Music and Blockchain: the Gentle Distant Revolution

nice-distributed ledgers and bad-distributed knowledge

Giulio Quarta
Feb 20, 2018 · 11 min read

(This article still represents my ideas, but it belonged to a publication on the music system that I decided not to continue. See my profile for current projects! I enjoy divulging interesting music anyway, if you are interested)

There’s a big enthusiasm about blockchain tecnhologies and cryptocurrencies, with music world making no exception in the excited conversation. Gartner’s Hype Cycles can even illustrate it: we are in the collective euphoria moment of blockchain evolution, but innovations’ party poopers forecast -5/10 years- yet for “full plateau productivity”

Original picture By Jeremykemp at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

But what is blockchain technology exactly?

It’s better to face this innovation a little at a time because it combine so many new logics and technical elements! It’s so complicated and interesting because it’s both an information technology and an institutional technology. It changes information management to such a degree that power, responsbility and authority have to be reconfigured consequently. Take your time (days, but it’s worth it) to digest all this mess and trust me: you are happy that this isn’t a 30 minutes article with ALL the basics.

A lots of articles have also already been written about possible applications, wild new companies, pros and cons and the future of blockchain in the music industry. I will try to summarise the question with a useful simplification before proceeding with : someone wants to restructure the value chain by the disintermediation this technology allows: for example no labels and middlemen, just blockchain platforms -that connects artists to their audience with more revenues for the firsts. No greedy intermediaries, more efficiency and precision in the revenue flow, more transparency and security granted by smart contracts and blockchain-protocols. Others instead think -at least in the first moment- it would be cool to implement some elements of the technology to better manage metadata (information about the song: author, lyrics, instruments…), rights (who has right to use this and where) and payments (smarter ledgers for the golden question, cash).

I’ll stop here and deliver you some passionately selected articles that gives a very lucid panoramic about the just mentioned main themes. This is the place for alternative sights and problematizations, you won’t find data, lists and trends on Rizomation stories. But without them fertile perspectives on the music system are just empty chatters. So again, don’t hate the lazy snobish blogger that makes you read 137 articles: they constitute frames to debate togheter about the following analysis, a thinking i long thought to offer the public something original (and seriously, this is already too long). I could have split the article into pieces but why should i re-write things you can already find in our beautiful wide world web? That’s old style miserable journalism. This is Medium magic co-production of knowledge explicited and encouraged (and yes I’m lazy).

Here you go (or here you expert skip)

So, when you read enough times “fair compensations for artists” and the expression “distributed ledger” doesn’t create strange figurations on your face we are ready to start with an undisciplined list of fertile perspectives.

Block-Theory vs Practice-Chain(s) and Trust’s Automation

In the first place, there’s the huge difference between conceptualizing/abstract functioning and reality/integration in the infrastructure. Claiming that a blockchain-based model is more rational and just than the current one is quite reasonable, but ideas are not sufficient to “disrupt” anything: the difficult step is solving real and perceived problems with adequate solutions, giving important incentives to as many actors as possible. The cognitive and operative habitus of the game’s player in a fast market can’t be easily changed by -too- brave technologies because embracing innovations is risk and adopting radical/not-intuitive ones is very strong risk for an articulated economy as the music sector. Smart-contractivists can put all their heart in the mission of “automating trust” but trust toward innovations can’t be automated and it’s getting more and more difficult to convince people when every novelty is the truly disruptive, game-changer, revolutionary one and so forth.

Medium does great things to humanity. It made me discover canva.

State of the artists and consumers power

Advantages provided for artists -that should be the most interested actors in the question, but unfortunately the more fragmented and unstrategical- are still more theoretical than concrete right now:

“Jump on our new platform, it takes just a month to understand how it works (without technicalities, for that you just need to trust us), then you create your wallet, you explain the thing to your fans, stay hours in the platform to interact with other artists, then we wait that everyone passes from 10$/month Spotify subscription to our articulated system of micro-crypto-payments and stay sure that you will get a 20% extra revenue. So, where do you want to smart sign?”

It’s important to ask a question: do consumer explores alternatives? How many times did you look for an alternative to Spotify/Apple Music in the last month? Not many i suppose. Let’s keep this in mind, we are dealing with a winner takes-all economy and incredibly good solutions could get annihilated by “environmental” forces/barrier that nothing has to do with the actual service.

A B (but there’s also) C of transitions

Now it’s the turn of what i think is the most widespread wishful thinking of “innovators”: idealized transition from system A to system B. It could result obvious to many readers, but i never saw it explicited addressed so:

Forgive my artistic skills, appreciate me expressing my authenthic self.

The way toward change has of course to face a period in which old and new solutions (and corrisponding actors!) co-exist, cooperating or competing in the redefinition of the new system functioning. Institutions, intended here as established routines and social networks, constitute the supreme rule of every field. How blockchain paladins could interact with the status quo middlemen quotidian enemy of their narrations?

“Hey stupid and greedy middlemen, invest time and money in our innovative paradigm: music industry (that is quite you now) will surely flourish when we will make half of you useless. So, cash or check? Are you in cryptos?”

Someone could point the already existent blockchain networks/solutions with a savvy “we just need time” smile. These entities are of course interesting and fast growing but… Innovations’ diffusion is not so linear. And it’s quite easy nowadays to create novelties and niches, as it’s easy to understate markets (huge) sizes in the cognitive-mediatic bubbles we live our disruption wet dreams. We are quite far from the turning point, as this already mentioned fine article well condense:

“A new generation of companies (must) come up and show creators, entrepreneurs and fans that another value chain is possible, that is more rewarding for both artists & listeners. Not only is it more transparent, but it is able to reduce a lot of friction, so that as it scales, it becomes more efficient than the legacy music industry.”

