Ujo Attempts Music On The Blockchain A Second Time With: EGO By RAC [Op-Ed]

1Blockchain tech’s potential for the music industry has long been discussed and debated, but not always acted upon. Ujo Music is one organization which has worked to make blockchain integration an actual reality, and although its first attempt didn’t exactly go smoothly, hopes are high for round two.


Op-ed by David Gerard

Nest HQ is a dance music culture site, associated with musician Skrillex and his label OWSLA. It recently posted a short video, “Blockchain & the Music Industry,” about Ujo Music and ConsenSys’s offering to musicians.

If you’ve read Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, you’ll recall that Ujo Music was involved in Imogen Heap’s 2015 release of her song “Tiny Human” on the Ethereum blockchain, in the publicity for which Heap declared that “its success will come from the adoption of millions of music lovers.” With widespread publicity and hundreds of articles in the blockchain, music and general press, it sold a grand total of 222 copies, for a gross take of $133.20 — not $133,200, but one hundred and thirty-three dollars and twenty cents. The book details the many points at which the initiative stumbled, most involving the primitive state of the Ethereum ecosystem at the time.

In the wake of the “Tiny Human” disaster, Ujo posted an apologia in which they admitted that they’d only researched any of what they were trying to do after they’d done it: “We are but a few bright-eyed technologists with a special hammer, looking for the right nail.” This phrase is not a winning formula for any new project.

Ujo has returned with a new artist, DJ and record producer RAC, who released his album EGO through Ujo in July. (It also received a conventional release through Counter Records.) Nest describes its video about Ujo and RAC:

This documentary was designed to make technical concepts about blockchain easy to understand and accessible for those just getting into the space without sacrificing the necessary technical terms and language.

The video is six and a half minutes long. It spends the first 2:20 setting out all manner of problems with the music industry, and putting forward what artists want. There’s a simple description of a blockchain, including the statement “bringing more power to the people while maintaining users’ anonymity and privacy” — the scriptwriter may wish to contemplate the example of Ross Ulbricht of the Silk Road drug market, convicted in part on evidence from a permanent and immutable blockchain, and the phrase “prosecution futures.”

At 2:40, the Ujo offering is described: a smart contract that you send a specific amount of ether, and you get back access codes for downloads in various formats. So it’s a web-based record shop like Bandcamp, but with ether. However, this is posited not as an alternative to web shops for independent artists, but to the complicated major label record industry.

At 3:40, they claim that a web-based shopping site, but on the blockchain, can be generalised: “this use case within the art and entertainment community extends into the realm of finance, politics, transportation, agriculture and beyond.” This is completely unsubstantiated, but the pictures are pretty. “There are few limits to what blockchain tech can and will do” — except the limits of feasibility, scaling, understanding the specific domain you’re trying to fix, and every other such problem that’s left blockchains in all fields long on hype and embarrassingly short on real-world running production systems.

(You know, I wrote a whole book about how it turns out that magic doesn’t happen and the details matter, with the last chapter being specifically about how and why this particular magic can’t happen for the music industry: there is no extant blockchain that can possibly scale to the size of the data, and the actual problem is knowing precisely who owns what rights to what tracks in what situations so that you don’t end up with a massive “black box” pool of unclaimed royalties, such as got Spotify sued earlier this year.)

At 4:00, the video returns to resentment-based marketing to artists, implying that the blockchain as supplied by Ujo will solve all their problems. If you can get people feeling resentful and then claim you have a solution, you can sell them anything, whether or not it’s feasible, usable or even functional. But it’s heartwarming to see how keen all these “blockchain” people are to helpfully intermediate between you, the artist — their eternal and only concern! — and the prospect of money.

There’s an odd bit at 3:30: “there is little need for middlemen such as BMI or ASCAP.” These are two non-profit organisations that collect publishing and performance royalties when someone uses a song you wrote or plays it live — rights which exist in copyright law, and that you can’t magically nullify by selling a song on the blockchain. It’s not clear why the “take that!” at these two bodies in particular, and not anyone else in the music industry, but it is clear that Ujo sees them as their direct competition in this endeavour.

Simon de la Rouviere from Ujo has blogged about the infrastructure for their offering. The web portal was hand-constructed for RAC, but they plan a semiautomated portal setup page. The architecture is not decentralised and distributed “as yet”. The music files are served from Amazon S3. They hypothesise moving to IPFS, which (a) is still fancy BitTorrent, and you’re going to have to seed the files from somewhere (b) still isn’t finished.

One thing Ujo correctly understands is the necessity of a metadata standard — if you’re going to sling around complicated data concerning who gets paid what, you need a machine-readable format that is so obviously correct that people will just adopt it and use it. Such a thing would have gone a long way towards solving Spotify’s black box problem, for example. A lot of music industry people have proposed something like this; music publishers and collection societies, including ASCAP and BMI, tried to create a Global Repertoire Database in the early 2010s, but scrapped the idea in 2014, as nobody wanted to create and fund a new central octopus — even as they all knew, and still know, that they desperately needed something to do this job. MusicTechFest put out quite a good white paper on the subject in 2016, in which they proposed:

a modular approach, where specific problems are solved incrementally, building up an open and transparent meta-system ensuring the individual systems that address the sub-problems use open standards and globally acceptable and accessible data, for example residing in one or more blockchain-based systems.

This is pretty much the obvious answer — build workable stuff from the ground up rather than the top down — though without a gratuitous blockchain.

