Can the future of music be decentralized, community-focused and AI-friendly?

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Music has always been seen as a universal language able to connect people from various walks of life, cultures and backgrounds. It has also been used as a way of introducing new ideas and technologies. 

Generally, the music industry has always been eager to adopt new technologies that help creativity, speed up the production process, and make it more accessible. Artists can now make full albums in their bedrooms using technology didn’t even exist 10–20 years ago.

The same can be seen with new Web3 tools like blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and artificial intelligence (AI) and their ever-growing use cases in music-related endeavors.

In recent years, artists have used nonfungible tokens (NFTs) to release singles or create exclusive experiences for fans, AI to reinvent artists and sounds, and blockchain as a way to revolutionize music streaming.

Audius, a decentralized music streaming and monetization platform, has been at the forefront of converging Web3 and music space since 2018.

The platform has made a name for itself capturing the attention of mainstream artists like deadmau5 and Skrillex and their fans, being a gateway for many to the next iteration of digital integrations. 

Cointelegraph sat down with Audius co-founders Roneil Rumburg and Forrest Browning to better understand how the future of music can be decentralized, community-focused and AI-friendly all at the same time.

Building for adoption

While the crypto and Web3 space has been a “niche” industry for the majority of its existence until now, music, on the other hand, is nearly all-encompassing. Browning said this was the platform’s initial approach.

“Music is a hell of a gateway drug to crypto more broadly. The way Audius works and has worked from the beginning is that we’re going after the mainstream Web2 audience, rather than a tool or a protocol for the niche Web3 community. This is being built with the intention of going mainstream.”

He said this included taking an engineering and product perspective that hid and “abstracted away” the more “scary parts” of Web3 that may deter the typical Web2 user who may not understand those aspects. 

This way, users can decide how much they want to interact with the important Web3 features that underlie the platform.

“If you want to start to pull back the onion and get into kind of wallet addresses and sending around crypto or sending tips, you can do all that,” he said.

“But if your primary use case is to use it like a normal Web2 streaming service and listen to your favorite artists, perhaps buy a track because you’re a super fan of somebody who uploaded a song, all those Web2 mainstream mechanisms are there. It’s on us to make that usable for you as an end user.”

While many developers in the Web3 space wrestle with the idea of how to attract a wider user base beyond the crypto-natives, music organically allows for that inflow due to the familiar aspects of streaming, uploading tracks, or even being a super fan of an artist looking to collect merchandise. 

“Users don’t have to know that every time they favorite a track, repost something, upload a song – all of that’s being documented on the blockchain. It’s all moving around on properly decentralized rails, but both the artists and the fans don’t have to know any of that if they don’t want to.”

Related: How the music industry is battling AI deepfakes one state at a time with the ELVIS Act

Fandom isn’t speculative

In March 2023, Audius introduced NFT-gating to its platform to allow its artists the ability to make certain songs, mixes, track stems (a collection of audio sources)  accessible only to fans who hold a specific NFT. 

However, this NFT feature was introduced to the platform at a time when the NFT market was in a major lull.

According to data from CoinGecko, NFT trading volume in 2023 was down 50% on the previous year, sliding from $26.3 billion down to $11.8 billion.

When asked if NFT utility in the music industry differs from general NFT market trends due to it being connected to music and artists, Rumburg commented:

“The speculative side of NFTs is very much market dependent. The fandom side is not. I think kind of focusing on the latter with all the features that we build helped us weather the cycles in terms of usage.”

He added that the problem with chasing speculative financial use cases is that the usage of those tools now becomes cyclical and cyclically dependent. For Audius, on the other hand, focus has been first and foremost on the artists or fans and not that purely speculator class. 

“It has trade-offs because it also means that when the market is very hot we don’t capture as much of that activity,” he said, “but the activity we do capture is durable and delivers value.”

Browning said that as time went on the community on Audius began pushing for more than just an engagement platform, which grew into the marketplace they “always envisioned Audius would become.”

Empowered AI

In the face of rapidly emerging generative-AI tools, the team behind Audius also considered its own decentralized community and how to best empower artists yet encourage innovation. 

Last May, the platform rolled out a feature that allowed artists to display an “AI friendly” label on their profile, which lets a fan base that they can train on the artist’s work.

Browning explained that anything created from an Audius artist using generative AI will end up tagging the original artist, “then there’s a nice social graph and it shows up that it is an AI generation of this other artist.”

“It’s all about making sure that, if a lot of smart people are trying to figure out the legal aspect of this, from a moral and artist empowerment side, we just want to let everybody do what feels right to those involved.”

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