PledgeMusic founder and CEO Benji Rogers did not set out to become the leader of a movement when he posted his now-famous essay last November describing how the blockchain — the technological underpinning of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin — could be used to untangle the notoriously Byzantine world of music licensing and payments. It was more a thought experiment than a business plan. But his ideas struck such a chord in the industry that Rogers has been thrust into the unwonted role of leading spokesman for the use of blockchain in the music business.
“I could never have imagined that the article I wrote would have the impact that it has,” Rogers would write a few months later in a follow up post. “In the short time since it came out, I have been overwhelmed by offers to speak publicly, offers of help and even offers to fund ‘what you are building.’ So I need to be clear here before we begin: this is not something that I am building.”
There are many in and around the music industry who would like to try, however.
By putting the blockchain at the center of his proposal Rogers helped spark growing interest in the industry in using the technology to bring transparency to the famously opaque world of music rights, where simply identifying who owns a musical work or recording, and who is entitled to be paid for which uses, can be near-impossible, keeping works out of the hands of would-be licensees. Blockchain was a major topic of discussion at this year’s SXSW conference, where it bore for full slate of panels.
At its core, the blockchain is simply a ledger of transactions. Unlike traditional ledgers, however, which are typically centrally managed and controlled, like bank ledgers, the blockchain ledger is maintained by a network of independent computing nodes all running the same network software and is completely open, albeit anonymous. Anyone can consult it and anyone can add a transaction to it.
Once a new transaction is entered, a consensus mechanism built into the network architecture triggers the various nodes to independently update their version of the ledger. Once consensus is reached and recognized the time-stamped record is made permanent and immutable.
By entering the publication of a new song on the ledger, along with metadata on who wrote it and who owns the publishing rights, the blockchain can be used to create a permanent record of ownership than anyone can look up to obtain the necessary rights to use the song in a recording, or a film or a remix.
“I wanted to create a super elegant solution that would be future proof, had no agenda, and was not privately owned by anyone,” Rogers told Concurrent Media. “That’s what blockchain can do.”
Another key element of Rogers’ proposal involved adoption of a codec for music recordings that he dubbed .bc, as in “dot blockchain.” Unlike the MP3 codec, which does not support non-musical data and can be easily manipulated, the .bc format, as envisioned by Rogers, would support a range of metadata fields in addition to the recording that would become an immutable and inseparable element of the file once anchored to the blockchain.
“Instead of starting with MP3s, every inch of which can be changed, let’s start with .bc that carries a manifest with it,” Rogers said. “That was the idea.”
While Rogers’ proposal has drawn enthusiastic response from any in the industry it has also sparked controversy. Many of the intermediaries that today manage music rights and royalty collections could be disintermediated in a business run on blockchain and have little obvious incentive to cooperate with the project. Rogers is aware of the objection but has a ready answer.
“How could knowing who to pay be to anyone’s disadvantage?” he said.
For all the celebrity it has brought him, Rogers’ blockchain essay is not his only contribution to the emerging field of rights-tech. His company, PledgeMusic, is a technology platform for connecting artists directly with their fans and helping artists manage their own business affairs. It recently acquired two other direct-to-fan platforms, NoiseTrade and Set.fm, expanding the range of channels it can offer artists for reaching their fans.
Rogers also sits on the advisory board of Dubset, the blockchain-based rights management platform that recently inked a deal with Apple Music to manage clearances and payments for EDM and DJ mixes on the streaming service.
He now sees PledgeMusic as a potential “on ramp” for artists and developers to other, blockchain-based platforms. “In the next eight to 12 weeks we plan to begin opening some APIs for connecting to some of these other technologies,” he told Concurrent Media.
Check back here, and at Digital Media Wire, for information on the upcoming RightsTech Summit in New York this summer.