Consensus, leadership, and levers are how open standards thrive. They’ve eluded the music industry – until now.

With the Music Modernization Act now law, the music industry faces an unprecedented opportunity to develop and adopt open standards which could truly modernize and prepare it for the future.

Following a hard-fought battle full of dramatic twists and turns, the Music Modernization Act was signed into law on Oct 11th and roundly celeberated by major stakeholders. Well-earned as the celebrations were, some have argued that the job of modernizing the music business has only just begun. While the reference is to substantial policy and procedural changes, anyone familiar with the inner workings of the industry’s technology infrastructure would also be compelled to agree.

To truly modernize the music industry, new thinking, new tools, and shared standards are needed. Effective standards require consensus, leadership, and economic levers, a trifecta unattainable in the music industry until now.

Past is prolog.

For at least twenty years, talented, driven individuals and organizations have been hard at work trying to crack open music industry data. Among them are MusicBrainz, Music Business Association working groups (once digitalmusic.org), DDEX, Open Music Initiative, dotBlockchain, and at least a dozen other blockchain projects.

So it is not for want of trying that we don’t yet enjoy the benefits of open standards. I know many of those involved and the battles they’ve fought. Hint: the call is coming from inside the house.

What are open standards, and why do they matter?

The business of defining and developing standards is messy, and the definitions of “open” versus “closed” standards are anything but set in stone. At their core, standards are an economic tool put to use in a marketplace. Long-time open source software advocate, Stephen Walli, describes standards as embodying “consensus-based compromises” and defining “useful, predictable boundaries” for a given ecosystem.

As for open standards, specifically, the most widely understood example is the internet. A collection of foundational standards like HTTP and HTML (web), SMTP (email), and SSL (secure communications and commerce) make it all possible. Versus the closed, proprietary “walled garden” of AOL, for those old enough to remember.

These and others standards emerged through the leadership of industry bodies. They were adopted and are in use today because they offer effective economic levers like cost reduction, speed to market, and reach for a given product. In short, they provide network effects.

Personal experience driving standards adoption informs my view and advocacy of open standards. I was on the first browser team at Microsoft (where history and the Department of Justice showed we were on the wrong side of the standards battle). I also helped build standards and industry alliances in communications and cloud computing with the likes of Intel and Cisco. It’s difficult, often unpredictable work, but for the benefit of customers and users, it’s work worth doing.

Why open standards matter for the music industry

While it all begins with a song, the modern music industry, like any other, is increasingly driven by data. The music business is refreshingly one of long-standing personal relationships and earned trust. At scale, however, trust is created or destroyed with data. Just ask Facebook.

Ease of access to verifiably correct data = level of trust. As it stands, we have a trust problem.

I’m reminded of this week after week, as I speak with music publishers and administrators who spend countless hours combing through CSV files, building complex spreadsheets and other home-grown tools, flooding email inboxes, and speed-dialing their industry reps. All to verify and make usable the disjointed, non-standardized data they receive, and rarely, if ever, trust. It’s a tremendous waste of time, money, and talent.

Contrast this with your favorite, personal finance or email apps. You connect them to your accounts, and away you go. You don’t worry about chasing down every transaction from every bank, wondering if they got it right, then double-checking against your spreadsheet. Likewise, you probably don’t question whether you’re seeing the accurate, full content of each email you receive. What makes this trust possible? End-to-end open standards.

George Howard offers a useful analogy with Sabre, a system which powers the vast majority of airline bookings in North America.

While few would hold the North American airline industry up as a paragon of trust, what they did accomplish decades ago with Sabre is an example of a highly effective, reliable (if not truly open) standard on which to grow their industry.

The time to act is now.

The Music Modernization Act was a singularly impressive show of consensus-building – a consensus that can and should continue to be fostered. Further, the MMA gives rise to the Mechanical Licensing Collective, a new music licensing organization charged with administering mechanical royalties and governed by a board of directors comprised of music publishers. While it is not “one ring to rule them all,” the MLC’s board and its three committees do offer a unique opportunity to provide leadership for the industry at-large.

Implementing the law within the prescribed timeline will be a daunting task, no doubt. However, regulations that emerge from this process provide the vehicle for the third, crucial component: levers that incentivize the use of—and in some cases, guarantee compliance with—a set of open standards that can carry the music business into the future.

In order to truly modernize the music industry and unlock its immense, future potential for all parties, those who lead the Mechanical Licensing Collective and its formation, in partnership with their colleagues in the Copyright Office, must seize this opportunity.

To paraphrase a Chinese proverb, the best time to adopt open standards in the music industry was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.