Marcus O’Dair: “The [blockchain] problem is one of business and economic models, not technology”
Marcus O’Dair is an English writer, musician/manager, broadcaster and lecturer, known for his work as part of the band Grasscut and for his award-winning 2015 biography of musician Robert Wyatt. Of the many strings to his bow, Marcus is currently a lecturer in popular music at Middlesex University, where he also convenes the Blockchain For Creative Industries research cluster. As we at 2Pears HQ gear up for Music 4.5: Blockchain and the trust issue on 26 April 2016 in New York, we caught up with Marcus to hear his view on different players in the blockchain space, the role academia might play, and get details on his upcoming blockchain symposium.
-Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. Your career encompasses so many different facets of the music industry – where did your career start, and how did it evolve into what it is today?
I began as a journalist, editing a local magazine in Brighton, and did some local music radio too. When I was offered a retainer as a session musician with Passenger – sadly, long before Let Her Go became an international number one – I went freelance, writing music features and reviews for various broadsheets and magazines and presenting podcasts for The Independent and Music Week. During that period I also quit Passenger and signed to Ninja Tune as one half of Grasscut and wrote a biography about Robert Wyatt, which was a book of the week on Radio 4. I also started lecturing, which is how I ended up in my current position at Middlesex University as a senior lecturer in popular music. (Yes, such a job exists.) I still write for Uncut and Jazzwise, and do occasional studio guest spots on Radio 3 and BBC 6 Music. Grasscut is also ongoing, although we’re now signed to Lo Recordings.
-There’s so much we’d like to ask you about with regards to the music industry, but our focus right now is blockchain. As a musician, how much have you personally seen the need for a blockchain solution for rights and royalties?
I see the potential primarily in terms of recorded music, although there could be other applications too, from ticketing to the provenance of individual instruments. What we might call the twentieth-century model of monetising recorded music is facing a number of challenges in the era of downloading and streaming. So many tracks are placed on streaming platforms without authorisation or, since consumers have become much more active, re-worked as mash-ups and shreds. Even for authorised uses, royalties are highly complex and can take a long time to arrive. There’s also a lack of transparency, due to non-disclosure agreements and ‘black boxes’. Compounding all these difficulties is the lack of a central, comprehensive music copyright database. There are considerable barriers to its adoption, then, but blockchain technology does have at least the potential to solve these problems. The problem is one of business and economic models, not technology.
-Right now there are different bodies, both corporate (e.g. Spotify) and not (e.g. Imogen Heap and Ujo, et al), laying out different routes to a comprehensive (ish) music rights database. Of all the different players, who do you think is on the right track? Who is best placed to succeed?
Yes, it’s a busy space all of a sudden, with people like Peertracks, Bittunes, Resonate and Colu in there too. Ascribe and Monegraph, who at the moment are primarily working with visual art, are very relevant too. It’s also fairly new technology and developing very fast, which makes predictions difficult. And although it’s easy to assume that everyone exploring the use of distributed ledger technology for the music industries is on the same track, in fact, as you say, there are various ideas out there and it may well be that more than one survives. There may also be room for ‘hybrid’ options like OCL – One-Click License – that use both centralised and decentralised technology. Mycelia, championed by Imogen Heap, is in a way the most exciting application – I was at the Mycelia hack event in London this weekend – but it’s also perhaps the most ambitious.
-In our own discussions about blockchain we’ve found two huge stumbling blocks: legacy data, and a lack of trust between the institutions whose buy-in is necessary to make a rights database work (CMOs, ahem). Which issues do you think are most obstructive to a universal rights database based on blockchain?
The point about legacy data is a good one, and I’m not sure quite how it will be solved. In a way, the situation for a new, self-releasing artist is easier than, say, back catalogue on a major label. But it’s only one of a number of questions that still need to be answered. There are issues around the underlying digital currencies, for instance, and issues emerging from the very immutability of data on a distributed ledger: what happens, for instance, if incorrect information is entered? Plus there’s the fact that the very ‘middlemen’ who could potentially be cut out of the value chain by this technology are not likely to be too keen on its adoption – although the various platforms envisaged won’t necessarily bring about the same degree of disintermediation. Some talk about cutting out labels, performance rights organisations and so on, while others still see a role for them.
Anyway, to effect a transformation in the way in which the music industries (even only those relating to recorded music) operate is an enormous challenge. At the same time, the current model seems increasingly to have been reduced to a husk, with overall revenue from recorded music in apparently inexorable decline. (Certainly there are exceptions – the Adeles of the world – and other revenue streams are of course available. But I’m not always convinced by the argument that live revenue, for most artists, makes up for the shortfall.) So there is a need to look for new models, and there’s something quite appealing in doing so by realising the potential of the very peer-to-peer networks that arguably got recorded music into this mess in the first place, this time used to more positive ends. Quite what we mean by ‘positive’, of course, depends on whose perspective we adopt… which brings me to your second point. The very lack of trust that could make the contribution of blockchain technology so valuable in fact has to be overcome in order to get the information on the blockchain in the first place. The fate of the Global Rights Database shows how difficult this can be.
-You are the convener of the Blockchain For Creative Industries research cluster at Middlesex University. Can you please talk us through some of the work you’re doing? And, is an academic setting actually the one in which a blockchain database for the music industry can come to fruition and be trusted by all?
The cluster incorporates colleagues from Media & Performing Arts – interested in creative entrepreneurship, peer production, new business and economic models, copyright and digital rights – as well as from Computer Science, including specialists in visual analytics and digital forensics. We’re coming together to conduct academic research on the potential of distributed ledger technology for the creative industries, in particular the music industries, as well as to work on industry-facing reports and public-facing events, kicking off with a small symposium on 14 April, featuring Paul Pacifico from the Featured Artists Coalition, designer Andy Carne of Streemliner and the Ethcore developer Chris Hitchcott. We’re also very much interested in working with industry partners: if you’re reading this and would like to hear more, please do drop us a line. In answer to your second question, I certainly wouldn’t claim that academics have all the answers, but they do have something useful to contribute in a number of fields, not just people like me who come from the music side but across the board from law to economics to computer science. People teaching courses like mine also, of course, have an obligation to teach students about these developments.
Music 4.5: Blockchain and the trust issue will take place on 26 April 2016 in New York. Get your tickets here.
The symposium What is blockchain technology and how could it transform the record industry? will take place on 14 April 2016 at Middlesex University, Hendon Campus. It is open to the public: please email email@example.com to reserve a place. It will feature Paul Pacifico of the Featured Artists Coalition, designer Andy Carne of Streemliner and Ethcore developer Chris Hitchcott, as well as members of the Blockchain for Creative Industries research cluster. Follow on Twitter at @blockchainmdx.