As a producer and engineer, the music business has both perplexed and fascinated me the more I learn.  I spend almost as much time researching and searching out news on changes in tech, publishing, and administration the industry goes through as I do working on projects.  The single biggest pivot-point for the music industry has always been technology.  However, in the last decade, that has less to do with delivery mediums or listening experience and more to do with how businesses cooperate and collaborate in the complex network it is propped up on.  Up until now, technology seemed an independent vector that was accelerating faster than society could keep up with.  However, now the impetus is upon us, unraveling the music industry with blockchain.  We can now glimpse just how the core of the industry’s vehicle might change like nothing we’ve seen before.

A Blockchain Approach

The list that Medium covered on DotBlockchain Media Project’s latest update is impressive, to say the least.  The comparison to the current traditional vehicle the industry operates on and this new DotBC endeavor makes it sound exciting.  If you are not certain of what Blockchain technology is, a quick google search will yield plenty of great explanations.  The technology is not without flaws, however.  You don’t have to be a Blockchain expert to see the potential pitfalls as witnessed by the numerous cryptocurrency “wallet hacks” in the news over the last couple of years.  Yet, it is undeniable that DotBC’s framework promises some truly groundbreaking advantages.

The list in Medium’s article plainly compares the industry’s traditional business approaches to the ideal approach that DotBC is endeavoring to make a reality.   The complex system is also visualized in the infographic at the top of the article, also shown here:

DotBC’s approach is about centricity.  The traditional approach requires a lot of manual collaboration between business entities.  Whether you’re an artist who’s self-publishing or a songwriter for a label or publishing group, there are so many steps involved in going from a musical idea to getting that recording into the ears of eager fans and audiences around the globe, that these “middle-men” have sprung up to specialize in specific areas.  The amount of labor involved in each task can be monumental, and that has led to the rise of organizations like Harry Fox Agency, Performance Rights collection agencies like A.S.C.A.P. & B.M.I., the I.S.R.C. and the myriad of Publishers, labels, and beyond.  Each one of these businesses fit into the industry puzzle by filling a role that they saw as a void in the marketplace. Whatever their intention or motive is, they have become integral parts of the fabric of the music industry.

There are a lot of dilemmas plaguing the industry right now.  All those dilemmas circle around a common denominator: they cost us time.  Now, for the first time in decades, this DotBC approach may be the first sign of relief on an administrative level that the industry sorely needs.  And it won’t be some exclusive new tech only available to the upper echelons, it will be available directly to the content creators themselves.

Future Potential

Here’s a potential scenario the DotBC approach may very well make a reality soon.  I, like many others, constantly try to stay up to date with marketing and publishing trends in music.  These trends are like moving targets because they are about connecting content with people, and people are dynamic.  Tastes change over time.  Sometimes, seemingly at random, the public interest can swing to extreme opposites.  While an original pop song by a label artist with regional appeal might not “take off” like they had hoped, a Youtube cover artist might do a rendition of the song that suddenly goes viral. 

In the traditional approach, the label might have a general blanket DMCA rule they have set into place with Youtube (Google) that says, “anything that matches our library, do not allow use”.  Not only does this seem draconian to the public and could potentially upset audiences that are genuinely interested in the music, it hampers the holistic ability of that cover song to also help expand the original artist’s fan base.  This approach limits the artist’s say in the process entirely.  This current method is also a passive system; the label might want to allow the usage of this viral cover and now must go to Youtube’s administration and tell them to exempt this one instance from their blanket rule.  Before the content can be restored for audiences to enjoy, it is further delayed while Youtube’s administrative staff reviews the case and manually adjusts things on their end.

In the DotBC approach, these intellectual property conflicts can supposedly be resolved much faster, and directly within framework used to do everything else with that content.  According to DotBC Media Project, this can even be pre-empted in a single management app that allows a rights-holder access to the body of content they own or manage.  That is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Bigger Picture

We don’t have to work hard to imagine what these promises might look like.  We have something we can compare to already.  Amuse.io is a syndication platform with a mobile app that lets any music creator take complete control of their content distribution.  Amuse walks you through the process of uploading the sound recording(s) you want to release, select your release date, what outlets you want it to push to including Youtube, Youtube ContentID, Spotify, Google Play, and virtually every other online service you could want.  It then lets you specify which territories or countries you want your release to be available in.  You can enter all your meta-data about the release, whether it’s a single or a full-length album, complete with album art attachment.

Once your content is published and pushed to the chosen outlets, it will track the earnings of the content you published through it on each individually and let you make withdrawals from those balances once you’ve reached a minimum earning amount (currently Amuse specifies that is $10 USD).  It does all of this for free.  The only catch is that Amuse is scouting through the content being syndicated through their platform, searching for artists they might want to offer label deals with.  That doesn’t sound too bad – even with a seemingly steep 50% rev-share with the label, which they claim is used to keep the service completely free and self-funded, as compared to the traditional industry’s historically notorious label practices.

