aka: why transitioning to a new dynamic music format makes sense
Let us take you back to October 2017. Independent artist, STOLAR, has just released a new track called “Forget and Feel” on all major streaming services. No fanfare; just another one of over 20,000 tracks released via Spotify every day (Spotify link here). Except this release IS different. It is the first Dot Blockchain Media (dotBC) registered song to be watermarked and successfully delivered into the digital supply chain.
How did we do it? First, the recording and composition copyright-related data were stored on the blockchain. The audio track was then watermarked with a link to the blockchain registered dataset so rights ownership and metadata can be immediately identified simply by listening to the song itself. Additional authorized changes and additions can be added(and have in STOLAR’s track) to the rights data via an update to the song’s blockchain registration. This ensures everyone, including all streaming services globally, can get access to that most recent data associated with the track, forever, going forward. This solution means that rights related datasets can be immutably connected to their audio file, and perpetually updated and broadcasted to the music ecosystem using Dot Blockchain Media’s solutions.
So why is this a big deal? Read on…
A Revisionist History of WAV and MP3
Ever since the transition to a digital media economy started (e.g. CDs, downloads, and now streaming) the recorded music business has sold consumers ownership or access to digital audio files. The music industry’s main audio formats of choice are WAV and MP3, introduced in 1991 and 1993 respectively. When you stop and think about it for a second, that was over 25 years ago. The first George Bush was president then. (Really).
So, what has happened since? Well, pretty much everything. From Netscape to Napster, from iTunes to iPhones, from Myspace to Facebook, from a global recession to the era of Bitcoin, a dramatic and rapid paradigm shift in digital media and technological progress continues to happen. Yet, we in the music business still essentially “traffic” our music in a format whose technological underpinnings were introduced over a generation ago.
So, “what’s the problem with that?” you may ask?
Well, one critical issue is that WAV and MP3 were created to solve a series of important technical issues associated with processing audio files themselves at the time, and as a consequence, de-emphasized other aspects, like metadata and rights ownership information.
WAV was introduced as an uncompressed audio file format by IBM and Microsoft in 1991. Essentially, WAV was born in large part out of a need to create a standard way for Windows 3.1 (and other disparate operating systems and applications) to easily encode and decode audio files in an orderly way. “Remember the first time you heard your PC making ‘chime’ noises, and not just beeps? Well, that’s courtesy of the WAV file.” Importantly, it is a solution focused on accurately representing the audio itself in the computer world, requiring things like bit and sample rate, but interestingly not the metadata associated with the audio. If you do a deep dive into the original WAV specs, you will find the following nugget:
“The INFO list is a registered global form type that can store information that helps identify the content of the chunk. This information is useful but does not affect the way a program interprets the file; examples are copyright information and comments….an application should ignore any chunk it doesn’t understand.”
Essentially, ‘INFO list’ (which includes ownership and copyright information), was envisioned as OPTIONAL by the original developers of the format. This (probably unintended) oversight happened because the problem WAV was solving was moving audio between operating systems and applications, not about commercializing the music through the file itself.
So, where does MP3 come into this? If you bought an IBM PC in 1990 (say a PS2 Model 65) it probably came with a 60MB hard drive and a floppy disk drive. “Hey Jude” wouldn’t even fit on that hard drive as a WAV file (since a minute of audio is about 10MB, and the Beatles classic is ~7 minutes long). At the same time, the 90s saw the mass adoption of internet access (remember AOL?), browsers (like Netscape), music CDs, CD-ROMs, larger PC memory capacity, and many other technical foundations for the rapid growth of digital media consumption and exchange.
Essentially, the MP3 compression standard arrived at a time when sending audio files via the internet became both technically possible and in growing demand. As the globally adopted compression standard to reduce the size of audio files (MP3 is typically 8 to 10 times smaller than WAV, thereby allowing them to zip around the globe via the ‘net, ripped on CD-ROMs, stored on limited hard drives etc.), MP3s allowed a lot of people to start storing and sharing music, albeit by sacrificing recording quality. Oh, and metadata was optional in MP3s as well, and could be easily overwritten locally by any file owner(try Command-I sometime on iTunes).
Karlheinz Brandenburg, “The Father of MP3,” provides a fascinating glimpse into the journey of the MP3 from a research project to universal adoption in NPR’s “The MP3: A History of Innovation and Betrayal.” Did you know Suzanne Vega’s song “Tom’s Diner” was the final hurdle for the compression algorithm? Or how about the expensive commercially available MP3 encoder was essentially stolen and reverse engineered by a student who gave it away for free in 1997? Which is how (voila!) Napster was born in 1999, and…well we know what happened next. A consumer and technology “nightmare” that has taken nearly 2 decades for the music industry to sort through. As Brandenburg advised the music industry in response to Napster:
“My advice was that they should shoot for a technical standard to get interoperability for all these upcoming services and MP3 players, music players and so on. And….that hasn’t changed, very clearly if we don’t reach interoperability for a secured format, then the only surviving format will be a format without copy protection, and that is what happened in the end.”
There is no question that both WAV and MP3 were critical and innovative breakthroughs in ushering in a digital age for music. And there’s no argument that we’ve come a long way, despite many issues and dilemmas, as a music industry in the past 2+ decades in transforming the business to the access paradigm we live in today.
