Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Of Royalty Problems and Distributed Ledgers

January has been a whirlwind of meetings and discussion around the idea of using 'blockchains' and other distributed ledger technology to help track and collect royalties on creative works, starting with music and the Digital DNA Genome Project. The potential is certainly there for a new ledger-based environment for creative works. But whether distributed ledger technology will address the root causes lurking beneath the biggest problems that the creative industry faces is another question. Here are some observations relating to problems in the music sector, which I know from other conversations and reports resonate in other creative industry sectors...

The current processes for producing and distributing music are clearly broken.  A trawl through the comments below this 'story' on how much YouTube pays in royalties to artists gives you some insight into the problems faced even by those who work really hard at tracking and claiming what they are owed. Responding to a Wall Street Journal report on claims that Spotify fails to properly account for royalties, musician and critic David Lowery wrote to the Attorney General of New York State demanding action. Civil litigation has followed, seeking $150m in unpaid royalties. 

But the more you dig into the royalty problems, the more you realise they are just a symptom, not the cause, of the music sector's woes. One has to be careful about apportioning blame among the multitude of different types of participant involved in the overall process for creating, distributing and performing musical works. What some see as misconduct can easily be attributed to poor systems and record-keeping and a failure to address the root causes of those failures. But, again, go easy on the blame: it's a huge and daunting task to figure out all the processes involved in such a diffuse sector and then how to improve and control each of them so you know when things are going awry and how to respond.

Ultimately, however, one can't help feeling that listeners are not getting access to the sort of range and quality of music that a more efficient sector could deliver.

So, where to start?

The high level problem statement is that the ability to efficiently monetise music has simply not kept pace with the ability to generate and consume it. Why? Well, let's say that the back-office processes have not kept up with the front of house processes. How so? Back office staff at record labels and collection agencies, artist's agents - and even the artists themselves - manually reconcile paper contracts and bank statements to figure out who is owed what; and royalties are often still paid by cheques, even for tiny amounts. At the other end of the process, consumers can stream music and watch video clips on their smartphones. The distribution processes in the middle are also far from operationally efficient. They don't properly track and account for what is made available to consumers at the front end, and don't interface efficiently with the back office.


Well, this is where the sector seems to have stopped analysing the situation, which is what we humans tend to do in such situations. We leap to conclusions and solutions. "It's in the interest of the big labels to do nothing about it," has been the most popular refrain, although "Google and Spotify don't care" seems to the latest chart-topper. Current 'solutions' range from sending in the auditors, to filing law suits, to preferring to stage live gigs and concerts as the way to make money. From a technology standpoint, we have the Codec idea from Benji Rogers - not to mention the distributed ledger initiatives that we'll come to.

But these are really just solutions in search of the root cause to the sector's actual problems, spawned more by a sense of helplessness and frustration than any pure insight.

To identify the solutions that will give the most bang for the buck there is a lot more work to be done in understanding all the processes; defining the key problems more precisely, measuring which cause the most pain, then analysing the range of root causes of those problems; before then figuring out which improvements are worthwhile implementing. Finally, all that work will be lost unless there are controls in place to know when the processes are starting to fail again.

Any new system for monetising music efficiently must be “customer-centric” and not merely ‘consumer-centric’ or ‘artist-centric’. It has to cater for the entire set of end-to-end business processes and treat all industry participants fairly. We have to recognise that each participant may be a supplier in one step of the overall process, yet the customer of another step; and which hat they are wearing when they complain. One could argue, for example, that artists are perhaps most upset not in their role as suppliers of music, but in their role as customers in process steps related to distribution, consumption and payment.

To become sustainable, 'the system' must evolve in a customer-centric fashion at each step, otherwise the participant in the role of the ‘customer’ will not buy in to the solution for that step. Equally, however, no one can afford to get caught up in anger and blame. The whole sector needs to move along the change curve to accepting that the system is broken and participate positively in the work required to fix it.

So it's simply too early to say what role, if any, distributed ledgers have to play in solving the creative industry's problems. It's not about imposing a solution, but rather fostering agreement on root causes of the problems and the necessary improvements and controls to be implemented.

That's not to say work should not continue on the use of ledgers in relation to music and other works. It is exciting to see the work on releasing music into ledgers by Ujo Music and MyCelia; Audiocoin; Aurovine; Revelator; Colu; and OCL (One Click Licence); as well as the work of the Kendra Initiative on the wider development of a distributed marketplace; and collaborative forums like the Digital DNA Genome Project mentioned earlier. I just don't think we should saddle these initiatives with the responsibility for solving the current woes of the creative industry - the two can co-exist quite peacefully.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Isle of Man Goes Crypto-Crazy

I'm indebted to my colleagues in the Isle of Man for pointing me to the IoM's recent Designated Businesses (Registration and Oversight Act 2015, which imposes various registration and anti-money laundering requirements on distributed ledger technology. Do we have a poster-child for how regulation of new technology can go way too far?

