Is This Thing On? #25

This is Episode #25 for August 14, 2006. Hey, Is This Thing On?
(Download MP3 or listen to the stream)

* My name is Dan Shaurette, welcome to the podcast.
- Michelle is home safe and sound from her trip, even though it was a hell of a time on Thursday.
- She was supposed to come home Thursday, Aug. 10th.
- The same day the U.K. terrorist plot was foiled, planes were grounded, and chaos reigned supreme at Logan Airport.
- We'll talk more about this on the next podcast.

* Music this week is provided by Magnatune Records.
-- We opened with "Erase" by The Kokoon.

John Buckman is the CEO of a record label, but he is definitely not evil. He is the founder and CEO of Magnatune Records, an independent record label that from the beginning embraced the Creative Commons license for the distribution of their music. Now he has a new project:, a website that hopes to bring book lovers together to exchange their used books.

DS: John, thank you for this opportunity to chat with you tonight.

JB: You're welcome.

DS: While I do want to talk about Magnatune, I want to start out talking about your new project, Can you give us a quick rundown of what BookMooch is?

JB: Well, quite simply, it's a community for exchanging used books. So you take books that you've read and that you're not going to read again, and you send them to people who ask you for them. In exchange, you get a point for every book you send out and you can ask anybody else in the network for a book.

DS: Are you the sole developer of this project, or do you have people working with you on it?

JB: I'm the chief bottle-washer and floor cleaner and everything.

DS: All right. The site just went live. What has the response been to the site thus far? What challenges does it bring to you already?

JB: Well, I hit two of my friends up to blog it. I hit Joi Ito and Cory Doctorow up and both of them blogged it. Joi Ito on his and Boing Boing, which was nice. Then MetaFilter picked it up, and that's it so far. So far, in one day, we have had six hundred-and-some people sign up. More importantly, a little over than two hundred people have typed books in. So there's about 2,000 books in one day, which I don't think it is going to keep going at that pace, but I'm real happy with that.

DS: Right, that's a very good first day. There are a good number of other book-centric community sites out there, like LibraryThing, Listal,, even BookCrossing. There are a few websites that make the exchanging of CDs and DVDs available. But why do you think nothing like BookMooch exists? Why has it not been done before?

JB: Well, the big problem is how to make money from it and it turns out I'm not that interested in making money for it. So that really helps. I just want to do it because I think it's a fun thing to do. A website like for example, that's an exchange for CDs. The way they make money is you sign up and they charge you a dollar per trade, and you also have to use their mailers which they send to you. So they make money from postage as well.

With books, well you don't know how much a book weighs, so mailers wouldn't work. And I didn't want to charge per trade because I just thought that would be an impediment. People wouldn't want to trade if they are giving me the money. Hell, I'm not even doing anything. They're just trading books directly. So there's a DVD club as well that works the same way with mailers and fees.

I love BookCrossing, the idea behind BookCrossing is that you leave a book somewhere in the real world and leave a message that you've done so and someone should come by and pick it up. Of course, I think that a lot of the time the book just gets thrown out. Which to me is a lot worse. I love the way the site feels. It's a great community and it's really fun. But, God, books getting thrown out -- that's just a bad idea.

LibraryThing is awesome, too. That's where you catalog your books, but they don't really make exchanging books possible.

DS: Right. So, with BookMooch though, you make a catalog of the books that you want to give away. That's all you can do, right? You're not making a catalog of books that you want to say is everything on my bookshelf but only this shelf is what I'm giving away. Everything on BookMooch is "have at it, folks."

JB: At least right now, I'm not going to do what LibraryThing or Amazon does where it knows what you already have but what you don't want to give away, and then makes recommendations. This is really about exchanging books and the reason is that it is a lot of work to type books in and LibraryThing is awesome. I'm not gonna compete with them on features to manage your book catalog. There's also Delicious-Monster, that does a good job of cataloging. So this is a website, it's a community. It's not about an application to manage your personal library.

