The Musician’s Advocate

Through the power of the blockchain, George Howard is transforming the music industry to even the playing field for independent artists.

November 21, 2022

Every year in his Intro to Music Business class, George Howard asks students how many believe that if they signed with a major label, the contract would be fair. “No hands show,” he says. Then, he asks students how many of them would sign a deal if an A&R person from a major label walked into the room and offered one. “And 80 percent of hands in the room go up,” says Howard. “It just shows me that they don’t like their options, but they don’t know what the others are.”

Howard, a professor of music business, has spent his career trying to change that. “My purpose is to help musicians create and maintain successful careers on their own terms,” he says. “I’ve been tilting at that windmill since I started putting out records from my college dorm room.” Often, that has meant employing new technological innovations to change the terms of engagement. Last December, Newsweek named him one of “America’s 50 greatest disruptors.” In the late 1990s, he was president of Rykodisc, then the first CD-only independent record label; in the early 2000s, he cofounded TuneCore to license music over the web.

His latest ventures employ blockchains, decentralized and encrypted computer databases, to increase transparency for artists and help them monetize their works and connect directly with their fans. “My analogy is that licensing music in 2022 is like booking travel in 1975—it’s full of intermediaries,” says Howard, author of Everything in Its Right Place: How Blockchain Technology Will Lead to a More Transparent Music Industry. “Artists don’t really have any control.” The way contracts are set up on streaming platforms such as Spotify and Amazon Music, some big-name artists make lots of money while the majority of artists make little—and the labels sit back and rake in the passive income.

Howard created a licensing platform for student musicians at Berklee called RAIDAR (Rights and Asset Information in Decentralized, Authoritative Repositories), using a carbon-neutral blockchain called Algorand. Once information is put onto a blockchain, it cannot be removed, creating an accurate record of ownership; in addition, a blockchain can employ “smart contracts” that automatically process transactions according to set rules. “A student can set the price and terms for a song, and so long as a buyer agrees to it, the contract will unlock,” Howard explains. The platform will allow students to directly license their content for student films, video games, and other projects.

Howard is now working on broadening this licensing arrangement to a commercial platform called Dequency, which would be open to any artist. In another project, the Song That Owns Itself (STOI), artists distribute ownership tokens for a song to fans, who sell and distribute these tokens and split the profit. A blockchain keeps track of transactions, so artists can get to know their most loyal fans and reward them with perks such as advance concert ticket sales or “Ask Me Anything” sessions with the band. Already, the project has worked with such artists as Superposition and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels (of Run-DMC fame).

Howard develops and invests in these ventures while at the same time teaching classes at Berklee such Music + the Blockchain, hoping he can inspire students to become music entrepreneurs themselves. “I’m proud to be part of an institution that allows me flexibility to try something at a time when most other academic institutions would be like, ‘Well, we don’t know what this is; we’re going to stay away from it,’” he says. Ultimately, he hopes blockchain technology will catch on in the music-licensing industry more broadly, so everyone will be more accurately and justly compensated. “But especially independent artists,” he says. “It’s to them my heart is obviously biased.”

This article appeared in the fall/winter 2022 issue of Berklee Today