Music Is Digital Gold — So Why Do We Treat It Like Digital Plastic? (dotBC Update #8)

(This is the unofficial part 8 of a series of blogs from the dotBlockchain Music Project. More detailed technical articles can be found on my medium profile or on our website www.dotblockchainmusic.com — please also see accompanying presentation is here)

Songs as Digital Gold

I believe that when a songwriter begins that first verse, perfects that hook or finishes the last line of a song that they are creating digital gold. I believe that when an artist records that first note, gets that perfect take or prints their final mix that they, and all who are involved in that process, are creating digital gold. That they are making something rare, precious, and valuable. Maybe not to everyone, but having done all of the above myself I find that they are rarely making something for everyone.

The challenge for these creators today is that their digital gold is turned immediately into a type of digital plastic. By this I mean a cheap and mass-produced format that carries and holds little (if any) value in and of itself. Artists release these works through digital pipes to get to services that are fundamentally designed, most of the time, to get them the least possible return on their attention, investment, and potential.

But what if we could change all that?

Imagine a world in which a song leaves the studio with the information of who wrote and recorded it hard-coded into the music file itself.

A world in which ownership data is required in order to make the song actually work.

It is a relatively simple thought and yet it is a radical departure from what we have today.

Songs have two sides

As you may or may not know songs have both a writer (or sometimes many writers) and an artist who performs the song. In this sense there are always going to be two sides to a song. These two pieces of information are like the songs building blocks. Their DNA. So in theory if you wanted to use a song for commercial purposes (i.e. unlock its store of value) you would need the permission of both the writer and the performer, and a way to pay them both if the song generates any income.

Songs are files… and they go everywhere

When we moved from a physically dominated way of experiencing music like on CD, vinyl, and cassette, songs began to pass between us as files. In the same way that paper letters became attachments in emails.

Today our songs (our digital gold) depart studios all over the world in various shapes and sizes. File formats like MP3, WAV, FLAC and others are how they are consumed, whether it be through services like YouTube, Spotify, AppleMusic, or SoundCloud, or on CD, radio, or from our hard drives. These works become digital plastic because the basic song files, once created in these outdated formats, can be replicated infinitely. Furthermore, anything written into a song file itself can be removed or altered and then shared, and this includes aspects like the song’s title, the artist who performed the song, and any writer information. A song’s DNA can literally be removed.

But wait, there’s less…

Today there is no place, public or private, to go and look up who owns either the writer’s part of the song or the performer’s under a single roof. This is because record labels, publishers, and performing rights organizations, plus the artists and writers and their organizations, have no common place or format to work from.

So to go back to my original point:

Imagine a world in which a song leaves the studio with the information of who wrote and recorded it hard-coded into the music file itself.

A world in which ownership data is required in order to make the song work — and you can see why this could be quite an important thing to get right.

So this is what we have been working on. What we have built in phase one of our dotBC project is the creation of a new musical file format called the dotBC. (Think song_name.bc instead of song_name.mp3) What this new format will do is allow for a song’s DNA (writer and performer), title, and music to be bundled into a single file from which it cannot be removed. This means that wherever the file travels the data goes with it thereby preserving its value.

This new file format would also publish this basic ownership information into a public Blockchain. As more information is added to the song’s file (and since Blockchain information can never be deleted) all amendments would be trackable, making ownership changes, transfers and disputes resolvable back to and within the songs themselves.

Digital Rights Expression

I believe that artists should be empowered to encode not just their music and ownership information immutably into the songs themselves, but also machine readable statements of permission and obligation. What I mean by this is that if an artist wishes to, she can state the terms under which her song can be exploited in a way that machines can read and interpret. For example: “Hey digital service provider or sync licensing person, you can use this song in this way for this much and for this amount of time.” She could also write in exclusions such as “not to be used in porn or political videos.” So in effect this is the opposite of digital rights management or DRM, which was all about limiting usage.

Who cares? Why is this important?

The move from physical to digital has been hard for the recorded music industry and has left its most vulnerable reeling at the switch from a unit-based economy to a streaming economy. Not that I think this is a bad thing long term, but what it has done is leave a lot of artists and musicians, engineers, producers, and independents out of a value chain that favors technological know-how and scale.

Digital rights expression through the dotBC format would facilitate every remix, mashup, medley, cover, and remake to reference back to its owners, thereby aiding unprecedented commercial growth in these sectors. Most importantly, it would enable inter-operability, attribution, and, where applicable, revenue and data going back to those who wrote, performed on, produced, engineered, and/or remixed the works themselves.

Power back where it belongs

At the heart of it I believe that songwriters and artists should offer their work, their digital gold, to the digital world at terms that they hard code into their works, and not simply submit it to the giant digital service providers and hope that they do the right thing. I believe that equitable markets can emerge around these songs in which an artist and their teams, major or indie, can participate in the upside of size and scale, with no one being responsible (as they are today) to police themselves or submit to trusting those that they do not trust.

If the rights live in the songs, then wherever those songs travel, the rights can be respected and ownership preserved. Where disputes arise, they can be resolved back to the songs themselves. Every song released today is a free-for-all, and until this changes, artists will be forced to submit their works to parties usually larger than themselves, and simply hope for the best. As a former artist myself with works out there in the digital world, I say that what we have today is simply not good enough. Better is possible and that’s why we are making it. Open source and available to all.

We have a ways to go, but the journey is underway. We’d be honored to have you aboard.

Loving your work

Benj

To get your works into the dotBC format in its experimental phase please sign up for the email list or request slack access here

Our Website is: www.dotblockchainmusic.com

GitHub: www.github.com/dotbc

Our last public webinar from Nov. 7, 2016 is here and our technical webinar from Sept. 28, 2016 is here.