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A Different Stream: Zoë Keating Wants to Disrupt The Music Industry - In Artists' Favor 

Wednesday, Feb 17 2016
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It was springtime 2015, and Zoë Keating was staring at rabbits.

Through the curved window of the Georgian house outside of London, Keating, a critically acclaimed independent cellist, and Imogen Heap, a Grammy-nominated singer, watched the animals on the lawn. The house belonged to Heap, who grew up there and later purchased it from her parents. Although it was surrounded by all the tropes of the English countryside — rolling hills, bluebells, and the wild rabbits — it was only a few miles outside of London in a government-protected swath of wilderness. If they looked closely enough, the women could see the city in the distance.

It was Keating's second day as Heap's guest. Or maybe it was her third. Ever since her husband's death two months earlier, she had trouble keeping track of time. "It was all a blur," she recalled months later.

For much of 2014, the 44-year-old cellist — a former computer programmer who has built a respectable career and massive online following without ever signing to a label — had tended to her husband, Jeff Rusch, who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in May 2014, and taken care of the couple's five-year-old son, Alex. She'd graced the cover of The Strad, a magazine for string musicians, a few months before Rusch's diagnosis, but now her music career was on near-total hold: She cancelled a national tour in the U.S., delayed finishing her upcoming third album, and had to solicit the help of musician Jeff Russo to finish composing the soundtrack for the first season of the A&E TV show, The Returned.

After Rusch's death in Feb., the last thing Keating wanted was to be alone in the Sonoma County house where he died. So she and Alex packed their bags and headed to Dorset, England, where the rest of Keating's family lived. "I asked myself, 'Where is the most comforting place in the world that I can go?'" Keating recalls. "And England was where I had to go."

For a month, she and her son recuperated at her aunt's sprawling countryside house. And slowly, she recovered. She started blogging again — something she hadn't done since before her husband's death. She even edged back into performing, booking a few stateside shows for the following month.

Toward the end of her mourning, she traveled to the greenbelt in southeast England to stay with her friend Heap, who had just given birth. The pair met in early 2006 via an email Heap wrote after buying one of Keating's albums. ("I just got your CD in the post today and it's just beautiful," Heap gushed. "I very much hope to see you play one day.") They began a correspondence, and a couple of months later, Keating joined one of Heap's tours as an opening act and background cellist.

Nine years after that email, the pair sat across from one another at the kitchen table in Heap's childhood home. Heap's newborn, Florence, sat in a baby bouncer on the floor, while Alex peered out the window, enchanted by with the bunnies. Conversation flitted from family concerns to more quotidian topics, before narrowing in on shop talk. The women discussed projects they were currently working on and debated the way best way to release a song in the digital era of music streaming and faltering record sales.

"For all my life, there's always been a new musical format," Keating says. "We had LPs, then 8-tracks, then cassettes, then CDs, then MP3s, and now streaming. And we were both kind of wondering, 'What's next?'"

Both musicians were disgruntled with the current upload-and-stream tactic of disseminating music online. It was confusing and complicated because, as independent artists, they had to upload their own songs and negotiate separate deals with each streaming site. Plus, the pay is paltry: For every song streamed, artists earn around one one-thousandth of a cent. Instead of being paid directly by streaming and purchasing sites, artists must wait for performance rights organizations to compute the streaming and download royalties, which arrive by mail six months later. Being a recording artist no longer paid the bills, and the only way to stay afloat was through constant touring.

"We had the same concerns in common," Keating says. "No one's thinking about the creators or about what kind of music world we would like to create, so we decided to band together."

They called their mission "Mycelia," after the fibrous fungal web some mushrooms form below ground, making them the largest living organisms in the world. Mycelia's goal would be to put power back in artists' hands by finding an alternative means for releasing music to the public.

But exactly how they would do that was not clear, and Keating left England without a plan in place. Back at work in America, Keating continued to hash out ideas, and the pair eventually settled on a piece of open-source technology called block chain.

Block chain, which keeps a ledger of transactions and makes peer-to-peer file sharing fast and easy, was well-known in the techie world as the basis for bitcoin, the digital currency. But block chain had never been used by the music industry before, so could it even work? And if so, how?

Keating lives in a remote 1920s redwood bungalow in an unincorporated Sonoma County community called Camp Meeker. To get there, you drive down narrow, two-lane roads that wind through a forest so damp the tree trunks are green with moss. Once the forest clears, you drive past a fallow field and entrances to vineyards, over creeks and through the small, hippie town of Occidental. A wooden welcome sign carved with the words "Camp Meeker" announces I'm finally close to my destination, after an almost two-hour drive from Oakland, and after a few wrong turns down one-way dirt paths, I arrive at Keating's humble abode.

She's standing outside when I arrive, dressed head-to-toe in black, with her silver bob parted to the side. (Though she was born with red hair, she started going gray in her 20s, a common trait in her family.) For years, she experimented with her hair, dyeing it red or orange, or rolling it into dreadlocks. For a while, she even combined the two styles, sporting a fauxhawk with short henna-red dreads on top and her natural gray clipped close to her skull on the sides. But after moving to Camp Meeker from San Francisco in 2007, she decided to chop off the dreads and keep her natural hair color because she was tired of local teens asking if she had weed.


About The Author

Jessie Schiewe

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