Ramblings | October 29, 2015

Thoughts on Imogen Heap’s Mycelia

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about Imogen Heap’s “Mycelia” vision. For a while, mainly due coverage which majored on the “Yay, because Bitcoin!” while being scant on technical details, I couldn’t understand how it could possibly address the problems in the digital music industry.

The penny has finally dropped though: this is not about stopping people sharing music or downloading without paying, this is about stopping the music industry itself from losing artists’ royalties in the maze of legal and accountancy hoops and jargon that make it hard if not impossible for anyone to be sure of what they’re actually owed or indeed how much revenue their music has generated. It’s about reusing the technology which makes it possible for Bitcoin to operate securely and transparently without a central authority to make music distribution operate without a central authority.

Unlike many musicians, I maintain that you cannot reasonably stop people from sharing music. You can ask them not to, you can make laws against it, but in the end there is no technical solution to it. Someone can always plug their headphones socket into a recorder and copy it the old-fashioned way. Proposed solutions to that problem usually revolve around giving more power to corporations to control our listening habits, and this is definitely the wrong direction to be heading in.

Making the accounts of the music business more transparent is something that I hadn’t really considered. As soon as I realised that it was this, the machinery of the record industry, that was the target for Mycelia’s revolution  I started to see that it was an important step in the right direction. It would be a huge improvement for musicians, without recourse to lawyers and accountants, to be able to see how the revenue from an album sale had been divided up. As it currently stands, I usually receive opaque royalty payments without even knowing how much the album was actually sold for, let alone the details of who got what percentage or for what. Accounting transparency like this would help artists decide whether it was worth doing business with through companies like Amazon or Spotify, or whether their competitors gave a better deal. It would also, I imagine, be interesting for the more involved fans to see where their money was actually going and which channels resulted in more money going to the artists they were supporting.

But more than this: if the distribution of music became more open like this, with a single collaborative, shared catalogue rather than the walled gardens of iTunes and Amazon with their implicit entrance fees, then suppliers of music would only stay in business if they were genuinely providing a useful service to the artist and the audience, not just because they had positioned themselves as the gatekeepers of the marketplace. Rather than having to pay what amounts to a tax to be listed in the iTunes or Amazon stores, artists could sell their music elsewhere, knowing that their audience could go to Ye Bigge Internet Music Catalogue to find music and then download, stream or buy physical copies from whoever the artist chose to do business with. It’s this open playing field that would make as much of a difference as anything else. At the moment companies like Amazon and iTunes use their huge captive audience as a stick to beat artists with: if you don’t want to be invisible you need to be on their sites, and they will take a hefty cut of profits and more importantly control over your art in return.

Talking of control, Mycelia also has the potential to address other issues which audiences might not be aware of but which often frustrate artists. As a musician engaging in the digital music world, not only do I have no say over the pricing of my tracks, I rarely have any say over which may be downloaded as “singles” and which are album only tracks, over what the section of a song the preview clip is, over artwork and other extras I want to provide as part of the release or countless other things that are important to me. As an example, the digital release of Fusion Orchestra 2’s Casting Shadows was actually restructured into five tracks rather than the seven tracks on the physical album to prevent one major distributor from only permitting customers to download the short interlude tracks and not the real long tracks, and feeling cheated or otherwise mislead when they’ve paid for something that isn’t really a proper piece of music. It’s just plain silly, but as the artist we seemingly had no other choice because the one-size-fits-all decisions were being made elsewhere beyond our control.

There will always be a market for mass-produced, demographically driven music, but by breaking the stranglehold the music industry giants have, Mycelia could allow the more niche and even labour-of-love artists that are not worthy of the industry behemoths’ consideration a realistic way to make and publish music on their own terms without being almost entirely painted out of the picture by the big players.

Though I do still have many technical questions and reservations about how this would ultimately work, I find that from a my initial impressions of it as being an Emperor’s New Clothes solution, I’m finding myself raving evangelically like a true believe about the possibilities. Could this finally be the start of the digital revolution finally freeing musicians from the shackles of the music industry’s big players? I don’t know, but I’m watching and listening closely…

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on Imogen Heap’s Mycelia”

  1. imogenheap says:

    Hello there and excited to have you ‘on board’. Things are SO bloomin’ exciting. The blockchain catapulted me into action when I realised I big piece of the puzzle for a Mycelia like future was in existence and it’s a chance to now build into new platforms and services, a standards that we, the artists, can agree upon. Essentially Mycelia is a set of standards. A protocol. how our music is shared, under what terms and by the way, here is all the info related to the music. Our beacons, acting for us, so that the services can ‘listen’ to when we have a new track and automatically upload (without us needing to service it to them), as long as they agree to the terms. From the ‘fan’ or ‘user end’, a standard visible ‘light’ of some sort so that the listener is aware they are listening to ‘fair trade music’. From digital radio to spotify etc, you could see how people could adopt this.

    On top of this… HUGE news recently is that i just realised .Music top level domain is up for grabs (as I was trying to register Mycelia.music for the soon to be foundation). Currently Amazon and Google are of course hoping to acquire this for their own ends but IMAGINE if the music community got a hold of it?? I was thinking this could be the missing link for Mycelia. Adoption, standards. Could come all at once if ‘we’ could have a say in how .Music sites get used. VERY exciting. SO I then, yesterday (a day after finding out who was best person to align with) phoned up DotMusic’s Constantine Roussos, to quiz him and see if this could happen. If you read their mission statement.. and you talk to him. it’s clear the answer is YES! http://music.us/mission-purpose/

    I wrote a blog about it yesterday after chatting with him.. as i asked people to blindly sign something to show solidarity, to make sure that WE (DotMusic) get it and not ‘the others’ and then explained! You can read it here if you fancy it!

    or just sign this! music.us/sign
    Trust me… you’ll want to!

    In other news… please come to a hack/talks/show and tell/brainstorm/ discussions week on Mycelia at Somerset House next year. Around Jan/March. Details soon. People are rallying around this idea! It’s amazing. I’ve never been offered so much help toward anything before. Completely hadn’t planned to do this…and what it seems I am doing is bringing together the right people who are already doing amazing work in tech, fighting for the same thing.. to make sure we stay on track and create something open, beautiful and sustainable!

    MORE SOON! xxx thanks for blogging about it. great to share further the idea. WIth love.

    • Ben Bell says:

      Thanks for the long and thoughtful reply Imogen. I’ve already seen the .music news, signed the petition and retweeted. This really is big news if we can pull it off. The Internet was never envisaged as another piece of our world to be bought by big corporations. If we can remind the current custodians of the domain name system of this and have .music controlled by the artists rather than those that treat our art as a commodity that would be a huge step forward.

      I will definitely keep my eye out for the discussion week, and will keep blogging. Keep shouting about your ideas because they’re definitely the most coherent I’ve heard on the subject so far.

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