Artistic Advocates
Newsweek|December 24, 2021
Making sure musicians get a fair shake via Blockchain

THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN a gulf between the few musicians who make it big and the many, many others who have to do something else to pay the bills. That was true in the days of Mozart, who died in debt. It was true in the golden age of rock music, when record companies promoted a few stars like The Beatles and Michael Jackson. And it’s still true in the age of Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services, when most musicians get pennies for their work.

“If you’re on Spotify right now, listening to my band, you’d have to stream one of our songs 786 times for me to be able to buy a single cup of coffee,” said Joey La Neve DeFrancesco of the punk rock group Downtown Boys during a protest in March.

George Howard, a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, is out to make the future more just. He’s introducing new technology to make sure musicians get a fair shake.

“It’s tragic,” he says. “My main thrust in all my work these days is to ensure that no more will any of us create tools or applications for artists without artists being in the room.”

Howard’s experience includes heading up an independent record label and advising clients such as National Public Radio and singer Carly Simon. More recently, he’s invested a lot of his time in blockchain—the online technology behind Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Although blockchain is mostly used for financial transactions, Howard says it can also be used for copyrights and contracts to protect artists and help them earn more money.

The advantage of blockchain is that it’s decentralized. There’s no middleman to take a percentage and no controlling banks or record companies to slow things down. Howard and colleagues at Berklee and MIT have started a blockchain platform called RAIDAR, designed to help musicians connect with potential clients (perhaps filmmakers or video game designers who need theme music) and get paid for their work without losing ownership. When a client wants to license music, a record of the transaction is kept on multiple computer servers connected online—literally, a chain of ledgers, or “blocks.” That keeps everyone honest, because if one block is altered it won’t match the others. The blockchain uses “smart contracts”—computer programs that issue licenses and process payments.

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