows Media files. Each compression level has its own feel and you can feel the difference between 128, 160, and 192kbps."
Turnidge notes that a great capability Windows Media provides is surround sound. He suggests visiting David Miles Huber's site, 51bpm.com, to hear some great examples of ambient surround sound in Weed files. Microsoft offers free Windows software for creating surround-sound Windows Media files. However, it has been difficult to find reasonably priced Mac software to create Weed-ready Windows Media files. Turnidge suggests that the Popwire WMV-9 Export Component for QuickTime might be a good option.
"Another important addition to any digital media file is metadata," Turnidge adds. "The more, the better--at least title, artist, and copyright info, of course, but adding lyrics, images, and hyperlinks to the file makes for a richer experience. I'm quite fond of the eMusic Tag Editor. You can find it at Abyss Audio."
Steve Turnidge created the Jos Leys Gallery (16.7MB Weed MWV file) in Vegas 5.0 by panning and zooming a series of JPEGs generated by the renowned fractal mathematician. But after spending 20 hours making the video, Turnidge was at a loss for a soundtrack to accompany the fascinating imagery. Then he had an inspiration.
"My friend DJ Drunken Master had sent me a clever Reason file (8KB) that auto-generates non-repeating sounds of breathing, heartbeats, and tinkling chimes without using the sequencer," Turnidge reveals. "I let it run for 12 minutes, rendered it to a WAV file, and mastered it in [Sony] Sound Forge. I then inserted the resulting file into Vegas, where I trimmed it to fit--with startling results."
Turnidge then rendered the video as a Windows Media Video file and submitted it for Weedification. "There are many apparent relationships between the music and the video," he notes, "even though that was not designed into the project."
Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.
Return to digitalmedia.oreilly.com