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Wading into the murky waters of artist royalties in the digital age, Berklee College of Music is leading a broad-based effort to streamline how artists and musical rights owners are identified and paid for their work.

The collaborative effort, led by the college’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship and dubbed the Open Music Initiative, seeks to create a uniform, open-source database that will link artists and rights holders to individual musical tracks – be they purchased for download, streamed, sampled, or used in personal projects, performances, or mash-ups.

That, in turn, would help ensure the musician or the owner of the rights gets paid for the usage of the piece of music — potentially solving an overriding concern in the industry.


The initiative includes researchers from the MIT Media Lab and University College London as well as other academic institutions. It has also garnered support from more than 50 media firms, including industry heavyweights such as the Universal Music Group, the Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, YouTube, Pandora, and Netflix.

“Right now there is no uniform protocol that the industry uses to identify ownership regarding any piece of music,” said Panos Panay, cofounder of the Open Music Initiative and founding managing director of the Berklee institute. “Because there’s no uniform way of identifying ownership, there is an inability to send money to the people who should be making it.”

Panay said that a standardized platform was necessary because compensation plans and contracts have not kept pace with myriad technological advances in how people create and listen to music.

“In every other industry where innovation has thrived, people have got together and agreed on some shared standards that enable the flow of money or data to operate,” Panay said. “The music business hasn’t done that. The industry has never come together to create a shared digital architecture that enables the flow of data around ownership so we know who to pay regardless of where the payment is coming from — whether it’s Pandora, YouTube, Spotify, or broadcast radio.”


The issue of licensing and royalties has emerged as a seemingly intractable problem in recent years, as music publishers and artists squabble with listening services such as Spotify and YouTube over compensation. The struggles often involve byzantine questions of micropayments or how labels and artists should be paid for third-party uses of their work, such as cover songs or user-generated videos that incorporate proprietary music.

“You have this situation where you have a lot of players who are all very important but don’t necessarily trust each other” but need a common data source, said Neha Narula, director of research at the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. She added that the Open Music Initiative’s decentralized structure was essential to its success. “We’re talking about multiple companies or entities working together to build an open-source database. What you’ll get is a database that no single company owns but everyone controls together.”

The effort is not the first of its kind, but Panay said the support of music industry leaders and listening services — companies that have found themselves at odds over licensing and royalties — would be critical to its success.

“Innovation is critically needed to address the myriad opportunities and challenges facing artists,” Ty Roberts, chief technology officer for the Universal Music Group, said in a statement. He added that he hoped the new platform would create “comprehensive, fair, and efficient compensation structures to capture the value generated by music and music-related content.”


Jonathan Price, global head of communications for Spotify, said that “transparency across the entire music economy is essential to rewarding artists, songwriters, and everyone involved in the creation of music fairly and rapidly.”

“A music label could build a dashboard that shows an artist real-time usage of their songs,’’ Panay said of one of many possibilities of future applications developed after creating a database.
“A music label could build a dashboard that shows an artist real-time usage of their songs,’’ Panay said of one of many possibilities of future applications developed after creating a database.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Panay said the initiative’s database will ultimately serve as a foundation for future applications.

“A music label could build a dashboard that shows an artist real-time usage of their songs,” he said, “or an application that enables me to log in and see all the money that I’m due, and I’ll know exactly why that money’s there and who owes me that money.”

Zoë Keating, an independent cellist and composer, said that as revenue from traditional sales has decreased, the money from performances, commercial licensing, viral videos, or even performance pieces that incorporate her music has become increasingly important to her income.

“Some of those things are so small scale, administering the contracts takes too much of my time, so I just say go ahead,” she said. “That’s a huge amount of my music that could be there for some artists.”

Keating added that a database like Open Music Initiative could facilitate payments for those smaller projects, potentially encouraging more collaboration among artists.

“What if I could encode my financial relationship with each collaborator and you’d automatically get paid with a set percentage,” she asked. “The lack of a public authoritative record of creation and ownership keeps coming down as one of the things that stops innovation in licensing from occurring. If that was one of the main outcomes of this project, that would be huge.”


The initiative will convene its inaugural meeting on June 22 in New York, with a subsequent three-week innovation lab in Boston in July.

The effort was cofounded by Michael Hendrix, a partner at the global design and innovation company IDEO, which will provide operational guidance for the initiative. Context Labs, a media technology company, will coordinate the project’s technical platform.

“I think the next multibillion dollar platform for music consumption has yet to be invented,” said Panay. “But unless we as an industry can make it easy to identify who is the owner and who should be paid, we’re going to be holding back the availability and the accessibility of music.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.