DS: When did you come up with the idea for this, and was it just that you had a lot of books that you wanted to give away and you didn't have any vehicle before to do it, so you just decided to make it yourself? Is that what happened, and when did you come up with the idea?

JB: So I've been working on this for a year, which is kind of insane. I immediately knew I wanted an illustration. If you go to the site you'll see there's this crazy cartoon on the front. So, it's been a year, and it's been nine months of really active development. Like fifty or sixty hours a week which is a lot of fun when you are working on something new.

But to answer your first question, which is how did I come up with the idea, I was in a little town in the U. K. and there was a community center there that had bookshelves and couches, and it just said "Leave a book, take a book." People were sitting in those couches, pulling books off the shelves and reading them and seeing what was good and taking them home. Once they read them, they brought them back, and it was really working. Of course there were only three or four shelves and only a half-dozen couches. It just occurred to me that sense of community of giving and sharing was something that the internet is really good at, not to mention a much larger catalog.

DS: Right. You have basically created a large library from every member's bookshelves.

JB: Of course it's not a library because you don't have to give the books back. If you've got a book that you read and you liked but you want to get rid of it, someone else takes it and they could just keep it. There were many reasons I made this site. Another one is that, I've read a lot of books and it's a great book, like say The Tipping Point, and it's quoting a lot of interesting stuff, and then I go to the bibliography, and there's twenty other books that he quotes or refers to that looks really interesting. Well I'm not going to buy twenty books from Amazon just to see if I might want to look at them, and I don't have access to a university grade library that will get those books for me.

So I thought, "Hey if I could just mooch them all, then the books of those twenty that I really like, I'll keep those and then I'll give away the rest to somebody else." I also have some friends who are authors and their books are out of print and that's kind of sad. I have other authors who've got boxes of books in their closet that they don't have distributors for, this is a way to get rid of them and get other books. So, generally it just seems to solve a lot of the problems.

DS: Yeah, cool. Have you heard from any authors yet about BookMooch and what the site can do for them?

JB: Well, the suggestion, and I like it is, is that for each trade, if the author has contacted us, that there be a "tip jar" or a tax. My idea was that it might cost you a point to get a book, but if the author shows up and lets me know they exist, I'll give them half a point for every time their book is traded. So that way they would benefit from the used book exchange. Right now when used books are traded the authors don't benefit at all. That would be interesting because thanks to Amazon, there are a lot more small presses and independent writers out there and that would be a way to help them benefit from seeding a community like BookMooch.

DS: Definitely, that is a cool idea. I like that.

JB: I mean, let's say you have you own books and put them out on BookMooch, every time it's traded you earn a little bit more points. That's a good reason to do that.

DS: Well, just so you know, I do have a copy of my book up on there.

JB: I did! I saw that. I saw the Lilith book. What is that all about?

DS: It's a vampire romance novel, modern setting, in Phoenix, Arizona, that I wrote thirteen years ago. I self-published it. I thought it would be a nice idea to try and put it on the list and see if there was any people interested in it or not. It's print-on-demand that I have right now so it will cost me to put copies into BookMooch, so it may not happen a lot. The tip jar idea does sound good for us self-published authors to give that a try. But I'm always open to new avenues to get word out about my book.

JB: Excellent.

DS: So, how does your point system work?

JB: OK, well, more or less it works out that for every book you give away you get one. But, that's more or less, because it turns out that's just kinda doesn't work out really well. Like if you have to send a book out to another country, well that costs you more money. So I give you two points if you have to send it to another country. Also, you need to get points to start out and I want you to type books in. So for every ten books you type in, I give you a point as well. There's a couple other places, too. The idea just generally being that it's a community and since it's completely transparent, you can see every book that you've given and received and people can choose to honor your requests or not I kinda give away points fairly generously to good behavior like typing in books and sending them out.

