From the archive: David's Voluntary Payment Plan

This one is from 2008.  I was asked something along the lines of "Well if you're so so smart, how would you fix the music industry?"  Here's my answer:


David's Voluntary Payment Plan

David Barrett




This plan recommends creating “music registrars” to authoritatively manage song metadata in a fashion similar to how domain registrars authoritatively do the same for domain names. Artists (or their representatives) upload songs to registrars, who in turn check their waveform fingerprints against a master database of all known songs. If the song has already been registered by another owner, a conflict resolution process is started. Otherwise, the song is transcoded to a MP3 and tagged with a variety of metadata (artist and song name, artist website, etc), including “payment protocols” that enable fans to support the artist in a standardized way. iPods and other MP3 players are gradually outfitted with integrated support for various payment protocols, as well as methods for receiving artist communication or learning of and purchasing artist merchandise, concert tickets, and so forth.

I. Example of Operation

First, here's a quick walkthrough of how the system would be used in common operation:

A. Adding a new song

Alice, an independent musician, selects from one of several music registrars, creates a free account, uploads her track in the FLAC format, assigns it a name, optionally organizes it in one or more albums, and is done. The entire operation is free, takes less than 10 minutes, and requires no personal information beyond an email address.

B. Downloading a song

Bob, a music aficionado, browses a variety of free music outlets for new songs. One of those locations has an active online community around indie music, and the forum is buzzing around a new musician, Alice. The forum links to a page where Alice's music can be downloaded -- he clicks the link, chooses the format and bitrate, and downloads the MP3 for free. Though the website allows low-quality 128Kbps versions of the song to be downloaded or streamed straight from the server, for cost reasons it only allows 256Kbps and FLAC versions to be downloaded via a P2P network. He's all about quality, so he whips out his favorite P2P application and downloads the FLAC.

C. Listening to a song.

When the download completes, Bob copies the file several places -- his laptop, his home stereo, his iPod, his phone -- all of which support the completely standard, unprotected audio format.

D. Supporting Alice

Bob decides that he really likes Alice's music and wants to see more of it get played. He has several ways to help that happen:

  • One way is to go back to the website where he downloaded the music in the first place. There there's a small (but growing) forum where Alice fans discuss her music, links to other music by Alice, recommendations of other music by Alice, and so on. Furthermore, there's a quick note by Alice herself saying "Hi, I'm trying to raise $1000 to fund my next album, please help me out!" Bob sees she's up to $950 right now. He's got a few options of how to help. One is to just do a simple cash contribution, one is to help raise up to $1000 (at $950 so far) with the caveat that if she doesn't raise the full amount within a set timeframe, the money is given back. Another is a subscription of $1/mo that gets his name put on a list of True Fans. Yet another is to buy the last limited-edition autographed copy of Alice's first Vinyl album for $50. All of these options can be paid with PayPal or a credit card.

  • Another way is to use a feature built into iTunes and his iPod to auto-support any any song he listens to more than 5 times, to the default (but adjustable) amount of $0.05/listen. Similarly, whenever he looks at the face of his iPod to remember who he's listening to, he sees Alice's message that she's trying to raise $1000 and is up to $950. Likewise, he sees there's one more copy of the limited edition vinyl available.

Ultimately, he decides to go for the vinyl recommended by his iPod. He goes to iTunes, chooses "open musician's website", and buys the vinyl online.

E. Getting paid

When Alice signed up, she had no idea her music would be such a hit. But her inbox is full of messages, donations, and all her vinyl copies (which she hasn't even made yet) have already been sold.

  • Getting to work, she uploads the cover art design and asks her registrar to press the given number of vinyl records and FedEx to her for signing. When she sends them back, the company redistributes them to the customers who purchased them, and the money is deposited into her account.

