Imogen Heap’s Mycelia: Creating A Fair Trade Music Business, Inspired By Blockchain
In yesterday' interview with Zoe Keating and previous posts in this series, music business scholar and entrepreneur George Howard explored Bitcoin Blockchain and its potential to revolutionize how music is monetized. Today, he interviews musician, artist and inventor Imogen Heap, who is working on her own Blockchain inspired solution to help creators and the industry.
Guest post by George Howard.
Imogen Heap is fed up with hearing artists, herself included, complain about the current state of the music industry. And when the composer, performer, technologist, inventor, and the only female artist to have ever won the Grammy for engineering decides to take action, things happen.
Ms. Heap is a galvanizing presence and a catalyst for change; the rare artist who is willing to channel her dissatisfaction into something tangible, and – given her popularity – able to have people pay attention. This spirit has resulted in, among other things, pioneering the practice of self-releasing music with 2005’s Speak for Yourself, long before it became somewhat of the norm to do so; to wrapping each song around a different project for her 2014 album, Sparks; to inventing aMusical glove that she’s presented at TED and other stages (and you really must see to understand).
Via Zoe Keating, who I interviewed on the subject ofBitcoin and the Arts, I was introduced to her good friend, Ms. Heap, and recently had the opportunity to speak – via Skype (Ms. Heap lives in England) and email — with her.
After Heap’s 20 year career of wading through the dense fog of the Music industry (along with every other artist on the planet), Heap’s crystal clear belief – as is mine — is that, given the unethical foundation upon which the industry was built, and its many infamous shortcomings nothing short of a wholesale reinvention will ever lead to real change.
A big part of this change, Ms. Heap feels, will involve crypto currency and blockchain-like technology. Ms. Heap acknowledges that we’re some time away from “solving” the problem, but Ms. Heap’s vision – a project she refers to as Mycelia – for how this change might come about is the most fully-formed I’ve yet to hear from anyone.
Below is Part One of my interview with Ms. Heap, in which we discuss the motivation for Mycelia, and Ms. Heap presents a surface level overview of the concept. In part Two, Heap takes us much deeper; providing specific details of how Mycelia and its ecosystem could practically work, Future posts will bring in other voices and ideas around this.
Watch this space, Imogen Heap is primed, and it’s about to get interesting.
[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: Tell me about your motivation for this project?
Imogen Heap: It’s time to turn the music industry on its feet. I say that, as it’s always been topsy-turvy. The record industry built its foundation upon the blues and jazz of predominantly African American artists, who were not given the best deals for anything at the time… never mind record deals! Their pockets were the last thing on the deal makers minds. Lawyers and accountants made the decisions, and built contracts entirely around bringing in the big guns the most amount of money and the artists the least; if, indeed, any at all. These founding artists were given a shockingly bad deal, and ever since artists have been struggling to have their voice heard.
Combined with this, the industry wasn’t birthed in our digital age where online databases and flow of information are the norm. It’s adopted technology in various forms along the way, that invariably didn’t fit with what came before, and as a result, it’s become more and more fragmented and ultimately gotten itself into a right tangle.
Now it feels as if the music industry is a complete mess, a rusty, overstretched, tired machine. Grappling with a lot of old crooked contracts that don’t reflect our times, music services that run on greed to please shareholders smothered in buy-buy-buy adverts, dated accounting setups favouring anyone but the artist thanks to gross inefficiencies, confusing royalty statements and delayed payments (if any at all), coupled with the music itself not always being tagged effectively, and thus leading to mistakes… plus patchy copyright databases. It is almost impossible to find out who REALLY gets what. I’ve lost sleep in the past, scratching my head over the small print, with an icky feeling maybe I was selling my soul to do what I love. And, at the end of it all, more times than not, we are listening to seriously degraded quality sound files, on tinny speakers or trendy hyped up headphones lacking quality sound. Artists and music, deserve better.
GH: It makes me think of the Tom Waits’ quote about contracts, “The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.” So what do we do?
IH: We need to begin again. With the artists and their music at the start and heart of their industries’ future landscape. It’s the only way. There is little to be kept, yet a lot to learn from the hotchpotch of services present today – from labels to distribution mechanisms.
We need to cut out the middlemen, of which, in the music industry, there are way more of them than there are artists; one reason perhaps why it is such a struggle to create a fair platform for artists from within the current landscape.
Music needs to breathe and so do the music makers.
GH: Completely with you with respect to cutting out the middlemen. That’s why my partners and I startedTuneCore and now Music Audience Exchange. But, can artists do it on their own? How do we make it breathe? You’re living this scenario. You have a new song ready to release, with more in the pipeline. How are you confronting this?
IH: If only I had all the answers… Lots of people are working on these issues, and coming up with novel ways to navigate and work within this topsy-turvy music world, but there’s so much wasted energy as it’s building upon something so inefficient.
I have a new song, “Tiny Human,” that I was planning to release, but I just felt like I was going to be adding to my gripes rather than moving anything forward. The current options on HOW to go about releasing a song fills me with dread and really puts me off. It’s SO complicated and time consuming, and largely unclear who gets what and why. I want to find a real solution and release music commercially again, with confidence, once I have. That could take years but I’m at a good point in my life to do it (maybe also being a new mum brings out the bigger picture yearnings), and feel it’s absolutely worth it (and potentially all other artists) in the long run.
So I thought: I’ll put myself in the shoes of an unsigned act with no management and reimagine things a bit…. and when I do, I dream of a kind of Fair Trade for music environment with a simple one-stop-shop-portal to upload my freshly recorded music, verified and stamped, into the world, with the confidence I’m getting the best deal out there, without having to get lawyers involved.
