The Music Data Debacle

Natural Workflows Can Power a Faster, Smarter Music Industry

Most major recording studios still have tape libraries, impeccably archived. Above, a music historian holding a Beatles reel-to-reel tape at Abbey Road Studios. Photo: Terry Smith

I recorded my band’s first album on 2” tape. It was 2002, I was sixteen and ProTools was still an emerging software that came on a DVD in an oversized box. If we wanted to reference our work in progress, we bounced mixes to an external CD burner, and then made individual copies.

Recording and distributing a record used to be cumbersome and expensive, but it was also centralized and controlled.

Fourteen years later, that process is barely recognizable. Tracks in progress are sent across the world for immediate feedback, collaborators can participate from anywhere at anytime, and instant worldwide distribution and publishing are free services of everyone’s mobile phone. The music industry is inundated with increasing amounts of files and information while the time frame for managing creative and administrative tasks continues to shrink.

The “unbundling” of music consumption has been well-documented. By now, everyone knows the transition to digital created an existential crisis for the industry. Over the course of 15 years we went from $20 CDs to file-sharing, to mp3 sales, and now to fractions of pennies per stream. What’s overlooked is how creative and business workflows that power the industry have unbundled as well. In a data-driven streaming economy, these issues are more significant than ever.

Our team at Songspace has spent the past two years helping publishers, labels, management teams, producers, and songwriters improve catalog data and related workflows. We have a deep understanding of the everyday challenges facing creators and companies.

Until the industry is able to consolidate and network “unbundled” creative and business workflows, it will be difficult for any macro solutions to properly develop.

The Problem

The technology designed to connect has fragmented the workflow of creative industries. In the music business, this problem manifests itself in everyday content management issues. Recordings, lyrics, and contracts are scattered across hard drives, email attachments, Dropbox folders, and iTunes playlists. Publishing splits, credits, and ownership metadata are managed in word documents or excel spreadsheets, and in a variety of formats.

We’ve found this fragmentation to be systemic, and have witnessed it firsthand at every level of the business. It starts at the beginning, at the creative process of songwriters, artists, and producers. It’s passed on to management teams, record labels, and publishers, and continues to unravel all the way up through distribution and registration chains. Each person is working from the same music and information, but in a hodgepodge of copied files, platforms, formats, and processes.

The result is a debacle. Disconnected, opaque relationships are causing friction between creators, intellectual property owners, technology partners, and consumers. Licensing, crediting, royalty, and reporting mechanisms are all suffering because the industry lacks standard, connected workflows and the technology infrastructure necessary to interoperate in a global, real-time digital economy.

Look no further than last month’s news for proof. Spotify is facing a massive lawsuit for allegedly failing to procure licenses that require data they claim isn’t available, while the US Copyright Office is publicly bemoaning to Congress the current state of music licensing and registration. The Recording Academy is begging DSPs for better musician credits, and many major artists are refusing to release new music to streaming services.

The collaborative nature of the music business is the root cause of this friction. For an industry grounded in collaboration and intertwined rights, the unbundling of creative workflows and resulting fragmentation have proven to be particularly damning. It may also be key to the solution.

Workflows Create Natural Networks

The business of music creates a natural network of stakeholders who share data and assets. Modeling one of last year’s most popular hits, “Uptown Funk,” illustrates the network of stakeholders around just one asset.

These artists, songwriters, producers, management teams, labels, publishers, all have existing, interwoven workflows related to this song. This creates a network of stakeholders that collaborate to push the music towards commercial success. Collectively, these relationships between stakeholders are the “source of truth” for all of the metadata and rights information related to this song, as well as any associated royalties.

This system is dynamic, as songs are living, breathing creative works. There are new mixers, lyric collaborators, or decisions to share publishing with additional parties.

Workflows connect the stakeholders. A producer might email the other collaborators bounces of the track as the song is being completed. Eventually those files are passed on to managers, A&R teams, and others who build their own workflows around feedback, pitching, and marketing the music. Administration and distribution teams are responsible for making sure the song is properly released and monetized through the appropriate third parties.

But the technology powering these workflows is disconnected. While tools like email, IMs, Dropbox, Box, spreadsheets, YouTube, SoundCloud, and CDs all serve a purpose independently, the collective result is fragmented, inefficient, and opaque.

Why It Matters: Workflow Applications Can Create an Infrastructure

Applications that network stakeholders and integrate workflows will create a more efficient and transparent industry. What will this look like? Based on our research, relationships, and experience in the field, here what we see as the key pieces.

