Blockchain technology has received a great deal of media and music industry attention recently. It’s a technology that’s been at the core of a flurry of new (and some genuinely innovative) startups, and has been championed by Midem 2016 speakers Imogen Heap, Benji Rogers (who explains the topic here) and others as a way to help make the music business a more fair, transparent and sustainable ecosystem. After all, there’s a lot of money changing hands in the music industry, and not all of it is ending up in the right places.
Since my call with Benji in late 2015 about getting him involved in Music Tech Fest Berlin at the end of this month, there’s been a flurry of seminars, hackathons and workshops about Blockchain and music. The worlds of cryptocurrencies and financial tech have collided with the music industry at a breakneck speed.
Solving a hard problem
There are some people from the world of music who have incredibly high and perhaps, in some instances, unreasonable expectations of the technology based on a surface understanding of distributed databases, codecs, cryptography and the concept of genesis files. There are others from the world of hard science and tech with great intentions for a fairer music ecosystem, but without the full understanding of the complexity of rights, the unique cultural nature of music and the flexible requirements for music metadata.
Compare, for instance, the guest artists, co-writers and producers on a contemporary rap hit; a recorded performance of works by 20th century composers reinterpreted by electronic artists and included on a compilation album; and a song written by nine different people, three of whom have since died and several of whom are represented by different rights organisations. Then start to think of all the recordings of music in the world whose artists and audiences do not use the Latin alphabet. Think of contemporary field recordings of traditional music that are later used in a film. Just think about territories. Think about the approach to moral rights. Think of the vast catalogue of recorded music – including most of the recordings ever released by the major record labels – that is currently not available commercially in any form, often because of a lack of clarity about exactly who owns which bit.
This, as you and I know, is not simply a tricky field to work in. It’s a tricky minefield to work in.
And then consider the fact that what we’re talking about here is not music. We’re just talking about recordings of music.
And then consider this: even the concept of ‘fair’ is fraught. The ethical and political dimensions of a Blockchain solution need some pretty thorough working out. Making things fair for a group of people that have been poorly treated or undervalued needs to be achieved without making things unfair for someone else. Transparency needs to not mean surveillance or lack of privacy. There are some lessons from DRM and the Rootkit debacle that should be paid attention to. This is a hard problem in every direction, and Blockchain is not an easy solution.
But because a problem is hard, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be attempted – and right now, we are at a unique period in history where we get to invent the rules of how this all works, define what we’re trying to achieve, and what a good outcome looks like.
The Creative Laboratory
As great as they are at generating and disseminating ideas, there’s a limit to what hackathons, seminars and panel sessions can achieve – and there’s a limit to what individuals and organisations can do in isolation. What’s needed is to gather all of the really smart people from right across the board in a room together and put them to work in new combinations – trying things out, kicking at the edges of the technology, and attempting sophisticated solutions to complex problems.
So in the week leading up to Music Tech Fest Berlin at Funkhaus, the festival is inviting some of the best minds in the field – from well-known artists and labels, music streaming and cloud hosting organisations, rights managers and a diverse cross-section of music industry representatives, to scientists and academics from the world’s top institutions – to participate in #MTFLabs: Blockchain – a 5-day blockchain laboratory to conduct experiments and explore the possibilities for music using the technology.
Music Tech Fest Berlin is the festival of music ideas and a giant creative laboratory. We are notably partnering with Hack in the Box – a security hack event in Amsterdam – to ensure the best minds from right across Europe come together to progress, to question and to innovate in the realm of blockchain music.
Experiments and findings
#MTFLabs: Blockchain is not simply a discussion or a seminar, but an invitation-only hands-on testbed for innovation and experimentation. There are some fundamental questions to be explored and some exclusive technologies to be tested – and of course, the central figures in the public blockchain music conversation will be involved and represented.
Benji Rogers is going to be showing his face, contributing his tech and working with the groups. Imogen Heap will give the opening address and providing some of the top minds from her Mycelia project, to work with the groups. Panos Panay , from the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship, will also be joining us.
The aim of the lab is to conduct practical experiments and yield results. Those results will ultimately be presented as policy advice to the European Alliance of IoT Innovation (AIOTI), whose General Assembly is running in parallel with the festival on the Monday at Funkhaus.
The AIOTI represents major industries from across all vertical sectors – from lighting to agriculture, microchips to telecommunications. #MTFLabs: Blockchain is a perfect example of how fundamental technologies derive from, or are driven by music tech. Innovation comes from all directions: but music technology is a cultural force, driving progress in verticals from fintech to automotive.
Bringing open innovation to Midem
After Music Tech Fest, the results will be taken to Cannes, where they will be represented and disseminated at the Blockchain sessions at Midem. The IP generated in the Blockchain Lab at Music Tech Fest will be made available as Open Innovation. The purpose of this event is to progress the entire field, not simply make a killer app behind closed doors.
As the major music industry event that directly follows Music Tech Fest, Midem allows us to bring the outcome of the #MTFLabs: Blockchain week straight to the wider music business and artist community. We can’t predict what the nature of the results will be, but over the life of Music Tech Fest, the methodology we have developed for hands-on experimentation and the concept of the creative laboratory promises rich results in this space.
#MTFLabs: Blockchain runs from the 23rd to the 27th of May at Music Tech Fest Berlin. Benji Rogers explains blockchain here, ahead of a highly-anticipated Midem session (June 5, 14.30-15.30), with Imogen Heap, Downton Publishing’s Joe Conyers III, Revelator’s Bruno Guez, Ethereum’s Vinay Gupta and moderator Allen Bargfrede, of Berklee College of Music. More about Midem conferences…