The IoM compliance obligations are aimed at: 
"the business of issuing, transmitting, transferring, providing safe custody or storage of, administering, managing, lending, buying, selling, exchanging or otherwise trading or intermediating convertible virtual currencies, including crypto-currencies or similar concepts where the concept is accepted by persons as a means of payment for goods or services, a unit of account, a store of value or a commodity;"
This seems likely to be counter-productive, to say the least, given that the 'currency' aspect of distributed ledgers is often merely there to reward the 'miner' or processor of transactions or events that occur on the ledger, regardless of whether those events are themselves financial in nature - financial services being merely one of many different potential applications.

So, should every business on the IoM that uses, or might wish to use, distributed ledgers register with the authorities and introduce AML controls on everyone it deals with, just in case? Maybe so...

Two specific points to make:

1. ‘convertible virtual currencies’ are defined more broadly than one would expect:
“including crypto-currencies or similar concepts [neither term being defined, except by what follows…] where the concept is accepted by persons as a means of payment for goods or services, a unit of account, a store of value or a commodity”, 
Most definitions of a ‘currency’ require all these criteria to be met, not just any one of them. Imagine what would happen to the US Dollar, for example, if suddenly it was not accepted as meeting just one of the above criteria...  Indeed, for this reason many people disagree that Bitcoin - the most widely used form of 'crypto-currency' - is still nothing more than a commodity.

In addition, none of the typical exemptions under payment services regulations seem to be imported here. To take but one relevant example: consumer loyalty/rewards programmes are typically exempt on the basis that the rewards are only accepted as a means of payment within a 'limited network'. Do the local authorities really want every business participating in a loyalty scheme on the Isle of Man to register and apply AML controls just because the scheme involves distributed ledger technology? Maybe so...

2.  Similarly, the list of activities that trigger the relevant compliance obligations would seem to cover a vast array of potential services and their providers/users - recognising that these are distributed ledgers to which all computers running the protocol have the same access. Again, just think of consumer loyalty programmes as you go through the list:
the business of issuing, transmitting, transferring, providing safe custody or storage of, administering, managing, lending, buying, selling, exchanging or otherwise trading or intermediating...
Even payment services regulation, for instance, exempts technology services that support transactions without the service provider handling funds. And the whole point of the ledger is that no intermediary is actually handling funds - its all happening peer-to-peer amongst machines - indeed perhaps everyone's device is handling the funds. Furthermore, there will be instances where access to a distributed ledger is just one element of a wider system - as in the car-rental example, or tracking shipping containers - and it may not be clear to everyone that a distributed ledger is involved if it's just to share the location or state of a vehicle or container.

Still, the Isle of Man's approach might at least be useful in demonstrating how regulation in this area can go too far...

Monday, 30 November 2015

Better Services For SMEs: Follow The Data

I was at a 'parliamentary roundtable' on Tuesday on the perennial topic of small business banking reform. A more official report will be forthcoming, but I thought I'd record a few thoughts in the meantime (on a Chatham House basis). 

It still seems to surprise some people that small businesses represent 95% of the UK's 5.4m businesses - 75% of which are sole traders - and that they account for 60% of private employment, most new jobs and about half the UK's turnover. So-called 'Big Business' is just the tip of the iceberg, since only they have the marketing and lobbying resources to be seen above the waves. As a result small businesses have long been a blind spot for the UK government - until very recently - and the impact has gone way beyond poor access to funding. It includes slow payment of invoices, the absence of customer protection when dealing with big business and lack of alternatives to litigation to resolve disputes.

What's changed?

A combination of financial crisis, better technology and access to data has exposed more of the problems surrounding SMEs - and made it possible to start doing something about them. And it's clear that legislators are prepared to act when they are faced with such data. The EU Late Payments Directive aimed to eliminate slow payments. The UK has created the British Business Bank to improve access to finance, as well as a mandatory process for banks to refer declined loan applications to alternative finance providers and improved access to SME credit data to make it easier for new lenders to independently assess SME creditworthiness. The crowdfunding boom has also been encouraged by the UK government, and has produced many new forms of non-bank finance for SMEs, including equity for start-ups, debentures for long term project funding, more flexible invoice trading and peer-to-peer loans for commercial property and working capital.  Last week, the FCA launched a discussion paper on broadening its consumer protection regime to include more SMEs.

Yet most of these initiatives are still to fully take effect; and listening to Tuesday's session on the latest issues made it clear there is a long way to go before the financial system allocates the right resources to the invisible majority of the private sector.

