Joe Conyers III on blockchain: “Underlying data should be in a distributed system”
Joe Conyers III is Vice President of Technology for Downtown Music Publishing, where he oversees their digital, application and technology strategy. He will be speaking at Music 4.5: Blockchain and the trust issue on 26 April in New York. We caught up with him ahead of the seminar to chat about blockchain prototypes, transparency, and the perks of decentralized systems.
-Joe, thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your professional story?
I joined Songtrust [a digital rights management solution for songwriters and artists] about five years ago to help build the product from the ground floor; we’ve since grown to nearly 100,000 songwriters on the platform. Now, as general manager, I’m in charge of the day to day. A few years ago I was tapped to join our parent company, Downtown Music Publishing, as Vice President of Technology. Prior to the music business I worked in finance, media, M&A, and product roles with start-ups, mid-market and Fortune 500 companies.
-Downtown Publishing spins many plates in the world of publishing and rights. For which areas are you responsible, and can you tell us a bit about them?
I lead our technology and digital strategy. I oversee a portfolio of products (dashboards and apps) that our customers (music supervisors and licensees), staff and clients use to do their job. I also work to license new and existing digital service providers and help oversee our small start-up investment portfolio – mostly prospecting for new and interesting start-ups that help the industry grow and work more efficiently.
-In our discussions about blockchain, we often refer to the need for a universal rights database for the music industry. Downtown Publishing’s Songtrust performs this function for its rights-holding clients. How does Songtrust work and on which technology does it run? What are the main differences between Songtrust and what other players are currently doing with blockchain technology?
Songtrust helps onboard people into the system, but we aren’t perfect. Mostly because we are only as good and as up-to-date as the information our songwriters provide. We use modern web application software (largely Python and Django, Ruby and Rails to be specific). Right now Songtrust enables its clients to get their works delivered to societies, licensees, and royalty service providers, such as Medianet, Music Reports inc., and HFA’s Rumblefish (formerly known as Slingshot). We leverage our affiliations and relationships with these companies to efficiently deliver an incredible volume of songs.
To my knowledge no one has really cracked the code in what I would consider to be full-feature complete music blockchain. Some companies have launched a few promising prototypes. They are not focused on collecting royalties on the songwriting side, but instead creating a system that pays out in a pre-defined way. This enables a few uses and licenses, in theory; however publishing has 10,000s – if not 100,000s – of income sources, and many are regulated by country or deals between private parties (i.e music for film and TV).
-The call for a music-rights database underpinned by blockchain is often a response to calls for greater transparency in the music industry, but you’ve gone further, citing a difference between “transparency” and “truth.” Can you talk us through this?
Anyone can say they are transparent, and some are. The problem with the current way people think about transparency in this industry is that it is really just showing people the data they wanted to see, but in a more useful way. This is all well and good, but misses the point. The data is transparently bad.
We are far away from the “truth”. With distributed systems, people have to do a good job. If they don’t do a good job, it goes on record. This forces bad actors to be better, because they’ll get caught. The blockchain is written in permanent marker. Not even a hacker, an embezzler, fraudster or the incompetent can go back and change or delete the records. This is a massive shift in mindset and incentives. Incentives in the music business have not been aligned for many years and we will see a huge shift in thinking once we’ve all capitulated to this kind of system.
-One issue the Music 4.5: Blockchain and the trust issue seminar will explore is the repercussions of multiple competing blockchains. What are you thoughts on decentralized versus distributed systems? What would the ideal system look like? And, is it realistic?
I am currently in the mindset that the underlying data should be in a distributed system. Distributed systems are inherently more robust. You can approach the limit of perfect data rather than approach the local maximum based on the incentives of a single blockchain.
The music industry example is as follows:
Person 1 is a composer who only makes music for television. They are only ever going to make performance royalties.
Person 2 is a singer-songwriter who only puts their music on streaming services and sells CDs via their labels.
Person 1 only has the incentive to update a PRO/performance right blockchain.
Person 2 should update their label’s chosen blockchain or mechanical/digital rights blockchain, but has less financial incentive update the performance blockchain.
My ideal is a system that allows anyone to read or insert information. Layers will need to be added to provide identify validation, but the moment you put any gatekeeping on top of the system uniformly is the moment you approach a local maximum.
-We’re really looking forward to hearing you speak at Music 4.5: Blockchain and the trust issue in New York on 26 April 2016. What issues will you be exploring in your talk? Is there anyone or anything that you’re specifically looking forward to seeing/learning about at the seminar?
This subject has been near and dear to my heart for the last few years. I’m excited to speak about the practicalities, particularly around the tactics and strategies around identify verification, dispute management and more of the other nitty gritty aspects of getting this to market.
Part of this is talking to and identifying who the stakeholders are in the ecosystem who have the incentive to start making real progress on this, and how we might nudge the rest of the space forward.
Joe Conyers III will be speaking at Music 4.5: Blockchain and the trust issue on 26 April in New York.