Blockchain Gang Touts Music Applications

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Richard Branson tweets from the Bit Chain Summit. (Photo by John Dill)

Is blockchain, a new technology that tracks bitcoin transactions, poised to shake-up the music industry? Since May, when Richard Branson held a 4-day Block Chain Summit on Necker Island, his private Caribbean paradise, Wall Streeet types and industry technogeeks has been buzzing about little else.

The idea is that cryptocurrencies — bitcoin being the most popular — can facilitate better transactional record-keeping and transparency as relates to music royalties due as a result of digital downloads. Think about it: if there was no way to download or digitally exchange music files, because a token system was built into the Internet, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to steal music.

Blockchain, a technology developed by bitcoin inventors to secure the chain of custody for digital transactions through a rather strict protocol documentation and rights management, appears capable of making the process a lot easier.  (For those requiring a primer, bitcoin is a decentralized digital payment payment system — popularly referred to as “virtual currency” — build on an open-source platform, which allows peer-to-peer transactions. It was publicly debuted by its creators in 2009).

Composer and cellist Zoe Keating, a guest speaker at the Branson summit,  discussed how there are approximately 15,000 unauthorized instances of her music on YouTube, as underscore for dance clips, student short, spec films, games and other projects. Lamenting that “currently there is no way to leverage that kind of enthusiasm,” Keating envisions blockchain facilitating a breadcrumb trail of metadata identifying who should get paid and facilitating payment.

“If there was a distributed ledger of music metadata, it could keep track not only who created what, but who else was materially involved, from the producer, to the side musicians, to the people who promote it, to the samples taken from another song,” Keating said in an insightful Forbes.com interview with Berklee College of Music Associate Professor of Music Business George Howard, co-founder of Music Audience Exchange.

“I can imagine a ledger of all that information and an ecosystem of killer apps to visualize usage and relationships. I can imagine a music exchange where the real value of a song could be calculated on the fly. I can imagine instant, frictionless micropayments and the ability to pay collaborators and investors in future earnings without it being an accounting nightmare, and without having to divert money through blackbox entities like ASCAP or the AFM,” Keating told Howard. Wow!

Howard has written extensively on applications of bitchain across the arts, but it’s the bottomed-out music business that appears to be most in need of its benefits (after all, no one is going to hang a digitally-downloaded replica of a painting on a wall, and even illegally streamed movies look lousy on a bigscreen TV. But in most cases, stolen music is shared in the format for which it was intended.)

PeerTracks is a new company that plans to leverage bitchain for the collection and distribution of music royalties. PeerTracks has come up with what it calls an “industrial grade” blockchain – dubbed MUSE – that allows for complete transparency and can cut out the middlemen and make payments directly to artists. It offers artist, fan and advertiser sign-ups, and is also proffering a “token system” designed to facilitate ease of purchase, as well as new music sampling.

Phil Barry –  one of three Oxford University students who helped Radionhead’s Thom Yorke devise the BitTorrent strategy for his solo release, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, and is advising the band on how to best distribute its forthcoming LP – is collaborating with 20 technologists around the world on a new open-source music ownership and payment platform called Ujo, according to Billboard.

With imagination being so productively harnessed, the times they certainly are a changin’, apparently for the better as concerns artist who have seen their incomes decimated by digital sharing.

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