“We need any young, scrappy girl or boy to be able to code the best music app ever – and they need to get it out there; and if it goes well, they need to be able to license it at 100 miles-per-hour. Because if it’s going well, it’s paying people. And that’s what we need, right?”
Dot Blockchain founder Benji Rogers is explaining to Music Ally one of the long-term benefits he believes blockchain technology will bring to musicians and the music industry. Not to mention those scrappy developers.
“I was at the SXSW hackathon this year and I was watching these young girls and boys who, if you give them the raw tools to play with, within 24 hours will build applications that you could see out there,” he says.
“But I was just looking at them going, ‘That one’s illegal; that one won’t work; that one will cost you $10m in licensing on day one’. And we shouldn’t think that way. ‘Let’s back these people!’ is what we should be thinking.”
PledgeMusic founder Rogers was one of the earliest and keenest proponents of blockchain technology within the music industry – and his new company is one of the startups trying to take the idea forward.
Dot Blockchain’s aim is to create a new file format – dot.bc – and the supporting technical architecture, for music as well as other forms of media. You could think of it as a DRM wrapper – Rogers prefers the term ‘DRE’ for Digital Rights Expression – that encodes the data on a song’s creators and rightsholders, as well as its licensing terms, into the song asset itself.
SOCAN, CD Baby, FUGA, MediaNet and Downtown Publishing’s SongTrust are among its first partners, while Rogers and his colleagues have been getting a minimum viable product (MVP) up and running, plus a roadmap for future additions.
“The music industry doesn’t have a data problem. It doesn’t have a distribution problem. It doesn’t have a consumer problem. It has an asset problem,” is how he describes the wider pitch. “It doesn’t have a way to place within the asset permission and obligation. It can’t control its own asset!”
Rogers has been pitching the idea of dot.bc files to artists, rightsholders and digital services alike, with the argument for the latter based on a vision of solving the kind of metadata black holes that have left Spotify facing a series of lawsuits from songwriters.
“We’re proposing to these digital service providers, ‘Hey, this file has everything you need on who to pay in it, and that other file is a completely unknown entity that you hope is correct. Which one’s better? And if you’ve just paid out your seventy or eighty millionth dollars’ worth of publishing fines, one of them is better!” he says.
“Knowing is better than not knowing. What we need to get to is a situation where we say [to DSPs], ‘This file contains all the data you need and that one doesn’t. How does it disadvantage your business to take that one over this one? And if the answer is ‘Well, we don’t wanna know’… Well, that’s a very interesting answer.”
To music rightsholders, Rogers is pitching Dot Blockchain (“or something like it”) as a way for the industry to exert a new degree of control over how its music is used and monetised.
“The music industry needs to own this thing, and enforce it. The music industry needs to go to YouTube and SoundCloud and everybody else and tell them this is how we present our works and, as of June 2018, we don’t want them to accept anything else that is not our official version,” he says.
“Because if we don’t go to the tech industry with a solution, they will impose one upon us. We create one of the most valuable, viral, exciting things on earth – music! Yet we don’t know how to control or contain it, and we subjugate it to the technology companies.”
Rogers wants music rightsholders to feel the responsibility here: the sense that if they don’t have a way to control the use of their music, that’s their job to solve, rather than simply to lobby technology companies to do the right thing (or to lobby politicians to force them to do it).
“If your asset is subject to the whim of everybody else on the planet except you, that should keep you up at night! It’s a house built on sand,” he says.
“I want artists to have permission/obligation built into their works. I want that work to be persistent. I want it to be forensically auditable. And then I want to go and allow companies to scale and build on top.”
Rogers is sometimes seen as one of the most prominent evangelists for blockchain technology in a music context. However, he also makes it clear that he has reservations about some of the practicalities of the purer blockchain ideas, even while admiring their spirit. For example, Imogen Heap’s ‘Tiny Humans’ release with Ujo Music.
“When Imogen dropped the song and took that bold step that no artist had done yet, splitting out the payments and everything, it was amazing. Until I take that song into my computer, alter the metadata and upload it somewhere else,” he says.
“If the metadata’s not persistent and the blockchain’s not tracking changes to the track itself, then what are you solving? If you build a front-end system that doesn’t address the back end, what’s the step forward there? If you said to Spotify, ‘There are 27 parties to pay within this song at these splits’ they have a machine that will do that. But no one can get them that information as far as I can tell.”
“If you look at what people want blockchains to do, they want smart contracts and rapid payments. Those are good things! But if you don’t know what it is that you’re paying out on. All this stuff is amazing, but you have to begin it with who people are and how they relate to each other.”
Rogers is also keen for the music industry to “ask the hard questions” whenever it meets a blockchain startup promising grand visions. Especially if they involve one of the 2017’s blockchain buzzphrases – an initial coin offering (ICO).
“If any startup is going to raise a bunch of money in an ICO, you have to ask: is it building a business that just supports itself and the currency it is heavily invested in, or is it solving a problem that has not been solve?” he says.
“What problem are they solving? That’s always the question to ask. And often with an ICO, you’ve got to ask why you need a currency-backed blockchain at all. What is the advantage to the music industry of the price of Ether going up or down?”
Rogers suggests applying some constructive scepticism based on a world that the music industry knows more about: traditional VC funding for startups, and the kind of questions those people – he cites New York-based VC Fred Wilson as an example – will be peppering any startup that wants their money with.
“In that world, you have to be able to answer those brutal, hard questions. Because, ultimately if you can’t prove to someone that your idea is worth a lot of money, it might not be,” he says.
“My concern about the ICOs is we’re basically going to have a whole bunch of companies show up that aren’t [good] businesses. And we’re then going to have to go back and explain to the labels, ‘Look, that’s not what we’re doing’. Because it’s easy for people to say ‘I looked at that blockchain thing and it’s no good’.”
The conversation ends up back where it started: the notion that if solving the music industry’s ‘asset problem’ could be the base layer for a new wave of startups and music services. His ideas on the latter mirror those echoed elsewhere this issue by Becky Brook: a sandbox-style system for new music applications.
“If every song was a dot.bc, you could create a developer’s licence. Stripe it across every single one, which says, ‘If you’re developing an application, you can have up to 10,000 uses for free,’ and once you get to 10,000, the obligation is $100 or whatever it is. And you’ll be able to watch the startup world flourish,” says Rogers.
“The blockchain will sit there and say, ‘I can tell every single play you’ve done, and you just hit the threshold so now it’s time to license.’ What a beautiful world that would be.”
Even so, his pitch is for a blend of boldness and caution from the industry, rather than just the former.
“If you’re in the music industry and you’re not looking at how this is going to affect your business, you’re going to be in trouble. But we can’t rush this. It’s worth getting right rather than just blundering into it.”
Read Music Ally’s recent blockchain coverage
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