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Ken Umezaki (Verifi Media): ‘We can get a better environment by sharing data’

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Rights data management service Verifi Media has developed a set of tools using cloud computing and artificial intelligence, to improve the way media ownership and meta data is enhanced, corrected, shared and tracked across the supply chain.

Verifi was co-founded in 2016 by Ken Umezaki, who serves as Chief Executive Officer, and Allen Bargfrede, Verifi’s Chief Strategy Officer. Umezaki has a background in financing, having worked with companies such as Lehman Brothers and Neuberger Investment Management, among others. In 2010, he founded Digital Daruma with the goal to invest in companies and projects that impacted the digital music business transformation.

Verifi Media is his latest venture. In July 2021, Verifi Media completed a $4 million funding round, led by B2B music distributor FUGA, rights company Fintage House; and QVT Family Office Fund. It operates with offices in London, New York, and Amsterdam.

Last week, the company launched the Verifi Rights Data Alliance (VRDA), with Warner Music Group (WMG), Spanish rights management society Unison, digital service provider Deezer, and Downtown Holdings-owned digital music distributor FUGA, as inaugural members.

VRDA’s ambition is to “drastically streamline information collaboration for music catalogues throughout the digital value chain while allowing each entity to maintain its own proprietary data source.” Its plan is to have “an orchestrated approach to data sharing that will maintain the integrity of each contributor’s own information.”

Creative Industries News‘s Emmanuel Legrand sat with Ken Umezaki for a zoom conversation. Here’s an edited version of the discussion.

Tell us about this new initiative, the Verifi Rights Data Alliance.

Ken Umezaki: We have been working on this for a while. We have been working with most of these organisations, including FUGA and Warner Music, for about three years prior to the announcement. Our concept is to have enterprise level music companies representing each of the main verticals — record label, publisher, distributor, rights society and DSP — who have fully committed to using Verifi with the notion that shared data is better data. These are all contracted clients. They have chosen to use Verifi and have agreed to the notion of providing a large portion of their datasets into our rights data service. These are real people, real commitments, real services and real data. We reached a definitive agreement amongst us to collaborate, and that’s what we wanted to announce, otherwise it would have been another alliance without substance.

What are you doing that is different from other data initiatives?

Ken Umezaki: The history of music data has indeed been one of multiple attempts to streamline data. The reality is that we’ve learned that it is critical to get commitments from organisations that think about data differently. It is the very first time that we have a firmly committed alliance across global music companies that represent the whole value chain. To us it is a big deal and signals to the music business that there are people thinking progressively about data sharing in similar way. We believe this can be a significant catalyst for the music industry.

What got you into that thinking?

Ken Umezaki: From a personal perspective, I think about data issues a lot. Because of my finance background, I have experienced an industry which has a strong data culture, not just of the tech aspect or understanding data, but also a literacy about how people think about data. In finance the data culture needs to be relatively high, and if you use that as a comparative, my personal perspective is that data culture in the music industry is at a two, whereas finance is at an eight out of 10. That signals to us that we’ve got a big opportunity to “move the needle” around how rights data is used by all involved in recorded music, from creator to consumer. The music industry is trying to grapple with overwhelming amounts of data, due to the dominance of streaming and a continually disrupted ecosystem around the consumption of music.

Are you trying to re-create a GRD [the Global Repertoire Database, a project that involved a large number of music industry players to create a single authoritative database of music identifiers, but eventually failed]?

Ken Umezaki: The music industry is still pretty small in terms of organisations that really move the needle with data, and believe that getting better data leads to better business. We are having lots of conversations with various organisations about the need for a better way to manage ever more complex music data. There are still some who tell me this is not a high priority for them, whether it is for business protection or a lack of perceived importance. I have a number of basic principles: we can’t make it a business mission to ultimately have everybody on board to make it work, like the GRD. I would guess a world where everyone shares data for sharing data’s sake won’t wouldn’t happen in my lifetime. So, the fundamental corollary is that we have to look for organisations that are progressive in their mindset and that want to run a business in the digital world and believe, at a foundational level, that a service like ours is central to their initiatives, and provides a competitive advantage for each of the organisations that participate.

How about PROs? You have Unison on board, but one can argue that they are relative newcomers and their bandwidth is not the biggest in the business.

Ken Umezaki: We have ongoing constructive discussions with a number of PROs about our service. Unison came to us before they went to market and we partnered with them from their inception. It gave us tremendous insight into the business of running a global PRO, and in the understanding of how to manage data as a PRO, and how it connects to other stakeholders — songwriters, publishers and other PROs, etc. PROs went from bulk licensing to single use licensing and they are collecting one tenth of a micro-penny across hundreds of digital service providers and distribute it to their constituents. It’s a gigantic data task.

What do you want to achieve with VRDA?

Ken Umezaki: Going back to my previous analogy, my view is that we are not going to try to get to ten out of ten immediately, but if we can get to four that would be impactful progress around data literacy for the industry. But to get to four, we need some progressive organisations, so let’s find something that gives them a competitive edge. This announcement can be viewed as validation of the work we have been doing for 6 years. We want to make sure that the benefit to share data accrues back to participating organisations, as opposed to sharing data for sharing data sake. If it does not help Warner make more money or be more efficient, or FUGA to serve their clients better, what’s the point? In addition, what Deezer wants is different from what Unison wants, and different from what Warner Chappell’s objectives are in joining the VRDA. They are all trusted partners and we have lots of examples of data gaps of which they all have a piece of the pie in. It is staggering how much work is needed to get to the communal truth, but what we have accomplished so far with our partners is a good start. In our view, this is the way to build this project. We do not need everybody.

Are you going to structure VRDA as a stand-alone entity?

Ken Umezaki: We are not an umbrella organisation like the RIAA or others. This is a Verifi initiative. The requirements to join are the same as for others: Clients commit to use our data registry service and do it comprehensively. You have to come on board and be part of a modern-day community and reap the benefits of our communal truth around rights data. Our data stack is set up to allow more clients to ‘join the party’ relatively easily. It is ultimately a private service alliance rather than a membership organisation. I can understand the people who say, ‘You are a private company, why would I give you my data?’ But this perspective does not account for the benefits of better data to make better business decisions, and a change management data engine with multiple parties contributing to the community. It is extremely unlikely that any one organization or creator knows every aspect of all music rights at any given point in time in the life cycle of a music asset. And, we need to move data changes at the speed of digital to make sure people are paid. If you believe that combining data with trusted partners is valuable, then we can work together. If you don’t believe that, then we are probably not for you.

What guarantee do your clients have that at some point you will not sell to Google?

Ken Umezaki: It is not really an issue. Other industries have data consortiums that are created where people the services are serving are in fact equity owners and contribute to this kind of data aggregation. I’ve seen this happen, and the more likely scenario will be some version of that. Structurally, we do not want to be seen as a publishers’ service, or a labels’ service. It is important to be an agnostic data service provider from a strategic perspective.

What do you think of the conversation about music data at the moment? There seems to be a move towards more collaborative projects.

Ken Umezaki: We’ve seen the conversation shift in last three years and that is very important. We are getting bigger data management problems and I believe we are at that tipping point when more people think that we can get a better environment by sharing data. There is a better way than doing it alone. We are not the only ones to have this approach, but the only ones that capture the whole value chain.

Emmanuel is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist, blogger and media consultant, specialising in the entertainment business and cultural trends. He was the US editor for British music industry trade publication Music Week. Previously, he was the editor of Impact, a magazine for the music publishing community (2007-2009), the global editor of US trade publication Billboard (2003-2006), and the editor in chief of Billboard’s sister publication Music & Media (1997-2003).

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