In the meanwhile, hundreds of music-blockchain companies will die forgotten as the breeze of novelty expires. In this massacre, i feel more optimistic in respect to the “not disruptive” ones that pose themself as complementary to the on-going structures.

Decentralized systems are human-driven systems in a human-exploited world

Let’s come back to musicians, the poor mistreated class of music world: we have to understand that their sociological agency, the way they behave as individuals forming a collective group of interest, it’s different from other agents like companies and investors. The majority of musician doesn’t play music for money. They could even be well disposed toward innovation -and not so much i think, have you ever been to a bar concert? Do you imagine the half-drunk singer engaging his audience on a blockchain platform?- but only if it’s worth the hustle. And it’s surely true that a good number of them would like to make a living by their music, as it’s true that the current value flow makes it incredibly difficult. But when these magic solutions will get established -and it’s reasonable to expect a platform format, king of the digital economy- are we sure that the problem will be resolved and artists will swim in cash? Why shouldn’t these companies take advantage of their position as all tech intermediaries structurally do? Yes, if we kill all the middlemen in favour of a blockchain service that is an intermediary too: and if we have to be honest, value gap caused by software platforms is a way bigger problem than the number of intermediaries in the chain (that of course is a problem too). The always fresh bias of innovators’ projection is the idealization of the new comers behavior. Centralized systems’ agents are human beings as the one who run decentralized P2P infrastructures. If you perceive the latters as less dangerous it’s because we know damn too well what are the problems with the existing status quo: it doesn’t mean that after the new paradigm gets established there would be no deviance and position interest as well.

If a new brilliant solution comes up, with big revenues for the first adopters -as it often happen- how long do you think it will take in a capitalist economy to see that value flow normalized or monopolized by few?

It could even discover a not-still-regulated grey zone, a legal bug of the system that usually spice up the plaza. This is a very fascinating dynamic, but we will keep it for another time. As the question of blockchain legal framework, one of the most unseen and understated problematic of all in this discussion. I know i say it too much, but that’s real complex and no, smart contract aren’t so smart to digest for a hundred years old legal system. The “Code is law” question, the struggles of legislators facing algorythms and smart contracts in the music world deserve an article for themselves, just wait for it.

Data problems in an informal complexity

This rich report clearly points out that blockchain is promising but surely don’t resolve the crucial problems of the music industry. That of course isn’t his duty, it’s just a technological artifact, but the magnitude of their champion’s claims requires some observations. For example, blockhain surely emproves and secures data (copyrights and licensing) storage, but can do nothing with the industry historical curse: data is crap! The problem is not fraudly changed information, it’s missing and fragmented one: too many data formats (even schedules-full handwritten papers) , too many actors in a chain that in digital music production can reaches an astonishing 10 intermediaries from song writing to listening, too many channels and fruition systems. The problem then is not that creators can’t assert their rights: they just cant’enforce them. Companies know where they have to pay, but often they don’t want to and system’s incentives results weak. Informal dimensions of a particular world (issues and dynamics you can’t know without experiencing the field directly) is not taught in programmers handbooks and missing consciousness about concrete social mechanisms is not a novelty in the sartuppers’ races: most music tech startups didn’t know shirt about how labels worked. This article by Jim McDermott gives a good portrait of the question (piece of an interesting in-medium discussion) and it’s particularly severe with the capitalistic greed permeating this environment, another reason to pay attention at the rhetorics of change. Change is not always good, and in reference to the previous “status quo question” the following citation couldn’t make the point better:

“If the labels aren’t happy, then boo-fucking hoo. But I’d say the same thing about investors and amoral tech companies who point fingers at record companies while doing exactly jack dot shit for artists.”

Knowledge concentration in the background

We now get to the juicy part. It has to be said, i love the idea of decentralization and i’m sure that society will reward this brilliant innovators when their creatures will be ready. But what happens if we focus on the term “decentralization”? Nobody would be against this word, it looks so agile, trendy and democratic (the “democratization” mantra is another malicious guy, decentralization’s uncle). And blockchain solutions actually decentralize power, better distributing value in many nice ways. But what about the concentration of knowledge? The core functioning of this innovation is freakishly technical: when we turn to this paradigm, blockchain èlite (the high formed technology experts with know-how) instantly gets an enormous power. They become vital for the system, and this is an historical problem of technology upgrades: better services but less and less control on how the service work, easier living at the mercy of the enlightened experts. And what about the production of this knowledge? It’s private/profit almost totally driven and this will have consequences in the long run; every cash flow has its finality and who wants ROI doesn’t care about the collective well-being, of society but also of music as a whole. Knowledge is power. It has always been in many ways and it’s truer than ever in our days, dominated by the conjunction of engineers and financer. This is a wider problem that goes far beyond the music industry and we will face it more (badly, i can bet on it) in the next future. Giant Corporations Are Hoarding the World’s AI Talent by Wired is an interesting problematization in this sense, it’s not crazy to expect the same will happen with blockchain smartest geeks. Deeply looking into this technology brings up the worst drama of our times: bad-distributed knowledge.

These are not silly concerns. And if they add almost nothing to the comprehension of what blockchain can do, they contextualize it in the framework modern economists and innovation champions hate so much: reality. But let’s stop with bitter criticisms and close with a needed conclusion.

Blockchain matters more than you think. You should really appreciate its conceptual and operative complexity, it represents the staggering high degree of our intellectual evolution. European union launched a blockchain observatory. Spotify acquired Mediachain last year. I find companies as Viberate and Dot Blockchain Media massively cool and promising.

It’s not much of a tsunami — more of a steady, gentle wave? Sure. But a soft, distant, invisible revolution is still a revolution.

Giulio Quarta

Written by

Sociology student. Boni i fagioli. Coordinatore de Il Connettivo — Tecnologia è Politica

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