Imogen Heap On Mycelia: A Fair Trade Music Business Inspired By Bitcoin Blockchain

imogen heapIn Part 6 of his series, music business scholar and entrepreneur George Howard continues his interview with musician, artist and inventor Imogen Heap on her  Blockchain inspired democratic artist technology platform and how it and similar efforts can revolutionize the music industry.

image from www.hypebot.comGuest post by George Howard

Imogen Heap and I recently had a free-wheeling discussion on the future of the music business, crypto currency, and her most recent innovation: an idea she refers to as Mycelia. In Part One of our Interview, Ms. Heap discussed the problems endemic to the music business that have led her to muse upon Mycelia.

Here, in Part Two of our conversation, Ms. Heap presents an expansive view on the challenges and opportunities facing the music industry and artists, and provides specifics about her vision for Mycelia.

[The interview has been edited for grammar and clarity, and I have added emphasis via bolding certain passages, but, otherwise, it is presented unaltered.]

George Howard: So, Imogen, where are you currently with Mycelia?

Imogen Heap: Mycelia is a working idea space for me, an artist who is searching for a sustainable future for music. It’s not a project that I’m actively bringing to life just yet. I’m more sharing the idea to see what pops up from having put the word and ideas out there.

image from blogs-images.forbes.comPhoto credit: Jeremy Cowart

So often, platforms get built without any artists being involved at all (which is rather ridiculous), but I really want to get involved and add to the conversation, in the hope of us collectively finding one true home for music.

I don’t offer all the answers of course. I’m not a coder or a systems developer, but I’m dreaming more the flow of how I feel logically the system needs to work. There are no businesses currently in our existing chain of music business workings that get wiped out [by Mycelia], but more the way in which they operate, and thus leaving the creative sides of the business to operate freely and without their clunky counterparts.

There are ever-increasing platforms that need our music in order to survive, and I feel it should happen the other way around: The artist uploading one true version of their content, and all services point to that one. Nice and simple!

GH: Yes. This idea of services using artists’ work without the artists having control or deriving any discernable benefit (monetary or promotional), while the owners of these sites benefit, prompted me to write the piece, “Does The Reddit Revolt Foretell A Similar Uprising For The Music Business?

IH: Right. More and more (and especially since Part One of our conversation was published), I’m finding people on similar wavelengths and am greatly encouraged that actually a Mycelia-like place, isn’t too far away after all. Some people are even halfway to building one.

GH: That’s exciting to hear. Before we get to that, I want to get some more details about your vision for Mycelia. When you talk about Mycelia, you use the analogy of spores. Can you elaborate?

IH: Mycelia – the system/ library/database – hosts hundreds of millions of Spores, which hold the creative content. In this case, music and its related data (but not limited to Music, as I see this as a model for all creative content and Mycelia would benefit hugely from their living together).

Upon their collective foundation, the services – that both the artists and those who engage with it so desperately need – can grow above ground.

These services I refer to as “Mushrooms.”

Those which are taxing, inefficient or “closed,” as they do in nature, are rejected, wither and die. A hashtag, linked to each Spore, tracks its movements, and keeps its trail intact on the blockchain, while the Spore itself is updated, as and when new information is added or swapped out (a better quality version for instance).

This enables one true instance of the creative content to live in Mycelia. This Spore, verified by the content creator, is then used by all services “looking” for it.  The Spore contains all information the artist can and wishes to input. The more elaborate and detailed, the more fun and useful the services can be when pulling data from within it. So essentially, embedded within the Spore are “rules” as to who can do what with it, when, and how.

GH: Sounds ideal. How do artists get paid?

IH: On Mycelia, we mostly share and stream the Spores, and though fewer people need to these days — as hard disk space becomes mostly redundant as we stream from “the cloud” or “the Mycelial network” — you can still download.

