Transparency Takes Center Stage at Berklee's Fair Music Workshop

Studio B at the Berklee College of Music (Photo via the Berklee College of Music)

In a wide-ranging day of discussion, industry and tech thought leaders attempted to tackle some fundamental questions of the modern music business.

Transparency in the music industry -- essentially, the idea that artists should be privy to the details of how their music is used, where their money is coming from and why -- has taken center stage in a public debate of increasing volume in recent history. On Friday, the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship's Rethink Music initiative sponsored the Fair Music Workshop, a series of panels and chats designed to provoke discussion on how transparency can be heightened and reinforced in the music business, at Boston's waterfront innovation hub District Hall.

"This industry really has to get its shit together not only to generate revenue, but to get money to those people who actually need it and deserve it," Casey Rae, CEO of the artist-forward nonprofit Future Of Music Coalition, said at the opening panel on transparency and its relation to money. He then noted that the music industry had three flavors of transparency to grapple with: Structural, or the understanding of how services generate and pay out royalties; deal and terms transparency, which examines how contracts lay down the terms for music's use and compensation; and repertoire, which deals with the data and information management systems that track the consumption and usage of music. He asserted that repertoire transparency was "the thing we need to address immediately, simply because all the rest of the good stuff that comes from a truly global music industry… is impossible to effectively operate without really great data management systems and authoritative information about ownership."

Much of the day dealt with these issues, particularly the way that the music industry's old systems -- from the individualized databases used by record labels to the differences in metadata used by popular recordings and classical recordings -- needed to become more streamlined and standardized in order to properly deal with the increasingly global nature of the music business. Berklee professor George Howard referred to this as the "garbage in, garbage out" problem while moderating a panel on blockchain technology, while Brian Message of ATC Management (his portfolio includes Radiohead and PJ Harvey) likened the business to "a lot of supertankers that were trying to move in a direction that is alien to them."

The relationship between consumers and musicians also went under the microscope. As part of his lively, witty keynote, Willard Ahdritz of the rights management company Kobalt Music Group noted that the introduction of Spotify in Sweden had helped cut down piracy by a substantial amount. He also talked about how the music industry could still implement what he called "enormous efficiencies in tech and costs… You can run different structures and a humble organization."

But he also reinforced his support for the freemium model, saying that while he could afford to buy a $24 vinyl record, he had worked decades to get to that point. He also noted that a blockbuster hit could have as many as 900,000 revenue streams, including streaming services and other outlets.

During a panel on consumer and creator education, Eddie Schwarz of the Songwriters Association of Canada raised the notion of "fair trade" music that resulted in money flowing toward creators, as opposed to models where executives took the lions' share of money and operators of pipelines like ISPs received payments for facilitating the consumption of creative content. "If you give consumers a very simple choice at the point of purchase," he said, " and communicate to them that fair trade is possible, you have reasonable certainty that a fair amount of money will make its way back up the chain."

Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros said that comparing music to other businesses was a folly because "Spotify's actual competition is piracy. What other industry allows that?" Taking a stance against freemium, Ebert spoke of how the idea of a song being a "gateway to an artist" was like a shirt being a "gateway to a jacket," and lamenting that further indulgence of consumers' desire for free music would result in recorded music becoming the provenance of hobbyists -- not just for artists, but for producers, mixers, and other people who contribute to recorded music's final products.

"I would like to see a world where artists decide how and where they distribute their music," said artist advocate Joe Mendelson. "Artists then explain to listeners why they're doing what they do… artists have to educate fans, because that's where the trust lies." A number of speakers cited Taylor Swift's public scuffles with Apple and Spotify as moments that helped move the needle on fan awareness about artist compensation.

The blockchain technology panel concluded the morning session, and proved to be the liveliest of the discussions. Blockchain technology is a decentralized record of digital events that is then shared between multiple participants, allowing for transparency, instant royalty payments, and the removal of middlemen. Two of the panelists are working on blockchain-based services for the music business; Eddie Corral's service PeerTracks plans to use the technology to offer perks to fans, while panelist Phil Barry is working on a project called Ujo, an intermediary-free rights database and payment infrastructure.

Jim Griffin, managing director of the digital art delivery service OneHouse, was adamant about what he thought needed fixing: "I came here to talk about fairness and transparency," he said, before talking about what he saw as the need for individual pieces of music to have globally unique identifiers, a la bank account numbers, so as to make sure their listening was fairly counted. Robert Ashcroft, CEO of the UK copyright outfit PRS For Music, noted that the lack of a central registry for sound recordings led to there being 42 ISRCs (International Standard Recording Codes) for Queen's 1980 disco-crossover hit "Another One Bites The Dust," and asserted that data cleaning and data management would be crucial to any sort of breakthrough as far as more open systems were concerned.

Producer and songwriter Imogen Heap Skyped in mid-day, to talk about the process behind her new song "Tiny Human," which she released on Friday using blockchain technology. (Barry noted that Heap was working with Ujo on "Tiny Human"; the song, along with its associated data, was released at an event sponsored by the UK newspaper The Guardian.) During her brief appearance, she discussed her disdain for what she called "unnecessary gates" between musicians and listeners, and her dream of one day establishing "a system of standards where people can build things and talk to one another… a semantic web for music."

The series of panels didn't necessarily come away with any concrete answers, but the passionate, feisty discussions underscored the problems underlying much of the industry's digital bedrock -- and how deeply music moves those who work with it.

"I want to hear the next song that is written," Ahdritz said during his keynote. "I love music. This is about the creative fabric of our society."