A key thread running through most areas of complaint seems to be a lack of transparency - ready access to data. This seems to be both a root cause of a lot of problems as well as the reason so many proposed solutions end up making little impact. But the huge numbers and diversity of SMEs presents the kind of complexity that only data scientists can help us resolve if we are to address the whole iceberg, rather than just the tip. That's surely one job for the newly launched Alan Turing Data Institute, for example, although readers will know of my fear that it seems more aligned with institutions than the poor old sole trader, let alone the consumer. So maybe SMEs need their own 'Chief Data Scientist' to champion their plight?

The latest specific concerns discussed were as follows:
  • the recent findings and remedies proposed by the Competition and Markets Authority into business current accounts are widely considered to be weak and unlikely to be effective - try searching the word "data" in the report to see how often there was too little available. The report still feels like the tip of an iceberg rather than a complete picture of the market and its problems;
  • austerity imperatives seem to be the main driver for off-loading RBS into private shareholder ownership - the bank pleading to be left to its own devices (not what it suddenly announced to the Chancellor in 2008!) - and trying to kill-off any further discussion of using its systems as a platform for a network of smaller regionally-focused banks (as in Germany);
  • the financial infrastructure for SMEs appears not to be geographically diverse - it doesn't yet mirror the Chancellor's "Northern Powerhouse" policy, for instance - despite calls for bank transparency on the geographical accessibility, a US-style "Community Reinvestment Act" and clear reporting on lending to SMEs by individual banks (rather than the Bank of England's summary reporting). There's a sense that we should see some kind of financial devolution to match political devolution, albeit one that still enables local finance to leverage national resources and economies of scale. Technology should help here, as we are tending to use the internet and mobile apps quite locally, despite their global potential;
  • Some believe that SMEs need to take more responsibility for actively managing their finances, including seeking out alternatives and switching; while others believe that financial welfare should be like a utility - somehow pumped to everyone like water or gas, I assume - indeed regional alternative energy companies were touted as possible platforms for expanding access to regional financial services. My own view is that humans are unlikely to become more financially capable, so financial and other services supplied in complex scenarios need to be made simpler and more accessible - we should be relying less on advertising and more on hard data and personalised apps in such instances.
  • Meanwhile, SME are said to lack a genuine, high profile champion whose role it is to ensure that the financial system generally is properly supportive of them. This may seem a little unfair to the Business Bank, various trade bodies and government departments, but it's also hard for any one of these bodies to oversee the whole fragmented picture. As I suggested above, however, I wonder whether a 'data champion' could be helpful to the various stakeholder in identifying and resolving problems, rather than a single being expected to act as a small business finance tsar. 
 In other words, we should follow the data, not the money...

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Poor Competition In Personal and #SME Banking (and What the CMA Plans To Do About It)

The Competition and Markets Authority has been investigating the state of competition for personal and small business bank customers, and the results are pretty shocking. The full report is here, the summary of findings here and the possible remedies are here.

We have until 20 November to comment on the findings and remedies (email The CMA's provisional decision on remedies is due in February 2016 and the final report in April 2016.

Most glaring is the fact that 99.9% of all UK businesses are small - over 5 million of them - and the vast majority of them are sole traders. Yet small businesses do not benefit from most of the customer protection and other measures aimed at improving services and increasing competition for personal customers.

You would also think banks would do more to look after small businesses, given they are responsible for at least 5 million self-employed roles, and most new jobs come from that sector. But only 60% of SMEs survive beyond three years and only 40% make it past the five year mark. It's true that no job is for life, anymore, but poor financial services must surely be a factor in such high business death rates.

More has to be done to help this sector thrive. Have your say! 

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Labour's Idealistic March Into Oblivion

So, another political 'party' season slips by and the casual observer would think the Tories' policies must be more or less the right. There are no practical alternatives for anyone interested in the decisions actually required to drag the UK back from the abyss into which it's been staring for decades. Fortunately, that seems to be the majority of voters - the electorate finally understands that the UK reached the limit of taxing and spending sometime in the noughties and it's the Government's job to figure out how to do less of both.

Sadly, the Labour Party is giving up on such tough decisions, preferring the cosy bubble of idealism in which the air is a mixture of moral panic and dogma, and the 'answer' must fit on a placard. 

For instance, this week's 'news' that a single grammar school in Kent is expanding is said to threaten the quality of teaching at every school in the country, and Labour's 'solution' is that all children must go to state school. 

Trident costs too much? Unilateral disarmament. 

Steel plants to close through lack of demand for British steel? Nationalise them.

A living wage? Tax credits.

Unhelpful, impracticable, unrealistic, vacuous, dogmatic twaddle.

And since Liberal Democrat voters decided they, too, are sick of their party having to make the hard decisions, we are left with the Tories having to be their own conscience...  and do all the work.  

Let's hope they get it right - and remember, every country has the government it deserves.

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