But, in retrospect, many of us would now probably admit the simple omission of requiring certain metadata to be associated with the audio file was a critical miscalculation. Official copyright ownership information got decoupled from the audio file through the widespread adoption of WAV as the format of choice for uncompressed audio. At the times the music industry needed to act (exemplified by Napster, anti-piracy efforts, Digital Rights Management of CDs and the failed Global Repertoire Database project) it seems it was always too late, too expensive or too hard to comprehensively to “put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” The WAV and MP3 stories both provide an invaluable lesson in how the problem you are trying to solve can sometimes lead to large unintended consequences. Both audio formats allowed for the audio files to fly at the speed of digital, but forgot to ensure attribution to creators and the rights conveyed to them and rights owners.
Metadata and audio files became separated from each other, and the music business has essentially evolved 2 separate best practices for delivering, managing, sharing and tracking this information and ownership representation. DDEX and CWR represent digital communications protocols that are widely adopted today in the music business, but generally are not connected with each other to associate works, recording and release data: the lifeblood of music as a data business. Audio files are delivered to streaming services with requirements of associated data and ownership information that vary greatly by service and region.
And, ironically, it seems we have Suzanne Vega to blame! (kidding).
“The Future That Has Already Happened”?
Which brings us back to STOLAR, and the work we are doing at dotBC. We founded our company with a mission to augment existing music business best practices through the creation of a dynamic immutable and perpetual link between authoritative ownership metadata and its corresponding audio files. We also wanted to leverage existing 21st century literate technology to accomplish this. We are doing this to fully maximize the potential of all music everywhere, forever. We also needed to include a way to track changes to the data in an organized and authoritative way that multiple users can broadcast to the music ecosystem and supply chain simultaneously and quickly.
And, why bother? As Benji Rogers, our co-founder puts it plainly: “today, songs ARE files, and files go EVERYWHERE”. There are 40+ million songs on Spotify, 150+ million audio files on Soundcloud, 5+ billion videos on YouTube. There were over 600 billion streams in 2017, in the US alone! And we are tracing ownership and attribution associated with this speed of consumption using 25-year-old formats and “optional” ownership and metadata?
We truly believe we can collectively do better than that.
STOLAR’s “Forget and Feel” has a permanent, and perpetually updated provenance trail that is inseparable from its audio file. No matter where the song is played or streamed now or in the future all users and participants can find the most complete and current information associated with that song through both traditional methods and optionally through the digital audio watermark. Whether it be in a user-generated video, movie, TV show or game; sampled and used in a remix; or simply played on Spotify or iTunes, writers, performers, and owners, big or small, independent or signed, are all identified through a unified bundle that is authoritative. That bundle, the “dotBC,” is a dynamic format that ensures all relevant parties can contribute data, extract data and broadcast data to the entire digital world, quickly and efficiently. (For those interested in a deeper dive into how blockchain and watermarking can be leveraged in music rights, I would recommend “Watermarking Technology and the Blockchain in the Music Industry”).
We recognize there are many successful and important companies and services that are highly focused on meta data management (think Gracenote), ownership data management (think Counterpoint), catalog and licensing management (think ICE), linking publishing and recording meta data (think HFA and MRI) and other data elements necessary in today’s music industry. However, our approach of galvanizing around a “dynamic format” (as per our previous blog post) allows historically disparate datasets AND the audio file itself to be packaged together, all while leveraging current technologies (like blockchain, cloud services and machine learning). Songs and their relevant data can now BOTH fly at the speed of digital and stay in sync, permanently.
Dot Blockchain Media is putting “Humpty Dumpty back together again” by delivering solutions that accomplishes what Brandenburg recommended 2 decades ago to the music industry: “interoperability for a secured format.” This is clearly important, not just for the business of music in today’s democratized media economy, but for the artists, performers, songwriters, engineers and all who collaborate in the art of music creation. As Michael Morrison, STOLAR’s manager, emphasizes:
“When we first heard about Dot Blockchain Media at Groundwork Artist Management, we were excited about the solutions it offers to detangle the jungle of digital royalties for our artists. Our artist STOLAR, besides being a songwriter and performer in his own right, is also an independent songwriter for other big names like Aloe Blacc, Train and Hall & Oates. It seems impossible to believe that in such a technologically advanced society, the music industry doesn’t have a way for me to ensure that his songwriting credits aren’t accidentally removed from those other artists’ tracks when they move around the web. We were thrilled to take the first steps with Dot Blockchain to test and prove that it is possible to link ownership data to audio files permanently and record changes over time. It’s a step that is absolutely vital for artists and management teams of all sizes to assure proper payments are possible.”
It’s not whether we can do it from a technology standpoint. We can. The future has already happened. Every interaction we have had as a company with artists, managers, businesses and technology companies have reinforced our belief in the amazing move toward the acceptance of the music industry as a data driven, high volume business. The technology available today is ready for prime time, with a bit more love and tenderness from the industry. We continue to work with many music industry clients, partners and artists to build this to scale.
It’s now all about IF the music industry climbs aboard to bridge the seeming gap between digital consumption and the traditional more analog B2B practices. I, for one, say we must build that better bridge now. We may stumble along the way, but together, we have a really great chance of setting a better future foundation for creators, consumers and the music business. If you agree, please join us in building a better future for the music business, together.