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Imogen Heap advocates blockchain as saviour of the music industry

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Taking to the stage at Oslo Innovation Week, Imogen Heap gave the crowd a short performance using her Mi.Mu gestural music gloves and then explained why it is time for the industry to reinvent the way people discover new content and the creators get paid.

Her Mi.Mu gloves are a “cutting edge experimental gestural music ware”. According to the artist, they use “unique gestural vocabulary, motion data-capture systems, and user interfaces to parameter functions” developed by Imogen Heap and her team.

The performance is quite a spectacle with singer-songwriter first producing layers of sound using her voice and the dialling up and down the pitch, volume and tempo. It’s an effort by Imogen Heap to “get inside the software” in her computer.

Having first burst onto the scene in 1998 with her debut album I Megaphone, Imogen Heap has gone on to carve out a unique music offering – preferring to not be tied down by a particular genre. Her foray into technology-enabled music allows her, she said, to experiment without being tied down to bulky hardware.

“When you think about music, it is very sculptural and movement based. But when you are laying and singing, and want to press record, you have to run back to base station and that disturbs flow,” she revealed. “It’s about bringing tech closer to the human rather than human having to go to the box.”

Have a look at Imogen Heap’s Mi.Mu gloves in action

However, Imogen Heap’s technological dabbling is not confined to a quirky pair of gloves. Rather more ambitiously, the artist is pushing blockchain technology as the solution to many of the issues dogging the present-day music industry.

“Imagine if every time someone interacted with a song people got paid, without having to look them up. With this thing called blockchain, which underpins Bitcoin, there is a thing called smart contracts. They are like programmable transactions.

“At the moment it takes up to two years for me to receive my money, and it can really change your life if it would just come when it was due. In this day and age when we make millions of transactions a second, how can it take so long?”

Bitcoin is the name for the cryptocurrency that began life in 2009 and is based on open-source software – creating a peer-to-peer currency that is not regulated by a central authority. The blockchain is essentially a ledger that keeps a records of all Bitcoin transactions.

Technology has had a fraught relationship with the music industry during the last decade. While the move to MP3 and then music streaming platforms such as Spotify and Tidal has made it more accessible and allowed up-and-coming bands to gain more exposure, many have argued that it fails to provide musicians with the financial rewards they are due. Likewise, while mobile devices have changed the way we all interact with music, there has also been a backlash against the way concert-goers appear glued to their phones and tablets during live shows.

In June, Alicia Keys became the latest musician to ban the use of smartphones (doubling as cameras) at her live shows.

At the start of Imogen Heap’s performance at Oslo Innovation Week, the crowd were asked to put their devices onto flight mode. However, far from being a move to deter the use of recording equipment, it was actually necessary to prevent any interferences with her technology-heavy set.

Imogen Heap performing live on stage
Imogen Heap performing live on stage

Imogen Heap his also pioneering a new offering called MYCELIA. Its mission is to “empower a fair, sustainable and vibrant” music industry ecosystem involving all online music interaction services. It is also looking to “unlock the huge potential” for creators and their music-related metadata so an “entirely new” commercial market may be able to flourish.

Her grasp of data, and its importance, is an interesting take for a musician. It fits directly into the blockchain concept, and gives those creating and disseminating data greater power and influence.

“It fundamentally changes everything we do,” she added. “In everything we do there has to be an intermediary who handles the ‘trust’ element, but this doesn’t need to happen with blockchain technology as trust is built into the algorithms. This makes it hard to override and falsify, and we can then deal peer-to-peer. A fan can interact with a song with no intermediaries.”

The artist readily admits that the concept of blockchain means very little to the music industry right now. But what is exciting is its ability to shape its future, she added. “Blockchain technology has come to a point where other industries are looking at it to save time and short out inefficiencies. And in a world where data is open an doesn’t mean a lack of profits, it can make things more profitable.”

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