Amuse is at the forefront of this concept, but what DotBC aims to achieve could go even further.  Imagine having an application that doesn’t just handle syndication and distribution, but also generates and collates copyright registration data, link the work with the proper associated performing rights and mechanical rights organizations, and ISRC codes for digital vendors to track sales. The framework centralizes and streamlines much of the administrative process.

Amuse also offers insight tools into the marketplace performance of the content pushed through their platform.  There is no reason an application using the DotBC framework couldn’t also offer market analytics tools in the same fashion but on a potentially grander scale.  Amuse.io is aimed at putting all the control directly in the hands of the content creator, and DotBC could allow for a much more scaled-up version of this approach.  Publishing administrators could get access to their entire library of content they manage and look for trends on a macro scale.

This framework unlocks huge potential for more than just administration and content rights management.  Imogen Heap envisions a wholly different use.  In an article by Quartz, she shared her vision of a more socially connected music universe.  Her statement was based around the Cryptocurrency platform Ethereum, and in that statement, that gateway allows users to buy the song, as well as the track’s key, tempo, and stems, using the Ether cryptocurrency. The money goes directly to the producers, writers, and engineers involved in the song’s production.  With the DotBC approach, this framework would easily encapsulate not just managing the content direct-to-audience, but also with publishers and other businesses.

But Who Will Build It?

Of course, the questions that must be asked now: who will build the front-end applications?  There are a resounding number of industry professionals who have bitterly witnessed technology companies resembling to hijack the music industry.  DotBC Media Project is developing the very framework, but this doesn’t mean they will be the singular gatekeeper to this new future.

Many in the industry decry the tech companies like Google and Spotify for ruining the landscape and making the industry harder for their content to achieve fair value.  The fact remains that those companies stepped in to fill a demand that the music industry itself didn’t fill. Even in the current landscape, 3rd party services like Taxi, TuneCore, and DistroKid offer paid solutions to help with publishing and distribution, which means yet another middle-man taking a cut that eats into the costs of doing business.  If they can exist at the same time as these large tech-firms, it is proof there is enough room in the industry for more expansion and inclusion.

But, what’s to stop Google or any other large tech firm from becoming the primary provider of front-end applications that utilize the DotBC framework, and then using their favorable position to engage in unfair business practices and hiking prices for access to their application?  The focus will be on who provides a better front-end solution for ease-of-use while leveraging the full power of all the features this framework could enable.  How many will pop up?  Should there be proprietary, private blockchain-based gateways, or an industry-standard, universal gateway?  Who should get to manage and develop it?

The Iceberg Effect

There are plenty of cautionary tales in recent years surrounding the emergence of cryptocurrencies.  While the underlying concept of Blockchain is relatively safe and secure: the chain of historical events in the distributed ledger becomes exponentially harder to hack the further back in time you try to commit forgery, issues and vulnerabilities remain in other areas.  Many skeptics point to the “wallet hacks” as if it’s a unique vulnerability to Blockchain, but this is no different than any other digital security issues various mediums face.  Even the most robust VPN services are vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks.  This vulnerability is merely the tip of the iceberg because it is exemplified in the public so commonly.

Like an iceberg, it’s not what’s visible that presents a real danger, but what remains unseen.  Ripple presented four dimensions in which to weigh the pros and cons of blockchain framework.  The article is heavily focused on finance and thus the highest priority dimension is on throughput.  When it comes to a distributed database system that must be synchronized across all parties accessing it, expediency can be an issue.  In the article, they compare Bitcoin to banks and Creditors and the difference in transactions-per-second is quite drastic.  Bitcoin can handle up to seven transactions per second, but compared to Visa with a maximum of 56,000 transactions per second, it’s clear that throughput could be a problem as demand scales up.

In finance, the data being transmitted is primarily about account information and monetary value.  When we start attaching rich metadata and content like uncompressed masters and even stems, it quickly becomes clear that those assets must be externally referenced for the sake of keeping the database responsive.  How long will it take for an average transaction to take place?  At what point is the trade-off for this new system no longer effective at saving us time compared to the traditional vehicle?  Are the costs of implementing and maintaining a node sustainable?

Two dimensions counter each other: Interoperability and Privacy.  Interoperability will be called into question as more competing platforms offer their own solutions.  What exactly it calls into question is just how do these separate databases negotiate and communicate effectively?  Ethereum is one example of an existing platform that DotBC Media would have to play ball with.  Privacy is threatened by interoperability.  As private ledgers prevent transactions from being accessible to other parties that don’t need access, interoperability threatens to expose those transactions in exchange for verification and accuracy between those ledgers.

These dimensions help identify what inherent risks a given blockchain architecture must account for.   In the current regime, if there are any discrepancies with reporting between two parties, we can see the results independently and manually investigate. Since Spotify’s analytics tool launch, some Distrokid users have noticed differences in the numbers being reported between Distrokid’s analytics tool and Spotify’s internal one.  Those experiences only seem to be shared by a handful of others using the services on forums like Reddit and in Facebook groups.  The intermittency of the issue seems little more than a technical glitch due to some API changes between Spotify and Distrokid’s services.  However, any misreporting between parties in a distributed ledger platform that is Blockchain based poses a serious threat to the integrity of the data.