  • As for how to get her money, she has a couple options. The classic approach is to just give her direct deposit information and it's deposited via the ACH network (automated clearing house). Another is to give her PayPal information. She doesn't like any of those options, so she goes with a third option of just having a reloadable prepaid Visa card sent her way -- any money added to her account is instantly available for use at any merchant, or even to be withdrawn from any ATM.

II. Music Registrars

Core to this plan is the notion of "music registrars". Like DNS registrars (from which this draws inspiration), there are many and all provide compatible functionality while competing aggressively on price and value-added services. Musicians are free at any time to sign up with any number of registrars, or move tracks between registrars at a later date. But each track ultimately maps back to a single registrar that manages (at least) standardized metadata operations around that track. In essence, a registrar provides at least the following:

  • Account creation. Generally with a username/password, though optionally with more secure mechanisms (multi-factor authentication, PKI, etc).

  • FLAC storage. For every track managed, permanently store a master FLAC version.

  • Metadata hosting. For a given track, host its authoritative name, artist, album, etc. (essentially, ID3 tags) in one or more languages.

Though not strictly required, in general a registrar will offer a wide variety of additional services, including some subset of:

  • Transcoding and hosting. Generates a variety of file formats from the master FLAC, including MP3, Flash, etc. and hosts them on the web and P2P networks.

  • Payment gateway. Accepts payments from fans according to a variety of payment protocols and securely deposits into the artist's account.

  • Fan management. Forums, blogs, RSS feeds, and all the accouterments of web 2.0.

  • eCommerce. Anything ranging from a Yahoo Store-like checkout system to a CafePress-style product generation assistant.

  • Recommendation engines, playlist management, webcasting radio stations, promotion services, gig management, tour assistance, discount music equipment, etc. Basically, each registrar will attempt to provide artists with a complete one-stop-shop of all things they could possibly need to be a happy, successful musician.

A service exists that lets anybody look up the latest metadata on any track. (Typically you would just download the metadata straight from its registrar, but there would be a mechanism to determine who the registrar is -- if any -- for an unknown piece of music.) This service uses a combination of servers hosted by the registrars, as well as servers hosted by an independent organization that manages the registrars themselves. This organization is focused exclusively on the operation of enabling transfers of music between registrars, resolving disputes between registrars (and between users and registrars), and authoritatively stating which registrar is currently managing which track. This organization is funded through annual re-certification fees paid to the organization by registrars.

One operation that is particularly interesting is: how does this organization uniquely identify each track in order to guarantee that each is only being represented by a single registrar? The answer is by using waveform fingerprints. Each registrar holds onto the master FLAC for every song in its management. Upon adding a new song, it uploads a "fingerprint" of the song to the master organization, which then confirms no other song has the same signature. (If there is a conflict, the organization investigates and resolves it.) The organization will make the choice as to which signature function to use (and it needn't be perfect, it's just a tool in helping proactively identify and resolve conflicts), and it can at any point decide to use a new function by simply having all registrars re-fingerprint all FLACs with the new function. Again, the fingerprinting doesn't need to be (and won't be) perfect -- it's just a flag that triggers manual corrective action. The better the function, the less wasted work.

III. MP3, ID3, and Metadata

In general practice, a musician would upload a track's master FLAC to her music registrar, and the registrar would generate a series of MP3s that have all the ID3 tags correctly set. The musician could then do whatever she liked with those MP3s -- email them, post them to P2P networks, post them on forums, burn them to CDs, etc -- and the ID3 tags would just be carried along with them.

However, the metadata can be indexed, distributed, and used in any way, even outside of MP3s -- the same information can be downloaded from the registrar at any time.

