Hang around in the music business long enough and you’ll probably the following joke: “what’s the easiest way to make a bunch of money in music? Start a band called “Various Artists” and record a song called “Untitled Track.”
Look, no one ever said the music business was known for its sense of humor. But as lame as the joke is, it points to a very real, and very costly, problem — music metadata is a total mess. Royalty distribution company SoundExchange has plenty of money sitting unclaimed, not because of any malfeasance on its part, but because it can’t find the right people to pay. And while some of this responsibility falls on the shoulders of DJs who can’t be bothered to report complete band names, plenty of it has to do with the amount of incorrect metadata about music that exists.
One of the biggest problems is that there is no standard for music metadata. DDEX, a consortium founded in 2006 by media companies, music licensing organizations, digital service providers, and technical intermediaries, is working on creating a standard, but there is still much more to be done. Another huge challenge is that no global database of music metadata exists, so even if everyone follows the standards, there’s no one central repository for all the content.
The standards also need to be written in a way that makes them accessible to smaller artists and labels. Creating a system of standards that is too laborious to comply with helps no one, but making things too simple will lead to mistakes and crucial information being left out. Using smart contracts on top of blockchain technology will provide some good first steps, as much of the information in the contracts is the same information needed to make sure the metadata is complete and accurate.
Beyond making sure artists are paid fairly and on time, complete metadata is a boon for all the other parties involved in creating recorded music. For instance, the database on the blockchain could function as the new version of liner notes — if a listener likes the production on an album, they could then see which other albums the producer has worked on and listen and support his or her work from there. For consumer-facing products like Spotify and Apple Music, this offers up a whole new set of relationships that could be turned into great playlists and recommendations.
Accurate metadata can also help emerging artists, particularly those in developing markets. If you’ve ever seen “Searching for Sugar Man,” you know what can happen when an artist is successful half a world away, and has no idea that it’s happening. While the internet makes it unlikely something as dramatic as the story told in that film will happen again, there are likely plenty of cases when someone discovers an obscure track on Soundcloud and samples it in a commercially viable song — and the creator of the original sample has no idea and can’t be tracked down. Great metadata on a global level will help level the playing field and make sure artists from all territories are treated fairly.
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