Olivier Chastan (Iconoclast): ‘Name, image and likeness will be as important as music rights in the future’
In the business of music assets’ acquisition, there’s a new player in town with deep pockets. Iconoclast announced itself with a bang a couple of weeks ago with the news that it had acquired the catalogue of The Band‘s principal songwriter, Robbie Robertson.
But if the company’s brand new, the person at the helm, Olivier Chastan, is a seasoned executive with ample experience in acquisition. Right before launching his own acquisition and music management vehicle, Chastan was co-founder & CEO of Iconic Artists Group, the music asset management firm set up by artist manager Irving Azoff and The Azoff Company.
At Iconic, Chastan led the acquisition of catalogues from the likes of The Beach Boys, David Crosby and Linda Ronstadt.
Chastan also acted as strategic consultant to independent music publisher Big Deal Music, and its founder Kenny MacPherson, on operational, financial and strategic issues, until the company was sold to Hipgnosis in 2020. He also served as Senior Vice-President, Corporate Development & Rights Services at independent distribution and services company INgrooves Music Group, until it was sold to Universal Music Group, and was President of VP Records, home to artists like Sean Paul.
The day Creative Industries News connected on Zoom with Chastan, he had been up all night, not because he was in studio with an artist but because his dog got sick and kept him awake most of the night. “I’m not at my best,” he said, but for an hour he was as dynamic as one can be, and answered all the questions asked, well, almost.
Here’s an edited version of the conversation (which took place in English, even though the two participants are both French).
You’ve had quite a career so far, haven’t you?
Olivier Chastan: I started as session player, playing bass, when I was 19 up until 25, and then, at that point on, I followed a different path and moved on to the record label side. I had a failed label deal with Warner and worked with [Atlantic founder] Ahmet Ertegun. In 2009, I was running VP Records, one of the largest independent labels in the US, and started acquiring some of our competitors and small catalogues — that’s how I got into acquisitions and managing legacy catalogs. I was at VP for 10 years and then did some consulting work for BMG when it relaunched with Laurent [Hubert, then COO, US]. I then moved to INgrooves where I helped set up the rights management division and did some work with Shamrock Capital which owned Ingrooves and had just started their first music IP fund. I then went on to advise Big Deal and Kenny MacPherson until it was sold to Hipgnosis. I then started Iconic Artist Group with Irving Azoff and bought catalogues from The Beach boys, David Crosby, or Linda Ronstadt.
Which led you to Iconoclast.
Olivier Chastan: I started the current incarnation of the company last year. We are funded by a large investment company, but we are not really structured like a fund in that we do not have a cap on the amount of money we can invest. We are starting with a large funding base though.
Who’s backing you?
Olivier Chastan: Our backer would prefer to remain unnamed, but let’s say that it is one of the biggest asset management company in the world. [Music Business Worldwide identified the company as Pimco, which manages over $2.2 trillion in assets.]
How do you operate?
Olivier Chastan: We have an allocation of funds that is significant and as high as any funds raised in the past. Because we have a single investor with a large capital base, if we run into deals that are, say, over $800 million, we do not have to go raise additional capital.
Aren’t you coming a bit late to the party when it comes to acquisitions?
Olivier Chastan: No, there are plenty of assets still available. First, the very expensive assets — the likes of Elton John, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones have not done anything yet [with their catalogues] — and below the very expensive deals, there are many artists and catalogues that have amazing songs and recordings and yet most of the market is not looking at them or servicing them. I am thinking of bands or artists that had three or four hits. Most of the new entrants are focused on large acquisitions, deploying capital and putting as much money at work as fast as possible via as few transactions as possible. You can build a catalogue quickly with this kind of strategy but based on where the market is at in terms of prices, you’d be hard pressed to justify these investments at this scale. We are in a weird phase where the bigger the catalogue, the more competition there is, and with the smaller the catalogues, the less competition there is. If you look at companies like Reservoir, Downtown, Concord or Iconoclast, we are primarily labels, music publishers, and do not consider ourselves to be investors. We build catalogues. Finally, I do not consider myself a new entrant since I’ve being doing this for a long time. Building a catalogue is not new for me.
It seems that there is a lot of money out there, ready to be invested.