DS: Yeah, I was wondering about that, too. For the listeners out there, I did list a few books, and I got a book from John. It's Cory Doctorow's excellent book that I've been meaning to read for quite a while, Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom. I just got it today, so that was very quick turnaround. I liked the ability when you go into the website and you mark that it was received, you are also able to give a little plus or minus of how you want to rate the person you got the book from. So I was curious about how that will play out, if it does in points or not, if you rate somebody higher or lower. How does it affect them?

JB: Well, the main way that it affects them is that you've got negative points, people are likely to not send you books. So you have the points but you have negative feedback. So you ask for a book and the person absolutely can deny your request, and say "I don't want to send it, you don't look trustworthy." Which is kinda neat. On eBay, if someone bids but they have a shady reputation you still have to accept their bid. I never did like that. That's how that plays out. I don't know. I may do something but I haven't figured it out yet, if you have really good feedback then you should get a point and a half for every book you send out, because you are one of the super-duper people. I don't know, those are things I can play with.

DS: Absolutely. The site is absolutely free for people to put their books online. The requirement is on the person sending the book to make the payment for the shipping. So that's involved, but how does your website, if it's going to at all, to make any money to keep it running?

JB: Well, the main thing I'm trying to do is make a community where it's lots of fun and that's actually why I do it. Because I already ran a company that did well and I sold it, so I don't need to make a living anymore. So, that's the first thing. Secondly, to make a little bit of money just to pay the bandwidth bill and such, on each book there's a link to Amazon which is helpful for example if you want to read user reviews which is often the case, because I just have the book description. I don't have all of the Amazon discussion there. So if you click Amazon, or let's say you have a book on your wish list, and you've been waiting a few months, and the book hasn't appeared yet. So you click the Amazon link, well in those cases I get 5% back from Amazon, for you buying the book from Amazon, and that's fine. It doesn't cost you anything, it doesn't cost anybody anything. It's just kind of a transparent way.

DS: You also make it possible to give books to charity. How does that work?

JB: Well, since it is possible to earn a lot of points, for example I've typed in 250 books, so I've got twenty-five points. Which is a lot of points that I'm not going to use them up. I've worked so far with two charities, and there's also "John's Own Choice", so you can give points, for example to the library pool, and what I do is that when libraries approach me and they'd like to participate in the charity program, I give them an allotment of points, so that they can get books for free. So since public libraries have such a limited book buying budget, it's a good way for them to stretch those dollars a bit and get books that people want to borrow for free.

I also have a thing with a children's hospital, where a charity that works with the children's hospital can get books to the kids in the sick beds that they can read while they are hopefully recovering.

DS: OK, is that a system where they're able to get the books that people have listed, or is it actually money towards those charity organizations?

JB: So, it's just points, they're getting like anybody else.

DS: So that they can go onto BookMooch and then make requests.

JB: That's right.

DS: Very nice. Do you have any thoughts for any other similar systems like this, with CDs and DVDs? Is that rolling around in your brain? Or is that something you do not want to think about right now?

JB: Well, I mean the whole infrastructure system ties into the Amazon database, would work fine with CDs, with DVDs, and also with games. That would work fine. The thing is I have a real passion for books, and also I think "don't bite more than you can chew at once." For DVDs, I'm not sure if it would work or not, because every DVD you want is already at NetFlix. For CDs, well, people tend to pirate CDs, or pirate music. They would rip the CD and then send it off, and I'm not sure I want to be part of that. I'm not sure I want to invite the RIAA's wrath, either.

Also, I've seen a few sites that do that, that are CD exchanges. I have a friend who was running a company that was a NetFlix for video games, and it is still running but it hasn't been a huge success. So I know that the game thing could work, but again people mostly want first-run games. So the used games, the old games, don't get traded much. So it's not as obvious to the other ones. It's something I may do, but it'd be more if people just say, "God, I really like what you did with BookMooch, I love the feel, and the other places don't do what I want.

DS: So, let's talk about When did you start your record label and what was the reason behind that?