Whenever the Spore is interacted with, the payment is distributed as the creator sees fit. The music distribution and the payment mechanism are entwined, and so whether the music is “on tap” or attached to a subscription-based model, every play is accounted for and directly goes to the artist from the person listening. For example, it could either be free (for a limited time maybe, until you decided to change it) or a micro-payment could be sent directly into the creator’s digital wallet every time its interacted with.

Attached to the Spore are instructions to pay x,y, and z, and the verified copyright owner would denote who gets what. Currently labels, publishers, collections societies, etc. do this for the featured artists and musicians, but in Mycelia, this is done directly, saving time and money for all involved.

GH: The key is transparency?

IH: On Mycelia, all this data could be transparent. Though some artists may choose to hide how the payments get split, others may see it as a chance to promote the integrity of the content within the Spore.

There would need to be a clever layer of opacity (something like a bitcoin tumbler effect perhaps?) at the final payment end to protect the identities of the digital wallets’ owners, as this could easily lead them open to be hacked.

I could choose to pay the guitarist, video director, my press agent, etc. a percentage of my song so the Spore credits their digital wallets accordingly when it’s interacted with (listened to, shared or downloaded).

In the smart contract of the Spore, instructions could be carried out automatically, so once a certain amount is reached, contract fulfilled, the payment distribution is triggered to send to another payee or change its percentages. When a new mushroom pops up onto Mycelia that would mean I’d need to revise my content’s smart contracts, and then I would update new software, and hey, presto… good to go.

Equally, the Spore could credit a charity, your spouse, or another artist. In this way Artists can act like beacons or patrons for other artists or charities. 

Also, in our decentralized Mycelia, its only in existence thanks to everyone hosting and updating the network of Spores, and so those who play their part equally get rewarded.

GH: Is this similar to bitcoin mining?

IH: I have been chatting to some of the guys at Ethereum, and the word on the (Shoreditch) street is that the way mining is currently carried out isn’t sustainable for the long term future of the Blockchain. [Ethereum] have some novel ways to get around this and I will leave it toVinay Gupta, one of their members, to do the talking, as I know you’re going to be interviewing some of the guys who I’m in talks with next.

But in regards to incentivizing people to tend to Mycelia, yes: Mycelians (is this getting ridiculous!?) who actively and systematically verify and police the integrity of the data, get paid. A standard transaction fee will be paid as part of the movement of data and this would also go to the “miners/ librarians.” This is a payment of trust also, as Mycelia’s librarians are a much-appreciated bunch, who would get perks all the time.

Artists may choose to encourage extra care and attention in offering from, say, concert tickets, a private dinner or a hand-made Christmas card…whatever the artists would like to offer.  If and when “mining” specifically ever becomes defunct, as a new way to verify and compact blockchain transactions becomes possible, then, perhaps, that same percentage could go to a “support new artists pot,” for example – kind of like a record company advance.

All decisions will be made collectively by a vote from the content creators. The spores may also be updated by an “unofficial source.” If the artist allows, concert dates, set lists, audience photos, blogs, etc. could be added. That spore can have preferences turned on or off by those engaging with it to show whether its official (the content creator), or fan-added material (where they would also, in turn, become a content creator and the artist can become their fan).

I have this ‘preferences’ feature on my new website because those who complete the role of music (the listeners) hold the other half of its story. It is also tag based and only as good as its content (which is growing slowly), so perhaps almost a pre-curser to Mycelia in how one could search and cross reference.

On Mycelia, everyone is both a maker and a player. Therefore, Mycelia is not limited to music. It’s all creative media, and not restricted to professional music makers/songwriters. 

But money isn’t all that you can earn on Mycelia. You can be rated by all kinds of things – from creativity to your social media reach. These ratings would go with you wherever your content is viewed (either directly from the library of Mycelia or one of the Mushrooms). This enables anyone, in turn, to become a “professional,” as content speaks for itself.

So, no multiple versions of you on Mycelia (like in Twitter TWTR +0.00%/ Youtube/ Facebook), but one identity; your wallet linked where you virtually “exist,” and all Mushrooms pull the relevant information from here.