Nolan Bauerle at Coindesk explains the flaw plainly: if more than half of the computers working as nodes to service the network tell a lie, the lie will become truth.  This “51% attack” must, therefore, require close monitoring by man to ensure no party on the network gains that kind of influence.  As each company like Distrokid and Spotify react to these new blockchain services coming online, data accuracy will be more important than ever.

Disrupting Disruption

As this vehicle comes online, the next question that must be asked is what will it disrupt?  What roles currently require labor that this technology has the potential to make redundant?  If Imogen’s vision becomes the dominant future, we can expect it to potentially disrupt the very nature of publishing companies, aggregators like DistroKid, Amuse, CDBaby, TuneCore, Taxi, and beyond.

Would it affect the business structures of organizations like Harry Fox, A.S.C.A.P. and even the U.S. Copyright Office?  If this technology truly takes root and grows as greatly as the creators envision, we could potentially see these organizations shift their entire labor force to adapt to lesser roles if the distributed ledger becomes the shuttle and the front-end applications become the primary access points.  The very centricity that seeks to simplify, streamline, and save us valuable time, would likely unseat much of the traditional vehicle businesses that handle these various tasks.

If these technologies can do what they claim, will we need the current backbone at all?  Organizations like the I.S.R.C. would likely be the first to experience considerable downsizing as these technologies surpass merely “supplementing” the major outlets with access.  It is extremely likely, then, that services like Google Play, iTunes, and Amazon all shift their backend to start leveraging these blockchain gateways as the premiere way to access the content everyone wants.  An even more fundamental shift could go straight to the heart of copyright itself.  This new paradigm would make copyright registration redundant and unnecessary.  While it is presently smart to invest in submitting copyright registration information to the U.S. copyright office, this is only a formality of preventative defense in the legal arena.  Your average artist rarely has their content stolen or infringed upon in as serious a way as these registrations are meant to protect against.  The law as we know it simply doesn’t protect against “piracy”, which the DotBC approach could very well tackle.  The more everyone adopts the new platform, the less piracy could be an issue due to the nature of how content is being accessed.

Proof of Existence and Ascribe are tackling this issue already on the Blockchain model on behalf of the Authors Guild, along with many other businesses and associations across various media formats all reaching out for Blockchain to answer their call.  A simple google search yields hundreds of accounts of companies and associations all vying to leverage Blockchain to fight piracy.

Digital Assets are the new Permanence

The implications of these frameworks go far beyond the business of music.  These technologies may soon be leveraged by software companies at large.  On November 21st, 2017, Gibson Brands announced that it is ceasing all active development on Cakewalk products.  Cakewalk has a large user base for it’s popular DAW: Sonar.  With worried questions of complete dissolution on the horizon, this leaves many people bitter about their software purchase and wondering what comes next.  Many don’t want to see the software just up and disappear and have lobbed ideas into the ether about selling the property to another software developer, or even making it open-source to continue development.

Solutions like these are all plausible, but so is the fact that if none of these options take place and Cakewalk cannot recover from this business move, the software’s life may end entirely.  Diehard users of the software are asking how it will be possible to continue using it if or when that happens.  How will activations and authorizations take place?  Conventional software businesses rely on proprietary, private servers to handle license authorizations.  These require overhead to maintain.  With the Blockchain approach, handling software authorizations and rights management could solve this problem and potentially allow parties to authorize software they legally own even after an entity like Cakewalk has physically dissolved.

Blockchain presents many capabilities including the ability to automate these tasks.  Provided rules are set, once those rules enter the distributed system they could be managed by remaining parties even after the party that created them is no longer around.  This is the “digital asset” approach that makes Blockchain so appealing.  There are 3rd party solutions like PACE technology group’s iLok which does provide solutions that overcome this, but not all developers utilize PACE authorizing platform as their security method of choice.  PACE has realized this dilemma and recently launched their own cloud solution which is a major appeal to many vetted users who’ve dealt with the shortcomings of their previously local-only approach to “key” management.

The Game of Pickle

The industry is on the cusp of an entirely new paradigm.  Long have we been rooted in an economy that is controlled by market and regulation.  These endeavors are the forerunners to a new era that could finally break the economy free and be more directly controlled by supply and demand.  There are lots of promising enterprises ahead, but the road to hell was paved with good intentions.  We’re caught running back and forth between the desire to solve the problems of piracy and the ever-increasing labor demands.  The issues facing this new vehicle are raising fears that it could cost us more than some might see it to be worth.

My hope is that we can overcome any divisiveness that would separate us into camps of those wanting and needing the new approach, and those that may be afraid of its success because they believe it would threaten their position.  This shift won’t happen overnight.  DotBC is one of many projects in the works and any one of them could fail to make it to market with a viable platform. Regardless, these endeavors are signaling a definitive transformation in the distance.

Do you see this new technology as promising for your future or threatening it?  What flaws or risks do you foresee that weren’t mentioned here?  I invite all to openly discuss in the comments below.