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Hailed as a gamechanger for the fragmented recorded biz, IQ learns the Bitcoin-derived tech also has wide-reaching applications in ticketing, live streaming and licensing
By Jon Chapple on 03 Mar 2017
While much has been made of the potential for blockchain – the technology behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – to revolutionise the recorded music industry, the same isn’t true in the live sector.
Articles by the major tech and business publications (Forbes, Fortune, TechCrunch et al.) have largely focused on implications for the online streaming of recorded music, citing the benefits of ‘smart contracts’ wherein the owner(s) of songs will be paid automatically for their usage. However, while wider adoption of blockchain may, as Imogen Heap suggests, throw a much-needed lifeline to musicians struggling with paltry Spotify pay-outs, it could also radically transform the (comparatively more lucrative) live industry…
In the same way blockchain databases monitor where a music recording has been used, the technology can be used to track the ownership of a paperless concert ticket.
Chris Carey, founder of Media Insight Consulting and the recent FastForward conference (at which IQ news editor Jon Chapple chaired a ticketing panel), suggests blockchain can facilitate the “legitimate resale of tickets by having a clear chain”. Speaking to IQ’s Eamonn Forde, Carey says by tracking secondary sales, ticket agencies could provide artists and promoters with a cut of each resale: “Tracking the ticket through its journey could actually create revenue at different steps. There is an argument to say that if you can monitor transactions through technology, the artist could get a share of the upside at every step of the way.”
Several yet-to-launch start-ups, including Amsterdam-based GUTS and the UK’s Lava, are already using the technology to bolster the both the data-gathering and anti-touting capabilities of paperless tickets.
GUTS Tickets founder Maarten Bloemers echoes Carey’s suggestion that blockchain can be used by artists to track ownership of a ticket, saying the technology “makes it possible to follow the lifecycle of a ticket from A to Z”. He tells Dutch paper De Telegraaf he had the idea for the company after hearing a discussion about black-market tickets on a radio programme. “Someone [on the show] said no one can guarantee the authenticity of tickets,” he explains, “and I immediately thought of blockchain.”
“We’re looking at a world where knowing the complete provenance of the ticket is a good thing,” adds Benji Rogers, co-founder and CEO of dotBlockchain Music (dotBC). “Unless, of course, you’re trying to hide something…”
Levelling the PROing field
Perhaps the most important live application of blockchain could be to give PROs a shot in the arm at a time when an increasing number of rightsholders are choosing to bypass collective licensing altogether in favour of collecting public performance royalties directly.
Rogers – unlike, for example, Mark Knopfler – believes there is “still a place for PROs to make large deals on behalf of artists”, but says they face the challenge of “not [being] competitive today”. (Little surprise, perhaps, when many are more than a century old: the UK’s Performing Right Society was founded in 1914.)
“They’re using tech not built for the size and scale of what’s coming at them,” he explains.
The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (Socan) recently became the first PRO to partner with dotBC. Eric Baptiste, the CEO of Socan – which represents more than 135,000 rightsholders and recently saw collections from live performances grow to a record high – said last month: “We are convinced that it is possible to address payment and rights inefficiencies […] that have been a drag on the entire ecosystem for far too long.” He added: “The encouraging work of dotBC has the potential to unlock enormous value for our members”.
Rogers says PROs making use of blockchain technology will be able to compete more effectively by offering a better service to their membership. Comparing PROs to trains running on different gauges of track, he prophesies that in future collection societies will “need to work on a common rail”: “If we build the perfect sound format [.bc], we build the rail and everyone can ride on same track.”
DotBlockchain Music, then, “allows [PROs] to work together while remaining competitive,” says Rogers. “They can then compete based on how good their accounting is, how good their data side is…
“We’re looking at a world where knowing the complete provenance of the ticket is a good thing”
Another potential application of blockchain in the live space is to enable artists and promoters to broadcast their shows live safe in the knowledge copyright owners are being paid.
Writing in IQ last year, Sziget Festival’s András Berta was enthusiastic about live streaming as a way to reach more fans, but said there are concerns about the complexities involved in licensing live streams. “In 2016, I think we still face a grey [area] when it comes to clearing streaming rights,” he wrote, “simply because the industry is far from being homogeneous. Different players hold different cards, and this can result in a losing hand in many cases.”
By using dotBC’s codec (.bc), which binds writer metadata to the track, for music files, Rogers explains festivals like Sziget will be free to live-stream on sites such as Facebook and YouTube – and artists able to sell recordings straight after the show – with the writers receiving owed royalties automatically.
Rogers, also a musician, relates an anecdote about his experience licensing live recordings. Following a concert in which his band played two covers (The Cars and Gram Parsons), he paid the Harry Fox Agency to purchase the rights to distribute a recording of the show. “We said we’d sell maybe 1,000,” he explains. “We gave them $2,500 and never heard anything else.”
There was, he says, “no itemisation or monetisation” on the bill – theoretically, the band could have sold 10,000 copies and Harry Fox might never have known. With blockchain, conversely, there is a “bulletproof digital asset” that ensures ownership of songs is always “anchored back to the writers”.
A new rights reality
Like live streaming, filming and distributing shows in virtual reality (VR) is being tipped as a new revenue stream for the promoters of the future, with recent research finding early VR adopters outspend the average American 2:1 on live events.
However, Rogers says VR is also currently a licensing nightmare, with a traditional sync licence – which grants the licensee the rights to synchronise music with visual media – insufficient for a live VR gig, where the setlist is liable to change.
“How do I license a VR concert,” asks Rogers, “if I don’t know what songs are going to be played?”
Rogers says that, “right now, sound recordings” – master recordings, typically owned by labels, as opposed to the copyrights to the compositions themselves, usually administered by a publisher – “hold supremacy”, but in future “PROs [performance rights organisations] are going to have to do a deal with the publishing side of things” to offer more flexible licences for new experiences like VR shows.
One company leveraging the blockchain to do just that – again backed by Imogen Heap – is Ujo Music, which aims to provide a “shared infrastructure for all music services”, independent of the traditional label/publisher/licensing axis.
“If we build a common language for music, we can scale the business infinitely”
While blockchain offers tremendous opportunities for promoters, artists, ticketing companies and PROs, Gregor Pryor, co-chair of the global entertainment and media industry group at legal firm Reed Smith, told IQ in issue 62 its actual take-up in live may stymied by the fact most people at the top end the top end of the concert business are actually making money.
“Live has probably been the place that artists have been running to when their digital revenues have been dropping,” he said in late 2015. “The live industry has been nowhere near as disrupted by digital as the record industry has – in fact, it has probably benefited. There has to be a reason for them to adopt it [blockchain].
“In the world of streaming royalty payments,” Pryor suggests, “there is much more of an incentive and impetus to adopt change. There is not any driving force behind change in live.”
However, as underlined above, much has changed since then. With growing unease around the state of the secondary ticket market, and the emergence of direct licensing and new, non-traditional PROs – such as Germany’s GWVR, which gives concert promoters a cut of the royalties from recordings – technology, as in so many other walks of life, may indeed provide the answer.
As it stands, music has “no common language,” concludes Rogers. “Email has POP3, Skype runs on VoIP [voice over IP]… If we build a common language for music – the perfect sound format – we can scale the business infinitely.”
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