Though its principles have powered tech since 2009, blockchain has enjoyed a kind of hype over the last few months that's usually reserved for a new Daft Punk record. Much of the media attention has been a result of the volatility of digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum—which have continued to see dramatic changes in value even as they become more established investments.
But that has also served to create a buzz about the technology underlying the phenomenon: decentralized networking, better known at the blockchain. It has been described as the "next phase of the internet," a worldwide cloud network powered by users that's secure, and allows for verifiable transactions of data, currency, and contract executions between people and apps with no walls, middlemen, or downtime.
The possibilities seem pretty much endless. New blockchain platforms—many of which are built on Ethereum, a protocol that allows developers to build apps on the blockchain—have the potential to shake up every industry from accounting to gaming to elections to gambling to real estate. The music business is no exception. There are scores of blockchain-based platforms claiming to be on the verge of unlocking independent musicians' ability to license, distribute, and earn money from their work, ranging from direct artist-to-fan content portals to digital currencies to newfangled audio file types. All claim to offer the potential to unshackle the production and consumption of music from the bloated, antiquated infrastructure of the traditional music industry.
That said, at this stage, many projects in the blockchain space are speculative, so don't cancel your SoundCloud Pro subscription and fire your manager just yet. It is clear, however, that the music industry—and maybe the world itself—may soon face a major redefinition, much as it did with the advent of the internet just two decades ago. Below are just a few of the companies seeking to use this tech to change the way the industry operates.
What it is: An ambitious vision for a content portal through which users can crowdfund, own, upload, share, trade, sell, and monetize their work online. SingularDTV intends to grow a whole media ecosystem that spans crowdfunding, rights management, and peer-to-peer distribution and sales for music, film, theater, even VR. It's something like YouTube, Kickstarter, and Napster rolled into one portal, all built on the Ethereum network.
How it works: Users can crowdfund a project with the Launch Pad widget, create their own tokens via Tokit, and share and sell their content peer-to-peer through the Ethervision portal. The goal of SingularDTV is a totally decentralized entertainment industry in which content creators retain control and access to profits. There are even plans to roll out functions for renting studio equipment and to creating workers' unions, but those aren't expected until 2019.
What they say: "Every creative person will have their own channel or brand on SingularDTV." - Zach Lebeau, CEO, said earlier this year in an interview with BlockTribune.
What it is: Consensys is a Brooklyn-based Ethereum development incubator with a high-profile conveyor belt of blockchain projects that often interconnect. A few Consensys projects, when utilized together, streamline the business of music down to as little as a few clicks.
How it works: On Ujo—the centerpiece app of Consensys' interlocking music platforms—artists can distribute music directly to fans. But even before releasing music, bands or groups can use Weifund, a crowdfunding app upon which users issue value tokens redeemable with band-specific goods and services. The Boardroom app can be used to allocate contracts and set up royalty percentages amongst members, and Balanc3 even specializes in doing taxes for musicians.
All of these apps are supposed to work seamlessly together to empower musicians to be their own music industry. The Grammy-winning producer RAC just released his album EGO on Ujo this month, the first album ever released on the blockchain (although Imogen Heap beat him to first single). All you have to do now is learn how to play an instrument!
What they say: "The music industry is currently in a period that does not directly benefit its greatest asset, the musician," Jesse Grushack, Ujo's co-founder said. "I believe in getting artists paid fairly for the value the create."
What it is: Benji Rogers, the CEO of Pledgemusic, a well-established direct-to-fan digital music market that specializes in shorter-run exclusives, is taking on the digital music infrastructure by reinventing the way metadata work.
How it works: The identification and distribution of royalties for digital sales is a bigger issue than you may think. Every year, tens of millions of royalty dollars slip through the cracks because companies like YouTube and Spotify can't figure out to whom the rights of certain content belongs. That money ends up in what are known as "Black Boxes," basically vortexes of lost revenue that the rightful owners will never see. The mission of dotBlockchain is to eradicate losses from wayward rightsholder information through evolving the file type with which music is transferred.
