Benji Rogers Talks Blockchain’s Present, Future [INTERVIEW]
In advance of speaking at a panel on the issue, Benji rogers here speaks with Midemblog about blockchain technology's potential for solving industry copyright issues, how it has already positively affected the music business, and what sort of role it will play in the future.
Guest post by James Martin of Midemblog
midemblog: Why did you agree to speak on Midem 2017’s Blockchain & Copyright panel?
Benji Rogers: Ever since I saw the potential of the bitcoin and more importantly and broadly blockchains, I saw what you could perhaps refer to as a possible music business day zero, in which you could create a new way of ensuring that those who create and perform music could digitally enshrine their rights into the actual music works themselves. Blockchains represent the opportunity to anchor a digital event – in this case, music – in time and space. To say “at this time, in this place, these are the people that own the work.” The opportunity to discuss that with the music industry is very important to me. We have a chance to get this right. To get the data structure, to get the ways in which artists, labels, publishers, performers and PROs (performance rights organisations) can work together.
We have the opportunity to get this right once and for all, and create truly modern digital pipes through which this amazing music can travel. Today, in 2017, if I’m a songwriter or an artist, I have nowhere in which I can digitally express my rights. As an artist, I come out of the studio, I put that recording on a 20 year-old format like a FLAC or a WAV or an mp3, then I send it out into the world. And I rely on all these other architectures and databases to link together, talk to each other, and get me paid. The problem is that you usually only find issues after they’ve happened, and I just don’t think that’s a modern way to converse machine to machine, using these old formats. So the opportunity to be at Midem and talk about dotBlockchain Music‘s approach, and blockchain’s potential in general as a concept, is really exciting.
> How can blockchain help resolve copyright issues, and which ones in particular?
If you’re going to create a new system to digitally enscribe rights, do you do it in a centralised way? That is, do you want to rely on one entity to be the holders of the keys, and therefore give them the ability to overwhelm the system? And if so, you have to trust and rely on them being good people and not wanting to screw artists or performers. If we consider that many centralised systems have been attempted before and have failed, what blockchains represent is a decentralised system, where you are equal among all peers within the system. What we’ve proposed with dotBlockchain Music is the use of the blockchain in conjunction with a new format that fixes the problems, because basically the format writes to the blockchain.
That’s powerful because today, if we put our rights into mp3s or WAV files, they’re all alterable. Wherever they go, there’s no way to talk to them. You have to talk to the service providers that administer them and pay out on them. What I think is a much simpler path is if you create a smart, modern digital asset, which is the music with the metadata, and you write that music & metadata to the blockchain, then what you have is a decentralised way of looking at 360°s of the rights of the asset itself. Therefore, wherever I send that asset, if changes are made at the blockchain level, they will express themselves outwards to the asset.
The most simple example is if two of us write a song and I put it on Spotify, how does Spotify know to give 50% of my ownership to someone else? We have to tell them, then they have to relate it back to the specific asset. So blockchain itself does not solve copyright, ownership or payment issues. But what it does do is force people to work in a common system, and along a common protocol. And that’s really where this represents power. Because if you give the power to just one or two people, or one or two large digital companies, they can abuse that power. I’m not saying they will, but they can. What I thought was: why not create an overarching technology solution that is blockchain-backed, which has the blockchain prove who the people are in relation to one another, and then pay them at the asset level.
> You just opened up the queue for artists to join the dotBlockchain Music project. How has initial response been, and what conclusions can you draw from that?
Since the first blogpost I published on this subject, I’ve been overwhelmed. Not a day goes by where there aren’t multiple artists, labels, publishers, PROs, songwriters signing up to the website and Slack channel on their own. We have close to 180 partners lined up, with 36 of them wanting to sponsor the development of their plugins into the system, and I’ve got artists contacting me on a regular basis saying “I’m making an album coming out in September, I want to write it into a .bc file” (our proposed blockchain-backed media file format). So I’ve been absolutely stunned by it. What I hope we’re seeing here is true interest in a game-changing technology coming to light.