1. Network Infrastructure & Interfaces

The music industry needs an infrastructure and corresponding interfaces in place that allow a network of stakeholders to validate and assign ownership information to music assets. It needs to be capable of accurately identifying unique assets and stakeholders, of representing the copyright and business rules for both master recordings and publishing compositions, and of representing contractual agreements between stakeholders, across geographical territories. This infrastructure and interfaces need to be capable of mirroring business rules for conflict resolution, and dynamic as to account for changes over time.

It’s possible. There are already data standards in place for credits, master recordings, and publishing rights, and the business rules set in contractual relationships can be translated into logic. There are universal creator identifiers, and recordings can be uniquely identified and matched via audio fingerprinting.

But these technologies and standards have not been unified. What’s missing? Modern interfaces and underlying networks to facilitate direct relationship between assets and creative stakeholders.

2. Integrated Workflow Applications to Drive User Participation

Assuming a functional infrastructure is in place, any sort of macro solution requires user participation. What will motivate artists, songwriters, music teams, and companies to bear the burden of a transition from the status quo to a new model? Everyone wants a big picture solution, but immediate problems trump big picture considerations.

That’s why technology applications that improve everyday workflow efficiency are key; they can facilitate a transition through widespread user adoption. These applications must be built to interoperate, to connect stakeholders across networks. Independent, siloed tools lead to bad data and less transparency.

3. Collaborative Paths for Legacy Transition

And then there’s the legacy data problem. Even a partial transition will require massive amounts of fragmented catalog data be matched, validated, and written into some sort of centralized (or decentralized) system. Many have suggested a complete transition is too complex, and that any model predicated on migration is destined to fail.

An “everything moving forward” approach still requires a scalable data migration component, and such transitions have historically been a financial burden for music companies. We see two possible ways these concerns might be mitigated.

First, we’ve found companies and stakeholders are highly motivated to centralize catalog data when this migration can be harnessed to power better workflows. The payoff of increased revenue or improved efficiency can drive companies to invest in catalog management.

Secondly, a collaborative network model can play a major role in this transition. Every song creates a network of stakeholders, each of which can potentially contribute to the process if assets, data, stakeholders, and validation processes are properly wired together. There would be network effect benefits as well. Assuming there are meaningful reasons for everyone to participate, a migration could be managed collectively.

Data must be transportable and interoperable across any system, network, or technology. These two characteristics will allow users to feel empowered and open the path to transparency.

4. Market-Driven Self-Sufficiency

Finally, how is this going to be paid for? Ignoring the costs of maintenance, building a network infrastructure while convincing stakeholders to participate is a process that will take years and real money. The long term return for the industry would be enormous, but the process requires market-driven business models sustained by the stakeholders as a cost of doing business versus an investment.

The free market will determine winners and losers and require solutions be the best they can to survive. Compared this to what hasn’t worked; industry-controlled group efforts that, by definition, create conflict among all stakeholders.

The Opportunity and Challenges of Blockchain

Although the technology is in its infancy, many experts believe there is incredible potential for blockchain to revolutionize how intellectual property functions in a digital economy. The technology is similar to a traditional database, except in how it can be maintained and managed collectively by a network of stakeholders. While blockchain is best known as the underlying foundation of the bitcoin currency, many technologists believe it is well-suited for just the sort of rights data, musician credits, and payment transparency issues plaguing the modern music industry.

Thinkers like Spotify “Artist in Residence” D.A. Wallach and Pledge Music’s Benji Rogers (disclosure: Benji is a Songspace advisor) have offered up early propositions as to how blockchain could be used to create a “decentralized global rights database” to streamline how crediting, licensing, and royalties function in a global digital music business.

The potential is inspiring, and their enthusiasm is contagious. In fact, at Songspace we’ve even experimented with the technology by launching our own private beta songchain that can record the rights information validated by users into a public blockchain ledger. But blockchain is simply a protocol, an underlying technology that needs applications in order to provide value. A blockchain solution will have to include applications that consolidate “unbundled” creative and business workflows.

Just as Slack is bringing Internet Chat Relay (IRC) style-communication to the masses by modeling workflows, blockchain needs applications and interfaces. At Songspace, we’re focused on building tools to service natural workflows, and we’re always experimenting with ways data can move around to any future licensing system.

Music creators and companies still face basic challenges in listening, collaborating, and sharing — the workflows at the very heart of the business. Skepticism to sweeping tech ideas stems from this reality, not just from entrenched interests fighting for the status quo. Everyone agrees that the system needs to be fixed.

Solutions to small, simple problems hold the key to big, complicated ones. We can’t change all behaviors and habits, but we can guide the old guard and recruit fresh minds to build successful outcomes for all.