Simply put, no matter who you are, if your data is being used, you’ll be acknowledged by Mycelia’s ratings and/or paid for it. So, if you are high up in efficiency and trustworthiness, but don’t have that much of a social reach yet, you may be cheaper than a Pro with a following, but you can still get started.

GH: So, what about today’s big buzzword of “curation” then, won’t this just create chaos?

IH: Well, the Mushrooms, are where Mycelia really comes to life though, as without them it is essentially a massive library with no curation! The Mushrooms (or services) are the Youtube, Spotify, SongKick and Soundclouds on Mycelia.

As they are equally sharing and giving information, they get paid in a similar way, being dependent on their listener or viewership size. Those which curate, visualize and map the Spores’ content with flair while connecting their ‘data dots’, will be successful.

This means that those which are useful for the artist and listener alike, will survive, as artists (and users) could pay them for the service directly (rather than the other way around today, where the artists are almost like an afterthought and given scraps in comparison to the big profits made by some of the larger labels and services who exist purely from their wares).

GH: One thing that’s lacking in digital files – and no one has successfully dealt with it — are things like artwork/liner notes. Does Mycelia accommodate this?

IH: Current services are so limited; generally only giving a front cover, and, if you’re lucky, some correct credit information.

Most artwork and liner notes get completely lost in the sea of digitally distributed music, and so with it, copyright information, the musicians, instruments (and makes), writers, producer, engineer, studio, the website, contact info, thanks, etc.

Imagine having every Spore containing this information. With this information one could develop a Mushroom to fly you through all this information, and you could go on some amazing knowledge trails. You may find all your favourite songs have the same producer, or discover an engineer. You could listen, for instance, to the music with the artists’ biography up to that point in his or her career, or see photographs from that era coupled with related news articles from that time, or just simply sit and pore over some old forgotten vinyl artwork. 

Streemliner have a brilliant thing going on in this domain. They are working to get all physical packaging documented for us to engage with online (I have my last two albums digitally released in this way). Reviving lost artwork in our digital age; this would be one of my first choice Mushrooms when the time came!

GH: So the same could be applied to other pieces of information – photos, videos, etc., right?

IH: Yes, a Spore can “contain” (but actually point to) related videos from the official music video to connected making-of clips, interviews and photos – all tagged within the spore to be cross referenced.

Derivatives too… remixes and reworks. These would all point back to the “genesis track,” as say “genesis blocks” do on the Blockchain; forking off and creating more branches, mapping its journey as it goes for all who are curious to see and research the life of a song. Some works may span across decades or even a whole century. Each derivative would create a new Spore and “hash,”  which are documented on the Blockchain and divvy up the proceeds accordingly.

GH: Same general idea as curation. What about marketing? How do artists stand out?

IH: Spores also act like a strand of the artist’s DNA; sharing his or her favourite artists or brands, painters, authors, dancers, photographers… whatever they choose. Spreading the net, and, again, connecting the dots.

A Mushroom could pop up to enable brands to connect to artists, and vice versa. Say someone like Ecover or theRSPCA were looking for an artist to write their next campaign song; they could search for artists who use Ecover’s products or artists who support the RSPCA, and get in touch and, hey, presto…both parties are happy.

Music festivals could be sponsored in this way by brands finding a collection of artists to play who like their stuff and wouldn’t mind a spot of cross promotion.

Or, what If I was looking for ideas on who to collaborate with and could search for artists like Imogen Heap? I know I’d be able to get in contact, and know I may have half a chance.

Artists could get on a tour this way or find their own support act.

Equally, fans could see which artists like other artists, and a Mushroom could grow onto Mycelia to enable listeners to listen to a real Imogen Heap radio – not just what an algorithm thinks I’d like, or someone else deciding what fans of mine would like.

In short, the artists become beacons to connect with what inspires them, and to shine a light on that that may which inspire others. So much fun to be had in the Mushroom world and I’d love to be a part of building those spaces. Here, as you may gather, is where companies can make money on Mycelia.