Hopefully it’s not going to be as slow as when mp3 first came to light. Hopefully, it’s going to be “let’s try this out now and see if we can get it right once and for all.” If you look at the financial institutions around the world that are spending hundreds of millions, if not billions, on R&D into how blockchain will change their business, the music industry has to come to the table and look at how it’s going to affect them. Because if it happens TO the music industry, it’ll be a very different outcome to the one in which the industry embraces and then looks to adopt it – and in fact, as with the dotbc proposal – helps to inform the build and ownership of the protocol itself. I’m excited beyond belief to get these artists, labels, publishers, PROs, and songwriters baked into the system.
> Does this launch prove that after years of blockchain panels the world over, it’s now time for action?
The time for action was two years ago. Now, we’re playing catch-up, to a certain extent. But it has given the technologies time to mature and get it right. And in fairness to the music industry, they have been doing a ton of vetting of blockchain startups, which is the right thing to do. If I ran I label, I would literally have a task force trying to figure out how I’m about to be disrupted! It would be a serious team trying to figure out what the best use of this technology is. Whereas I think the position of certain PROs and labels I’ve spoken to is that they’ll just wait and see. I think that would be a mistake. Also as far as dotBlockchain is concerned, we’ve got five initial launch partners – SOCAN (the Canadian PRO), MediaNet, Songtrust, FUGA and CDBaby – and if all goes to plan, there’ll be two more partners announced at Midem, so that’s great! So yes, the time for action was two years ago, but there’s no time like the present.
> What do you make of Spotify’s recent acquisition of Mediachain Labs?
The fact that Mediachain’s code is still open source means it was probably less of an acquisition than an acqui-hire. But I think it’s brilliant. I wrote a blogpost about it which you should check out too. But essentially, every manifestation, be it Spotify or the PRS, or ASCAP or Sacem, any experiments are going to be good and positive. Because it’s showing the power of decentralisation. The Mediachain people are excellent players and thinkers in this space, so Spotify’s hiring of the team has really set them up as a player. I applaud it, think it’s fantastic, and look forward to working with them.
> What are some of the best examples of blockchain being used to good effect in the music industry?
I haven’t seen many, is the honest truth. One of the reasons is a lot are dealing with the application level of the blockchain, i.e. new streaming services or smart contract platforms. And let’s be very clear: we don’t properly know yet who people are in relationship to each other. In the absence of a decentralized resource to find out who wrote and performed every song and who has the rights to X, Y and Z, we don’t yet have the basic building blocks of identity that can go into a blockchain-based system. So what I’ve seen is remarkable proofs of concept – I think of Imogen Heap’s Mycelia project, with Ujo Music, which was a phenomenal way of looking at how to create smart contracts in a blockchain-based system. The challenge that I have with that is that they create this wonderful way of paying people, all the rails are there; the problem is that the end result of it is an mp3 or WAV file which I can take into my computer and delete all of the information about the work, claim it as my own, and upload it anywhere I want. There’s no restriction on keeping the metadata persistent. So how do you relate the digital asset that is the music file to this wonderful architecture that was built?
What I’ve seen is lots of people trying things based on “let’s build a streaming service”, or “let’s build a service that everyone can upload their music to,” claim that they are the artist, and then start to monetise. Therein lies the challenge. How do we know who these artists are in relation to each other, their PRO, their label, their publisher? Because I don’t think it’s wise or advisable to throw out all of the existing infrastructure to just create something from scratch. So I think the brilliance of what Imogen Heap and Ujo did was show that you could break out payments in that way. The challenge is what is the asset that they are making those claims around? If we solve the identity – who’s who, in relation to each other – in a blockchain-backed system (which is dotBlockchain Music’s proposal, which is to get the registration part correct) – then you’ve got the underlying protocol of the blockchain; you’ve got the application level which can then be built on top. So every PRO, label, publisher, writer, content aggregator… can become a plugin, and an application that speaks a common language.
There are a bunch of amazing examples (elsewhere), for example the provenance of wine, anchoring who owned what bottle when. Those are really things to look at. So what dotBlockchain Music was attempting to solve is the identity piece, because once you’ve got identity and authority at the song level, in a public database with private business rules attached, you can start to create applications on top. And I feel that most innovations so far have focused on the application level, not on the identity level. But then again I haven’t seen everything, so happy to be wrong there.
