Freedom Feud

My official title at OpenNMS is CEO, but I’ve worn several hats in the last 12+ years, including accountant, receptionist, HR manager and janitor. Now I get to add record producer to the list.

I guess it all started back in 2012. OpenNMS was doing pretty well and I wanted us to give a little something back to the community. As a fan of MC Frontalot I came across his FAQ and found out that you could actually book him for things like conferences, kids parties, bar mitzvahs and the like. We were sponsoring the Ohio Linuxfest (by the way, I’m a keynote speaker there this year along with the ever amazing Karen Sandler) and I decided to see if I could book him to play a show. Turns out he is pretty affordable (for contrast, Henry Rollins starts out at $10,000 per event, which isn’t unreasonable but doesn’t count as affordable for us just yet). I booked him to play a solo gig and finally got to meet the man. He did a great show, everyone seemed to enjoy it, and we became friends of a sort.

While Front is very much a nerd, he had not had much exposure to free software. A lot of musicians rely on Windows-based software to create their music (Front mainly uses Reaper and Professor Kliq is such an Ableton fan he has their logo tattooed on his wrists) and thus they aren’t used to using open source. The OLF event went so well I hired him a few more times, and I think it was at SCaLE when I suggested he write a free software song. His reply was, well, why don’t you commission one.

Front is talent for hire. He did a couple of tracks for New Relic, “Nerd Life” and “Small Data“, and while we don’t have anywhere near the budget of that company we felt that free software deserved to be examined under his lyrical microscope, so we started the process.

Note that this was a couple of years ago, back in 2015, so it took awhile. Front and I had a number of conversations about free software and I started him on his education. I pointed him to the works of Richard Stallman and Eric S. Raymond (notably The Cathedral and the Bazaar), as well as Lawrence Lessig and organizations such as the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). We also talked about the classic “free as in beer” vs. “free as in freedom” confusion that arises out of the term “free software”, which ended up forming the basis of the song.

Later in 2015 I wanted to do something special for the OSCON show in Portland. This time I decided to hire Front along with his band. In the previous shows he’d done for us it was him and “DJ CPU” providing the music, and while those were great shows I was unprepared for the “live band” experience. It took it to another level. During that show Front performed a bit of the song, but it wasn’t until last year’s All Things Open that the whole song was played for the first time (again with the band, since, awesome).

With the song almost complete we now how to figure out how to present it to the world. I wanted a video, so I decided to turn to animator Chad Essley. Chad had done the video for “Shudders” off of Question Bedtime and we had gotten to know each other through a fund raising promotion he did for the EFF where we sponsored adding OpenNMS references to that video. I felt he could do a good job with it, since he is both talented and he gets the subject matter.

Now when I said “record producer” above I basically meant I signed the checks, but it was cool watching artists such as Front and Chad work out even small details when it came to the video. Animation can take a really long time, so we debated on combining it with some live action, etc., to both speed up the process and reduce the cost. It was at this point that I was introduced to the concept of a “lyric video”.

Ed Sheeran had just come out with a new song, and in order to promote it as quickly as possible he released a video that pretty much consisted of just the song’s lyrics. While at this point in our process we had a portion of the animation completed, I thought that adding the lyrics to it would both speed things up as well as improve the experience, as Front’s rhymes on this track are some of the tightest he’s ever written. The end result is both a video that is fun to watch as well as one that gets the message across in an entertaining manner.

It seems to have been well received, and as I write this it has had over 10,000 views and mostly positive comments, and we got a shout out on Boing Boing.

Speaking of lyrics, the phrase that has gotten the most comments is the line “Pull down capitalism till it’s rubble and chain”. When asked about it, Front commented:

I thought it was funny to equate Free Software with that dirty commie yearning for collectivized well-being and shared responsibility! Those two realms of thought are not directly in line with each other as far as I can tell. But I imagined the kind of business dude who is reflexively distrustful of free software, and I pictured him saying, “you mean… LIKE COMMUNISM??” Thought I’d give him a little dig at the end there.

I can’t remember if I shared my story with Front when we were first talking about creating this song, but when I got started with OpenNMS I was called a communist a number of times on various message boards. It confused me, since it came mainly from people who made their living as network management consultants. I was thinking, hey, here is a tool that lets you provide better solutions for your customers while showcasing your unique talents via your ability to deliver them, and that’s communism? Sounds like good business to me. But there is still that element of “anti-capitalism” associated in free software (I blame the phrase “so you can help your neighbor” in the Free Software Definition, but that’s just me).

The whole process was a lot more work than I thought it would be, but I’m very pleased with the result. Check out the video as there are a lot of in-jokes and Easter eggs, and I’ve been told that “floppy head Lawrence Lessig” was met with approval by the man himself.

Oh, in the spirit of free software, Front has published the song under the Creative Commons (CC BY-SA) license, and I am hoping to see a few cool remixes come out of this. I’ve reached out to both Professor Kliq and Raccoon Fink and if they find time to play with it, I’ll be sure to let you know (and let me know if you find some out there). Front is working on a new album tentatively entitled The Internet Sucks so maybe this track will make the cut.

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