Blockchain for Musicians: A Brief Overview and Beginner’s Guide

The way we create, distribute, and listen to music is constantly evolving. New inventions are making their ways into our cultures and devices, and it can be pretty overwhelming. However, one of the most exciting developments in this space to me is the blockchain and its potential to help us build a new, thriving version of the music industry.

So without further ado, here is my simple beginner’s guide. I’ll explain what the blockchain is, why so many people are excited about it for the music industry (and beyond), and what you as a musician can do to start experimenting with it today. Please be advised: This will not be filled with complex terminology. I’m a musician first and foremost, and I’m also part of the Resonate Co-op. If you want a technical explanation or a more in-depth look at all of this, you may want to find other resources, and there are a ton.

What is a blockchain?

A blockchain is a digital ledger, a place to store records of transactions (information exchanges between parties) as well as data. A blockchain is decentralized. No single government or corporation owns it. It is run by a network of computers, each containing a constantly-updated copy of the entire blockchain. This makes it very difficult to hack, because similar to the way each cell in your body holds a copy of the DNA for your whole body (a concept often found in nature called compositionality), each computer on the blockchain holds the whole of the blockchain’s information (ledger), and verifies its legitimacy every minute of every day. Thus all the computers in the system must agree on the information in the blockchain at all times. If one doesn’t, the attempt at a hack is easily detected. It’s also possible to run a blockchain privately as well, but we’ll focus on the public variety for now.

Blockchain technology is used to facilitate the trading of cryptocurrencies, most notably Bitcoin and Ethereum, among many others. If you’re unfamiliar with cryptocurrencies, check out this neat documentary here. However, the blockchain has potential to efficiently and securely store data or transactions of other kinds. Many companies and governments around the world know this, and have already started testing it for a multitude of purposes. There is no telling just how fundamental blockchain technology could become in the future.

For instance, Dubai is working on becoming the first blockchain-based government, the United Kingdom is working on storing pension records on the blockchain, MIT is working on creating a blockchain for health records, and IBM has invested in over 400 blockchain-based projects. Basically, any system afflicted by excessive friction, middlemen, and other cumbersome and expensive red tape could be helped significantly by blockchain technology.

So what does this have to do with the music industry?

I’m glad you asked. The music industry from the perspective of many artists (and others) is in a state of near total collapse for a number of reasons, some of which I outlined here in a previous article about streaming. But it’s also suffering from a huge amount of overly bureaucratic and dysfunctional infrastructure that most musicians must interact with on a regular basis in order to make a living.

For example, the music rights organizations that are tasked with compiling information about royalties are inundated with microdata which they aren’t equipped to handle. Large amounts of money owed in the music industry never get deposited into the correct bank accounts, or take years to get there if at all. This means that musicians and other professionals in the industry don’t know how or when they’ll get paid, or who to contact when money is missing. On the other side of the equation, streaming services often don’t have the correct information about who money should go to, so on both ends there is significant confusion.

Artists also have very little say in the negotiations between labels and streaming services, and other deals that have huge implications on thousands of artists and how their work is consumed (and paid for, or not) by millions of people every day. On top of that we also know that we don’t really control our own data, or how it’s used.

Using blockchain technology, it’s theoretically possible that people could experience true ownership of their data, including the right to be forgotten, as well as the ability to grant access to certain data for specific needs on various apps. Subsequently, since blockchains can function without a centralized owner or corporation, there may be less possibility for your data to be used to trap you in your own echo chamber.

How can blockchain technology help to fix these issues?

We can’t know the full potential or applicability of blockchain technology, but here are some ways that musicians and others in the music industry may benefit. Foundational to platforms like Ethereum is something called a smart contract — a digital contract stored on the blockchain. Smart contracts would allow for monies owed to musicians, producers, songwriters, and others to flow in the correct amounts without indefinitely long wait times. But smart contracts could be used for other music related endeavors, like purchasing studio time, or making agreements between venues and bands.

Aside from payments and contracts, another way the blockchain could help the music industry immensely could be organizing song rights, licensing information, personnel on an album, and the mountains of metadata required to run a cohesive music industry. This could for one thing dramatically improve a fan’s experience by allowing one click to show the producers, songwriters, mixing and mastering engineers and others involved with a song, like is traditionally listed on vinyl. Nowadays you likely have to dig through Wikipedia, social media, online databases or ask friends of friends to find this information. If all of this information is stored and updated in one place, it could make it easier for fans or administrators to find the information they are looking for, and it provides a more connected and total fan experience than a stark mp3 and thumbnail currently provided by most music services.

Also, as the music industry becomes more globalized as a single universal market entity with a diminishing regard for borders (at least in the traditional sense), blockchain technology could help us streamline all sorts of collaborations, payments, permissions, licenses, publishing processes and other transactions that will inevitably arise in a more fluid and open world economy. Who knows. Maybe it could even help artists to get visas for tours more quickly.

However, as was referenced in George Howard’s book about the blockchain and the future of music Everything In Its Right Place, “It is least clear… whether these intermediaries and financiers have any genuine incentive to innovate, and their financial dominance of the industry hampers the impact of any revolution without them.” In this section, “intermediaries and financiers” refers to record labels, publishers and PROs. Indeed, we don’t know what their ultimate reaction or inaction will be regarding all of this new technology and its subsequent ability to bring increased transparency, which, for a number of reasons, may not be a welcomed innovation to the “record business.” We’ll just have to wait and see.

But, if you want to do some exploring on your own, let me introduce you to a few of the leading companies and co-operatives who are working on incredible projects relating to the music industry. I encourage you to do your own research, familiarize yourself with some of them, and to get involved if you’re inspired to do so. Beyond this list there are many, many more, so feel free to link to others in the comments below.

