This post is part of CoinDesk's 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Roneil Rumburg is co-founder and chief executive officer of Audius, a blockchain music streaming platform.
Imagine if you could make a song about Vladimir Putin and there was nothing he could do to take it down.
In 2019, this sort of dream scenario became closer to reality. The fight to defend the world’s content began in earnest, as mainstream creators became more aware of the stakes involved. Decentralized platforms emerged, offering an alternative to creators who are disenfranchised by existing centralized content platforms such as YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify.
Despite creating all the value on these platforms, creators do not control their content or data, or get their fair share of revenue. But in 2019, the seeds were planted to bring freedom of expression, information, and interaction to the masses.
The need for decentralized content platforms is here. Publishing will happen on blockchains where transparency, censorship-resistance and community-control is baked into the platform. The key to mass adoption is to provide the benefits of decentralization without degrading user experience. We have to simplify the user experience so people don’t even know they’re using dApps.
Western tech companies struggle to succeed in places like China, where censorship is at an all-time high. To remain operational, centralized platforms like Spotify or Apple Music must comply with local regulations, no matter how strict or counter to the First Amendment they may be. Rather than losing access to the world’s most populous country, these companies make concessions to the government.
2019 was the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, and the year demonstrators stood up in Hong Kong. And many centralized content platforms chose to bend to China’s will, including Airbnb, whihc disabled bookings in Hong Kong during the pro-democracy protests and LinkedIn, which censored content mentioning Tiananmen Square.
Unfortunately, content is taken down by big tech companies all the time, via black-box processes which offer little to no transparency on how these decisions are made. Over the summer, YouTube removed educational cybersecurity videos, making it difficult for IT professionals to learn about new threats. It took public outrage for YouTube to admit the videos were “taken down by mistake” and revert their decision. SoundCloud takes down music arbitrarily and kicks creators off its platform, taking artists’ livelihoods for granted. Recently, the company (which is German) scrubbed an original track from an artist because it was leaked elsewhere. When the artist notified SoundCloud, the platform refused to rectify the situation.
Rather than continue being taken for granted — controlled, suppressed or censored — by centralized authorities, creators are ready to move to new platforms that free their content, data, and interactions. User-generated streaming content platforms like Audius, YouNow, and others are gaining meaningful mainstream adoption (230,000 individuals have acquired Props, YouNow’s token, for instance) for content networks by rewarding users in proportion to the value they contribute. In addition, users of these networks also have a say in how these protocols develop over time.
Frankly, mainstream users could care less about the technical merits of decentralization. But creators do care about arbitrary censorship and disenfranchisement. When they are incentivized to bring their fan-bases to new platforms, that will begin to create critical mass and a shift in user numbers.
Decentralized platforms are the best means to solve equity problems in creative industries. By creating open-source networks and rewarding users with incentives, they can challenge big tech by removing its ability to rent-seek at a fundamental level. With no central authority determining what can or can’t be seen, content moderation is community-driven and disputes can be handled by a jury of peers. This means creators cannot be silenced.
Decentralized projects are starting to crack the code to mainstream adoption by solving some of the music industry’s biggest problems. For example, Open Music Initiative, a nonprofit calling for more transparency in the music industry, has created a community governed protocol for consistent identification (and eventually compensation) of music metadata. In October, pop-duo The Chainsmokers backed Yellowheart, a blockchain-based ticketing platform that allows artists to gain control over the secondary event ticketing market and eliminate scalpers.
Blockchain-based live-streaming company YouNow has also seen success with the SEC approving the distribution of its props token under a Regulation A+ qualification. Popular streamers with large followings can receive digital gifts, like animated balloons or flowers, from fans by using its in-game currency. Once a gift is purchased, a portion of the money spent goes directly to their pockets. YouNow saw a $10,000 increase in gift purchases since the props token went live.
Streaming services today replicate the current structure of the music industry they service. They are centralized, rent-seeking, and damaging to the artistic freedom of music creators. Music streaming should be a common utility controlled by the masses, not a centralized rent-seeking business.
2019 kicked off the decentralized music revolution, where artists maintain control and users engage more directly. As we look ahead into the next decade, decentralized platforms will be the way power is reclaimed from big tech, giving control back to the artists.
Mainstream users are not concerned with the technical merits of decentralization. But the more we can educate the masses around the value of decentralized services, the better our chances for converting music fans to an open, community-owned distributed platform. We have the opportunity to create a brand new kind of streaming service.