What have the music blockchain pioneers been up to recently? We found out.
2016 saw a new word entering the music business lexicon: blockchain. At c/o pop 2016, Benji Rogers unveiled new components of his dotBlockchain Music project, making it easier for external parties to participate in the project.
But what is blockchain, what can we expect, and what are the most recent developments? We answer these questions in anticipation of c/o pop 2017.
Blockchain is the technology powering Bitcoin. It allows people to make cryptographically secure peer-to-peer transactions, without the use of an intermediary. These transactions are then stored in a distributed ledger of which all the nodes on in the network have a copy. All records kept on the ledger are immutable, which means that changes are submitted by appending new lines to the record, generating a type of change log.
In the case of Bitcoin, it has allowed for the creation of a digital currency which is not regulated by government bodies or central banks. People can transfer money across borders without bothering with transfer fees or currency exchange rates.
Since ledgers are replicated across the network, it makes it very difficult to tamper with data: an attack or corruption on one node is not very effective, since changes have to be appended to all copies of the ledger.
A lot more can be done with the technology however, much like how the internet can be used for more than just email.
Ethereum, which was utilized by Imogen Heap’s music blockchain project with Ujo Music, provides a platform for blockchain-based ‘smart contracts’. These enable conditional transactions that only trigger when a certain criteria is met.
Smart contracts have been recognized as an opportunity to let artists directly express their rights and the terms for using their music. Through the decentralized nature of blockchain, you remove single points of failure like collective rights organisations. As Coinbase’s Linda Xie explains:
“This makes internal collusion and external attacks impractical. Decentralized platforms cut out the middlemen which ultimately leads to lower costs for the user.”
Blockchain’s application for music ranges from metadata, to rights management, to licensing, and the most prominent person in the space, and c/o pop 2016 speaker, is Benji Rogers of dotBlockchain Music.
The stated purpose of dotBlockchain Music (dotBC) is to create a fair and transparent way for creators to express their rights, while improving the efficiency of how music and payments are delivered to the various actors in the ecosystem.
To keep updated data associated with music files, the project proposes a new standard for storing music: a .bc file. It would function as a wrapper, like .zip, and contain a ‘minimum viable dataset’ with information about who wrote and recorded the music, as well as their contact & payment info. With other filetypes ownership data could easily be stripped out, so Benji Rogers believes that through the combination of blockchain technology and a new filetype format, persistence of information on ownership can be guaranteed.
As a recent blockchain feature on Fact Mag pointed out:
“In a blockchain model, an artist might set out the terms on which they want to license a track, and any restrictions on use. A potential licensee could then use a ‘smart contract’ function to do a deal instantly, without weeks of paperwork.”
Benji Rogers lists the key points of the dotBC project as:
- A self-healing system: if false data is added at one node, eg. through a malicious attack, it can be rejected by the other nodes and repaired.
- User & song-level authority: a better ability for individual artists to express their rights digitally on a per-song basis.
- Amendment forward: any change is recorded, so all past versions of data stay available, creating an immutable change log.
- Nested permissions: while the minimum viable dataset only asks for a small amount of information, participants can add more detail, effectively enabling smart contracts.
- Conflicts solved then broadcasted: if there is a dispute over certain rights, it will be flagged to the entire network due to the transparency of the system. Once resolved, the outcome is broadcasted to the ledger.
- Decentralized repository for global digital works: it would mean a great leap for efficiency, in terms of rights management, as well as distribution.
- Bad actors revealed: since your identity is tied to your participation on the blockchain, any bad behaviour will be visible to all participants and can publicly hurt your reputation.
dotBlockchain Music’s Phase Two
On February 1, dotBC announced a partnership with SOCAN (a Canadian PRO), CD Baby (an online music store and distributor), MediaNet (SOCAN’s rights administration subsidiary), FUGA (a music distributor), and Songtrust (publishing rights administration & royalty collection). They’re contributing technical and financial resources to the project and are among the first to test out dotBC’s functional application, incorporating 500,000 recordings each month.