GH: And through this marketing/connection, we come full circle, right? Now we’re back to collaborations, licensing, etc.?

IH: Yes. In the Spore could sit a contract stating what the artist will allow/not allow. Perhaps even pre-cleared music under certain circumstances, making it much easier for people to use music in their films or adverts (if the artist chooses to), or just a click away from seeing the terms.

It’s so hard to find who to contact if you want to use that piece of music in an advert or remix it for example. This is often a major chore and hurdle for creatives/companies wanting to sync music to picture; preventing what could be a big earner for artists and songwriters. One good sync could pay for an artist’s next album! Maybe even the song ‘worth’ or ‘license fee’ could be generated by a market place where the popularity of a track in a certain area could determine how much a company needs to pay for it?

Then the artist can accept or not/add extra if it’s worth more to them, but it’s a good starting point.

Equally companies could choose tracks they love but have no popularity, and so they get them cheaper, but, in so doing, drive up the price of the next one, as its reach and influence is in turn tracked.

GH: So, tons of collaborations, licenses – all in theory transparent – but also just a pile of data. How do people sift through it?

IH: So much data… but if it’s ugly and clunky to navigate around, no-one will enjoy using it. No more spreadsheet like platforms please.

I want to flow through data and knowledge and discover hidden music and other artful gems amongst the Mushrooms with gorgeous data visualization.

GH: But even with this visualization, it’s still very one-sided. How to address?

IH: Feedback… This is one thing we are hugely lacking in these days. So much useful data out there is just being hidden or lost.

Imagine if there was, for instance, a Mushroom where the fans were busy raising money for your next show, and said Mushroom worked out a tour and a routing for you based on the heat map of your songs in relation to the world at large. You may find interesting pockets of fandom! Discover you’re huge in Madagascar, and book your next holiday to coincide with your next gig!

Every author has a dashboard for where, when and how their content is being interacted with. The ultimate statement of affairs.

A simple “bring artist to my town” pay-in-advance ticket button attaches onto the Spore in one Mushroom. That could, in turn, trigger a notification to the artist once thresholds had reached 100 or 1000 from individual towns. It could read: “Rio wants you to come play! 1000 audience guaranteed.” You could have the option to “find sponsor,” “put extra tickets on sale for larger venue,” “find other artists to share costs,” such as equipment or production manager.

You get the idea. If all data is open, then Mushrooms will enable Spores, Artists, and listeners to cross reference and visualize data in exciting, new, meaningful and useful ways.

GH: What’s the incentive for people to contribute?

IH: Outside of ratings, or perks direct from the author there could be ways to affect the physical world, and connect deeply there too. If in your Spore you, for instance, mentioned where you wrote that song, then perhaps a struggling coffee shop could re-emerge as a hotspot for inspiration and put itself on the map… literally.

It could be that a coffee shop owner who plays an album of mine all day long and “turns people over” somehow get a big tip from me!  

Fans on Mycelia could help artists organize or get the most out of all this feedback on Mycelia, and, equally, a Mushroom could offer this service, kind of like a virtual manager, by dealing with requests on your behalf, or acting upon your guidelines embedded within the Spore, and eventually earning themselves a split – once they’d proved themselves to be a good manager, promoter, or marketing advisor, and ultimately being hired in the “real world.”

GH: So… a real holistic approach to the entire circle of music related business and jobs! What about the impact of music quality?

IH: Soon enough there will be no need to download a compressed music file. The quality will be as good as when it left the mastering studio. Old crushed audio could be replaced and updated to all owners of that Spore automatically – just as updates do of software onto our computers. However, the sound will still only be as good as your headphones or speakers!

Artists/rights owners will need to put their digital verification stamp on it (as say twitter does for official accounts). People, should they want to, will know they are listening to the definite recording as the artist wished it to be heard. They could even give listening tips or hints like… “dim lights, think of your childhood sweetheart.”

