Music, Money and Metadata: DART Aims at Music's Data Crisis

Mar 20, 2017

Songwriters and recording artists have waited with mounting frustration for more than a decade for a fair, accountable way to get paid for their work in the digital environment. That day may finally be close at hand. A Nashville company called DART has emerged as a national player in what may be the most important development in digital music commerce since file sharing blew up the industry in the early 2000s. It’s about big data and artificial intelligence meeting blockchain technology borrowed from Bitcoin.

Part One: DART AIMS AT MUSIC’S DATA CRISIS

by Craig Havighurst

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CRAIG HAVIGHURST) Nearly a dozen construction cranes are building the new Nashville skyline just outside the huge industrial windows of the INK Building, the shared creative and startup space south of Broadway. It’s a cold clear morning. Coffee brews, and the staff of DART is in its daily “standup” meeting.

Three executives are here and five more are on Google Chat from the west coast, planning the day’s tasks.

“Biz dev is rocking. The fuel in the tank conversations went great.”

Chris McMurtry is the soft-spoken and cerebral CEO. He founded DART two years ago.

“It started as an acronym, which is Digital Assets Repository and Tracking system”

That sounds technical and tedious. But DART has a spiritual spin as well.

“Data as Art. DART”

And the art is music.

(audio - Chopin prelude)

Not perhaps the music you’d expect for a company positioning itself to help every songwriter and artist in every genre. McMurtry’s background and passion is classical music. And DART launched to solve the particular problems classical music confronts in the digital marketplace.

“We made it so that a classical artist or composer could get their music into Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play, etc. in an automated fashion.”

That seems like a small problem but it reflects a much bigger one. Classical music struggled on those critical platforms because composers, soloists, works and movements don’t mesh up with a system built for popular music, where things are categorized by album, artist and song. In the industry, they call this METADATA.

And metadata in today’s music business is essential to tracking who owns what and who gets paid. And it’s a huge mess. There are thousands of databases connecting songs or works to their owners. They’re inconsistent, and they don’t talk to each other. McMurtry cites a specific work:

“Chopin piano prelude No 15 and there being 723 different ways that appears in digital service providers.”

That’s an exact count by the way, not a speculation. These inconsistencies in naming and categorizing impede searching, marketing and paying the right people. Missing or bad metadata means lost money. Once DART made progress fixing inconsistent metadata in classical, the company pivoted toward serving the rest of the music business.

(audio - Johnny B. Goode)         

“We have a songwriter. Could be Chuck Berry,” says McMurtry, a couple of week’s before the artist’s death on March 18.

“But then another PRO has it registered as Charles Berry. (A PRO or performing rights organization tracks song performances and pays its constituent composers per use.) But yet another PRO or publisher has it registered as E. Anderson. Well what is that? That's a pen name that Chuck Berry used. His full name is Charles Edward Anderson Berry. So would you necessarily know that Charles Berry is the same as Chuck Berry? Probably. But would you know that E. Anderson is the same? No, but a machine would.

He means machine learning - artificial intelligence concepts that that McMurtry picked up from the MIT Media Lab.

This is actually what DART does. Its proprietary software collects and collates metadata from hundreds of sources and cleans it up, creating the closest thing the industry has to a definitive ledger of song information. And that’s step one to fair, accurate and transparent digital commerce.

Chris McMurtry: “Any digital technology, regardless of the market, is only as good as the data, because that's what we're interacting with. And so if you get the data right, then if it is the system that’s bad, then you’re at the core of solving that system.”

Chris McMurtry (L), with David DeBusk and Jake Handy of DART.

Another member of the DART team is David DeBusk, head of business development. He’s been working in digital music as long as anyone in Nashville - first for BMI and then  Shazam, that cool song-naming app for your phone. DeBusk says metadata is at the very heart of a working, lucrative music business.

“The metadata is what makes everything flow all through the supply chain, from the creator down to the consumer. So it has to have integrity.”

And currently, across the industry, it does not.   

“The music business can not agree on a standard,” says the other key guy at DART, head of investor relations Mark Montgomery. “And as a result of that, we have crippled ourselves in the new digital world.”

Montgomery, a prominent music technology entrepreneur and investor, says that as long as record labels, publishers, digital music services and other players continue to operate as a digital Tower of Babelm, with antiquated systems that barely talk to one another, the creators will always be on the bottom of the food chain.

But If data can be cleaned up and consolidated, the music business in general could be several times larger than it is now Montgomery believes. And he plans for DART to play a central role in that new world.             

Mark Montgomery

“This is a billion dollar company,” Montgomery says. “It really is. And more importantly, it will feed creators in a way they have never been fed. It will erase the ambiguity that is built into many of the supply chain's business models.

McMurtry says applying DART’s tools to all music commerce - and even other intellectual property such as books and movies - was the long term goal for DART all along.                                 

“We are now where I originally thought we'd be year five or earliest year three.”

Not without bumps in the road however. On Feb. 27 the company announced voluntarily restructuring under the bankruptcy laws. According to a statement, it was a strategic move to resolve an impasse with some of the company’s investors. Operations and payouts to client artists continue uninterrupted, McMurtry said. The action “will allow us to restore our company and take it to new heights.”

To that end, DART is negotiating business arrangements with some of the biggest companies in digital music.

One of the most important alliances - as far as songwriters and other creators are concerned - is with a new company that relatively few people have heard of - It’s called Dot Blockchain, named after the fastest-growing idea in internet technology generally.

Learn more in Part Two: The Promise of the Blockchain.