Olivier Chastan: Yes, there is a lot of money and everybody likes to talk about the amount that they raised. I personally don’t care. What matters is what you do with the catalogues that you acquire. Some investors do not have a creative team, so they are in a different business in my view. The question is whether you are in the business of pro-actively managing assets like Iconoclast or you are in the business of investing in assets that will grow passively with streaming growth — these are two different approaches.
What’s included in the Robbie Robertson deal?
Olivier Chastan: We have acquired his publishing, the royalty stream in his record interests, and some recordings that he owns, as well as name, image, likeness, including trademarks, and then some memorabilia and archives. It is a very comprehensive deal.
What attracted you to this particular catalogue?
Olivier Chastan: The story of The Band is the story of half a century of American music and draws from all of the American musical traditions. ‘Music From Big Pink’ feels incredibly familiar – it sounds like music that you have heard all of your life — country, blues, etc — yet it blends into something that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before. It is unique and very special. The music is very cinematic, which is a trademark of Robbie’s compositions. For me, it was more than just buying catchy songs. These are songs with depth and sophistication.
How much did you pay for the catalogue?
Olivier Chastan: Any idiot with a cheque book can buy anything and be an owner of assets! The price does not matter. Just know that it was a relatively competitive deal and we got it not just by being priced competitively, but primarily won based on qualitative reasons that resonated with Robbie.
Are you looking at other assets?
Olivier Chastan: I look at everything because you never know. I looked at Springsteen and Sting alongside other bigger deals and came to the conclusion that, when majors want something, it is nearly impossible to compete with them. They all have such large catalogues that taking a huge bet [on one transaction] can be justified. In our case, every investment will be judged on its own merit. If they want to buy a catalogue for X amount of money, the Beatles or some other large catalogue will support their risks. They also have a market share strategy which we do not have. What’s interesting is that they are not involved on 80% of the deals we work on, but when they are involved, they tend to pre-empt any competition.
You recently said that a lot of the prices of catalogues that were mentioned in the press were just PR spins. Do you stand by these comments?
Olivier Chastan: There’s a lot of hype out there. There are certain publishers or buyers who specifically report higher figures than what they paid for with the belief — which I don’t subscribe to — that showing that they can spend money will attract greedy lawyers and business managers and get them more deal flow. I can tell you about a deal where I was the second highest bidder and the price was 25% of what was announced. Another recent deal was announced at a price that was easily 30% higher than it was. That was part of the strategy from the buyer — to hype it up. There’s a lot of “propaganda” and miscalculation involuntarily relayed by the press.
Similarly, you are not fond of the concept of multiples.
Olivier Chastan: Everyday I am asked will you pay this multiple, like 25 times, and I always answer, ‘On what basis?’ Is it based on normalised income, excluding syncs, settlements? Adjusted for release cycles? Is it on last year’s earning or 3 year average? Multiples do not mean anything most of the time.
What is good deal for you?
Olivier Chastan: Good question! Number one, I guess it’s creatively something that I can develop over time and for which I have a clear path or vision. If I can see 5, 10, 20 projects to develop and have a plan for the legacy then the first criteria is fulfilled. The music has to be amazing but we all deal with rarefied and amazing music so that’s not really a factor. For example, when I looked at Robbie’s deal, my focus was primarily about what can I come up with creatively. Can we do a show, an exhibit, etc? It’s only in the second phase that I look at the economics, and based on the creative plan, determine if I can make an offer that is competitive. They work hand-in-hand. You need to invest in something that makes both economic sense and for which you have a creative plan.
What kind of structure do you have?
Olivier Chastan: At the moment, there’s 11 of us. We started last June and announced the Robbie deal a few weeks ago so this is all new. We have made five other deals since then. We have an equal number of people working on the acquisition side than in the creative/exploitation part of the company. I put a lot of value in brand and tech partnerships. We have three people doing content production all day. Nothing revolutionary here but we spend an inordinate amount of time and resources strategising on how to define the place of legacy artists in the future of entertainment tech. We look at new platforms — and I’m not talking about TikTok here — and what kind of content to develop for these. I think a lot of people are underestimating the importance of how to engage with these new platforms.
How do you deal with royalty management and administration?
Olivier Chastan: We pick partners on a case-by-case basis — publishers, labels, etc. It depends on the catalogue and the interest of the party that wants to administer the catalogue. We have two catalogues with Warner Chappell, one with Universal Music Publishing Group, a catalogue we just acquired is with Sony Music Publishing, and we will probably move one to Kobalt. Nothing that would come as a surprise.
