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Using the Blockchain to Reinvent the Music Business

November 27, 2015, 3:18 PM UTC
Photograph by Getty Images

When it gets talked about at all outside of hard-core programming circles, the term “blockchain” is usually used in the context of Bitcoin, the virtual currency that some see as the future of money. But some independent musicians are hopeful that blockchain technology can do more than just create a new monetary or financial standard — they hope it can help them reinvent the music business.

Although they are often used interchangeably, bitcoin and the blockchain are separate things. Bitcoin is the currency — a form of digital peer-to-peer money that doesn’t require a financial intermediary like a bank — and the blockchain is a way of storing information about Bitcoin transactions in a database.

Since a blockchain database is both distributed (that is, identical and interconnected versions of it are hosted in multiple locations) and encrypted, transactions and other information are easy to track and hard to tamper with.

Singer Imogen Heap and violinist Zoe Keating say using the blockchain ­— along with Bitcoin or some other payment method — gives them an opportunity to go directly to their fans for support. Instead of having to use a record label or a platform like iTunes or Spotify, they can sell their work to individual users.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if I could decide what I wanted to do with my music?” Heap said at a recent Guardian Live event. “I might decide, today’s my birthday, I’m going to give all of my music to everyone for free today. At the moment, I can’t do that. Because it’s out there, and once it’s out there, I don’t really have a say in it any more.”

Heap recently released a new song, Tiny Human, using blockchain technology and crypto-currency payments. And she has said she wants to build a similar distributed music database for artists that she calls Mycelia.

The idea, she says, would be to create a system of identifying everyone who was involved in a piece of music, along with how they would be compensated for the finished song — as well as rules around how and where and when the music could be used, either for free or in return for a fee.

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Keating, a Canadian-born musician and composer, said that her ideas about what might be possible with Bitcoin and the blockchain were sparked in part by the recent Blockchain Summit, which billionaire Virgin founder Richard Branson held on Necker Island, his private getaway in the Caribbean.

“I can imagine a ledger of all that information and an ecosystem of killer apps to visualize usage and relationships,” Keating told Forbes. “I can imagine a music exchange where the real value of a song could be calculated on the fly. I can imagine instant, frictionless micropayments and the ability to pay collaborators and investors in future earnings without it being an accounting nightmare.”

Heap worked with Ethereum, which is building a blockchain-based file-sharing social network, to come up with her latest digital release. And she also worked with Ujo, a service that uses Ethereum’s blockchain platform to allow musicians and other artists to record and publish rules on how they want their music to be used.

Using this system, users can download Heap’s song and pay for it using Ethereum’s version of Bitcoin (called Ether), but other musicians can also download tracks of specific instruments and pay for the right to use them in their own music. Others exploring the use of blockchain and Bitcoin for music include Bittunes, which allows musicians and their fans to both get paid in Bitcoin for sharing music, and PeerTracks.

Heap told the Guardian Live audience that she sees blockchain databases controlled by individual musicians and artists not just as a way to ensure they get paid, but a way of disrupting the entire outdated music industry.

“It feels as if the music industry is a complete mess, a rusty, overstretched, tired machine,” she said. “Grappling with a lot of old crooked contracts that don’t reflect our times, music services that run on greed to please shareholders smothered in buy-buy-buy adverts, dated accounting setups favouring anyone but the artist thanks to gross inefficiencies, confusing royalty statements and delayed payments… plus patchy copyright databases. It is almost impossible to find out who REALLY gets what.”

You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.