GRD? More Like GOELRO, Comrade!

Music industry watchers will have noted the recent demise of the Global Repertoire Database (GRD), a project so misconceived that its collapse should more properly be greeted with relief than hand wringing and woe.

Some background. In 2008 EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes posed a question to a small and odd group of interested parties at two roundtables. The meeting notes are online. What, she asked, could be done to move digital music towards a single internal market in Europe? The territorial nature of copyright, and the fragmented administrative structure, were identified as barriers. Sir Mick Jagger was present at the first meeting, as was Steve Jobs. Sir Mick seems not to have had an opinion about anything. Jobs suggested investigating an EU copyright to subsume national rights as a long term aim, and articulated the idea that became the GRD:

Apple therefore advocates the creation of a central electronic repository for ownership information into which all collecting societies and other right holders feed information in a common format, and which could be accessed by licensees, so that the problems caused by the information vacuum can be eased and timely and accurate remuneration can be fostered.

SACEM rehearsed a line that needed to be retired at the point Ebay was growing out of Beanie Babies – everyone in the music industry should be forced to repeat three times every morning ‘there’s really not that much data’, but instead you get this:

SACEM points to the difficulty that collecting societies face when they deal with millions of works: for some works, they perfectly know who owns the rights; but for others, they need to check carefully the information.

That’s right – mere millions. A third year undergraduate project.

The rest, as we have recently learned, has just become history. Committees were formed, politics was played, Deloitte was hired, the slush fund was spent, nobody could really agree either scope or funding, incumbents were nominated to do what quickly stopped looking like innovation. Most importantly, and it is a lesson that the music industry desperately needs to learn, no ‘outsiders’ were given the chance to bring a new perspective or new capabilities. In other words, those who had failed to keep updated an infrastructure and set of business practices that were acknowledged by all involved to be obsolete, were asked to oversee and execute the regeneration.

When the Soviet Union had no power infrastructure it was entirely appropriate to build power plants and a grid, and Lenin (more here) famously recognised the importance of the project, but also its massive scale and complexity and need for experts:

Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country, since industry cannot be developed without electrification. This is a long-term task which will take at least ten years to accomplish, provided a great number of technical experts are drawn into the work.

Surely by now it is obvious that the music industry is already electrified! We need no grand Electrification project, especially not one which looks more like an effort to preserve a set of organisations and infrastructure that I sometimes refer to as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of Music. And it is a form of Soviet malaise, that faced with an exponential growth in complexity – which brings opportunity as well as threats – many music insiders look to the already failed system to protect them.

But it can’t. In the new electrified music industry, data processing which is significantly weaker than music’s partner platforms (Google, Amazon, Apple, Pandora, Spotify…) is a handicap (remember ‘there’s not really that much data’). There’s no justification for lengthy discussion around standard terms on standard uses; new models require a thorough examination, which is something best handled by a team of experts with lots of industry input, so that could be considered a core competence for the collectives. Beyond well controlled new deal terms approval and CRM however, every function currently undertaken by collecting societies could be better either outsourced or federated.

And the horizontals are where the exciting things can happen, particularly where large groups of individual rights owners are affected. Instead of pushing songwriters and performers into national monopoly providers, communities of interest could bundle royalty collection and distribution with a range of supportive services. Private business could innovate in technology to drive down the cost of administration.

Music already has too many databases and not enough competition to kill off the weakest. GRD was an old school move, to reach for yet another database, by a group of organisations understandably unable to imagine a future in which there is no need for them to exist. Our newly electrified music industry needs copyright utilities for sure, but, comrades, it’s time to leave the Soviet power behind.

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