So what’s next for you?
Olivier Chastan: First of all, continuing to grow our catalogue. We are having very exciting conversations on a lot of deals. We are looking into expanding into artist management, and also looking at other entertainment verticals where there is real potential to grow. We are also looking at a lot of exciting new technologies. I am convinced that name, image and likeness will be as important as music rights. You have all these emerging technologies, which are much broader than just VR, and entertainment will be revolutionised by the ability to create content that was not possible in the past. In a way, we will be able to bring to life a past that was never captured on film or video. That is extremely exciting for me, and it’s a way to give legacy artists an equal footing with contemporary artists. Imagine organising a prog-rock tour five years from now with Yes, ELP, Genesis and King Crimson while being faithful to their image and their music. That’s where we spend a lot of energy. What does the future of entertainment look for artists whose foundational works are mostly behind them and how do you make it fresh at regular intervals? On a personal level, I am going to be spending a huge amount of time outside the US and I’m looking at markets that have not been very active in terms of transactions. So far, all the M&A activity has been concentrated on Anglo-American repertoire, but there are markets out there that I believe have been ignored for a long time.
Would you invest in new talent?
Olivier Chastan: No. I did it for 20 years and have no interest anymore. I made a conscious choice with Iconoclast to look in the rear-view mirror. Moreover, there is so much noise and clutter today that it is very challenging to break new talent. I am now interested in how I can contribute to perpetuating the music I love and worship, and how I can bring something new to these catalogues. That said, my definition of catalogue has changed compared to a few years ago and I do invest on a regular basis in songs that are sometimes just five to seven years old.
How do you see the market of music assets evolve?
Olivier Chastan: We have done a lot of deals but it’s quite challenging because the volume of new deals is relentless. You can ask all of my competitors. We have never seen anything like that — we can get up to three to six deals a day landing on our desk. We are bombarded and now have to pick and choose. I used to look at everything, but we can’t anymore. But I can’t complain because I prefer an active market. However, the next 6-10 months will be critical in terms of seeing where the whole industry is going. The marketplace is so overheated that maybe there will be a reckoning that some of these deals are not the wisest. We also need look at where interest rates are going and the impact on valuations. I’ve noticed that the valuations have plateaued. Some deals are even going down, so we may be approaching a correction of the market, and if that’s the case, we will have to assess what the long-term consequences will be.
Finally, why that name, Iconoclast?
Olivier Chastan: Because that’s what artists are — quite simply. They break the rules of art and question the rules of our societies, and in doing so, allow all of us to think about our lives and our world in completely different ways.
Collective Management Organisations
Kris Ahrend (The MLC): ‘Our payout rate in the first year was higher than the industry payout rate during the previous three years’
The MLC was launched on January 1, 2021 and has been a game changer for the music publishing community and for self-published songwriters. It has brought efficiency in the collection and distribution of mechanical rights that did not exist previously.
The rights organisation was created by law to collect the proceeds from a blanket license on mechanical rights for digital services. and it is financed by DSPs. The MLC started during the Covid pandemic and a small group of executive around CEO Kris Ahrend built the society from the ground up, mostly remotedly.
Today, the MLC is fully part of the music eco-system. The Nashville-based society has reached in March its first billion dollars in distributions to publishers and songwriters since its inception.
To talk about this milestone and how The MLC is navigating the post-Covid era, Creative Industries News‘ Emmanuel Legrand sat with Ahrend for an extensive zoom chat. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
You are the chief executive of an organisation that was created by law and did not exist three years ago. How do you feel today about The MLC?
Kris Ahrend: I think our entire team feels really proud about the fact that we were able to stand up as a new organisation with such a challenging mission, not only in a short period of time, but in a short period of time when all of us were dealing with an extraordinary challenge, the likes of which none of us had faced before. So to have gotten two years into full operations, to have completed 24 monthly royalty distributions, all on time or early, and to have things running smoothly, feels really good. That said, we also feel a bit the way you feel when you climb a really large mountain.
You climb the first hill or the foothill thinking that’s the mountain because that’s all you can see. And then you arrive at the top only to see that the rest of the mountain is even taller and steeper. So as much as I think we feel proud that we’ve gotten things up and running, we continue to see that significant challenges are in front of us and that there’s a lot more work to be done. But having a foundation underneath us that allows us to tackle those bigger challenges is certainly a positive feeling.