IV. Music Metadata and Player Support

In general, the metadata associated with a particular song can be any arbitrary name/value pair that the owner sees fit to associate with the song. There are no strict requirements or limitations on what sort of metadata must be associated. Similarly, players can choose to support all, none, or any subset of the metadata contained within a file. Any metadata not understood should be simply ignored. Some types of metadata include:

  • The standard ID3 tags: The obvious metadata includes artist name, song name, album, genre, and everything else you typically see in MP3 players. Example:
    Name: Before Today
    Artist: Everything but the Girl
    Album: Walking Wounded
    Track: 1

  • Unique song GUID: A globally unique identifier assigned by the registrar to this song. A given song would have the same GUID across all bitrates and encodings, for example, but different mixes of this song would have different GUIDs. In general, all MP3s with the same GUID should have the same waveform fingerprint; similarly, in general, no two tracks with different GUIDs should have the same waveform fingerprint. This GUID can be used by the player, website, or other service for whatever purpose it likes (it's handy to have a key by which to index the song). Example:
    GUID: s8d9fgfud6s6d6f8ds8sys6s65

  • Metadata URL: A new tag would be a HTTP URL from which the latest authoritative metadata can always be downloaded in some standard format (I'd propose JSON, others might argue XML, but the specific choice is TBD). Any player or service can download the latest metadata for this track at any time, possibly rewriting the MP3 itself with the new information. Example:
    MetadataURL: http://mytunes.com/meta/s8d9fgfud6s6d6f8ds8sys6s65

  • Payment protocols: A series of descriptions through which this artist can be automatically compensated according to some predetermined protocol. There will be many different payment protocols (and new ones all the time), some of which might include direct deposits into bank accounts, charging to phone bills, reverse charges to prepaid credit cards, PayPal transfers, eGold transfers, or whatever. It's likely each registrar would offer one or more of the most well-known payment protocols by default, but there is no restriction on somebody coming out with a new payment protocol and then associating it with their song. (More details on this below.) Example:
    Payment: ach://<bankaccount>,<institution ID>
    Payment: paypal://<email address>
    Payment: raise://amount=$1000&current=$950&by=2008/4/1

  • Hash: Though there's no strict requirement that a given song be distributed universally as a binary-identical MP3 for each given bitrate, it's reasonable to assume that this convergence would occur. Thus a valid piece of metadata would be the hash of a given encoding, which can be used by the player to verify that the file hasn't been corrupted. Example:
    Hash: MP3/256/SHA1(3da3f0afc0d772825c43e310fe34eacf0dea204b)

  • Message of the day: A general message that the artist wants to associate with this song. Can be anything from a simple hello, a description of the song, a request for help, an advertisement, or anything. This could appear on the face of an MP3 player, or in a bubble on your desktop, or however the player feels fit to show it. Example:
    MoTD: Only 1 copy left of my limited edition vinyl album, $50!
    MoTD: Don't forget, I'm playing the Fillmore tonight at 8pm!

  • Lyrics: The lyrics of the song itself could be easily included in the song, or perhaps a URL where the lyrics can be downloaded.

  • Other songs by this artist / recommended by this artist: Links to other songs by this artist. A player could be configured to poll this at some frequency to be automatically notified when new music by an artist becomes available.

The important thing to take away is that metadata can contain anything, and registrars merely record and host it -- it might or might not have any awareness of what the various name/value pairs actually mean. You needn't ask anybody's permission or get the approval of any standards body to create new metadata: just add it to your song, and any player that doesn't expect it will ignore it.

V. Artist Compensation via Player Integration

The basis of this system is to enable fans who want to compensate artists whenever and wherever the mood strikes them, in whatever amount, for whatever reason they come up with. This is enabled through integration with the players themselves, as this reduces the latency between hearing the song, making the decision to support the artist, and actually conducting the transaction.

The specific method of the integration is up to the designer of the player or service. But some examples that could be applied to any general MP3 player include a "thumb's up button" where $0.50 is sent to the artist when pressed, or an "auto-tip" option where $0.05 is sent to the artist each time his song is played in entirety, etc. All of this would be opt-in and configurable by the user in regards to the amount being paid and the frequency of payment.

