Indie labels and tech: ‘We’re not going to start building our own blockchain…’


How can independent labels make the most of disruptive new technologies, from blockchain and AI to virtual and augmented reality? A session at the Midem conference last week explored the issue.

The panel included Jason Reed, head of digital at Domino; Becky Brook, business development consultant at Jaak; and Luke Dzierzek, CEO at Scored. The moderator was Music Ally’s Chiara Michieletto. Reed started by talking about the importance for indies of taking time out to track tech trends.

“First and foremost, it’s ensuring we remain ahead of the curve as a sector, and remain competitive,” said Reed. “Making sure that we are aware of new technologies and how they can create tangible impact. It can be a bit of a minefield in terms of keeping up with new startups and various ways of working. But for us it’s about finding those solutions that can deliver something tangible.”

He suggested that independents can be agile in the way they experiment with new technology, putting them in a good position to get in early and work with startups. One of those startups is Jaak, with Brook suggesting that technologies like blockchain and AI can help to “lower the barriers for participation for indies… They can enable the independent sector to control their destiny, in a way.”

However, she also highlighted one challenge: which is that many startups struggle to find the time and resources to talk to independent labels one-to-one, particularly in the early days when they are still building their technology.

“It’s very hard to scale discussions with the global music industry. We’re talking to majors, publishers, to DSPs and industry bodies. The way we talk to the independent sector is by talking to independent-focused independent bodies like WIN and AIM,” said Brook, although she said that Domino is one example of a label that has helped Jaak to understand the needs of its peers. “The idea is we’re building tools for the independent labels to not need to talk to us, but to use the technology themselves,” she said.

The conversation took in virtual reality, with Reed talking about Domino’s experiments with 360-degree videos, and the partnerships around them. For example, one where a brand, GoPro, helped to fund and produce a VR video for The Kills.

Reed accepted that it’s early days for VR as a commercial platform, but said that this kind of partnership helps a label like Domino and its artists to explore the technology, while waiting for sales of headsets to rise – perhaps fuelled by the launch of standalone models like Facebook’s Oculus GO – to help it become a viable market for indies.

“For artists and musicians, it’s all about lowering the barriers of entry so that people can create music formats in these three-dimensional environments. It’s still early days, obviously,” agreed Dzierzek. “Once the adoption happens, and people can create music in these new formats, it’s only going to catch on, I think. It’s an incredible thing to explore if you’re an artist.”

Michieletto asked the panel what independent labels should be doing before they go out talking to startups: what elements of their business need to be paid attention to ahead of those partnerships?

“To engage with us, we are building a data network, so you need to have data – not on paper, but in a spreadsheet, and in a structure and organised manner,” said Brook. “You need to know what you own, what you control, and have it organised… Beyond that, we’re going to try to provide all the tools that make it so easy… so that hopefully it’s so intuitive, you won’t have to know how to work a spreadsheet to manage your own repertoire. But for now, you do need to know how to use a spreadsheet! If you don’t understand data unfortunately it makes it very hard to extract value, in the new world.”

Scored makes a tool that helps video-editors synchronise music with their content more dynamically, and is currently working mainly with production-music catalogues. Dzierzek would like to add commercial catalogues too, but agreed with Brook that quality data is vital. “It’s about the actual tagging, the metadata. It is very important for us to have that correct,” he said.

Some new technology is actually helping labels – indies included – to get their metadata up to speed. Reed noted that developments around artificial intelligence can help a label analyse a large catalogue of tracks and (for example) shoulder the load in tagging it for genres and moods. He cited a talk given by startup FeedForward AI at AIM’s Music Connected conference in London, pitching technology for this kind of use.

“AI can take away some of the manual processes and help empower people. Some people get scared when they hear about AI… but some of these tools can help create sustainability, and help us do some of our jobs better,” said Reed.

The conversation focused back onto blockchain, and Brook’s view that independent labels should be preparing for this technology, rather than necessarily diving in to it just yet.

“I don’t think it’s about yet talking directly to us,” said Brook. “What it’s about is getting your data up to speed, it’s getting abreast of these technologies… We all have different approaches to it, we’re not all making the same product. So reading about these companies, getting your data in order, knowing what rights you have… All these companies will have products in the market in the next 3-6 months, and having your data in order means you’ll be able to engage with them straight away.”

Reed agreed. “Ultimately, we’re holding fire. We’re not going to start building our own blockchain or adopting the Dot Blockchain format yet, it needs to have some sense of adoption or scale across the industry first.”

What other technologies are worth getting excited about? Reed cited augmented reality. “It’s potentially something that you can use in a group of people: stuff like Pokémon Go leverages the technology you have in your hand already. That’s more of a pathway into where AR is going in the next year,” he said.

Dzierzek talked about Google’s Wavenet project, and Facebook’s recent announcement that it is working on technology to turn one genre of music into another. “You could have a Picasso painting that you draw yourself… form a musical point of view there’s so many implications of this technology. You could create unlimited amounts of content in different styles. It blew my mind… and for me, in five years I think it’s going to be so much more powerful,” he said.

What about smart speakers and voice assistants: what should independent labels be thinking about that kind of technology? Reed: “When you ask Alexa or whichever speaker you’ve got a question, it’s moving away from a static playlist and into something dynamic,” he said. “That’s something YouTube Music are super-focused on: anyone who uses that app will have a completely different experience to any other person.”

Dzierzek talked about immersive music. “There’s going to be a hell of a lot more experimentation in this area. VR gaming music, interacting with music in different ways, that’s an interesting area… an incredible place to experiment,” he said.

Brook also talked about privacy, in relation to the hyper-personalisation that’s happening around music and advertising alike. “Don’t overstep that line in terms of privacy. It’s not so bad in music, but sometimes I get served an ad and I think ‘you shouldn’t know I want that product!’” she said, before praising the impact of Europe’s new GDPR legislation.

“It’s scary if you’re a label or a tech company, as you’ve suddenly got to be compliant… but at the same time, from a consumer perspective, giving people power about their data is really important. Sometimes as consumers, we’re happy to trade our data for experiences, but as long as we’re doing it willingly…”

Reed said it’s important for labels to talk to artists one-to-one to find out “what they’re comfortable with and what they’re excited by” when it comes to new technologies, and stressed that labels – independent and major alike – must have the right motivations behind any use of new technology.

“We have to engage with technology for the right reasons, either for the commercial value, or for the creative innovation value,” said Reed. How much experimentation is there? “Never enough, because there’s always day-to-day stuff. But the experimentation is important: once you find something that works for a campaign, you can roll that out across the roster.”

“It’s something you have to make time for, but it’s a worthwhile investment, because ultimately you want to leverage those opportunities, and disruptive tech, whenever you can.”

Stuart Dredge

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