Well, let’s go into the numbers. You have reach your first billion dollar in distributions, which is always a landmark. Was it a surprise to reach this benchmark so soon?
Kris Ahrend: It wasn’t a surprise. We obviously see the total amount of royalty pools reported to us every month. And we see the trends. So we knew we were going to arrive at this point probably six months ago. This is evidence that there is a process that is working effectively for DSPs on the delivery side. We’re working with almost 50 DSPs that are required to report usage to us on a monthly basis. And there’s an extraordinary amount of work that goes into simply managing that day-to-day interaction with that many organisations, many of whom are not as sophisticated as the largest DSPs, and may not have had years of experience in reporting and for whom reporting to us is relatively new. The fact that the system works such that we can receive, analyse, and process that level of data in order to pay out and distribute that level of royalties again represents strong evidence that the foundation for The MLC process is strong and established.
But there’s still more to to do and we know from the feedback we get from our members that there’s more we can do to help them work with the data, now that we make available to them to continue to spot gaps in the data, missing registrations, missing shares. For new members, most of whom are self-administered songwriters, an who are not perhaps as experienced as our initial members that for many of them they’re struggling to understand the basics of how the industry works.
And so for us, the challenge is helping them understand the difference between the rights and royalty streams that relate to songs versus sound recordings, the different royalty streams within the realm of songs, and then the steps that they need to take in order to collect that money.
All of that requires a ton of outreach and education on the front end, and then a lot of support along the way that we provide through our support team to get them signed up, to get them to a point where they understand how to register a work and then to receive their first payments. It is a highly complex process and there are endless nuances, but the fundamentals are clearly there now. All that, as I said, is encouraging because that’s a foundation on which we can continue to build, grow and improve.
We cannot compare your performance with the previous regime, as data and figures were not available when HFA was doing your work. Do you have any indication that the simple fact that the MLC exists has created an increase in the amount of mechanical rights that have been collected and distributed in the United States?
Kris Ahrend: Yes, because we received historical data from 21 of the now-almost 50 DSPs that are working with us. Many of those current DSPs were not around before the blanket license was introduced, but we have data for the royalty pools going back as far as 2007. So we can calculate the percentage of royalties that were paid by the services before the blanket, and we can compare that to the amount that we have paid out after the blanket.
And what we know is our payout rate, not our match rate, but actual dollars distributed for 2021, during our first year of distribution is higher than the payout rate was for the industry during the previous three years. That’s pretty significant. At the same time, the size of the royalty pools — both the absolute dollars in the pool and then the number of recordings that have received royalties — have all grown. So that is a clear indication that we have made things better. We have paid out a higher percentage of the royalties we have received than the industry paid out the previous three years. I will say that for 2022, we’ve already paid out more than the industry paid out for the previous two years before the blanket. Our 2022 payout rate is better than the industry payout rate for 2020 and 2019.
And that’s without taking into account the increase in rate that will be applied retroactively once CRB’s Phonorecords III will comes into force.
Kris Ahrend: Correct. Obviously the dollars we’ve paid out for 2021 will increase when the services have to provide adjusted dats that is reflective of the final rates.
Do you have any sense of the percentage of that money that belongs to US rights owners versus non-US rights owners?
Kris Ahrend: We don’t publish any sort of breakdown by category like that. The Copyright Office regulations are pretty strict in preventing us from providing market share data. It would also be challenging to do that because the money we pay that ultimately relates to ex-US songwriters can come to us or go out from us, through a variety of sources. Some of those ex-US songwriters might have a global publishing deal so that a US publisher collects that money here and we have no way of knowing if that money ultimately is paid to a songwriter that’s based outside the us.
Similarly, some of the collective management organisations use third party administrators, and those administrators are based in the US. We have connections, directly or indirectly with under a hundred CMOs around the world that represent rights holders in, I think, 128 countries. But we don’t have or publish any data that attempts to break down the dollars by territory.
Let’s talk about the non distributed, unmatched, and on hold royalties. When you started the business, you had some sort of a Christmas gift from the DSPs in the form of $424 million in unpaid royalties. What’s the status of that pot?
