Can cities use blockchain to promote transparency in music?

The LinkNYC wifi hubs in action. Image: Getty.

Back in December 2014, without much fanfare, hundreds of standalone machines appeared on the streets of New York City, offering a number of free services for residents and tourists. These included accessing free WiFi, making a phone call, looking up directions and finding out important numbers, all accessed through a touchscreen that looks like a cross between a light post and a bikeshare-scheme stand.

The objective behind the LinkNYC screens was to provide free information to all New Yorkers and visitors, regardless of where one was or how much money they had. Accessible, available to everyone, transparent and helpful, the machines have assisted with mobility, access to information, communication and, importantly, civic engagement.

Last year, Estonia launched an e-residency business programme, aimed at recruiting entrepreneurs to register their company in the country and subsequently pay Estonian taxes on their profits. The program does not require business owners to move to Estonia: all filing and requisite paperwork is done online. The residency offer does, however, come with a number of tax incentives across R&D and recruitment to entice those lured digitally to explore opening up a bricks and mortar office.

The program has been especially popular with British businesses worried about Brexit and access to the EU. Using new technologies and methods, another often painstaking process – setting up a business – has been simplified for ease of access, much like finding a free and fast WiFi signal in NYC.

Both these examples use what the sector calls ‘smart’ technologies to improve people’s engagement with civic society. A smart city is one that develops an infrastructure of communication technology to give people access to information and resources in a way that’s almost effortless for the user.

In New York, it is the simple pain of getting around or finding WiFi. In Estonia, it is competing in the global market for entrepreneurs, their ideas and money. Across our cities and towns, more of these new technologies are being beta-tested, incubated and refined. This should engender improvements, especially in one of the most challenging issues in civics and cities today: making everything available to everyone in as fair and transparent a way as possible.

Both examples of successful, smart city technologies are built to foster transparency in a continuously moving organism in an even more complex ecosystem. There are other sectors that can benefit from this way of thinking. Take, for example, our sector and obsession: music. If we open up ideas, solutions and data for everyone, then – hopefully – everyone benefits. For music, transparency is in the eye of the beholder. The way that music is bought, sold and transferred could be rethought if we explore its challenges as a smart cities problem.

With music, the problem is not one with which the majority of the public is concerned: it is negotiated and debated behind closed doors. On the streets, the war against piracy in the mid-2000s is now assuaged. Most people have migrated to streaming services, such as Spotify and YouTube. The problem is, there’s no standard rate in which each song is paid per stream. Each service is different, and within each service, the rate depends on how much one’s track is being streamed at one given time, in one given place.

Behind this, there’s a century-old industry of collection societies, publishers and royalty administrators, moving bits and bytes across the globe in an effort to capture each penny, take a small percentage and then pass the remainder on to the creators.

The system is creaking under the requirement, in the streaming era, to keep track not only of each purchase but of every single listen. While listeners access tracks at the swipe of a touchscreen, payments to creators are slow – and in some areas opaque. Licensing information is not always easily accessible. Most problematically of all, there is not one single database of music copyright: there are several, none of them complete, and occasionally they actually disagree.


In NYC, before LinkNYC appeared, WiFi was more difficult to access in public. To those British businesspeople and entrepreneurs concerned with Brexit, access to the single market was more difficult without Estonia’s e-residency program. With music, the snags lie beneath the surface and that is where transparent systems can create change. Customers may not care or know how much each stream or download provides an artist, but artists and their representatives do. While solutions exist, the organism is not yet benefitting as a whole. The music sector, if treated as a city, is not as open as it should be. Smart cities technologies, ones adapted to impact traffic, banking, housing and healthcare, could be part of the solution, helping to provide a pathway to transparency.

Let’s build a roadmap of a song, from earbud to artist’s bank account. Once streamed, there could very well be five middlemen or women in the process. There can even be more if the chain crosses national borders, for instance if your song is played in Indonesia and you live and work in Boston. These intermediaries include publishing companies, rights administrators, royalty companies, collection societies, record labels, management companies and other entities.

Liken this to the process one goes through to open a bar in New York or stage a music festival in Poland. Both require multiple permissions and permits from different departments, each with their own schedules, objectives and requirements. Navigating the process requires as much work as realizing the art that initiated the process.

Lower barriers to entry, sometimes seen as empowering artists, have also resulted in an increasing number of musicians having to do it all – the flipside of being able to ‘do it yourself’. Without a label or manager, business decisions, from the day-to-day to the strategic, jostle for time with writing and recording. This is the city equivalent of having to grow, tend to and harvest all of one’s vegetables just to be able to eat. It’s having to build the bus before you drive yourself to work.

Looked at as a Smart Cities problem, new solutions present themselves. If a music value chain considered itself 100 per cent transparent, the song roadmap would be available for all to see at the start and end of the road. This could be done through blockchain technology, the notion of a distributed ledger, recording ‘blocks’ of transactions in an immutable ‘chain’.

First conceived to support the digital currency bitcoin, the underlying technology is increasingly being seen as having the potential to disrupt not only financial services but a whole range of sectors from healthcare to the diamond trade – part of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. The potential for transforming the music industries is considerable. If income for each track, and for all parties, was to be recorded on a distributed ledger, for instance, then everyone in New York City could stream music from a LinkNYC machine, and rest assured those behind the content were being paid fairly for their work.

The solution here, however, is not only with the music industry. What if a city declared a goal to declare itself 100 per cent music transparent? Let’s unpack this.

Using blockchain technology within a national server, a file could be tagged with a blockchain marker. Once uploaded, this would trigger an instantaneous recognition of the song’s performance and, consequently, a payment into that artist’s wallet, as determined by a predetermined ‘smart contract’ – or programmable transaction, executed automatically, via the blockchain, when certain conditions are met. If the country or city would prohibit the uploading of songs without the relevant file marker, new songs would be tracked and payments would be deposited and allocated in real time, dramatically simplifying what is often a four or five step process.

The music industry is already doing this, albeit slowly. But cities aren’t along for the ride. We need a LinkNYC for music, or an e-residency for copyright. A number of collection societies – the ‘music police’ that license restaurants, cafes, shops and other establishments to play music while monitoring TV and radio – have invested in blockchain technology, working with global players including IBM on developing new architecture. Meanwhile, Spotify recently acquired the blockchain start-up Mediachain.

The LinkNYC program and the Estonian e-business residency removed barriers, created transparency and opened up their product, or service, to everyone. We can do the same with music. Maybe Tallinn and New York City can be the first ever music transparent cities, where every nanosecond of music that makes all our lives better in the places we live was paid for in real time to the rightful owners of each track. It’s just smart.

Dr. Shain Shapiro is founder & CEO of Sound Diplomacy. Marcus O’Dair is a programme Leader at Middlesex University.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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