Do you know how songwriters get paid royalties? They register with their performing rights organization, who then comb over spreadsheets for recorded public performances of their registered songs, cumulating in a quarterly cheque in the mail. For an industry being revolutionized by the power of the internet, this method can seem quaint, laborious, even. Well, one form of cutting-edge technology is about to change all that…
Introducing Blockchain. It’s secure, digital ledger whose main feature is decentralization. Essentially, it’s a system where every participating device keeps the information permanently, making information storage more secure in the cyberspace and cheaper to protect. You may not have heard of Blockchain, but it’s the technology that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are built off of.
I had the immense opportunity and pleasure to get Benji Rogers on the phone and ask him some questions I needed answers to during my research. Chief Strategic Officer at Dot Blockchain Media and founder of boutique crowdfunding platform Pledge Music, Benji Rogers and his public benefit corporation are pioneers of Blockchain in the music world; and what they are building is, frankly, going to be game-changing.
What Exactly Will Blockchain Do?
If you have ever professionally released music, you know that there is quite a bit of paperwork to fill out to ensure everyone is credited, and will thus get paid in backend royalties. The songwriter, of course, registers with their performing rights organization. If they have a publishing deal or co-writers, percentage splits need to be discussed and arranged. The producer may be paid on a point system as opposed to with up-front cash, and all musicians are entitled to neighbouring rights royalties (except the Americans, sorry). Whether you are a local grunge band rehearsing in your drummer’s garage or the biggest pop star, there are still multiple organizations that need information on your latest recording, which can get complicated very quickly.
What Benji Rogers and the folks at Dot Blockchain Media have done is create a new type of music file, a “.bc”. It begins as soon as the recording is exported from its digital audio workstation. In order to save the track as a .bc file, at least one songwriter’s information must be added – they call it the “minimum viable data”. These files will not only play your track like an .mp3 or .wav file does, but also store the credits and royalty information, act as a messaging app, and a secure automatic payment system at the same time.
Harnessing the power of Blockchain for music will create a decentralized database of all credits and royalty information, maintained and self-regulated by our community of songwriters. The bigger the community grows, the stronger and safer the system becomes – if one computer crashes or gets hacked, everyone else has a backup of the information. If we manage our intellectual property ourselves, we don’t need to rely on a corporation to swoop in and keep track, as they tend to have different priorities (such as their shareholders). It’s democracy being played out at its purest and most wholesome.
How Will This Affect Songwriters?
Are you familiar with track metadata? It’s when you right-click on a song file in your music library and the information opens up, allowing anyone to go in and change the title, artwork, or credits. In contrast, all information contributed to a .bc file is permanent. It “version tracks” all changes to the song, even if you sell it – amendments and additional contributions are listed after, sort of like a timeline.
Inside the song file, which acts as a “virtual shipping container,” a term coined by Benji Rogers, all the credits can be added, from publisher, producer, session musicians, to co-writers. Just like a traditional PRO, co-writer splits are documented within.
The messaging feature allows quick contact to everyone credited on the song. So for example, if you and another writer agreed on a 50/50 split, you would state that clearly in there. Then, if they try to pull a fast one and update it to 10/90, hoping you wouldn’t check, you could call them out inside the messenger, and all this stored information could serve as evidence in court if it came to that.
The automatic payment feature on a .bc file would mean that every single time your song gets played in a way eligible for a public performance royalty, the song itself would get the notification, and split the money out to the appropriate parties with the agreed percentages split, easing “brick and mortar” PRO’s from expending energy and resources pouring over spreadsheets, making them faster and able to focus on more cutting-edge projects.
How Will This Affect Synch Licences?
Getting a synch licence, which is the music industry term for landing your song in a commercial, movie or television show, is one of the most sought after ways for songwriters to earn income. “Right now, what happens is a lot of works won’t be chosen, as it would cost that in lawyers just to get the deal done. Whereas, if you can imagine, having an app, and all of a sudden, ‘hey, you’ve got a licence!’ and you just hit ‘yes’,” Benji Rogers explains excitedly.
Many music synch deals only happen in high profile, high payout scenarios – ads for the new smartphone, summer blockbusters, etc. But what about small YouTube creators who would love to use the song in their opening sequence, independent filmmakers, or anyone else willing to pay fairly for a smaller artist’s song, but without the Super Bowl car commercial budget?
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“Today, it’s a business of lots and lots of large licences, and some smaller ones. But imagine if you reversed it to big licenses, and thousands of smaller ones?” The music supervisors can focus on working their connections and negotiating deals (as opposed to paperwork), the song’s rights holder gets a ‘ping!’ to the phone, can instantly approve or decline the offer – leading to more deals, faster… Small payouts on their own, but ones that can add up quickly.
Instead of lawyers in these smaller-stakes deals, Blockchain would let potential buyers build “smart licences” to be sent alongside the offer, answering the potential questions songwriters may have. The music licensing department (or small creator) then pays the song directly, and money is split as appropriate.
And just like any other form of ownership, a songwriter can bequeath their Blockchain upon death in their will, leaving their estate, or a loved one to approve or decline deals offered until the song eventually enters the public domain.
How Do I Prove Who I Am?
The first name added to the credits in a .bc audio file, a songwriter, would become the super admin. Everyone else involved would be an admin in this context. It would be up to the super admin to add the next credit, and from then on, the identity point system would kick in.
The big difference between the use of Blockchain for music, and other instances of Blockchain Technology is identity. In the cryptocurrency world, anonymity is the main appeal (let’s just say that the people spending Bitcoin aren’t using it to pay for organic groceries and their monthly gym membership). If Blockchain’s use in the music world is to pay the correct people, we need a way to verifying identities in a strong and secure way.
In this interconnected system, just like the music business at large, our reputation is our most prized possession. Hence, the creation of an identity points system – think of it like the Reddit karma system, except going to infinity either way. Let me illustrate it in action…
An engineer just finishes his work on the new Beyoncé single. He exports the final master from his DAW as a .bc file, crediting the songwriter (Songwriter +1). Songwriter then adds Beyoncé as performer (Performer +1). Beyoncé’s label then sends a request to be added, gets accepted by Performer (Label +1). From there, the label goes through the studio notes and adds all the producers, sessions musicians, etc. where they gain an identity point by accepting the credit. Promotional rollout is underway.
Enter Joe, the wannabe Beyoncé impersonator. Joe types up the new Beyoncé song in the database, as it’s accessible to everyone in the decentralized system. From there, he sends a request to be added as the performer. Beyoncé declines (Joe -1). He tries to add himself as a songwriter, gets declined (Joe -1). Joe then tries to add himself to Columbia Records as an artist on their roster, and gets declined (Joe -1).
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Because all this information is permanent and visible, it’s a deterrent from making false accusations online. In the case of Joe, one click on his profile shows the entire music industry that he’s attempted to impersonate not only Beyoncé, but also Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Drake, Selena Gomez, and Luke Bryan (this week!) – oh, and his identity points currently score at negative seven million. Joe does not exactly have a strong case for him being believed if he really does write a song for Beyoncé that doesn’t get properly credited one day.
“If you want to work in the digital music industry, ask companies and organizations what their blockchain strategy is.” – Benji Rogers, Chief Strategic Officer at Dot Blockchain Media
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Blockchain is the future of songwriting income, experiencing. 25% growth per year. Two years ago, Bitcoin, another project built upon this technology, reached the computing power of Google – twice over. A revolution is coming, do you hear the people sing?