On Blockchain Tech and What It Means For The Music Industry

My background before diving into the world of programming was in the music industry — most recently marketing management in the digital distribution music space but also in copyright and licensing. Because of this previous experience, I became very familiar with the trends of the digital music industry, where it’s heading and the current pain-points companies are trying to solve.

Just this past week, I came across an article mentioning how Spotify acquired a blockchain startup, Mediachain, and it really piqued my interest. You see, a few months ago, a friend of mine mentioned a Ted Talk about of the possibilities and future potential applications of blockchain technology. A good portion of it went over my head at the time since I knew very little about it then, but I was still compelled about the overarching idea and concept since it seemed to wield so much potential for the minute legalities of the digital realm.

A major problem with digital asset management right now is essentially being able to keep track of and capitalize all instances and uses of an artist’s product across the web. If digital asset management sounds like a verbose term, just try to think about and understand what it would be like to keep track of anything an artist creates and releases out into the wild of the internet. Tricky, right?

So basically if, let’s say, you create a song and take all proper precautions to protect your copyright before uploading the file to the internet, it’s still possible right now for another individual to profit off your work. How you might ask? Nefarious opportunists in the industry do this any way they can when they see a quick turnaround of their time investment and minimal risk of losing anything gained. I’ve seen it happen a number of times.

For example:

Let’s say an individual wanting to make a few dollars on a platform like YouTube notices a new music video by a relatively unknown and under represented artist. The audio/video, (asset), happens to have a steep upward trend of views shortly after release. The malicious user then downloads the audio using a third party website and re-uploads the track as a still frame video on their own channel. They can then claim the asset as their own and run advertisements on top making a small profit. Now, digital payouts are often small but if you repeat this process multiple times per day/week, you can begin to see why this method of money making can be alluring.

Be aware though, this is totally illegal.

Now what normally happens in this scenario is that YouTube will catch plagiarized content by way of audio/visual fingerprint verification. You can typically see this in action when trying to upload a video with a popular song as a backtrack. YouTube will tell you the song you’re using is copyrighted and you will not be able to run ads. No ads = no profit. Super bummer for the nefarious user in question.

The other way this usually gets stopped before happening is an independent artist can go and find a digital asset management company to partner with. This usually happens by way of a distribution company who can upload their assets on the artist’s behalf, yielding higher ad revenue and another level of digital asset rights protection. They essentially can run their own fingerprint search to find copies of their assets and have a stronger say in making claims on tracks.

So if we know that YouTube already has protection in place and an artist can take precautions with distribution companies on top of that, how would a malicious user still end up making money? Well the tricky thing is, audio fingerprinting at the moment catches a lot but doesn’t necessarily catch everything.

When content isn’t caught, either because the algorithm missed it, or the malicious user changed the pitch of the file every so slightly, and they are pretty much home free until someone else claims otherwise. And even then if an artist or their team notice a video making profit off ads running over their original creation, the process of issuing what’s known as a ‘take down’ is sometimes slow and doesn’t do much but stop the process as it’s happening.

That means that if you find a video making money off your work, you would have to contact YouTube, demonstrate your original claim and that you have rights to an asset, and then they have to reach out to the malicious user and tell them to delete the video from their channel. That’s pretty much it. You don’t really get reimbursed and the malicious user doesn’t usually have to pay fines if they plead negligence and take down whatever they digitally stole right away.

So now that you understand that scenario, consider that this is just one example on a pretty recognized and reputable platform. They have systems in place to avoid this but it still happens. Now consider the rest of the internet and how easily someone could take someone else’s creative work and claim it as their own. It would be hard to find every instance of this happening and even harder to issue takedowns when they occur.

Huge problem.

So what is the solution? Well it appears that Spotify is betting on blockchain technology as evidence of their recent acquisition. Now let’s think about how it can be used in the context of music and why it’s important for the future of music tech?

As a brief overview, try to think about the blockchain as a way of maintaining consensus via a decentralised and distributed network. And as I understand it, the way it works is that if you begin with a record of data, (a block), and you want to add something to that block, you create another block, but you can only do so with the complex hash that the first block creates. If the first block is changed in any way, a new complex hash is created and the original connection between the two blocks via the first hash is destroyed.

So if we think about a large amount of data consistently being added to, only when all parties involved agree, and also having it be costly to add/change data in previous blocks, you can begin to wrap your head around why blockchain tech could be useful in terms of secure data/digital music asset management.

Now before we get ahead of ourselves thinking that we can create a decentralized database of all music assets across the internet, understand that it’s a bit more complicated than that. Not because we can’t in theory, but because there are a lot of hurdles in place.

Most songs have multiple writers that each agree upon a percentage of the financial yield. Because copyrightable music goes back to at most 70 or so years by law, you have an interesting problem of horribly mismanaged data to consider. Pair that bad data with the fact that not every label or agency is too keen on sharing proprietary information and you have one major obstacle to take on. As it stands now, hunting down all parties involved in one song is a headache enough never mind the thousands of other tracks in a label’s catalogue.

Now if all major labels, agencies, publishing houses and the like can agree to decentralize this data for the benefit of everyone’s use so as to avoid bottleneck payout situations, the blockchain can potentially work. But there is another major problem at hand. The entire way the blockchain functions by not allowing changes unless all parties agree and by making updates time consuming and costly makes the concept very inefficient for use of keeping track of all copyrighted songs within the past 70 years.

If Spotify and Mediachain end up succeeding in solving these major issues with applying blockchain tech to the idea of digital asset rights claiming across the web, they would be onto something wonderfully groundbreaking in a sector of the industry that’s been a slow moving wheel in terms of keeping up with the changing pace of music. Getting all parties to agree is easier said than done but I remain passionately optimistic that this is the way the industry should be heading and hopeful that Spotify and Mediachain taking the lead will incentivize other parties to follow suit.

Hopefully one day stealing artist data can be thought of as a thing of the past. And hopefully that can be done with blockchain tech. Hopefully.

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