Similarly, metadata and players could generally conform to standard ways of advertising merchandise and concert tickets related to the music. Depending on the player's form factor, it could even provide basic storefronts, one-click additions of tour dates to Google Calendars, or whatever type of interaction the device feels is appropriate to facilitate between artists and fans (perhaps even with a commission for the transaction paid to the device manufacturer). Ultimately, this is left up to the artists, fans, and player manufacturers to decide – the music registrar just manages the metadata without being aware of what it means or how it's used.

As for how the payment would be technically conducted, this would depend on the payment protocol and would likely be decided by a period of competition ultimately leading to a few widely supported "de facto" standards. For example, a phone-integrated player might use a payment protocol that puts song contributions straight onto your phone bill. An iPod might keep an internal count of what payouts are left to be done, and then upload the transactions to an iTunes-integrated micropayment engine when synchronized. WinAMP might accumulate transactions until they exceed some threshold where paying the artist directly via PayPal makes sense. And so on. Payment providers will compete vigorously for adoption by players and registrars alike, but the ultimate decision for who to pay, how, and how much rests with the listener.

VI. Conclusion

In summary, the above proposal outlines a global framework where fans can voluntarily support fans through a competitive ecosystem of compatible service providers. The design separates functionality along clear layers of accountability and enables competition between multiple parties within the layers. The goal is to create a flexible, powerful system that enables a degree of innovation yet unseen in the music industry (at least, in the legal music industry). Much like the web and internet itself have transitioned from small, non-profit research projects into engines of global commerce, music -- both its creation and consumption -- has the capability to be a similarly innovative and powerful force. It just needs a framework that encourages it.


Here are the questions I've heard asked on this list before, and some quick answers to each:

  1. What if nobody decides to pay?
    The base assumption of the entire music industry is that music is valuable, and that fans actually do exist. If fans -- people who value art and wish to support their artists -- do not in fact exist, then this system won't create them.

  2. What if no music players decide to support payment options?
    The system works best if the payment protocols are implemented in the players themselves. In the meantime, until these are widespread, music registrars can offer web-based gateways that help fans support artists using today's technology.

  3. What's to prevent me from uploading the Beatles as my own mine?
    The standard solution to this problem is to have a "sunrise period" where prominent trademark and copyright owners are given early access to submit their own songs to the database. The expectation is each of the labels would run its own "private" registrar to manage its songs, and thus they would simply upload a complete list of fingerprints for all their songs to the registrar-management agency. In the event anybody uploads one of the label's songs to a different registrar, a flag would be raised when the fingerprint conflicts with the existing database, and would be resolved through manual action.

  4. So... where's the big pool of money? Where's the sampling?
    That's right, this system doesn't need to globally sample listening demographics in order to disperse a central pool of money according to some arbitrary measure of value. Rather, the money is never pooled -- it goes straight from the fan to the artists (via one of many competing payment gateways). The samples are never taken -- it's not really practical in the first place, and it's just not needed. And no arbitrary measure of value is selected -- it's left up to every fan to decide how much to give his artists.

  5. What about piracy?
    What about it? It already happens today in vast amounts, and no plan on the books even claims to have a chance of doing anything about it. Piracy *is* online music -- everything else is just an aberration. This plan seeks to capitalize on the real world as it exists today, tapping into the vast sums of money that fans currently aren't giving to music labels.

  6. What about privacy?
    This system gives exceptional privacy protections to all involved because there is no one entity that sees all activity. As such, it doesn't centrally aggregate sampling data, demographic profiling, historical traffic, personally identifiable information, or any of the problems that people are generally skittish about. The centermost entity of this plan is an organization that just has anonymous fingerprints of unnamed songs, and knows absolutely nothing about the songs themselves, the artists who make them, the users who listen to them, or the interactions in between.

  1. X got paid $Y before, will he still be?
    Possibly. Maybe he'll get paid more. Or maybe less. The same can be said about every other solution on the table.