> The music industry is notoriously complicated. To what extent has blockchain removed obstacles? And which obstacles remain to be overcome?
Actually, it’s not complicated. It is if you try to make 4-5000 databases all talk to eachother, when none of them can work together or agree, and have no common language from which to do so. Blockchain doesn’t remove any obstacles. In fact, it adds one. Blockchains are not fast enough to handle what the modern music industry would need. They couldn’t handle the transaction volume. Which is why I’ve said, there’s what you want the blockchain to do, and what it can do. Today, it can’t do everything you want it to do. But that’s the point. What do you want to use it for? If the PRS is tracking 3 trillion streams, there’s no blockchain (that I know of) that can handle that level of traffic. So you can’t do payment systems based on that. But what you can use the blockchain for is to create a digital asset, then all of the databases can work with that asset in a way that doesn’t create monopolies or collusion, but allows them to have business rules between each other, around a smart asset. So if we look at it not as a database problem, but as an asset class problem, then the blockchain serves an immensely powerful process.
If I create a digital asset using the dotBlockchain Music-proposed system, I’m exporting the music and the metadata into the same bundle; and that bundle writes its data onto the blockchain. It says “at this time, and in this place, these parties all agree that this was the most current state of truth and it’s in the file itself.” Instead of me going onto ASCAP, or someone’s website, and writing a bunch of information about the song, letting them know that, texting my publisher and so on, I do so from within the work itself. The work becomes that which speaks to all the parties. So when I write the song, I tag my publisher, my PRO, my label, my fellow performers, and they can reciprocate that. By tagging them all, I’m telling them where the asset is, and what they can do about it. The main power is that you can never remove anything from the blockchain, you can only amend or append it forward. So you force people to work in a clear and transparent and honest way, by the very nature of the fact that if they put bad information in willfully, everyone who they want to work with can see it. That said, not everything is public for everyone to see: you can have a public blockchain, and a private one. What’s actually required in the music industry is both.
So the obstacles to overcome are that a bunch of the music industry does not want the transparency that this would engender; and a bunch of the music industry is highly invested in payments not reaching the right people in the right way. But that said, what those parties and players are seeing is that if they’re holding a thousand euros under the table, they’re losing out on a million over the table. This system would allow for massive speed in sync licensing, and in confirming who owns what, as opposed to who we think owns it. And I think the other obstacles are ideological: “we’ve already built everything we need, and we’re going to carry on with that, so you take your fancy blockchain somewhere else.” I think that’s a head-in-the sand attitude. It wouldn’t be the first time; hopefully, it’s the last. We shall see…
> At what point will you proclaim “eureka! We’ve done it?” Or rather, what are the key milestones to blockchain’s successful adoption by the music industry?
dotBlockchain Music’s eureka moment will be when an artist or songwriter can digitally inscribe their rights into the assets that they own, and views those rights in a blockchain. With our partners, we hope to deploy this at scale by the end of the year. So by then it’ll be possible for anyone to use the system in a meaningful way, to propagate value. The eureka moment will also be when it becomes insane not to do it this way. We’ve built this as an open source protocol, we’ve set the company up as public benefit corporation, and the job here is to get artists, rightsholders and songwriters tracked and paid. And to give them the ability to digitally inscribe their rights into the works themselves. The power of that is going to be immense. So our milestones were: phase 1, put the open source code on github; that was completed last year. We’re about to roll out phase 2, which will show the system writing into a modern blockchain, with an approve-and-deny workflow which will show how people can actually interact with the system, so that should be ready by July/August; then by the end of the year we hope to have the majority of the music industry’s catalogue into the system, with any artist, label or publisher of any size being able to use it. So you just have to go get it!
Benji Rogers speaks at Midem 2017’s Copyright Summit Panel, “Blockchain & Copyright”, with Bailer Music Publishing’s Benjamin Bailer; JAAK’s Vaughn McKenzie and Sacem’s Xavier Costaz. Attorney Sophie Goosens moderates. Full session info here…