Imogen Heap Inks 'Forward-Thinking' Publishing Deal, Planning 'Fair Trade' Payment System

Imogen Heap

Photo: Jeremy Cowart

British art-pop singer-songwriter Imogen Heap has signed a worldwide agreement with Downtown Music Publishing, as both parties to the deal explore new ways of administering royalties for all songwriters and artists.

Heap, a Grammy- and Ivor Novello-winning solo artist who was a co-writer and producer on Taylor Swift's 1989, released a new track, "Tiny Human," on Oct. 2 using blockchain technology. She's also at work on a "fair trade" music distribution and payment system that she calls Mycelia.

The non-exclusive deal with Downtown covers Heap's portion of Swift's 1989 finale "Clean," plus five songs from Heap's 2014 album, Sparks: "The Beast," "Entanglement," "Climb to Sakteng," "Run-Time" and "Cycle Song." 

Heap says she discussed her ideas for Mycelia with president Justin Kalifowitz about a year-and-a-half ago and liked the company's flexibility, especially when it comes to new technologies. "It's really a great opportunity to work with a forward-thinking publishing company when the future is so wide open at the moment," she tells Billboard. 

At Downtown, Heap joins a roster that includes works by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Randy Newman, Ray Davies (the Kinks), Santigold, Ellie Goulding and One Direction

Joe Conyers III, vp technology at Downtown, says the company has been advising Heap on the publishing side of the business as she develops Mycelia. "She is a true engineer," he tells Billboard. "It's great to partner with somebody like that, who's really going to be a builder with us. That's the spirit of this."

Heap's plans for the music industry go beyond just one publishing deal. She spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt on Dec. 8 in London, and she tells Billboard she'll be participating in a question-and-answer event at London's Somerset House on Jan. 26. She says she's also coordinating a "huge hack event" at Somerset House in March, where representatives from various tech groups will work on potential ways of realizing Mycelia. 

"This is where we're going to really get blockchain going," Heap explains.

Blockchain is best known as the technology underlying bitcoin, but its uses are increasingly under consideration by financial services firms and others with an interest in cutting out expensive middlemen. In short, the technology creates a decentralized, trusted ledger, which its advocates in the music industry say could create transparency and immediate royalty payments.

For "Tiny Human," Heap teamed with Ujo, a music-focused rights and payment service that uses technology from blockchain startup Ethereum.

Heap says the March hack event will also focus on ways to create a shared database without using blockchain itself.

"This is such new technology that what you can do on the blockchain now is just going to be piddly compared to what you can do in 10 years' time," she says.

What's more, Heap is supporting DotMusic in its bid for control over the .music domain name. Arts councils and music industry groups are also backing DotMusic, which is awaiting approval from ICANN, the nonprofit that oversees the database which manages the Internet's "name system." If the proposal is rejected, Heap says the domain name would likely go to Google or Amazon, but she'd prefer to see .music become a "global home" and first-of-its-kind database for the music community.

Such efforts are nothing new for the former member of downtempo duo Frou Frou. In 2011, Heap debuted Mi.Mu, gloves she helped develop that allow the wearer to create music through hand gestures. This October, she released a Box of Tricks, a sample library. Speaking with Billboard, Heap cites PledgeMusic CEO Benji Rogers's proposal for a new music format based on virtual reality.

"She's a renaissance woman of the music business," sums up Paul DeGooyer, principal at Relative Comfort, a consultancy focusing on music in the interactive space.

Former YouTube head of music publishing Scott Sellwood, now co-founder and vp, business development at 3D-printing licensing startup Source3, says, "What Downtown does and the way they approach the business is as forward-thinking as anybody in the publishing industry."

While both Heap and Downtown's Conyers describe the terms of the agreement as relatively standard, they also cast the deal as a small step in a bigger movement. Downtown is independently looking into various uses for blockchain, Conyers offers. He says he can envision a day when Downtown might shift its entire song database onto a blockchain-like platform, though the technological capabilities don't exist yet.

"Things are moving incredibly quickly," Heap says. "It's like a tidal wave, moving in a really positive direction like it never has done before for the music industry."