In Esperanto, the world’s most widely spoken constructed language, the word “ujo” means a container or a cup, much like the cup a busker has on the floor in front of him when sharing his creative expression. The idea behind the Esperanto language is to break down barriers and allow for ease of understanding across the world. It is fitting then that a Blockchain distribution model that offers independent musicians the ability to sell their music with instant payment across the world would choose the word “ujo”.
Capetonian Simon de la Rouviere’s main project is Ujo Music, in collaboration with ConsenSys – a New York based Blockchain software development company. “We are building a platform that allows musicians to automatically license their works through Ethereum. This cuts down on middle-men taking cuts, gets artists paid immediately, and reduces the barrier to entry for consumers of rights to license music without prolonged contract negotiations,” he says.
Ujo has worked with Grammy artists such as Imogen Heap and RAC, demonstrating the power of Blockchain to help artists in this way. “We are close to releasing this power to any artist, launching an alpha version before the end of the year.” adds Simon.
Blockchain is fast becoming a fundamental piece of technology. Essentially it is a list of ever growing records or blocks that are linked together and secured using cryptography. Each block has a timestamp of when an event occurred, a link back to previous blocks, and the information for the event or data created in the block. It is very resistant to modification and this allows for a clear record of events that is visible by any party.
Ethereum for example is a Blockchain based open source platform that allows for the distribution of the cryptocurrency Ether. It is a cryptocurrency similar to Bitcoin except it allows for more modification to the blocks and it is the payment method currently being used by Ujo Music.
Simon is no stranger to Blockchain, having started dabbling with it while still at university, “I first got involved with Blockchain, back in 2011, discovering Bitcoin while I was studying programming at the University of Stellenbosch; it felt like it shouldn’t work. I was curious. I kept thinking about it, decided to delve deeper and understand how it works. When it all clicked, I knew this was a phenomenal piece of innovation and I had to get involved.” Simon initially started exploring cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Dogecoin, and soon found himself committing code to the Bitcoin database.
Music has always been a passion for Simon. He started merging the worlds of music and cryptocurrency with his decentralised band the Cypherfunks. The band is a collective of musicians from around the world who are paid in [FUNK], a cryptocurrency. Anyone is free to add their creativity to this internet band, the main idea is that there are no barriers to entry.
It was while looking for a way to help out on the Ethereum project that Simon came into contact with ConsenSys. After meeting with them, Simon realised that they shared a vision and in January 2015 he joined as employee number 6 with a focus on using Blockchain technology to help musicians, “Being a musician on the side, I always aimed to tackle the intersection between Blockchain and music: helping artists make more money.”
The culture at ConsenSys is one of exploration, the potential that Blockchain offers is so vast that employees are encouraged to explore as many avenues as possible. For Simon, the real value is with helping musicians, “we always had the belief that having access to a global, distributed ledger with instant payments would help musicians: there’s less confusion about who needs to be paid and musicians can get paid instantly, anywhere in the world.”
The focus at Ujo is on independent musicians because Simon feels that they are the ones who most need assistance to get their music out. When looking at the payments and rights attributions in the current industry it is clear that the music business does not serve budding artists. Registering with a performing rights society, finding a publisher, manager, releasing with a label, and giving up ownership of your work are all barriers of entry to allow a musician to make a career of their talent.
By registering with Ujo Music, the music is coded into the ledger as belonging to the musician, and any purchases are handled automatically. Not only is the record of publication there for all to see, it also has potential to help connect musicians to their audience, this means that there’s a global record of an artist’s works. This record also includes information on how to pay the artist through a smart contract.
“We are starting quite simple with the smart contract architecture: simply using it to disburse and settle payments, but we have quite a few novel ideas to use this to create novel licensing schemes: such as, if you can prove you were at a gig, you can download the song for free,” adds Simon.
Utilising Ujo is particularly useful in South Africa because it will allow local artists to have an easier path to international audiences because they will not need to go through labels. They will not need to sell their rights to the music for it to get heard. Ideally this will increase demand in local music on a global scale.
Once the project has grown into something larger, the plan is to create a payment structure where musicians can be paid in real-time in hard currency like dollars or rand.
For example, if you look at streaming applications, digital service providers are handling millions of transactions every day. They are not paying royalties per stream, but rather on a market share basis directly to the label, publishers, and other third party distribution services. The payment does not go directly to the artist. The reason for this is that the service provider needs to sort out payments across various rights holders, residing in countries with different currencies. The Ujo Music model clears this path and allows the artist a larger slice of the income while reducing the cost of sale for the audience.
The Ujo project is still in the testing phase, and some of their biggest challenges to date have involved narrowing the focus of the project, “the music industry is large and the Blockchain can help almost everywhere. Picking the right battle is important, and we had to explore where we could make the biggest difference.” says Simon.
Another challenge is the fact that they are creating a platform while the technology is still maturing, as Simon notes “It’s like building a new car whilst it is driving out the factory”. While testing the project the team had the privilege of working with some amazing artists and they expect to be able to showcase the technology to independent artists around the world from December 2017.
“When Ujo was born the dream was simple: we wanted to use Ethereum to get musicians paid more. Two years after launching our prototype with Imogen Heap, we’re ready to release our first product that steps towards that dream” Simon concludes.