Interview: Derek Sivers, CDBaby

In 1998 Derek started CDBaby out of a simple apartment in New York, as a means to sell his own music online. Since that date, the site has sold over 500,000 CDs on behalf of the 44,000 artists represented. The operation in Portland, Oregon is second only to Amazon in the sale of independent music online. So we asked Derek a few questions:
What got you started working with computers?
A TRS-80 back in 1981. I even taught a class in BASIC computer programming at the local junior high school!

What was the name of your first band? And what kind of music did you do?
Hit Me. A cross between James Brown and the Beatles. Since I’m out of our old CD and didn’t feel like pressing up any more copies, I put the whole thing up for full download at

What are the most memorable concerts you have seen?
Only one: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. New York City. 4th row. “Mustt Mustt” made me cry.

What are the biggest challenges independent musicians face online and off? besides Money.
Getting into the right mindset.

Imagine this: as a songwriter, you’re used to everything coming from the inside of you, out to the world. You spend hours trying to express your innermost feelings. Describing your emotions in words. It’s all from the INside, going OUT.

But in order to understand how your music fits into the world, you need to do the exact opposite. You have to think from the OUTside, IN. You have to perceive yourself from the point of view of millions of strangers that don’t (yet) care about your innermost feelings.

In order to be a great songwriter, you have to think of everything from your introspective point of view. But in order to be a great promoter, you have to think of everything from the other person’s point of view.

It’s a very hard mindset switch to make. That’s the biggest hurdle. If you get over that, it changes the entire way you view your career, and how you can be valuable to the world.

Do the top sellers on CD Baby match the top sellers of Billboard-like charts in any way? (genre, for example)
Not at all. Totally different crowd. People that shop at CD Baby are like people that go find organic produce. They’re the ones that care enough to want the best of the best, not just what’s force-fed to them.

What is the craziest recording you have run into on CD Baby?
I have about 35 different answers to that. Check out the “Flavor” galleries I put together.

If tomorrow you were told CD Baby could no longer exist, what would you do in its place?
There’s no way of knowing, in advance. I’ve learned how to follow whatever excites me, which could change at any time.

What item, software or hardware, do you think no musician should live without?
The “OFF” switch on their computer. And the compass in their gut that points them towards what really excites them the most.

What gadgets could you not live without?
Brain, heart, and lungs. Everything else is just extra. You could take away everything I own (which isn’t much) and I’d just shrug. I really don’t care about any stuff. Not even this laptop that’s at my fingertips for every waking hour.

What applications or websites have your attention these days?
I really don’t go to other people’s sites much, believe it or not! I’m just programming all day long. I use a program called Quanta on the FreeBSD operating system and the Mozilla web browser, while listening to CD Baby CDs!

Oh! Wait: one site has changed the way I think about web design: CSSzengarden. Look at the HTML code. No font tags. No graphics. No tables. Click some “Select a Design” options. Amazing. Bringing HTML back to its original intentions: to just declare the *purpose* of the contents of your page. (header, list, paragraph, block.) Then letting a CSS file entirely determine how those contents will look.


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