Breaking out of the circular blockchain music discussions

The strategy of a thousand small steps to blaze trails while negotiating the music industry’s next big leap.

This year I’ve had the pleasure to take part in numerous discussions and think tanks about what blockchain can mean for the music business. The promise of blockchain, as will be explained, is transparency, fairness, and greater efficiency.

The longest session I partook in was the week-long Blockchain Lab at Music Tech Fest in Berlin, after which I wrote a piece about how the music industry’s not ready for the blockchain.

More recently, I flew to Kristiansand, Norway for 2 days of roundtable discussions organised by Peter Jenner and the University of Agder. It brought together an excellent selection of stakeholders from various parts of the music business ecosystem. Over the course of the sessions, we went through a wide range of topics, including registries, transparency, and blockchain. When discussing the types of problems that can be solved through blockchain, there were a lot of echoes of past meetings.

The problems in the music business ecosystem that are most important to solve, are too complex to solve without wide buy-in. It’s this complexity that gives people a feeling of powerlessness. Despite having the motivation to act and create a better ecosystem, the challenge of getting all the right players to sign up seems insurmountable.

In this sense, blockchain’s value right now, is in acting as a catalyst to re-ignite the types of conversations held about the (failed) Global Repertoire Database, like, for example, the Open Music Initiative. Why?

Blockchain technology provides a decentralized ledger of transactions that’s accessible to all the participants in the network. Transactions cannot be altered once recorded — only amended. So, when it comes to rights, claims are public. This should discourage wilful obfuscation or sloppiness with asserting rights, or adding metadata, because it will be publicly visible. If the ledger is the authority of truth, then acquiring and expressing rights, as well as guiding payment flows like royalties, should all become more efficient.

The biggest challenge to this happening on a meaningful scale is: how do you get rights holders to agree upon a minimal degree of transparency and investment into such an initiative? That’s a discussion that needs to be had, but meanwhile, let’s not wait.

The reality of the current landscape is:

  • There will be limited buy-in, which means we’re not going to see any industry-wide solutions soon;
  • There is a lot of interest in solving these issues from the music business;
  • On the tech side, people are eager to get going, too.

This means we need to work with a scenario where buy-in has to gradually increase.

Working with blockchain should be a carrot.

If people are unwilling to be transparent, then we need to think about branding that rewards the players that are willing to be transparent.

Consider fair trade products, free range certificates, security certificates, or the types of branding that shows products were made in an environmentally friendly way. For the first batch of companies that get such brands on their products, it acts as a carrot: a good way to show that you’re an ethical brand that cares about fair treatment.

When enough participants in the music business ecosystem get in, from music streaming services, to publishers, artists, labels, PROs and others, the carrot will slowly start functioning like a stick.

  • Carrot: “we’re a music company you can trust, because we’ve signed up to this initiative which guarantees fairness & transparency.”
  • ➟➟➟ Momentum ➟➟➟
    *please make a woosshh sound while imagining time elapsing*

  • Stick: “you can choose not to be transparent for business reasons, but how do you guarantee that creators are treated fairly without transparency?”

Currently, we’re in the pre-carrot phase.

More use cases need to be developed.
More experiments need to be organised.
More publicity needs to be generated.

There are a lot of players already and they’ll need to come together to discuss standards, so that certification can be created. The certification will need a strong brand and PR strategy, so that players in the music business will care, including the consumers. This means that it can’t start by targeting mainstream consumers on Spotify or Apple Music. A more realistic place to start would be Bandcamp, or next-generation platforms like Resonate, Whitestone, or Voltra, all of which are still in their early stages.

Perhaps a major label and major digital service can be incentivized to do something, eg. when they need to do damage control and need some positive PR quickly (carrot), but don’t expect them to disrupt their own status quo until it becomes necessary (stick).

If you are interested in participating in such experiments: feel free to get in touch with me and I’ll link you to the right people. I encourage you to use Medium’s response function (on this page) to advertise your own experiments or activities, or to make calls for participation.

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More soon.