We talk endlessly about royalties, which is really a way of talking about centralization — giving power to a service or organization and asking them to sort out the model that pays people. Centralization will always lead to a system that can be gamed. Anything less than every participant acting altruistically means things go funny. And the truth about our world is that things always go funny. In art as in business there are ebbs and flows of power. In those tides decisions are made and people find ways to break models to their own advantage. A break is a break whether it comes from Thom Yorke or Taylor Swift — let’s take them their word that they’re after a greater good — or if it happens when a major label demands equity. Things collapse and people can get hurt.
Right now we have a wide range of centralized for-profit services. Walled gardens. This is a good thing. When one model breaks artists can move to another. But slowly and very surely some of the largest corporations in the world are becoming the dominant players in that market. The costs and overhead needed for a massive centralized model to work are huge, so smaller upstarts fall. We’ll continue to see music devalued because to a corporation art is just content, another line in a budget.
We all inherently understand that art is more than a line item. Artists can ask questions that scholars, scientists, and politicians can’t. They influence the world around us and it’s vital we build a healthy ecosystem where musicians are able to continue to do so collaboratively and sustainably. Centralized for-profit models have a place in that ecosystem, but we can’t rely on them alone. Without checks and balances art and its influence will continue to march unimpeded towards corporate control.
My friend Mark Surman likes to talk in terms of digital and economic empires. It’s a powerful metaphor, and one I find particularly relevant in his points about perception. In the world of messaging Facebook and WhatsApp make up 80% of the market, meaning one company controls a massive majority of that space. To many “the Internet” is nothing more than those two apps. Similarly we once saw major labels hold that kind of control over music. Musicians and independent labels fought hard to change that, but every time we prematurely concede that streaming royalties will be the dominant model we step towards giving empire status to whoever controls that market. Let’s be empire breakers instead.
The idea of decentralization sounds hard, but millions of “pirates” have proven otherwise one torrent at a time. We should draw inspiration from that and figure out how to make decentralized models that work for both audience and artist. We don’t need another walled garden, but open standards that can let artists, services, blogs, and others work together. We don’t need a single answer, but a thousand answers that are all compatible so music consumers can use them seamlessly just as we use the open web today.
So that’s what we’re working on, in the long term sense. CASH Music is building towards open standards that will start to see the light of day in 2015. Things as simple as metadata standards that will offer information to blogs; share a track and control the link back to your own site driving promo. Offers APIs that can be accepted directly into streaming services as a way to support artists by driving sales and interaction; taking streaming from fruitless discovery to a full marketplace where musicians can connect directly to fans. We want data and information services coming straight from the artist to drive news, tour dates, and announcements direct from the source. All implemented in an open and platform agnostic way so everyone can participate.
My point is this: any kind of centralized control of an arts industry is going to fail. The money and human politics just don’t work. That path will hurt artists and ultimately audiences as well. But I do think we can build open standards into existing services, strengthen them, and create a rich and diverse ecosystem that can thrive for years, adapting to changes and spawning new models.
Let’s stop looking myopically at streaming or any other single aspect of this brave new world. It’s time we build the ecosystem that music needs. We decentralize. We open up for collaboration. We crumble empires and put artists at the heart of it all.
It’s time we bring the open web to music.
By Jesse von Doom, licensed under a Creative Commons BY license.