December 8, 2017:Artists, blockchain and experimentation: ‘We’re at the very start of what’s possible’

Artists, blockchain and experimentation: ‘We’re at the very start of what’s possible’

Imogen Heap’s Mycelia event in London today wasn’t just about announcing a world tour and Creative Passport initiative for artists. There was also a panel of ‘reflective bytes from absorbent minds’ about some of the issues raised in Heap’s keyonote.

The panel included Eva Kaili, Member of the European Parliament; Sammy Andrews, CEO of Deviate Digital; Panos Panay from Berklee College of Music and the Open Music Initiative; and musician and artist rights advocate Zoe Keating. The moderator was Lewis Silkin’s Cliff Fluet.

“After 10 years of challenge, the music industry is now moving into an area of hyper-growth, but there is still a big issue at the heart of our industry, which is getting everyone paid accurately,” said Fluet. A problem that will only get more acute as streaming continues to grow.

Kaili talked about how the European Parliament is trying to get to grips with blockchain technology: “We try to have some rules, not to stop it but actually to support it, and to have it become more stable legally,” she said.

“The potential for me is first of all removing intermediaries,” she continued, on what she sees in blockchain. “Trying to use blockchain with legal certainty, and trying to remove these intermediaries so you can be paid. And we are working on the social platforms: so that they will have an obligation that you will be paid for your content, and that they will pay their taxes!”

Andrews talked about the opportunities she sees for musicians in blockchain technology, particularly around the music industry’s metadata problems. “The state of our industry data: we’re so archaic and there’s so much missing data,” she said. “Our industry is sometimes its own worst enemy… The data is not there at the moment in the way that it needs to be.”

She referred to past failures at creating a ‘global repertoire database’ and suggested that this is where blockchain can play an important role. “There is so much innovation to be done, and it does require a database in some form,” she said, noting that a number of artists’ rights will be scattered between different labels and publishers.

“For someone who wants to license your work to generate you some money, so many people are involved, the hoops you have to jump through are ludicrous,” she said.

Keating agreed that small-scale licensing is a hassle, even for artists that own all their rights. “It’s an administrative burden for me to even talk to them: I’d be answering emails all day. But at the same time I don’t want to put my works out on Creative Commons: I want to have some form of administering them… but even on large-scale licensing, it’s often hard to reach the person that’s responsible for them.”

“Even a commercial. You license your music to some company and it ends up on YouTube. There’s no way for YouTube to know that your contract with them only goes up to six months… So you have to go and get it taken down. It gets quite messy.”

Panay noted that a global hit might have as many as 700,000 lines of different revenue, and at its worst there could be as many as 50 different intermediaries between a listener and the song’s creator. And there is no interoperability across those intermediaries.

“Without interoperability at the end of the day, there is a lot of friction in the system, a lot of money doesn’t get distributed to the people who should be getting the money, and most importantly we are thwarting our ability as an industry to innovate,” he said. “Often as an artist if you want to accomplish something, you can’t, because of the way the infrastructure works right now.”

Keating talked about her frustration at not being able to easily administer collaborations with other artists, given the ins and outs of the rights system.

“if I collaborate with a producer or artist, I want them to be able to share in that success: I want to be able to lift everybody’s boats. I want to be able to say ‘I’m going to collaborate with you and give you 5%… there might be an incentive to collaborate,” she said.

Panay talked about the Open Music Initiative’s hopes of carrying out one of the most basic tasks: linking data on songwriting works with recordings of those songs.

“Even though some of the majors are not quite right to embrace blockchain fully, the concept of it – the idea of it – is actually what made them join the initiative,” he said. “I like to say everybody’s both a perpetrator and a victim at the same time. If I’m a label there’s a host of situations when I would like to be able to identify and collect revenue for usage of my works. The same if I’m a publisher, or if I’m a streaming service and my intentions are good – which I believe they are – and I want to be able to use music and pay for music… I think everybody acknowledges that the current infrastructure is just not working. We have a 19th century infrastructure.”