COALA IP is Ujo’s proposal. Unfortunately, it appears from their sites that they didn’t ask anyone from the music industry — just “lawyers, computer scientists and entrepreneurs”, mostly from the blockchain space. This is after posting an apology for not doing their research.

(They also have a working group looking into Distributed Autonomous Organizations, despite how well the DAO idea went last time, with unfixable security flaws in The DAO — a DAO called The DAO — ending in the theft of $50 million and Ethereum itself splitting into two, and despite the fact that everything that happened to The DAO was obvious consequences of smart contracts themselves that many people had warned of long in advance.)

Ujo has also posted about Ethereum as a payment processing system. They describe the problems with present systems — “the intermediaries need to process millions of requests per minute, store large amounts of data, run up a large overhead and charge fees to cover their overhead to stay in business” — then claim Ethereum can and will do a better job. This is trivially false.

The post starts “Making a purchase on the web may feel like a seamless way of sending money” and notes “on the consumer side, this works well — offline with a card and online with a card number.” They then lament the complexity of the systems that make it even possible to offer this user-friendliness, at a vast transaction rate across the whole world.

Their contrasting claim is that the software will be easier to implement in Ethereum — and they then completely fail to note the ridiculously user-hostile clunkiness of dealing with cryptocurrency in any way, nor how fatally easy it is to lose all your money irretrievably through simple human error. (No chargebacks!) And Ethereum can only do less than 1000 transactions per minute, total worldwide — that’s already not enough to cope with its own popular ICOs, e.g., the Bancor and Status releases that rendered the network unusable for hours at a time.

Existing systems are large and complicated because they do a large and complicated job. Anyone can posit an easier version of something if they don’t bother with the hard bits.

So let’s look at the UJO X RAC website. The first thing you see is that Ujo have not yet worked out how to do portable web design: “The Ujo Store is currently only compatible with Chrome.” You can only buy the album on a desktop PC running one particular web browser.

To buy the record, you need to install MetaMask, an Ethereum wallet in a Chrome extension. The page also has a “Tip RAC” button, which doesn’t do anything if you don’t have MetaMask installed. The “How To Buy Album” link goes to a page on how to use MetaMask, which links to how to buy Ethereum at Coinbase (rather than ShapeShift as with “Tiny Human”), including how to send them your comprehensive identity theft kit.

I go to the MetaMask plugin page, click “install,” and I get:

An error has occurred
Could not install package: ‘UTILITY_PROCESS_CRASHED_WHILE_TRYING_TO_INSTALL’. Could not install package because a utility process crashed. Try restarting Chrome and trying again.

It installs on a restart. I accept the privacy notice and the terms of use, which start with a mandatory arbitration clause, because declaring right up front that if they mess you around, you’re screwed is very blockchain.

The “BUY ALBUM” and “TIP JAR” links work now. I have no ether and no plans to get any — certainly not to put it into any piece of software with terms of use like MetaMask’s — so that’s as far as I went in testing.

If you manage to buy the album, you get an EGO badge, an ERC-20 Ethereum token. “Your support of the RAC x Ujo project is forever memorialized in this token as a reputational badge that is verifiable, exchangeable, and most importantly, valuable on the Ethereum blockchain.” Not sure about that last claim. At the end of the page is “Click here to join the conversation”, which goes to ujomusic.herokuapp.com, which doesn’t work.

The Ujo Music site itself shows similar care and attention to detail. The first thing on it is “In 2015 Imogen Heap collaborated with Ujo to demonstrate how Ethereum could usher in a modern music supply chain built on a backbone of prompt and transparent payments — more details“, the link going to www.alpha.ujomusic.com, which doesn’t exist.

EGO seems to have done a bit better than “Tiny Human” did. If you look at the token address, you can see that 139 EGO tokens exist, giving a total take of $1390; not terrible for a completely independent production. You can see every token creation there (any token transfer starting “From: 0x0000000000000000000000000000000000000000”). Ujo says that “on the first day of the RAC release, he made more money from tips than he did from sales,” but we’re not talking about a huge amount in sales.

The commenters on Hypebot weren’t impressed. Shacha Oren hit the nail on the head:

And this is different than selling an MP3 album on mp3.com or myspace.com how? If you have to go to a site hosted by company X to do a transaction via the service of company X, then I see no difference, all buzz aside.

Ujo is running a centralised record shop, like Bandcamp but worse. Bandcamp is strictly superior in every regard as a record shop, takes 15% as their cut, the paying customers love it, and it pays you in actual money rather than Internet pogs.

If you don’t like a centralised shop like Bandcamp, or giving them 15%, you can sell a record from your web page via PayPal. Or sell it on the blockchain for ether yourself in the same way. (I actually tried setting up merchant sales through Coinbase, but they’ve so far been utterly incompetent. But that’s a forthcoming post.) In 2017, it’s really easy to publish creative works independently; I’ve just sold 2400 books. The hard part is the promotion, not the mechanics of distributing and selling the thing.

Of course, the music industry now gets the lion’s share of its income from streaming. Ujo’s Ethereum web shop is in many ways solving last decade’s problem. RAC’s album is also up on Spotify, with nary a blockchain in sight.

Ujo Music are asking a lot of the right questions. But they don’t have answers, only promises that they might come up with answers in the future. Fundamentally, they are still starting from “blockchain!” and trying to find a problem it can be applied to, rather than starting with a problem and trying to solve it.

Update: ujomusic.herokuapp.com is now working — looks like they paid their Heroku bill. it’s a signup page to join their Slack chat channel.