George Howard’s latest book Everything In Its Right Place: How Blockchain Technology Will Lead To A More Transparent Music Industry features interviews with music veterans about the intersection of technology and music. Read an excerpt below featuring his interview with cellist Zoë Keating (Amanda Palmer, John Vanderslice).
I’ve now written two columns focusing on crypto currency (dominantly Bitcoin) and its potential utilization in the arts generally, and music specifically, to engender better tracking and transparency.
These articles have generated conversation, but I’m left with a strong sense that—while many people (a lot of whom profess to be experts) have very strong ideas and opinions about the relative merits and possibilities of crypto currency—there are depressingly few direct examples of the utilization of this technology affecting change with respect to transparency or accounting in art/music.
What compounds the difficulty in terms of pinpointing use cases is that—unlike other emergent technologies (Virtual Reality, etc.), crypto-currencies (mostly Bitcoin) are aggressively traded. As such, many thoughts put forward with respect to usages (current or imagined) must be viewed skeptically. One must wonder, for instance, if the person who champions a particular currency-related use case is doing so because he stands to financially benefit; i.e. they might be holding a lot of Bitcoins.
All caveats aside, my enthusiasm for Cryptocurrency remains high, even while specifics around use cases in the arts is cloudy. I thought it wise therefore to bring in another voice—a voice I know to be transparent and trustworthy—to the conversation to discuss this topic.
Zoë Keating is not only a fine musician/composer (“Into the Trees”, Ms. Keating’s SoundCloud postings), but also an artist who has embraced transparency around her music more so than any artist I know. For example, Ms. Keating frequently posts detailed royalty statements that allow people to see unvarnished accountings.
I imagine it’s this combination of musical brilliance and the embracing of technology/transparency that led Ms. Keating to being invited to The Blockchain Summit held at Richard Branson’s Necker Island.
I asked Ms. Keating some questions about this experience, and her thoughts on crypto generally, and her responses (edited only for grammar and clarity) are below. I urge you to read the entirety of Ms. Keating’s responses; they are the most clearly articulated on this topic I’ve yet to see.
In the interest of disclosure, I have known Zoe for a number of years, and we did work together on one project several years ago with the composer Mark Isham.
George Howard: What were your overall impressions of the event?
Zoë Keating: My fly-on-the-wall impression was of a passionately engaged group of people—entrepreneurs, investors and thinkers—brought together to explore the potential of the Blockchain for the betterment of the world. Yes, they also had a cracking good time on a private island.
I certainly picked the brains of everyone who would tolerate me, and the topics were broad. Everything from encoding personal identity and property rights into the Blockchain to making elections transparent.
Hernando de Soto was a standout. His book The Mystery of Capital was most talked about. Bill Tai loaned me his copy to read on the beach while I was there.
Howard: You’ve been a massive proponent of transparency—going so far as to post your royalty statements. Why do you do this, and what impact has it had?
Keating:I think because I am outside the music industry, much of the way it operates seems absurd to me, so I talk about it. I just always want to make things better and I don’t know if I’ve had any impact, but I do it because I just feel obligated to help.
I just believe in transparency in everything and I’ve put my career outside the mainstream so that I can operate on my own terms. I’ve managed to avoid working with record labels for my entire career.
I initially published my digital music earnings because the dominant story in the press on artist earnings did not reflect my reality, nor that of musical friends I talked to. None of us were concerned about file sharing/piracy, we seemed to sell plenty of music directly to listeners via pay-what-you-want services while at the same time earning very little from streaming.
Since artists under record contracts might be prohibited from publishing their earnings, or might not even know them, I felt obliged to raise my hand and describe my reality. I thought, how can we build a future ecosystem without knowing how the current one actually works?
I expected other unaffiliated artists in my position would do the same, and we could help forward the discussion. However, I found that just like record labels, unaffiliated artists don’t always want transparency either. Why? Because, across the board, from the bottom to the top, the music industry is built on people pretending to be bigger than they really are.
At the same time, other than hit songs, it is near impossible to know what the real popularity of a piece of music is. Nielsen recognized this and added streams to SoundScan rankings, but the internet is far more interesting than that.
What about popularity by “use?” To use myself as an example again, there are to date 15,000 videos on YouTube with my music in them, none of them by me. The videos are other people’s unlicensed dance performances, commercial films, TV shows, student films, experimental films, art projects, soundtracks to gaming session, etc. But currently there is no way to leverage that kind of enthusiasm. Only YouTube knows how popular my music is for unauthorized soundtracks.
I’m interested in using the Blockchain to track derivative works. What if you could know the actual reach of something? It seems like there are entire ecosystems not being leveraged or monetized.
Copyright metadata is just a way to identify who should be paid, and today that is the songwriter and the publisher. It can be surprisingly hard to find out who owns a song, let alone get permission to use it for anything.
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.
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.
Old school record contracts are essentially a way to pay all those entities upfront because there is no easy way to calculate and pay micro-payments into the distant future.
We’ve come far in dismantling that system, but have yet to replace it with anything, and that, I think, is where the pain and suffering of artists lies. Right now, we have a diminished record label investment engine, yet limited ways to compensate all the parties involved in making something.
I can imagine all this. I’ve been imagining it. I’m sure other people imagine it. But it’s still a dream. I don’t know who can do it or if anyone is doing it and yeah, the technical details are a fucking bitch. But so what? I just think there hasn’t been enough incentive in the music industry, everyone is busy fighting to keep what they already have and what initiative there is has been embarrassingly misguided (TIDAL??? WTF?!).
Howard: Do you know of (either from this event or from your own experiences) of examples of artists (in any medium) utilizing crypto? If so, please describe. If not, why not?
Keating:I know Imogen Heap is trying to figure out how to make derivative works (i.e. sampling) and covers both easier to manage, paperwork-wise for her and her fans, and how to share in the success of those works. Last I talked to her last month she was investigating the idea of a music Blockchain and/or a new file format.
Howard: Do you have a vision for how crypto might impact the artistic realms moving forward? Will you be embracing it if you’re not now?
Keating:I tend to get excited about anything that has potential to put money and power back into the hands of individuals rather than institutions. I’m interested in enabling the musical middle class, just like I’m interested in the fortunes of the middle class at large. I don’t believe that rich vs. poor has to be the only outcome in the music industry.
Like you’ve already written about, the corporate music establishment—i.e. record labels—have no interest in the transparency offered by Blockchain.
Howard: You are an artist who has handled all of your business affairs. What guidance do you have either to other artists/business people or business people in the arts with respect to crypto/transparency, etc.
Keating:Be curious. Read. Seek out interesting people who are experts on things you know nothing about and then just enjoy each other’s company. That’s my whole approach to life in general.
George Howard is an associate professor at Berklee College of Music and Brown University, as well as the CIO of Los Angeles music rights company, Riptide Music. He will appear on the panel “Playola: Reckoning With Music’s Newest Kingmaker” at SXSW on March 15.