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Marla Woodward

Degree:

MBA

Location:

United States

Industry:

Marketing

Year:

2017-18

By Marla Woodward

A musical use case for blockchain

You can’t go more than a few days without hearing about cryptocurrencies and blockchain. These disruptive technologies have the potential to completely change how we think about currency and information validation in the future, and they are certainly top tech buzz words in 2018. If you’re anything like me, though, you might still be wondering “What exactly is blockchain and why should I care?”

After spending time at the Saïd Business School’s “Disruptive Tech Week” in Oxford a few weeks back, I’m slowly beginning to wrap my head around what the blockchain is and how it could greatly change how we share, consume, and validate information. To that end, I’m happy to share with you what I’ve learned so far. This blog will walk through:

1. What blockchain is
2. A use case for blockchain in the music industry

WHAT IS BLOCKCHAIN?

To understand blockchain, I find it helps to understand its origin story. When bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto first created a cryptocurrency, he or she (we still don’t know who this mysterious person is) realised it was essential to have both a finite amount of the coins as well as a ledger that would tell you who owned which amount of coins at any given time. This essentially allows people to transfer something of value to another person without a central intermediary. The ledger part of the bitcoin system is what gave birth to blockchain.

Why is this ledger so important and revolutionary? For the simple reason that no one entity theoretically controls it or can tamper with it without others knowing. It decentralizes the concentration of power in the system. When you hear about people “mining” for bitcoin, what they are doing is running computer programs that validate parts of the blockchain ledger. These “miners” are compensated in bitcoin, or fractions of bitcoin, for being independent verifiers of this decentralised ledger. This is what’s called an “open” or “public” blockchain – everyone in the world can theoretically see it and miners are incentivised to maintain and constantly monitor the ledger to keep it up to date and accurate.

The downsides to the open blockchain approach at the moment are the energy, storage space and time needed to participate as a miner. This is leading to a growing concentration of minders as opposed to the desired dispersion of them. To mine coins, people would have to store parts of the blockchain on their local (personal) devices, using precious memory space and energy.

Today, there is also a wave of potential “closed blockchain” solutions. These closed systems are blockchain ledgers that are only open to certain users in a network, not the world at large. It means only certain devices need to locally store the blockchain, saving lots of people from having to locally store the content on their devices.

When I first heard about closed blockchain solutions, I was a bit skeptical about how they would be used. A closed environment is antithetical to the entire purpose of what the blockchain stands for, my logic argued, so why would someone create one? I was very much against the idea until I heard of a practical application in music production.

A CLOSED BLOCKCHAIN USE CASE IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

Blòkur is a closed blockchain platform created by self-proclaimed “crypto-anarchist” and Oxford Saïd alumni, Phil Barry. Barry believes blockchain can help the music industry sort out music licensing rights and help collaborators get paid properly. The main difficulty, he explains, is that “one song can have dozens of different rights on it: producers, writers, performers, and publishers.” Barry said you can think of each individual song as a “company with equity rights.” Each entity that is part of that company has different percentages of ownership and as such is owed a certain percentage of the revenue from each song. He then went on to show us all 30 odd parties that have claims on the song “Baby Boy” by Beyoncé ft. Sean Paul.

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Even though Publishers sit in the centre of song rights and payment distribution today, this all-powerful source of truth can find it extremely difficult to sort out ownership rights on songs sometimes. According to Barry, 65% of the time song equity holders are not paid correctly, and the system is so complicated that Spotify, a market leader in music streaming, can only identify a song publisher 20% of the time. As a result, Spotify is setting aside 80% of its streaming costs aside in a bucket to sort out at a later date. There is a definite pain point here.

Enter Blòkur. It tracks music rights in a transparent way and gives users and customers a nice application layer to easily view the ownership records stored on the blockchain. For the first time ever, music collaborators, even minority stake collaborators, can check and make sure that their equity stake in a song is protected. And if the ownership is not properly documented? They can enter edits to be validated on the blockchain. This makes Blòkur a blockchain validation, not a third-party source of truth. This is an important nuance that indicates the changing ownership structure of blockchain systems versus large databases.

Now you might be asking yourself, “Why can’t a centralised database do that? Why do you need to put all of this data on blockchain?” As I see it, there are some important facts to consider in jumping from a Publisher controlled environment to a blockchain driven solution:

1. Publishers are already the theoretical source of truth and they are not paying out revenues on songs properly half of the time. So, the current system is not optimal.
2. You could have a third-party create a centralised database to house all publisher data to make the process more efficient, but…
3. You would then miss out on transparency and greater trust in the data’s accuracy. Without small equity holders having access to see and apply edits to their portion of song equity, there could theoretically be abuses of power, specifically by publishing companies who have the resources and capital to persuade third parties to make changes in their favour.

The whole idea behind using a blockchain is for transparency and crowdsourcing accuracy of data. Is it a perfect solution? Not even close. Blockchain is in its infancy and, to quote Barry, has all the efficiency of 1970s finance “where you have men on the trading floor holding paper.” It’s early stages and it’s not perfect. But it works, and it’s only going to get more efficient.

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