In 13-plus years of writing about digital music all day, one of my favorite pieces remains “4 Reasons Music Needs One Big Database,” which argues that all of these MP3 blogs, music subscriptions, tweets, videos, streaming radio services, and so on are talking about the same set of music: the one that exists on planet Earth.
As such, it would make things simpler for music fans and music services if all of those songs were listed in a huge, publicly-accessible database, with unique numbers next to them. Simpler means more efficient, and more efficient means cheaper (for fans), more rewarding (for artists), and more effective from just about any other perspective.
With One Big Database, you could take all of your playlists, ratings, and music and leave Spotify in favor of Rhapsody in a matter of minutes, with everything intact. You might even be more likely to pay for that Spotify subscription in the first place, safe in the knowledge that doing so wouldn’t trap you in any way — other than into being a music fan for life, a fate to which many of us have already gladly consigned ourselves.
One Big Database would ease mergers (see Rhapsody/Napster and MySpace/imeem) at the center and help apps talk to each other at the edges. As an example of the “hey look, it just works now!” phenomenon that One Big Database would bring, consider the new apps embedded in the Spotify desktop client from tastemakers like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and Joe Q. Public.
I have no unique insight into how those apps manage to link stuff like Pitchfork reviews to the appropriate albums in Spotify, but I’d imagine that it involves a human going through the list, searching Spotify for the music, and adding links to make sure they are correct. Imagine if, instead of that scenario, any music magazine, blog, playlist, or other list of music could be applied to any catalog of music with zero error. You’d be able to have not just Pitchfork > Spotify, but Drowned In Sound > Pandora or any other wacky combination you could conceive.
This isn’t just about mash-ups, it’s about money, too. Some indie labels have been pulling their catalogs from Spotify, while certain high profile artists like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles never joined in the first place. The reason is financial. Perhaps a Hypebot commentator summed up that stance best: “While the basic idea of Spotify is better than piracy, the pay for indie artists is about the same.”
Spotify co-founder Daniek Ek told me on Friday that Spotify has already paid over $200 million to music copyright holders. We have no unique insight into where that money goes, but historical and anecdotal evidence suggests that artists may not have received their fair share of such payments. Even aside from the question of whether artist contracts include a clause that gives them a minute amount of equity in Spotify when the label that negotiates on the strength of their music receives a chunk of the company, accurate accounting has simply always been an issue in the music business.
Major labels reportedly squeezed Apple for a $100 million upfront payment in return for mirroring, another $100 million from Spotify (just for starters), equity in Myspace (granted, that didn’t pan out), and so on. With One Big Database, it would be abundantly clear which artists deserved what percentage of what pies — equity, revenue, or otherwise. Accounting vagaries would disappear. And the intense headaches suffered by music services trying to deal with labels’ and publishers’ extensive rules for reporting what they played when would too.
Not only would 100-percent accuracy suddenly be within reach everywhere — even in that bar down the street that pays BMI and ASCAP for the right to play music (money that currently gets payed out by sampling play patterns rather than by really understanding what was actually played) — but the pie itself would be bigger. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and the others might want a taste of that bigger pie.
Apps within Spotify have seen tremendous growth due to their inclusion there, judging from the ones I’ve talked with, and I’ve talked to a lot of them. We now have definitive proof of what One Big Database could do to music consumption: It would explode it. (See also Spotify’s own integration with Facebook.)
It’s not just Spotify. If any company — even ones without billion dollar valuations — could integrate as easily and deeply with curators and other apps as Spotify has, or likely more so (with the help of this open song database), people would listen to more music in general. The kind of music listening where money changes hands — however, little money — could be monitored with accuracy, and not in a scary, “suing music fans” way, but in a fair “paying artists even if it’s a tiny percentage of advertising from an ad-supported iOS app” way.
Many of these sources would amount to mere trickles. Even Spotify still considers its royalty payments to be rising to a level that will make more sense for artists. But to understand the power of trickles, one need only look to the springtime, when tiny rivulets of melting snow become great, rushing rivers.