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A Fresh Start for Music: Berklee’s Open Music Initiative

open music hands

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again…

— Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’

By Lance Koonce

We’ve written previously about the blockchain as a wedge or triggering technology for a number of other technological developments. These tend to fall into two categories: First, independent distributed computing technologies that may (or may not) be used in connection with blockchains, and second, solutions or services that are built in layers on top of blockchains to provide additional functionality. Think: the Interplanetary File System versus a service like Stampery.

This distinction may not be so helpful for developers, but it helps put into context the broader shape of the blockchain technological revolution. The point is that blockchains appear to be enabling not just organic growth around blockchain-based systems themselves, but also a wider adoption of peer-to-peer technologies and the like, which have existed for some time but which mainstream businesses often have been slow to adopt.

There’s a third way in which blockchains act as a wedge, and that is by initiating larger discussions of first principles, policies and standards. We’ve discussed this a bit before as well. That’s an exciting prospect, on many fronts.

I first heard about Berklee’s Open Music Initiative some months ago, when it was in a more embryonic form. Benji Rogers and Imogen Heap and George Howard, among others, were already out there (out on a limb, some might have said) preaching the blockchain gospel as it related to music: How blockchain tech could transfigure that industry, in terms of cleaning up metadata, giving artists more control over licensing and distribution, and streamline royalty payments. People in the music industry were taking notice, but there was significant confusion as to what was real — what might work, what might not — and how disruptive blockchain technology will be.

One thing that virtually everyone in the industry agrees upon, however, is that the current system has significant problems, much of it centering around bad or conflicting descriptive metadata. There have been previous efforts to solve this problem, none of which have succeeded, at least in part because of the different perspectives of the participants based on their respective roles in the system (and in some cases their ownership of proprietary silos of music metadata).

I spoke to Panos Panay, founder of the OMI, back in March. He described Berklee’s role in promoting the OMI as offering a neutral, academic backdrop for discussions to take place about addressing some of these seemingly intractable music industry problems. It was a grand idea, but would it work?

Thus far, yes — the OMI has succeeded in bringing together the key players in the music industry into an initiative aimed at doing, well, let me cite the mission statement from the organization’s new website:

The mission of the open music initiative is to promote and advance the development of open source standards and innovation related to music, to help assure proper compensation for all creators, performers and rights holders of music.

We believe new technologies can be applied to radically simplify the way music rights owners are identified and compensated, resulting in sustainable business models for artists, entrepreneurs and music businesses alike.

The list of members is too long to name everyone here, but to name a few: Spotify, BMG, Universal Music Group, Harry Fox Agency, Mediachain Labs, BlockchainDB, CD Baby, Consenys, The Orchard, Stem, PledgeMusic, Peer Music, Next Decade Entertainment, Sony Music Entertainment, Giant Steps, Soundcloud, SiriusXM, OCL, Chainvine, and SoundExchange.

One thing you might not see highlighted on the OMI website is the term “blockchain.” However, you might notice that among the companies listed above are a number of start-ups with blockchain-based solutions, and the list of individuals involved in the OMI’s working group include Brian Forde and Neha Narula of the Digital Currency group at MIT Media Lab, Patrick Murck of the Berkman Center, George Howard, Ken Umezaki, Dan Harple and others that have been heavily involved in blockchain efforts.

So, there’s clearly blockchain in the DNA of the Open Music Initative, but its founders and members have wisely recognized that the answers to the music industry’s problems do not begin and end with blockchain technology, and that the industry must remain open to solutions that come from any and all directions, including variations on existing technologies and brand new technologies that no one can yet predict.

Most importantly, those solutions are not all technical, but also require a level of cooperation and collaboration among musicians, producers, publishers, labels, platforms, and every other category of participant that, frankly, has not been seen previously. Kudos to the OMI for starting that conversation.

The first meeting of OMI members is tomorrow, June 22. The OMI’s Summer Lab will take place from July 11–29.



Musings on Distributed Applications for the Arts and Beyond

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