Music Ally first wrote about blockchain-music startup Audius just over a year ago, when the company raised a $5.5m funding round (a traditional one, not an ICO) for a platform described as ‘SoundCloud on the blockchain’. The following month, it revealed that its advisers included Beatport CEO Robb McDaniels; former Avicii manager Ash Pournouri; Pandora head of artist product Shamal Ranasinghe; Twitch co-founder Justin Kan; and Michael Faibisch, the head of business development for the Ultra Music Festival.
Now Audius has launched its public beta, describing itself as a “censorship-resistant, community-controlled” audio-streaming platform pitched directly against “an industry stifled by corporate influence”. Joel Zimmerman (aka deadmau5) has joined its advisory board alongside other electronic-music artists, and the key competition is still SoundCloud. “Anyone who joins Audius can effectively become an artist, just by uploading tracks. The platform is designed to break down barriers, and make sharing and interacting with music seamless between all community members,” as the press release puts it.
Technical details: tracks can be streamed at 320kbps, and artists get unlimited uploads as well as analytics on how their music is doing. The business model? Right now it’s free, but in Audius’ white paper, it outlines plans for a pay-per-stream model (which “could be paid for by the listener or be ad-supported”) as well as a subscription model. As for royalties: “All creator revenue is earned in Loud tokens and paid via the creator revenue sharing system on the Audius blockchain”. Loud being the token/currency launched by Audius, with early artist adopters getting some, and ‘curators’ on the platform able to earn a share of revenues generated by their recommendations too.
What we want to come back to is that ‘censorship-resistant’ aspect, or as TechCrunch put it in its headline on the launch: “anti-takedowns“. Which is a bracing phrase for the music industry. That article explains Audius’ process thus: copyright takedowns will initially be passed on to whoever uploaded a track; there’ll be a Content ID-style system for copyright owners to earn the royalties from user-uploaded tracks rather than take them down; and beyond that, rightsholders will have to approach the ‘nodes’ hosting the music – Audius is a decentralised service – “and file a local equivalent of a DMCA takedown request, though the music might still live on other nodes beyond the law”. There’ll also be an ‘Audius arbitration committee’ as the final port of call.
It sounds like a recipe for tensions. For artists who make original music and control their recording and publishing rights – as many of the electronic artists who’ve been early adopters of this kind of platform (see also: Choon) do – it may seem straightforward. For someone uploading a cover version of a track with multiple publisher rightsholders, possibly with unclear and/or disputed revenue shares… less so. And similarly for DJ sets. These, at least, are known problems that established platforms like SoundCloud and Mixcloud have grappled with.
But how does a decentralised streaming service with individual nodes hosting the user-uploaded music square with legislation like the new European Copyright Directive, once implemented, with its new requirements for these kinds of platforms? What if publishers and collecting societies don’t want to be paid in tokens through the Audius blockchain? And how would a ‘censorship-resistant’ policy adapt if, say, lots of the neo-Nazi music that’s been removed from other streaming service pops up on Audius, and is made available in countries (Germany, most obviously) where it might be illegal?
The launch of Audius is a useful point to think about these and other questions: not necessarily to write it off, but to take it seriously: to mull what this latest take on decentralised music distribution could mean for artists and the industry. That said, taking Audius or any service of this type seriously also depends on actual traction: people actually choosing to stream their music there, rather than on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, SoundCloud and other services. As a reminder of that competitive challenge: we mentioned Audius’ $5.5m funding round from 2018. Spotify spends more than that on sales and marketing every three days…