Berklee Announces Ambitious New Cross-Industry Project with Majors and Big Tech On Board

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Berklee College of Music

Around this time last year, the Berklee College of Music's campaign Rethink Music debuted its "Fair Music: Transparency And Money Flows In The Music Industry" report. The report, a succinct (and Kobalt-funded) 29 pages, was scathing in conclusion of a systemically delayed adoption of modern technologies by the music industry.

A central observation of "Fair Music," perhaps less widely understood at the time of publication, was that the lack of a global database in a billion-stream-a-day digital marketplace was resulting in a "black box" of unpaid royalties. By the end of the year, Spotify was being sued (first twice, now once) for exactly that. (The company also signed a $30 million settlement with the National Publishers Association not long after the initial suit was filed to deal with the issue.) As was Tidal. "One major cause is the lack of a standardized database for musical works that would make it easy for labels and collection societies to identify who is owed what," the paper, led by Allen Bargfrede, read.

Today, Berklee Institute of Creative Entrepreneurship -- separate from the Rethink Music project -- has announced the Open Music Initiative (OMI), an attempt at a top-level approach to the issue of rights management and organization in the digital era. The project is in partnership with the MIT Media Lab.

The OMI isn't intended to be a centralized database for song and creator identification, but instead a set of standards -- tied to advocacy -- that would allow for separate databases to talk to, and verify information between, each other.

"We want to help create an open-source framework for music rights and music rights licensing," Panos Panay, the head of Berklee's Institute of Creative Entrepreneurship (ICE), tells Billboard. "This is less about a centralized, closed database that's accessible to a handful of organizations; this is ultimately about creating an open-source structure to enable the registration and identification of not only music rights holders but also anybody and everybody who was involved in the music creation process."

ICE has signed up an impressive list of tech companies and organizations who will support OMI, including Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud, SiriusXM, Netflix, the Music Managers Forum and the Featured Artist Coalition. Most notably -- and the reason behind delaying OMI's announcement by a week -- is that the initiative has signed up the three major labels as well; Universal Music, Warner Music and Sony Music.

The project is funded, according to Panos, by "gifts from donors to Berklee." The project will not address retroactive catalog, but rather is "about going forward. It will be up to companies to decide if they want eventually to retrofit." Regardless, streams of older artists are a significant part of the new digital recording economy, and present a problem that will need to be addressed at some point.

"We think transparency across the entire music economy is essential to rewarding artists, songwriters and everyone involved in the creation of music fairly and rapidly and we’re really happy to be part of an effort that is exploring innovative ways to do that with new technologies," says Jonathan Prince, Spotify's global head of communications and public policy, in a statement.

"The Open Music Initiative is an important cross-industry effort," says Christophe Muller, YouTube's head of international music partnerships, "that addresses the complicated challenges impacting rights management in the digital age."

What today's announcement doesn't bring with it is any concrete work on the complex technological work required of such a large initiative. "They're announcing aspiration," one major label source tells Billboard, adding that, as opposed to the entrenched interests of the failed Global Rights Database project which began half a decade ago, Berklee has "some semblance of objectivity and impartiality -- there's clearly a very pro-artist approach, and they have resources."

The OMI comes on the heels of several complementary -- or complicating -- initiatives from disparate corners of the business. In late December, following David Lowery's class action suit against it, Spotify announced it would work with the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) to create a database for its royalty black box (a project that may backfire in court). Music Reports, which already owns a proprietary database built over its years of monitoring digital payments, announced a similar project in March. Also in late December, Japan's Ministry of Economy announced its own rights database for music, film, animation and other native intellectual property. And last summer, Kobalt formed the first worldwide digital collection society through a reconstituted AMRA.

Berklee's new project will try to move forward with a meeting in New York next week (June 22), as well as an "innovation lab" in Boston next month. 

Can Berklee's perceived impartiality -- and long list of influential co-signees -- fix what has essentially become a worrying cloud over the streaming economy? At the very least, it seems -- for once -- everyone is on the same page.