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.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.