An idea a good friend of mine, Nick Ryan had, was that every time a Mycelia track was played by a service, a little light would come on on the player to let the listener know they are playing Fair Trade Music. Simple and elegant!

You can be driving in your car and see that that Digital Radio service is currently streaming from Mycelia, and feel that little bit better perhaps knowing the artist is getting paid directly for that play rather than a fraction of the amount in a years time from that moment… which is almost the current state of affairs! This would encourage existing services to do the switch.

GH: It’s such an important vision, and I feel like every day that goes by not only emphasizes the need for this to become reality, but also seems to hint that it could come sooner than we think. Since you and I began talking about this – not very long ago – what observations have you had?

IH: Well, George, a week has now passed, during which time I have met with people on this topic, and read many online responses to the first post - including the interview you did with Andy Weissman where he discusses his music “Nirvana State.” In that interview, he eloquently and succinctly (not my forte!) explains the core ideas of a Mycelia-like place; specifically regarding how rules written into the blockchain can enable a music service to be built upon it. The key element to turning the music industry finally on its feet is to begin with the artists, and how they choose to have their music “played.”

One of the meetings I’ve had since Part One was published, was with two people – Rupert Hine (a dear friend) and Alan Graham – behind an intriguing immediate solution for a lot of license holders’ payment and rights issues (including user-generated content). They call it (working title)OCL, and I do believe this could be a gateway to a Mycelia of the future, which could then perhaps exist as a Mushroom.

It is a hybridized centralized/decentralized system that is meant to build a bridge between the legacy systems of the past, and what rights owners and citizens need for the future. It entirely depends on gathering thousands of artists’ support (as Mycelia would need to do as well) and, with them, starting to build a fluid, global connectivity from within our current music business, and engaging and empowering artists, in real world and much-needed policy changes along the way.

So, rather than it being a wipe-the-slate-clean-and-start-again approach (which I initially felt was the only way due to the mess everything is in), encouragingly, I see, via their technology, how a lot of artists and musicians – especially those stuck in deals of today and yesterday – can transition into a Mycelial future.

GH: So, Imogen, what are your next steps?

IH: Just in these last few months – since I’ve been actively talking and sharing ideas with people – I now find myself in touch with at least five independent groups of people developing their own systems. These are just those who’ve reached out, but I imagine there must be more. And, since our first Forbes piece, many other people also have reached out who want to help Mycelia come to life in some way – including, of course, lots of artists.

While this is really exciting – as we are all on the same page – it is a little overwhelming, and I would like to call a summit for our future home for music. We all have a common goal, and it would really make sense to pool our knowledge, technology and ideas together, let go and birth one incredible place.

GH:I love that idea! I’m in.

IH: I will post details of the summit here on my website, where people can also comment on these thoughts.

On top of this, I hope to release my next song, “Tiny Human,” as an art project both online and in a gallery in London. I’d like to visualise Mycelia and enable people to explore Tiny Human’s Spore and how it may interact with a few example Mushrooms. I’m a bit reticent to say (as I may not manage it!), but I’d love this to happen end of September.

Finally, thank you George for this opportunity to get the word out there!

GH: Thank you, Imogen.


Part 1:The Bitcoin Blockchain Might Save The Music Industry…If Only We Could Understand It

Part 2: Bitcoin Can't Save The Music Industry If The Music Industry Continues To Resist Transparency

Part 3:Bitcoin And Music: An Interview With Artist And Composer Zoe Keatingart

Part 4:  Imogen Heap's Mycelia: Creating A Fair Trade Music Business, Inspired By Blockchain

Part 5:  Union Square Ventures' Andy Weissman On The Blockchain And The Music Rights 'Nirvana State'

George Howard is an entrepreneur, educator, advisor, and angel investor. He was the President of Rykodisc, one of the original founders of TuneCore, and manager of Carly Simon. He recently co-founded Music Audience Exchange, is an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music , and advises numerous creative companies. He is most easily found on Twitter.

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