Kris Ahrend: We have effectively divided it into three pools. The Phono III pool covers uses that took place between 2018 and 2020. The Phono III period continued for 2021 and 2022. The pre-Phono III period stretches back as early as 2007. One DSP provided usage data related to 2007 and then forward. Then we’ve got the Phono I rate periods, 2008 to 2012, and Phono II period from 2013 to 2017. If you take the $424 million, that was the gift, to use your term, some $373.6 million of it is related to the last three years. In reality, the majority of the historical unmatched was not so historical. It was relatively recent. The remaining amounts to about $53 million for the earlier periods between 2007 and 2017. The Phono III monies have been on hold because, as you know, we’re waiting for the CRB to finalise the rates.
Once the CRB finalises the rates, every DSP that delivered historical data to us is going have to re-deliver their Phono III data at a minimum to reflect the final rates. And they may very well have to make incremental payments to us, depending on how they calculated their initial transfers.
So that money, the lion share of the money, has been on hold while we await the conclusion of the rate process, and clearly that’s not ideal. What it has allowed us to do is not only get all of our processes and our member tools up, but it’s also allowed us to begin working on the historical data, starting with the older periods, and to get into the cadence of processing that every month.
We began processing unmatched royalties and distributing matched royalties from those older periods last June. We loaded the data, we ran the matching for all that data, and then we paid out matched royalties for previously unpaid uses up through the end of December. That amounted to about $11.5 million.
This March, we began looking at the previously partially paid uses. So these are uses where the DSPs paid someone something, but there was money that they didn’t pay out. For example, perhaps there were four shares on the work, they knew the publisher for one, they didn’t know the publisher writers for three, so they paid out 25% and they sent us the remaining 75%. So we are now paying out matched royalties for those types of uses. In our first month, which we just completed, we paid out another $5.8 million that retained primarily to Apple.
By comparison, in previous months, we were paying out usually in the neighbourhood of $2 million for a distribution that had a large DSP in it. So we’re seeing a significant increase in the amount that we’re now paying out. Now that we’ve moved into the previously partially paid uses, we will continue to work through those previously partially paid uses for the next several months, and then expect to have finished that pool by July.
So with an additional $5.7 million in March, we’ve now paid out $17.25 million of the $53 million of pre-Phono III. And that’s with only one big DSP. It’s, a steady progress month after month. By July we’ll have a good first view of how well we’ve been able to do both matching, and then paying out all of the historical royalties that we can from 2007 to 2017. And then hopefully before then, we’ll have received the final Phono III rates. Once they’re finalised, the digital services have to deliver the revised data and money, as I mentioned, and they’ve got six months to do that.
How confident are you about the quality of the data nowadays?
Kris Ahrend: We’re still at a place where the majority of people in the industry don’t fully understand the importance of data in getting paid properly. You know, we serve the largest companies in the world, down to the smallest, least experienced, self-administered creators. Some of them are literally kids. We are right now is at a point where more and more organisations realise the significance of data, not only to getting paid — correct data equals or drives dollars — but also for discovery. There are so many areas where the data can and needs to be better. And we, of course, see that more clearly than ever because we’re seeing the data across the entire industry.
There are issues with the consistency of formatting data that come from the DSPs. There’s the data and the inconsistency of formatting that originates from the companies that provide data to the DSPs. There’s inaccurate data that gets submitted. The distribution services that serve the DIY greater community where someone records a song that they love and they refer to it as a cover of a song written by the performing artist, not the writers. They’re not doing it intentionally, they just don’t understand. There’s a lot of room for us to grow and improve, to get to the point where people understand the significance of putting into the system accurate data. There’s opportunity for improvement at every single step in the process.
For the second anniversary of our first distribution, every sound recording that we’ve been unable to match the data for will be searchable for any of our members in our matching tool. Similarly, every unclaimed share or any work that has an unclaimed share is searchable in our claiming tool. Any member can search by their writer’s name and, and then see the results, showing compositions that have been registered with us, but for which a hundred percent of the shares are not claimed.
Those are two really important tools because that means that our 25,000 plus members can see exactly what we see. And of course, any one of them will be most motivated to spot the gaps, the missing data for the songs they’ve written. By giving them a way to see that data and then to submit the information that’s missing, we’re empowering them to help us make the data better.
That’s why we say we are illuminating the black box, right? Because the data is now essentially fully visible to anyone who is connected with us wherever they are in the world. If that was happening at every society around the world, you would see dramatic improvement simply because people could see for the first time clearly what isn’t working.