GH: I should add a bit of a disclosure here. While I am an associate professor at Berklee College of Music, and reviewed early drafts of the recently-issued study entitled, “Fair Music: Transparency and Money Flows in the Music Industry,” I am not one of the authors. It is timely, but coincidental that Ms. Heap’s and my discussion took place around the release of the Berklee study and that both Ms. Heap and the authors of the Berklee study emphasize the word “Fair” in their respective works and thinking.
IH: In one sense, my music, old and new is reaching and being enjoyed by more people than ever and of course, this is the most incredible gift – to connect… but that music, in itself, doesn’t generate a fair income and reflect this growth. I’m more popular than ever but I’m earning less cash from the music itself. What’s up with that? If I can’t make that part of it work what hope is there for someone thinking about music making as a career?
There are of course other revenue streams which bring in cash for artists, such as brand sponsorship or patronage as I see it (my new song “Tiny Human” for example, set to become Mycelia’s test case, is the new Sennheiser campaign song), film or TV syncs, merchandise, live performances or giving talks and workshops etc but not everyone is going to be able to sustain themselves with these alone (and you’d have to be an established artist to do so on the most part).
Shouldn’t we just at the very least, simply be able to make music and derive a fair amount of pay, directly linked to that? It also always feels as if there always has to be a clever business plan or marketing strategy to earn money from the music we make.
GH: Right, right. This isn’t talked about enough. We tell artists to do everything; be the artist and the business person. Something gives. The best I can come up with is that efficiencies via technology might facilitate this. You mentioned the idea of uploading your new music so that it’s verified and stamped. Does this lead us to the Blockchain?
IH: It’s all been so wrong but it could now be be so right. The combination of the technology being here and the music loving public, now mostly aware of how unfair the rates and deals are for the artists they love and how unsustainable it is, I think leads us into a very exciting era for music (and all artists of creative content for that matter, from writers to photographers).
My wandering mind looks to the future, and – as I’m pretty much free of all publishing, management and record contracts (still working on one label) for the first time since I was 17 – I’m in a really good position to try stuff out. I need to start again – afresh, to be outside the box, and live the change. I’m hugely passionate about helping to bring a service… a system – something deeply elegant and beautiful to light.
It’s restructuring, not shunning all which is available today. Enabling record labels and streaming services – who aren’t all bad to say the least, and who still will of course have a valid and much needed place in this new landscape – to find, nurture and be a beacon for artists but in a fair environment.
For years I’ve been so frustrated with the deep opacity of the music industry stopping me from really making the most out of my career and connecting the dots. The ‘black boxes,’ the NDAs, the endless contracts and statements. In the last few years, auditing labels and publishers seems to have become the norm, as it’s apparent how consistently the books don’t match up. You can pretty much guarantee you’ll find something, but it’s not always intentional; it’s just the deals, trigger points, and percentages are so complex – even more when mergers and acquisitions occur – that it’s hard to get it right every time, if you’re human!
BUT if you’re a computer program, a piece of software, a database… these issues disappear as it’s just maths half the time. This bit goes to this person etc., and it doesn’t take a year to reach the artist/writer/performer… it’s instant because it’s automated.
On top of this, culture-shifting new music distribution services gather really useful data from artists’ fans which could massively help us be more efficient… if it was open, gathered and presented in the right way but so much of it’s not offered up for analysis.
GH: So, is this a moment of – as they say – “creative destruction,” where the old system can finally be overturned to make room for a new system? Because, systems built upon firmaments of unethical behaviour – eventually – falter?
IH: Maybe within five years from now, yes, I feel the system will fail, as artists will leave this complicated landscape, with little feedback and clarity for a better alternative. A fair, true, bright and shining home for music that will have quietly been rising up from the breaking bones of this love to hate by many, Music Industry. I call this place, Mycelia (it helps me to have a name, like a song, to jam ideas into).
GH: Tell me about it?
IH: It dawned on me a few months ago that the mechanism to create and sustain a place like Mycelia exists now with the help of blockchain technology and crypto-currencies. I am for the first time EVER, really excited and positive for the future of music and its industry; for artists old and (more importantly) new, along with the hyper enriched feedback loops that could exist with their listeners, collaborators and flag wavers. The FLOW of creativity, collaboration, storytelling and connecting on so many levels is going to change big time, save time… and just in time!
Its success will come from the adoption of millions of music lovers. A grand scale ongoing, collective project like no-other. To document, protect and share that which we love and build a place for it to grow, enabling future generations of artists to blossom as well as honouring those of the past.
Open source, a living, breathing, smart, decentralised, transparent, adaptable, useful, shining home for our love of music. A home which allows creativity to flow, connect and facilitate collaboration on so many levels, many of which just haven’t been possible. With this grand library of all music forming the basis upon which all music businesses from digital radio to tour bookings can then grow and thrive from. Empowering the artists, turning and landing the industry finally on its feet.
Inspired by the largest living organisms on earth, ancient, unseen, core to life itself, Mycelium (plural Mycelia) can stretch for miles, beneath the surface.
Each artist acting like its own Mycelium, in full animated dialogue with others on the global network.
Mycelia is huge, as it holds all music related information ever recorded anywhere ever ever ever but this organism stretches across our planet between hundreds of thousands of personal computers. It is the world’s greatest and most treasured library and it belongs to the two collective parties who solely make music complete. The music makers and their audience.
In our next interview, to be published on Hypebot tomorrow, Ms. Heap discusses specifics around Mycelia, where it starts to really come to life.
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.