Most if not all of these projects are in their beginning stages. As I’m sure you’ve grasped, the music industry and the blockchain are both separately huge projects, and when combined, require tremendous innovation, energy, time, and along the way, failure, in order to have the possibility of taking hold and succeeding. However you look at it, the music industry needs help and fast. These organizations care enough to take it on, and do so in a collaborative and open way, which I believe encourages further creativity, innovation and progress.

Here they are:

-Mycelia is the brainchild of artist Imogen Heap, and one of its works in progress is the “Creative Passport” — a place where artists could upload all relevant information about themselves, their careers, their past releases (including personnel, musicians, etc.), their industry connections and more. This data could then be used as an identity that could be seamlessly transferred and used to access other blockchain apps. Imogen has also envisioned a feature that would allow an artist to look at the whole globe, and in real time, identify where his or her music is currently being played, who’s playing it, and how to contact that person if desired. Pretty cool, huh?

-Resonate is a streaming service co-operative currently in beta testing. It features, among other notable highlights, an extremely innovative #stream2own model in which a song can be streamed for a very low Spotify-like rate, doubling in cost each time the song is streamed, until the 9th stream at which point the listener has purchased the song and can listen to it for free, forever. You can put your music on Resonate right now, or join as an artist or label. And for most listeners, it’s cheaper than streaming, so invite your fans to join too.

(An aside: You may be asking yourself, “Who cares about owning music?” That’s a question which can be debated, but I often wonder: How can there be an industry in which the product that is created is not for sale in any digital or physical store? Can you think of any other industry in which there is almost no such thing as purchasing the product that the industry creates? It’s true that some people don’t care about owning music anymore, but everyone should care that there is a place where fans can support music, and buy if it if they want to. The fact that there’s no central place for that at this time is alarming. P.S. iTunes has scheduled an end to paid downloads for 2019.)

-dotBC (.bc) is a new file format and “supporting technology architecture” which aims to modernize rights management and facilitate decentralized interoperability. Ok. There were a few big words in there — I’m sorry. But another cool thing about them is that they’ve laid out something they call “minimum viable data,” which refers to the specific data points (ie. artist name, song title, and others) that every file in this new format would need to be embedded with in order to be circulated. Benji Rogers, the CEO of dotBC (also the founder of PledgeMusic), also has a keen interest in Virtual Reality technology, and what types of file formats will be used in the coming VR boom, which many argue has already started. On a recent panel about the blockchain for music, Benji commented, “Everyone in the value chain will profit if artists do well.” I agree.

-JAAK is “building a blockchain network that will allow the music and media industries to collaborate on a global view of content ownership and rights.” Its CEO Vaughn McKenzie has been a vocal participant in a number of panels and forums, and you can learn more about JAAK by attending an event, joining their email list (see their website) or following Vaughn on Twitter @VaughnMcK

-Ujo is also working on creating a decentralized database of music copyright information to streamline royalty payments, and gained attention when Imogen Heap used Ujo’s platform to release her song “Tiny Human” via the Ethereum blockchain in 2015. Their platform is also in beta testing, and they have a newsletter where you can keep track of their developments.

-Choon is a streaming service that pays artists in cryptocurrency for each stream of their music. It’s in its early stages, but you can join as a listener now, or get on the waitlist to join as an artist in the future. If you like curated playlists, they also feature a Genre Playlist section which has quite a bit of variety.

-HelloSugoi is a Los Angeles based “Live Entertainment Ecosystem” which aims to provide efficiency to the ticketing industry and the entire live events sector by reducing friction, added costs, and other challenges associated with putting on and collecting revenue from live music events. You can learn more by joining their Meetup group here.

Keep Trying Stuff!

Ultimately, your own experiments will yield the most valuable lessons and insights. It’s all about trying stuff out. Work on your art, work on it hard, and by doing that, you get to make discoveries you would have never made by simply thinking about working on your art. Discoveries are made by doing, so keep collaborating with people, living your imagination, and finding new ways to be an artist.

It’s also very important to have conversations with fellow creative friends and colleagues, to get one another’s perspective on these issues, and to shape your own vision about what our music ecosystem is capable of becoming. To do that, I find it helpful to reject the current “terms of service” as they stand today, ie:

1. People will listen to music for free from now on and they will never value it again

2. Royalty collection is and will remain sluggish and inconsistent until the end of time

3. Corporate overlords control everything and you don’t matter today or ever

When musicians accept these terms of service, we effectively play, record and release music for free. Maybe we do that because we enjoy it. There’s no denying that music is fun, powerful, moving, uplifting, and addicting. However, if professionals in other fields were treated this way, they’d likely strike. Somehow, in music, we think it’s fine. Some musicians even defend what’s going on, saying the ship has sailed, or they happily rely on touring revenue, or Patreon support, or some other means besides a simple freaking music store. Bottom line: It’s not normal to not have a way to buy music, and streaming services (so far) are not music stores.

There’s a lot of speculation here, but advancements are being made every day. Common issues with new technologies (like barrier to entry) will be managed and overcome with time, as these innovations become more mainstream. Laptop computers, or the internet itself, are examples of this.

As one of my colleagues brilliantly described to me, “The blockchain has entered the public imagination as a store of value, but its greatest potential is not as a (volatile) investment, but rather as a tool to transform user autonomy and governance… Blockchain does for technology what co-ops do for governance. Resonate, RChain (Resonate’s parent co-op, which you can become a member of here) and others are seeking to combine co-operative decision making with blockchain technology.”

So there you have it. We have begun a new chapter in the complex and rich history of music making. This new chapter has the potential to fundamentally change the global music community itself, hopefully for the better, and just in time. I’m very excited to see where it leads.