Do you think that’s gonna dispel some of the myths about the black box?
Kris Ahrend: I would hope so. The term itself, black box, suggests this mysterious canister that you can’t see with everything that’s unmatched. Now, everything that’s unclaimed is fully visible and searchable and actionable, using our tools.
We don’t think the black box is the appropriate term to use anymore. That’s also why we break up our metrics into unmatched and unclaimed, because another misnomer is that the money doesn’t get paid out because we can’t make the connection between the sound recording and the song. In reality, there are many instances where we can make the connection, but not all of the rights holders have claimed their shares of that song. So it’s equally important for us to show the data to our members broken down in that way because if we didn’t, they might think, well, there’s nothing we can do.
So looking at the future, where do you see the challenges and do you see any bright spots in the future?
Kris Ahrend: Well, I definitely think the bright spot is the continued growing awareness of the importance of data and the engagement that that organisations have with us and other similar organisations around their data. For example, our publisher relations’ team meets at least once a quarter with well over a hundred publishers. And what we see increasingly is publishers are adding resources to their teams to use the tools we’ve created to use the data that they can access to dig even deeper and looking for those missing data points, those missing connections.
The more engaged that rights holders are, the more we will all see and be able to fix. And that is incredibly positive. We also think that our tools allow people to see the return on the investment they’re making and that they can see where they weren’t getting paid and how much they were paid.
To me, that is very encouraging. On the songwriter side, you see more and more organisations that represent creators emphasising the importance of data. The move to digital gave every creator access to the global music market, but it didn’t necessarily require them to understand how the global market works. All the education that’s happening now is increasing the knowledge-base among the creative community. That will make those creators better able to manage the business side of their work. And that I find encouraging as well.
As we talk with other organisations that do similar things, whether they be companies that manage data or opera data services or other collective management organisations, the sense I get is that all of these organisations are thinking about these issues and how they can change and evolve in ways that make them more effective.
So I think there are some great opportunities for us to continue to build relationships and partnerships with other organisations that, that will also contribute towards an improvement.
On a personal note, it seems to me that compared to the first time we spoke you are feeling much more comfortable and confident in your role, and in understanding the madness of data matching.
Kris Ahrend: Sure. We started the MLC during Covid and we did so much work without leaving our houses. It was sometimes harder to perceive the impact that we were having or even the ability to connect with people. We knew that we were talking to a lot of people on webinars and we could see from the signup data that they were coming from every state in the country and countries around the world.
But you hang up on that Zoom call and you’re still sitting at home. The difference now, in particular over the last year, is we have gotten out into the world and done more and more to interact with people directly, and we are hearing quite frankly the positive feedback from so many of our members, that the tools are working, the education is effective, that the support team is fantastic. All of that has reinforced for us the belief that the things that we have done have been effective and that’s given us a level of confidence in what we’re doing. But again, the challenges continue to loom and there’s so much more to do.
Maybe you’re also hearing in some ways the excitement I feel, because in many respects we’re just getting started. As I said, having established the company and the foundational processes and gotten them to work, it feels much more possible now to tackle even bigger challenges than we thought we could.
Collective Management Organisations
Andrea C Martin (PRS for Music): ‘Digital has become our number one channel of revenues, surpassing international’
Bruno Guez (Revelator): ‘NFTs will become a commodity so we expect to see more platforms using them as utilities’
Revelator has been building a data and asset management infrastructure for the past decade, to help rights holders navigate the new digital paradigm, and it is now moving into the NFT sphere.
Jerusalem-based Revelator was founded in 2012 by Bruno Guez, who had been in the music industry for the past three decades, working alongside such industry legends as Chris Blackwell or Guy Laliberté‘s Cirque du Soleil. He is a musician, an industry executive, a tech buff and a data obsessive.
After a life as an international commuter, Guez settled in Isreal after an accident that left him paralysed. There, he built the Revelator team, tapping into his country’s vast pool of experienced IT executives.
The first incarnation of Revelator was more of a rights management company. But in the past three to four years, Guez’s focus has switched on cloud-based blockchain-powered tools, and he is now turning his attention to NFTs and other digital assets.