  1. But it's not fair! How will X get paid for Y?
    This plan recognizes that every fan has a different idea of what is or is not fair, and fully empowers him to act upon that notion. Even the old system that is rapidly dying wasn't "fair", it's merely "what was". This plan does not attempt to blindly copy what was, nor invent some new notion of "fair" and mandate that all fans obey it under threat of force. So in this sense, it is arguably the most fair of all.

  2. Hasn't this been tried before?
    Everything's been tried before, and everything has failed – all plans have failed – due to lack of support and outright opposition by “old guard” music industry. Virtually every innovative plan, both voluntary and compulsory, has been crippled through lawsuit, squeezed through impossible pricing, or bypassed through refusal to participate. There's very little in this plan that's new, and without action by the existing industry, this plan to create a feasible commercial alternative to raw, uncompensated piracy will fail just like all the others have and are failing. But this proposal isn't intended as a panacea. It's intended as a review of what's possible should the music industry decide to begin acting reasonably and in the interests of artists, fans, and society at large. There are signs that the industry is starting to have reason forced upon it by investors, artists, and even a gradual awakening of common sense after a decade of complete destruction of shareholder value. One day, they will either become irrelevant or will sign up to one of the many, many plans proposed and nurtured over the years. Maybe they'll choose this one. Maybe not. The point of you reading this is to be aware that the vision presented herein is in fact possible, and to either encourage the industry to adopt this proposal, or to encourage congress to strip the industry of its abused and overzealous tools of copyright enforcement such that we can continue on without them. How many more decades are we willing to wait?

  1. So that's all well and good, but seriously... Where's the sampling?
    Seriously, it's not needed. Take it in reverse.

Q: Why sample?

A: Well, we know how to at least try to sample music fingerprints transferred over the backbone, and we think that samples are somehow related to how often songs are listened to, so by sampling we can get a sense of which songs are most often listened to.

Q: Why do we care how often songs are listened to?

A: Well, we're assuming that the number of times a song is listened to is representative of how valuable it is to fans.

Q: Why do we care if a song is valuable to fans?

A: Because artists must be paid in proportion to value, obviously!

Q: Paid by whom?

A: Well... by fans, I guess... obviously.

Q: Why don't fans pay artists directly?

A: Well they *were*, through CD sales, until piracy ruined everything.

Q: I thought CD sales largely didn't go to artists.

A: Well... if you want to get *technical*, no, but they sorta "trickled down to artists"... It's complicated.

Q: Ok, again, why don't they pay artists directly?

A: Because that's impossible! What, are they supposed to track down every artist in their playlist and give them a nickel each time they play the song?

Q: Sure, why not?

A: Because... because you just can't. It's complicated. Fans can't be trusted to support their artists directly. They need help.

Q: Help from whom?

A: Well, help from me, of course. And my friends. Only we can get artists compensated.

Q: But I thought your CD sales largely didn't go to artists?

A: Yes they do! They trickle!

Q: So let me get this straight: the goal is to help artists get paid by fans in proportion to how much fans like them. But fans can't be trusted to do it directly, and instead artists need the help of organizations that historically take the lion's share of the profit and leave a trickle for the artists themselves? And the best way to do this is to force everyone to pay you a bunch of money that you distribute based on relative estimated value to fans calculated by sampling backbone traffic for a small set of music fingerprints, extrapolating global traffic, inferring total music listens from that, and then converting that sampled/extrapolated/inferred number into "value to fans" with an arbitrary formula selected by... by whom again?

A: By me.

Q: Got it.

A: That's right! Now you're getting it.

Q: And why not just let fans give artists money directly?

A: You just... you just can't! And... it's different, and therefore scary. Artists talking to fans? Fans talking to artists? What an absurd thought. Fans can't be trusted! Artists don't want to talk to fans! There need to be a middleman. Lots and lots of middlemen. And formulas! And sampling! And most importantly -- a huge, enormous pool of money. That I control. Trust the trickle. It worked for your grandpa. Why can't it work for you?

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