JB: Well, it's April 2003, so almost three and a half years ago. I started it because my wife had a really bad experience with her record label, and I just saw her not wanting to do music anymore, because the experience was so bad. I just thought, well, if musicians don't get paid and have these terrible experiences with the labels, and the labels can't even get the CDs in stores, then the future for a lot of the second-level genres, not the top-ten stuff, is pretty dubious. Indeed, it's not just classical music that's collapsed from 20% of sales to 2%, in the last twenty years, but also things like Electronica is very hard to find. When you go to your average CD store and they just don't have a very good collection. If it's not on a major label, it doesn't exist. So that was the idea behind Magnatune, to try and figure out some business model where interesting independent music could survive and musicians could get paid.

DS: You actually do a 50/50 split with the artists.

JB: Yeah, it's 50/50 of the revenues. So labels always do their calculations based on profits, which they can control. With Magnatune, the goal was if you pay $8 for a CD, or a download rather, $4 goes to the musician. And on Magnatune, you can choose how much you want to pay for a download, from $5 to $18, and half goes to the musician.

DS: And that is flexible for the purchaser. Do you find that most people are being honest and generous with the payments that they are making?

JB: Well, I mean everyone is honest if they're buying. So, not honest would be just downloading it and saying, "to hell with this, I can get it for free." So, they're already hitting the Buy button, so they're one of the honest people. On average people pay $8.50, and actually in the last year that's traded up from $8.10 to $8.50. So, that's kind of interesting. But, to hit the honesty thing, it turns out that the poorer countries like Mexico are typically paying more like $5, but the richer countries like the U. K. , Switzerland, and even Italy, are up around $10. So that seems pretty honest to me. They're paying what they can afford.

DS: That's true. That's awesome. So, you've also decided to make, at least some of your artists, "Open Source Music". How does that work? How do you make music open source?

JB: Well, if you can convince the artist to release the tracks, that's great, that's hard though. Also the software doesn't really support it. It isn't like source code that is standardized. But what I do is, what people think of as open source, they usually think of the GNU public license, the GPL, and in the media world the corollary to that is the Creative Commons license. All of the music on Magnatune is Creative Commons licensed. Which does allow a lot of open source values like the ability to pass the music on, the ability to make derivative works, the freedom from DRM for copy-protection so you can use it in any way you choose. And in fact, if you go to the Open Source Institute, they have a definition of what is "open source" with ten points, and nine of those points are things that Magnatune does. The one-tenth that I don't do is we don't allow commercial use of the music for free. We ask for a fee in that case because that's a way for musicians to make money, if it's in a TV commercial for example.

DS: Sure. If I may ask, how has the commercial licensing been going for your artists? Have you been finding lots of takers in the advertising and/or movie industry, or anything?

JB: The biggest success has been with independent filmmakers, and about thirty films a month license our music and use it.

DS: Really? Thirty a month?

JB: It's quite a few, and these are typically films under $40,000 budgets, and the film festival license is really cheap; it's $44 at Magnatune. So it's basically the cost of dinner lets you use the music and show your film at a festival. If you are picked up, which means you sell your film for big bucks, then there's an additional fee, and that's a couple thousand dollars, but then you can afford it. So we don't really charge the poor filmmakers much, we just get them onboard and it works out well.

DS: Very nice. So, your tagline for your company is, "We Are Not Evil." What is the evil that you see in the music industry that you are fighting?

JB: Well, there's evil all around. The industry is evil to musicians, it's the record labels themselves actually get a bad deal, and the whole distribution system is evil. I mean the most obvious one is when you buy music and you get copy-protection all over it, and then you have trouble playing your own music or they sue people's grandmothers because they think they are using peer-to-peer software. That's pretty obviously bad behavior and it's not helpful. Not to mention the systematic destruction of musicians' lives. I mean it's a cliché now of the musician not getting paid at all and committing suicide. It just happens so much. So, musicians getting ripped off with bad agreements; not being able to record anywhere else, not getting paid. That's another part, but also record stores like Tower isn't paying any of their bills anymore. They just decided not to pay anybody for any of the CDs. So, big surprise, people are stopping to send them CDs anymore. They've been doing that for a long time for independent labels, it's just that they recently did that to the majors. Which, you know, they're not quite as agreeable to.