In an interview with Billboard, Rogers gives a practical explanation of the ideal scenario:
“If you’re an artist and you want to put your music into Spotify using a .bc, that’s what CD Baby and FUGA are gonna help you do. If you want to bind the publishing information, that’s what Songtrust will help you do. And if you want to have a version of the recording to tag and enter that information into a PRO, that’s what SOCAN and MediaNet will help you do.”
For a deeper look into their current plans, as well as gaining an understanding of their technological architecture, have a look at their recently released run-through of Chris Tse, dotBC’s tech lead:
Progress made by the dotBC team and their partners will surely be a topic of discussion at c/o pop 2017, but there will be much more to discuss.
Resonate: blockchain-powered music streaming
We’re witnessing a surge of new music platforms emerging as players from the late 2010s, like Spotify and Soundcloud, are reaching maturity. One of the most interesting concepts is Resonate, a music service and cooperative, which is owned by the users of the platform: fans, labels, and artists.
In August, Resonate’s Peter Harris announced that the service would start making use of blockchain technology to first introduce better metadata management, and ultimately enable smart contracts, as is explained in the graphic below.
The graphic makes mention of the IPFS for accessing files. The IPFS is a ‘distributed file system’ launched in 2015, which aims to store and distribute files in a decentralized way that doesn’t change the web’s interface for the average internet user. So on the back, the blockchain is used to create reference points to files, of which the metadata is accurately updated, with neither the data layer nor the files themselves having to be stored centrally, which would create single points of failure.
IPDB, Coala IP, and BigchainDB
Where the IPFS aims to provide a more robust layer for file storage, the IPDB was established as a foundation with the goal of being a global decentralized database to store attribution & licensing info. So it’s the technology and the governance at once.
It’s powered by scalable decentralized database software called BigchainDB, which uses blockchain technology. As a protocol for attribution, IPDB uses Coala IP. The latter is part of the Open Music Initiative: a music industry non-profit which brings together professionals from all side of the business to develop a protocol for the uniform identification of music rights holders and creators.
Another initiative that strives to give the creative industry more of a voice in these matters is the Blockchain Roundtable. Announced on February 8 by Wolfgang Senges, a business consultant in music, media & technology, the Blockchain Roundtable aims to help the music business have their voice heard on how to apply this technology. It could potentially be thought of as an advisory board to blockchain projects which can work with the Blockchain Roundtable to source input from the creative community.
JAAK & MΞTA
On the 18th of February, JAAK, a startup creating a decentralised marketplace for media using smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain, announced the launch of a new project called MΞTA.
MΞTA’s being shaped as a decentralised open network to capture, store, verify and communicate commercial metadata. They’ll be drawing on learnings from past and existing guidance with Viacom, a large media conglomerate, and PRS for Music and PPL, both performance rights organisations from the UK.
One of JAAK’s founders is Viktor Tron, one of Ethereum’s core developers and founder of a project called Swarm, which envisions the creation of the ‘third web’ enabling peer-to-peer technology, like blockchain, to replace centralized cloud solutions.
JAAK was recently admitted to the first batch of the Techstars Music startup accelerator program.
A space in development
All of these projects are still in their early stages, with some being in alpha or beta versions. Blockchain technology is complex and we’re still just witnessing the early stages of its development and implementation in managing intellectual property and the distribution of entertainment media.
Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company believes it will be five years before blockchain reaches its full potential, despite already seeing significant, and growing, investment.
It’s interesting to look at this technology beyond the perspective of just the music business. For example, IBM surveyed banks about the implementation of blockchain of which 65% expect to have the technology rolled out in the next 3 years.
Most importantly for music, is that we have to decide how we interact with these technologies and what we want to do with them in the short-term, mid-term, and long-term.
That is something we’ll be discussing at c/o pop 2017. We hope to see you there.