Panay said he’s hopeful of progress. “We have to be pro-active in embracing these technologies,” he said, before talking about the late-teenage musicians who he sees coming through Berklee’s doors. “They weren’t even born when Napster shut down!.. All they see is a world of opportunity, so I feel it’s up to us to hep them accomplish their vision.”

Kaili talked about some of the blockchain work going on in other industries. “The perception is it will take long. No. It’s here already… It’s happening everywhere, in all sectors. The problem is the legal certainty, because it’s changing so fast,” she said. “Sometimes even the creators themselves, the tech guys, they don’t know the potential of this technology… So we have to bring it into the regulatory framework.”

She talked about initial coin offerings (ICOs) as a fascinating trend, but also a need for “registries to identify the good ones: the ones that aren’t scams or speculation”. And she came back to the idea of “the exchange of value without intermediaries… data is the new gold for every sector”. But that means the ability for musicians to be able to access, control and share on their terms their data is crucial.

The conversation zeroed in on those data issues.

“Make no mistake: the services want more data from us as an industry, and often the issues is the label or artist side being able to feed that data to the services in the first place,” said Andrews, citing smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo as one new use case that relies on the metadata around music.

“Who would have predicted that somebody would sit and ask a machine to play me some relaxing music? But who decides what is relaxing music? Our metadata as an industry is way behind what it should be,” she said. Because Amazon is often having to create that metadata where it doesn’t exist. Andrews also talked about the artist side of things.

“As an artist, you don’t actually own your data. It’s a fucking farce. Let’s say you’d done deals with two major labels, an indie label, and two distributors. Try to see the data [from music released through those deals] in one place, and I guarantee you it is impossible.”

“What is the opportunity here? It’s not just what does data mean to an artist. i want to know where my listeners are… I just discovered I’m big in Brazil, because one of my songs was on a TV show, but I didn’t know that until I actually went to Pandora’s offices,” said Keating.

“This issue of data is not just about us as creators or musicians, it’s about us as human beings. Who owns the data you put on Facebook? Probably Facebook does: all the pictures of your nieces and nephews are just clickbait for advertising,” said Panay. “The data conversation and the ownership of the data conversation is not just a music industry conversation, it’s a societal conversation that needs to take place… Ownership, identity, these are broader societal issues.”

Fluet asked about perceptions that it’s difficult for music rightsholders to work with blockchain technology. One argument is that it will unlock new revenue for artists but also for rightsholders, particularly through ‘permissionless’ innovation – not permissionless as in tech companies coming and using music however they like, but rather that the permissions / licensing are built in and automated, and controlled by the creator and/or rightsholders.

“In a world where you have technology that enables you to identify where something originated, you can create revenue for things that right now are impossible to monetise,” said Panay. “Ultimately the power should rest with the originator, with the rights owner. That is possible… It will grow the industry and enable more innovation to come in, rather than choking it off.”

“We need to start thinking: who are we to legislate who’s a creator at the end of the day? You can unleash a lot of creativity from a lot of people if they’re freely able to build on top of somebody else’s creative energy, as long as the originator is able to be compensated. And it doesn’t mean it’s free.”

Andrews talked about copyright, and the possibility of swerving the challenge of having to squeeze tens of millions of existing recordings and works into a blockchain system, by focusing experiments on new works and recordings instead. “To draw a line in anything that’s come before, and that anything going forward has a new set of rules applied to it,” she said. “Legal sandboxes!” said Kaili.

Andrews also talked about how some artists are experimenting with cryptocurrency as part of blockchain technology. “We’re at the very start of what’s possible. Protecting fanbases and consumers is important, we have to be slightly careful in what we’re doing. But innovative uses from artists is what we should be seeing! And being able to reward superfans. We are just at the start of that, and having a data trail, we can really look at ways to monetise that audience in a way that’s fair to both fans and artists.”

Keating had the final word, as a musician. “Let’s make the tools to make that possible. What is the architecture of the world that we want it to be… It’s a chance not to have that architecture built by companies who want to optimise it for their bottom line.”

Stuart Dredge
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