Bitcoin and Music: An Interview with Artist and Composer Zoe Keating

zoe keatingWhile there are obstacles to its adoption, Bitcoin Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize how music is monetized. Today, in part three of a series, music business scholar and entrepreneur George Howard interviews musician Zoe Keating who sees the technology as a way to empower the musical middle class.

image from www.hypebot.comGuest post by George Howard

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 crypto currency 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.

image from blogs-images.forbes.com

Zoe Keating is not only a fine musicians/composers (“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 that just ended (here is a video of the Blockchain Summit, with Ms. Keating’s music as the score).

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.

n 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?

Zoe 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 Capitalwas most talked about. Bill Tai loaned me his copy to read on the beach while I was there.

GH: 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?

ZK: 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 earn 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 micropayments 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?!).

GH: 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?

ZK: 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.

GH: 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.

ZK: 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.

GH: 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.

ZK: Be curious. Read. Seek out interesting people who are experts on things you know nothing about and then just enjoy each others company. That’s my whole approach to life in general.


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

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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  1. It would be really helpful if the author could explain one of the most confusing aspects of potentially utilizing block chain transactions to increase transparency: Aren’t block chain/bitcoin transactions used effectively by those who want the opposite of transparency, such as drug dealers, black marketeers and kidnappers? Is this true, and couldn’t that same dark side be used to subvert the system you envision?

  2. thanks for the question, @jeffserrano – I’m probably going to write sort of a Blockchain 101 to address this and some other questions. bottom line: while bitcoin (and other crypto) CAN be used anonymously (as can cash), that is more a byproduct than an intent. by utilizing the Blockchain/some other registry, one can define ownership/rules/etc.

  3. Ask Imogen or Zoe about something called OCL…because that handles a great deal of what you’ve been talking about recently.
    To this point:
    “by utilizing the Blockchain/some other registry, one can define ownership/rules/etc.”
    Blockchain is actually not a good method for handling rules…ownership yes, but rules…no. I see a lot of technology people and investors talking about setting rules and “intent” into blockchain so that you could use things like smart contracts. If you work in music or any creative arts, we’re really discussing business logic which is almost never immutable. I won’t go into all the technical/logical reasons why this doesn’t work, but I will point out that machines do not understand nuance. They posses no cognitive empathy. They do not understand intent. They cannot parse out the meaning of things like fair use, and considering how difficult it is for humans to interpret it…a machine isn’t going to figure it out.
    What is needed to make the blockchain work in any creative industry is something I call “immutable fluidity”. An oxymoron sure, but in the context of a hybridized blockchain system…it actually makes a great deal of sense. It makes sense to me…because we’ve built it.
    The other issues that blockchain has in regards to ownership or intent or anything really…is the need for authority, accountability…even on a pure technical view of things, efficiency and speed. Some aspects of what we need in todays world require performance measured in milliseconds, not minutes.
    Lastly…you can’t just build a decentralized system, throw it out there, and like magic…fix everything. That’s the Silicon Valley view of disruption that by introducing a new bit of kit…magically everything is better. The massive scale of the creative industries and their legacy systems and organizations requires a balanced approach of evolution with the new. It requires a bit of hand holding. If you “disrupt” the music industry again…it will likely not recover, which means you throw away the good with the bad. We need a balanced approach or what we’ll find is a lot of obstruction from all sides…and at the end of the day a creative class with no real working solutions.

  4. Thanks, Alan.
    Imogen and I discuss OCL in our most recent talk:
    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.

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