Eight months ago, Revelator has launched an Artist Wallet, a new web app for music distribution and royalties, powered by its new decentralised Original Works platform. The Wallet allows for direct payout between creators and right holders, and the benefits for artists are multiple, according to Guez: daily payments; control and transparency; income tracking with an estimated pipeline; and assets and royalties management.
Original Works, in turn, is a decentralised protocol for music IP offering a full suite of Web3 products to distributors, record labels, publishers, platforms and brands.
As he reveals in this interview, Revelator’s new pet project is Creator Studio, an all-in-one solution that enables creators to mint, manage and sell NFTs across marketplaces, and easily create custom storefronts to power Web3 commerce to fans and collectors. Powered by Revelator, the Creator Studio web application and the Artist Wallet mobile application are connected through Original Works.
The day Creative Industries News caught up with Bruno Guez to talk about Creator Studio, it was Israel’s national day and Guez was relaxing playing some music with his ProTools software. “I doing some sort of reggaeton dancehall with a Latin twist,” he explained.
For an hour, he left ProTools and took us through his latest project. Here’s an edited version of the Zoom conversation.
Revelator has always been at the intersection of technology and rights management. So what new development are you working on?
Bruno Guez: We’re working on the Creator Studio web3 app, enabling the easy creation of NFTs and the ability to list and distribute them on marketplaces. But more importantly, its function is to manage digital assets. The evolution of the marketplace means that digital assets are becoming a commodity but there are no tools to manage a roster or a catalog of digital assets. What’s missing is the B2B aspect. Companies like The Orchard or FUGA or lack the tooling for digital assets management. So we’re adding this new layer to Revelator to manage digital IP in the form of NFTs. We are really trying to follow the music business playbook in ways royalties are managed and that’s something no one is doing at the moment. When an NFT is sold, money is paid into somebody’s wallet but all existing solutions don’t take into account the splits between band members, the label, the designer, etc. It’s not easy to do that. We enable the splits of assets through smart contracts — we’ve been doing that for three to four years — and then split the money on the blockchain between all the parties. We’ve built a music business management layer for digital assets. In fact, we are even more advanced than that: we power storefronts to create marketplaces and enable rights holders to sell digital assets to fans, and facilitate the buyer experience. People can pay with credit cards and don’t need to know anything about crypto. The more we democratise this, the more the music market will adopt new types of formats. We look at NFTs like we looked at MP3 music files: it’s a new format with new distribution channels.
When are you launching Creator Studio?
Bruno Guez: We are launching it at the end of June. We have it working on the wallet. You can easily create and mint NFTs, and distribute them across the ecosystem. The market needs simple solutions. First, there’s a lack of digital assets accounting tools. If Warner or Believe want to sell NFTs across the marketplace, they have no infrastructure for any accounting for crypto assets; they cannot support crypto in their accounting system. And that’s something unique we are providing with the consolidation in any type of currency, Ethereum or other cryptocurrencies. It’s not easy for music companies to hold 2,000 Ethereum on their balance sheet, and create an entry in their ledger to keep track of their digital asset transactions. Second, in the same way we provide other B2B services, we can enable a label or distributor to offer NFTs to their artists and get into the marketplace without developing anything..
Have you started presenting the service to potential users?
Bruno Guez: We have started speaking to independent distributors and aggregators and everyone is interested at this stage. It is still early days with NFTs, so they are experimenting and trying to learn how things work, what are the challenges, how do you manage the assets, and what do you do with crypto assets on your balance sheet when you are a public company. They don’t want to have exposure to crypto asset volatility, they don’t know how to manage these financial assets in their systems, which were not built for web3, and don’t understand how digital assets can coexist side by side with traditional music releases.
How will you monetise the service?
Bruno Guez: Our business model is to be a SaaS company. For us, it’s about selling subscriptions and different tiers of subscription, depending on the needs of our customers, and also to have a transaction fee on primary market transactions.
How does the new service work?
Bruno Guez: The first application is our digital wallet. It shows users their balance and the pipeline of royalties coming into the wallet. Rights holders can see how much revenue is coming, easily request an advance and also see which song they want to request an advance for. They then submit a request for an advance. It creates a smart contract that will repay itself from the royalty flow. So first you have the wallet for music and media assets. You can also create NFTs and manage your assets on different blockchains. Additionally with the platform, you can manage registration of music IP on the blockchain, mint NFTs and distribute to marketplaces. Both applications have incredible user experience and design for creators and rights holders to easily onboard to web3.