What they say: "If we as stakeholders in this industry are able to create and own the format in which we share our music with the world, then we change our destiny rather than just continuing to be subject to our legacy," Rogers wrote on Medium last year.
"The music industry is currently in a period that does not directly benefit its greatest asset, the musician," Jesse Grushack, Ujo's co-founder said.
What it is: A "cooperatively owned" music streaming platform rallying against the business of monthly subscriptions tied to apps like Spotify and Apple Music with their "Stream to Own" model. Resonate claims it will be more affordable for listeners, pay artists over twice the rate of their competitors, and will be the home of egalitarianism in digital media streaming thanks to a democratized system of governance built on the blockchain.
How it works: Users pay for what they listen to on a scale that that slides depending on how much you listen. They say it should cost about $2-4 dollars a month for 2 hours of music a day—which isn't a bad deal—and you can head to their site for a more nuts and bolts breakdown of how that actually works. Once you listen to a tune nine times, you've bought it outright and it's yours to listen to forever. The artists are paid directly for how much their music gets streamed.
What they say: "The basic idea is that everyone who participates in the platform is a co-owner, allowing for democratic decision-making about the future of the platform. It's a way of putting the means of production and distribution back into the hands of artists and audiences as a collective entity," Mat Dryhurst told Fact earlier this year.
What it is: BitTunes is an Australian Bitcoin-based peer-to-peer digital music sales network upon which artists are directly compensated for every download of their music. Even better, when a user downloads an artist's music, they too generate revenue every time they contribute to an upload of that music to new purchasers. The BitTunes model rewards both the artists and listeners who help spread their music, monetizing the peer-to-peer sharing model that has proven so effective at distributing music in the recent past.
How it works: An Android version of the app exists and can be found in Google Play stores, but the project remains in stealth mode until Mac, Windows, and Linux desktop version are available. It's been a four-year process already. Unless BitTunes completes a working version soon, the project may remain in stealth mode forever.
What it is: Cloud storage platforms like Dropbox and Google Drive have brought us a long way from waiting hours to download massive audio files. But it turns out that decentralized networks offer even better amenities than the gargantuan server farms of the cloud. Storj—an online data storage platform built on the blockchain—stores data on a decentralized network that's multitudes faster than the cloud and encrypted from end-to-end, and even allows you to rent your drive to the network.
How it works: You can sign up to use it free for 12 months, but even after that, it's a about one cent per gigabyte of storage per month, and about five cents per gigabyte downloaded. The data is split up into tiny bits and stored on hard drives around the world, which actually makes it cheaper and faster. For those whose Google Drives are getting a little crowded or trade audio files back and forth with remote collaborators, Storj provides a very useful new option, but their long game is using the platform as the storage repository for apps and projects all over the blockchain.
What they say: "We're all about enabling developers and giving them toolsets to integrate Storj into existing applications," Shawn Wilkinson, CTO, said in a video interview last month.
What it is: Custos, a South African copyright protection outfit, plans to implement a "tracking technology" that creates a bitcoin watermark on copyrighted media. If that material is found pirated, Custos analyzes the file and follows the trail of pirated or unlicensed content back to the source to impose a swift retribution. Custos also intends to incentivize the users of the peer-to-peer networks they are tracking with a monetary reward for identifying the source of pirated material.
How it works: Just how Custos intends to turn file-sharing techno-libertarians into copyright informants is yet to be explained. It may be easier said than done. The Custos project is a worthy reminder, though, that the eternally verifiable chain of data transmission that makes up the blockchain can be used to inhibit the very same liberties that it theoretically affords.
What they say: "We work with a conservative estimate that digital piracy costs the Western movie industry approximately $22 billion annually," CEO GJ van Rooyen told the Cointelegraph last year. "Custos' audit system allows media owners to know who the 99% of their honest users are and treat them without suspicion. The very few malicious users can be cut off, to prevent future breaches."
Correction: A previous version of this piece said that Resonate allowed you to own a song after streaming it ten times, the service actually offers the option to own it after 9.
Jemayel Khawaja is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. You can find him on Twitter.