So, the system is just lousy, and you know my favorite example is Sony getting sued by the government because they bribed radio stations to play their music.

You know, what's hilarious is, who would wanna have to pay radio stations to play music? It'd be much better if they just played it. So, they get sued, they get fined, by the government, and then what's funny is, they won't let podcasters play their music because that's piracy. Which of course is silly because podcasting is just internet micro-broadcasting.

DS: Right, and it's free advertising.

JB: It's free everything. It's free broadcasting, it's, you know music has to be heard to be sold.

DS: I find a lot of artists and some labels are starting to roll with the idea of making some tracks podsafe. In fact, Hungry Lucy just released a new album that is completely podsafe. Do you think that trend is catching on?

JB: Well, I mean, right below sort of the major indies and the major labels, there's absolutely no commitment to DRM. There's an absolute commitment to internet and internet sharing, and things like MySpace So, it's not so much a trend that's catching on, as much as everybody but sort of the top twenty labels thinks that the whole DRM/anti-podcast/anti-anything is just brain-damaged. And it is just a question of the smaller labels getting around to doing what they think is right on the podcasts. But everyone there is pro-podcast. Well, just get on eMusic and you'll see, you know eMusic is an MP3 subscription service and tons and tons of labels are on it, even though, hey there's no DRM. God, it's MP3s. That's because we know we can make money there.

DS: Right. When you started Magnatune, what was the current state of podcasting then? When did you decide to embrace making your music podsafe?

JB: Well when I started, there was no iTunes. So, there was no podcasting, there was Adam Curry out there maybe trying to make an RSS standard. But, you know because the music was Creative Commons, I thought it was podsafe anyway. But people were unsure about that and also I wanted to make it so that if you had a podcast that had, for example, some banner ads on the website, I wanted to say that was O.K. Which isn't necessarily clear with the Creative Commons license.

DS: That's true. It's kind of questionable on what is a commercial podcast.

JB: And a lot of podcasters are charging, but not making much money. They're trying to create a new business model. Or say it's a big podcast, like NPR. They're non-commercial but they don't think Creative Commons works for them, for whatever reason. So I wanted to create a license that just explicitly said this sort of podcasting is O.K. and in fact I even have a "Commercial But Poor" license so if you are charging but don't make much money, that's O.K., too, as long as you just stick an ad about us at the end of the show.

DS: What does a podcaster have to do if they want to play music from Magnatune?

JB: Well, they have two choices. One is they can just hit the "License" button on Magnatune, and then hit the "Podcast", and then they just agree to the legalese that's there that says how you're going to use it and then they can just download the music. Those are 128k MP3s, and that works fine. But generally I'd rather podcasters have the WAV file so that their podcasts sound as good as possible. So there's an email address there that they can send to and just send a URL of their existing podcast. We'll give the podcaster a dummy credit card number where they can buy all the music on Magnatune at no cost in order to include that stuff in their podcast, and we get dozens of requests every day that I have someone that looks at them and makes sure it's a real podcast to her and off it goes. You'll find plenty of discussion boards there talking about how they use Magnatune music all the time because of that.


DS: Do you actively seek new artists, or do they come to you?

JB: Both. We get about 400 CD submissions a month, and then about 2% works out that we love. It isn't a percentage base, it's just based on what we love. And we also go after people, specifically typically friends of musicians who we already know are good. So for example, Drop Trio, which is this groovy jazz band, the organist in that band plays solo music, and does this intense rock thing with Jade Leary, and that's now we got a recommendation there. We found him and that works really well, and generally most of the time good musicians know other good musicians.

DS: Right. How many of the artists come to you with a finished product and do you offer services for those who don't have a CD for you to sell?