How do you create an asset?
Bruno Guez: It’s basically a five step process. First, you choose a digital file and upload it. Second, give it a title and a description. Third, define the creator’s info. Fourth, choose if it’s a limited or single edition. Finally, define the selling price, say $25, and the royalties you want to receive from secondary sales. That’s it; you mint it from the phone or web application in three minutes. Once that’s done you put it up for sale on a custom storefront, making it available to whomever you want. That’s the marketplace layer. The simplicity allows artists to fully own and sell their digital assets. Our applications support 20 languages from English, Spanish, Chinese to Arabic or Hebrew. For Original Works, anyone can manage assets straight from the Wallet. Assets are recorded on the Ethereum blockchain. An artist today can’t monetise music on blockchain with existing distributors, but they can do it now with our web3 application. You don’t need to worry about who owns which shares because the agreement splits are kept on the ledger.
How do artists advertise that they have put out a series of NFTs?
Bruno Guez: In the same way that you send people to your music on DSPs. I look at it like digital commerce; digital assets are no different from other assets. There is still the element of marketing. You have to create a campaign, like when you have a new track coming out.
What about people who think NFTs are just a fad?
Bruno Guez: There is a future for digital assets. We believe the main value will come from the utility and not a collectible. A utility NFT unlocks a digital experience.
How do you know that the IP you are using is not someone else’s?
Bruno Guez: That’s why we work with businesses, not individuals. We know the record labels and distributors we work with are mindful of contractual relationships with rights holders. We also provide metadata inspection mechanisms for labels or distributors to review an NFT before the artist mints it. They have obligations not to mint fraudulent assets. Another protection against fraud is content identification. If an audio fingerprint is unique or matches pre-existing copyrights, it will get flagged. There is no way to totally eradicate fraud but we can put quality control measures in place within the chain. If it is part of the process, you can make sure it is part of the assets you own. This is what we don’t see in systems today: the ability to transfer shares and access data to access micro financing. This is facilitated by embedded information in smart contracts.
What do you think of platforms that sell digital assets without having the IP?
Bruno Guez: There should be more regulation. Those sales are usually marketing stunts to get people to sign on and ultimately, they do not have a lasting quality as a business. Digital assets are here to stay, so more controls will be put in place, either by regulators or through compliance from companies. There are lots of questions from a regulatory perspective: are NFTs a security? The problem is not the NFT but what you do with it. If you create a digital collectible with a concert ticket, it is not a security. NFTs will become a commodity so we expect to see more platforms that will be using them as utilities. That’s also why the platform we build is useful.
What would you advise to labels that are interested in digital assets but don’t know what approach to take?
Bruno Guez: First, you have to understand what you want to get out of it. What are you offering to the fans? Is it a collectible or a way to unlock premium content? You can also use it to do community activation and build a community around the artist. Then it is less about the sale and more about the engagement. It is not just about buying an expensive jpeg but using it to unlock the artist-fan relationship. You have to have a clear sense of what you are offering.
Is the audience ready for that?
Bruno Guez: If it’s easy to purchase, yes. If it involves a crypto wallet, it will take time. Most people still purchase things online with credit cards, so you have to make it available this way. And if an NFT gets you something like tickets, or new music before anyone else, then it creates this direct fan engagement.
Are NFTs going to last as speculation tools?
Bruno Guez: The market will correct as it always does, and it is already flatlining. Prices will find market value, such as $20 for a NFT, and those that ask $600 for NFT will be few and far between.
There’s also the issue of scale and the inability for blockchain-powered systems to deal with large volumes of data. Is this going to be an issue?
Bruno Guez: It depends on which blockchain. The first layer, like Ethereum can at times be a bottleneck on the network, which makes it hard to scale, but new L2 networks are getting easier to scale, like Polygon. If you look at the wallet as a multi chain tool, you can mint on Polygon where scale and speed is not an issue.
What will the next generation of tools for digital assets look like?
Bruno Guez: It is still a problem to pay people faster. For us, increasing the speed of estimating royalty value and the delivery of money is our main focus. For that, we need a full data infrastructure that can look at your song and say how much you make at any given time, and speed up payments. We can deliver payment to the wallet every day. Seeing how much money you have and getting it to you almost in real time is our goal. What I want to create is a system that delivers something faster and directly to people’s phones.
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