Makin' It: Jason Sigal, Free Music Expert

GOOD's career column talks to Jason Sigal, manager of the Free Music Archive, about radio in the digital era and making copyrights "human readable."

Jason Sigal is a DJ for Jersey City, New Jersey's pioneering independent radio station WFMU. He is also managing director of the Free Music Archive, one of the largest collections of open-source music on the web. Great music soundtracks our entire existence, so we jumped at the chance to talk with a like-minded soul, especially one dedicated to bringing the joys of the universal language to the wider world.

You knew fairly early on that you wanted to be in radio, right?

I got into radio through music. I moved to New Jersey the summer I turned 13, and I didn't really know anyone, so I had plenty of time to learn guitar and listen to music. Eventually I met these kids my age who were already doing a radio show on Princeton's WPRB called Strong Little Legs, and they introduced me to a bunch of awesome music. This was before music blogs and before I had a high-speed ethernet connection. I was thrilled to spend my Saturday nights at the radio station discovering new music and playing it on the radio in the early morning hours. I shouldn't call it a "graveyard shift" because it was all for fun, and it wasn't even a job. For real work, I was scooping ice cream and frying up dumplings.

Did you pursue any sort of undergrad or graduate work in broadcasting to ensure you wouldn't have to do that again?

I knew I wanted to stay involved in radio when I got to college, and there were two options. One was WBRU, the 20,000-watt commercial station heard throughout New England run by a staff of radio industry professionals where the student hosts don't pick the music and mostly stick to a narrow modern rock rotation. And then there was BSR, a student-community station that leased evenings on a high school's 100-watt signal, but probably had more online listeners anyway because they had a stellar web presence for 2003. BSR was the obvious choice for me. I wound up taking courses on the history of radio and advertising, becoming really fascinated by the parallels of radio's early days to the dawn of the web. My degree is in computer music & multimedia, but I could almost say that I minored in broadcast's transition to the digital era by taking courses like "TV on the Internet,” and actually making radio happen by hosting music and interview programs at BSR and eventually serving as music director, program director, and eventually [general manager].

And how did you get involved with the Free Music Archive?

I'd heard about WFMU's idea for a "pod-safe music library" while I was general manager of BSR. I'd been experimenting with new ways to reach audiences online, not only as a broadcaster but as a musician, and I had recently become fascinated by Creative Commons. The FMA sounded like the most incredible project. I applied, visited the station for an interview, but ultimately didn't get the job. That summer I went on tour, then moved to New York to work as part of a small staff at BreakThru Radio, a really interesting digital broadcaster, where part of my job was to clear music for podcasts. The whole time I kind of tried to make BTR more like WFMU, so when the FMA position opened up again, I jumped at the opportunity. This was in February 2008.

And what exactly is the FMA?

The Free Music Archive is a curated resource for music that wants to be shared, primarily under the Creative Commons licensing framework. The website is freely accessible to the public without any advertising or fees, while the library itself is presented exclusively by a group of established arts curators, spearheaded by WFMU.

Take me through some of the day-to-day aspects of managing the archive.

I'm the front line for all user feedback, so I spend some time each day wearing my customer service hat, and I'll often factor this into our web development priorities. I also spend a lot of time cultivating the library, making sure it's deep and diverse, gathering quality Creative Commons music from around the web, licensing WFMU recordings past and present, and reaching out to artists bringing new music into the commons. We really try to do justice to each artist through profiles that include images, bios, URLs, links to purchase music, donate, and connect with them. I shape some of the profiles myself and maintain a set of guidelines for curators, participating artists, and our editorial crew. I'm sort of the site's “master curator,” so I also curate the curators, and oversee the featured items on our homepage. I'm always writing a lot of editorial content as well, including blog posts, e-newsletters, help pages, and tweets.

An ancillary function of the FMA seeks to educate people about the weird, murky world of copyrights, particularly through the site's helpful FAQ section.

I like to think of the FMA as a project that closes the gap between the law and the way that things actually work on the internet, to the benefit of both producers and consumers of culture. But the laws surrounding music in the digital environment are incredibly complex, and this system only works if people understand it, so of course there is an educational aspect to what we're doing. That's one reason why the FMA primarily uses Creative Commons licenses that turn legalese into something they call "human readable". We've also pulled together some useful resources, and the FAQ is a great example—I'm glad you picked up on this aspect of the site.

Have you had to learn a lot on the job, or were you already familiar with this stuff?

I knew a bit going in from playing music semi-professionally, direct licensing for BTR, studying Creative Commons in school and reading on my own as much as I can. The site could not exist without the pro bono legal advisors who help us navigate this fascinating but largely uncharted space, so I get to spend some time delving into these issues with them, and I've learned a great deal on the job from that incredible advisory network. I like to share some of what I learn through our Twitter feed, forum, blog posts, and often I'll incorporate a "Grey Area" interview/discussion segment into my weekly radio show.

Makin' It is the work of journalist Brady Welch and illustrator Skyler Swezy, the team behind

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