JB: Yeah, well I don't actually need a CD. All I need is an FTP upload or some WAV files on your website or MP3 files to listen to. I do need a CD-R in the end that I can duplicate if I accept it. So, you do need to have a complete album and it needs to sound good otherwise I just won't have time to listen to it with the other 400 things that come in. And if something is really just amazing but the production is not all that good we'll occasionally send it to one of the producers that we work with who want to help out and if they like it too they'll talk with the person. We've done that two or three times. But it's got to be something awesome. But it happens.

DS: Cool. What other projects are you working with, besides Magnatune and BookMooch that's keeping you busy? Or is that enough for you?

JB: Yeah, I've gotta take down my sleeping schedule there. Those are the big two things. My wife works on a bunch of things that you can see at She runs the official site for J. S. Bach, which is the classical composer, as well as a bunch of web sites for some famous authors, like Doris Lessing. Those keep us busy, and I also run a website, that mostly runs on its own now, for the tango musician Astor Piazzolla. That's a lot of fun, and that's basically it. But right now that's stuff that doesn't take much attention. It's really BookMooch and Magnatune is what I focus on.

DS: What is your real involvement with Magnatune Records? I mean did you build the software from the ground up, or do you maintain that still? What is it that you do besides just running it?

JB: Well, I'm a coder, so everything at Magnatune is my programming. I have a graphics person that's a contractor that did the home page. But otherwise I do all of the graphics and layout on both BookMooch and Magnatune. I do a lot of recording engineering, too. So I do record both World and Classical music, and do all the engineering to produce those CDs. But that's only a dozen records a year. But that's a lot of work. So basically, I do most everything at Magnatune except I don't handle tech support, I don't handle the PR-end queries, and podcasting and other queries like that, and all the stuff about musicians getting paid and musician questions. And also the musician web pages gets done by Shannon who works with me. So it's kinda dropped down to mostly coding, planning, new ideas, listening to music.

DS: Hey it sounds like a good thing to me.

JB: It's the fun stuff.

DS: Yeah. So, one last question for you. I saw that you are also, what you would consider yourself an amateur musician?

JB: Yes.

DS: How come your music is not up on Magnatune?

JB: Because it's not good enough, and when there's other people who are just mind-blowing I can't say that mine is that good. So, maybe someday. It's not "John's promotional site." It's a site for really good music.

DS: Fair enough.

JB: Actually, the label that my wife was on, the people who ran it were promoting their own music as well, and that was always featured first, and boy did that anger us. So, I really don't want to do that.

DS: Fair enough. Alright, well thank you very much for your time tonight. Good luck with BookMooch and Magnatune, and whatever else you find time to work on.

JB: Thanks so much, and I hope I'll see you mooching more books from me in the future.

DS: Oh, I probably will. I bet you can guarantee that. So, thank you very much.

JB: Bye-bye.

To find out more about John Buckman, visit and, or his blog at

* We ended the show with, "Order" by The Kokoon, also by Magnatune Records.

That wraps up another episode of Is This Thing On?
Thanks for listening.

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This Blog and PodCast are © Copyright 2006 by Dan Shaurette, under the Creative Commons "Attribution with No Derivatives" License. Some Rights Reserved. 

If you want to join us on the podcast, send a message to me on Skype at IsThisThingOnPodcast. If you have any comments about this podcast, feel free to drop a note at Or, if you'd rather leave us some voice mail, you can call us at 1-206-350-7638 that's (206) 350-SNET. Music for this podcast was provided by The theme music came from the royalty-free collection at


  1. Sander van der Heide November 28, 2006 4:36 pm

    I would love to listen to episode 25, but can only go back to episode 26 in iTunes.
    Is there a way to download episode 25?

  2. Dan Shaurette December 27, 2006 7:36 pm

    Sorry Sander, this message got lost in the spam filter. There is a link at the beginning of each episode here in the blog to download the audio file. You probably already found that. I apologize for the late response.

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