The signs that Imogen Heap was going to be a game changer came at an early age. As has been the case with many of our brightest musicians, Imogen did not get along well with her music teacher at school but found herself in the small cupboard which had an Atari and some music software on it, 25 years ago! She read the manual and so began her work with music and computers. She attended the prestigious BRIT School of performing arts after that to do her A-levels. Here she learned about mixing and engineering, recording real audio. She met her manager there at the age 0f 18 and even before she left school had a record deal.
As is normal, Heap has had her ups and downs with labels… Fed up with the battles, Heap went independent at the age of 25 when she wrote and self produced her album Speak for Yourself. A vocoded acapella song, Hide and Seek, from this album gained its fame when featured in the popular teen drama, The O.C. (which broke quite a few artists), and even more so when it was heavily sampled in the number one hit song, Whatcha Say, by Jason Derulo.
The O.C. was Imogen’s first real breakthrough moment, and also the first time thousands of people heard her music and found themselves asking, ‘how did she do that? Imogen’s next album was followed up by the Grammy winning Ellipse, which she video blogged the whole process (including the building of her home studio) and he rmost recent album Sparks, saw her doing a project for every song. Taking her to work with a Chinese City for Xizi She Knows, developing her music gloves for Me The Machine and making a running app with Run-Time. Videos and making of documentaries were made for each song. Here’s a link to the sampler for a taster of each song.
Today, Imogen is focused on her Mycelia incentive, of which she reveals all below. We sat down with the sound master herself to find out more about this plan to save the music industry from itself by turning it not so much on its head, but on its feet.
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In a nutshell, Mycelia (http://www.imogenheap.com/mycelia/) has become a think and do tank, for the purpose of connecting the dots between artists, services and fans to create a sustainable music industry ecosystem. This involves overseeing the building and protecting of a verified database for the music community creatives, their work, and their collaborators. We want to see an open database that describes the whole music industry, so that everyone involved can be recognized and rewarded. To enable the artists and their teams to shape how their music is used from one day to the next. Currently a song is uploaded and then it is as if it just falls off a cliff. Very little data about what it gets up to and so leaves the artist in a much poorer state as this is essential information to better the progress on any campaign or future decisions on where to spend effort and money. It’s entirely focused on whatever it takes to enable songs and artists do better business with the world. To answer questions on what a songs use and terms are by being beacons of information.
The Mycelia project was put through its first real test when Imogen did an experiment with her latest song Tiny Human. She was interested to see how Blockchain technology could be a part of her dream music ecosystem. She explains the process:
“for years I’ve wanted to attach information to a song so that anyone needing to know details could consult it. Literally everything you could think of, from where it was made in the world, the gear used, the musicians, the lyrics, video, credits, artwork etc and with it my latest biography, press image and terms and conditions on how and where people could use that song. Anything from someone wanting to sync it to a film to a fan wanting to play it at their wedding”
“on my website, I uploaded all the relevant information, video, artwork, credits, the stereo stems of that song for remixers, a making of blog, tempo, lyrics… you name it.”
“My friend Zoe Keating and I were chatting about this one day and she introduced me to the idea of blockchain and how it could be used as a direct payment system… I was intrigued and that was the start of my journey into making Mycelia a thing. I realized then, that there was a technology that could be the catalyst in rethinking the music industry. As it’s long overdue!”
Realising this sort of thing can also disrupt the brains of the less tech-savvy among us, Imogen kindly explains the nuts and bolts of Blockchain:
“A Blockchain, is a decentralized public ledger saying what transactions happened when. It enables two parties who don’t know each other to trust that a transaction happened and therefore business is done, instantaneously and transparently. Each set of transactions creates a block and it’s added to the blocks before, creating the blockchain. Right back to the genesis block.”
A momentary pause, a smile from Imogen, and then she continues:
“Let’s say you sent me some money: the Blockchain would say, ‘OK, Headliner has sent Imogen Heap some money’, and I don’t even have to know your name – it’s pseudo anonymous. But if I knew your ID, I would know it had definitely happened. But anyway, this gets embedded in a block, so you can keep a track of all the blocks that happen right up to the Genesis Block (the first transaction that ever happened). So to create or falsify that would be impossible; you’d have to have 51% more computing power than any of the other people in order to have that happen.”
It quickly becomes apparent that Imogen Heap has a uniquely intuitive mind among most artists.
“So the Blockchain is the distributed public ledger that everyone can see at all times,” she continues. Gotcha. “It’s either proof of work, which is Bitcoin – and it’s a complicated algorithm, and according to a lot of people, not very sustainable; or it’s proof of stake, which is a different model to do with consensus and getting tokens. So Blockchain enables people to trust one another without knowing each other, without using a centralised top down system, so all kinds of things that need centralised services like Uber, or Airbnb, or banking, can be done directly without having to use somebody inbetween taking a cut.”
OK, but how does all of this apply to music?
“There are shed loads of people along the pipeline in our industry that get between the fan or services and the artist getting paid and receiving data feedback. Blockchain could help us with part of that. If people were to adopt an ecosystem where everyone links to a songs address for receiving and returning information on that song, multiple royalty statements and late payments would be a think of the past. This is about looking at blockchian but also deeply about linked data. It’s a semantic music web I want to see come to life, accompanied with direct payments for any interaction and clarity of data for anyone to find what they need.
“Paul Pacifico from the FAC did a simple diagram for me once: ‘here’s the artist, here’s the fan, and you’ve got a circle: clockwise, you go up to the top, and you’re sending that info to the fan super-fast. But how they funnel that money or appreciation back to you (the artist) is very long, and sometimes can take up to two years by radio for example.”
This may shock quite a few people. Do you have an example?
“I do! [smiles] Take Kelly Clarkson, for instance; she released a Christmas album, and one of the songs on there is one of mine called Just For Now,” Imogen explains. “That was released two years ago, and it was only in the last quarter that I received some money back from the PRS! And it was a serious sum that I could have really used two years ago when I had to get bank loans and all kinds of things to sort stuff out! Why should we have to wait that long when everything could be automatically data driven?
“If we could collectively set technical, ethical and commercial standards for a future music industry ecosystem, we’d see innovation flourish in services and a whole new marketplace spring up from currently untapped metadata. How can we verifiy information so that we know it is correct? Then you could imagine the BBC using something in a radio show or a film, or a music supervisor looking for a song that fits a film, finding it easily. They can do business with you without needing to consult you. I could already have that info stating how much the song would cost if you’re an upcoming director or if it’s a major picture house, or whatever. You could put all of that information embedded into the track’s data in a new format or on the Blockchain, or creating a global database from the ground up.”
Right, so Mycelia, simply put, is about cutting out the middle men?
“Well it’s about simplifying the parts of the industry that are causing friction. Not cutting out anyone perhaps but about some services looking to a shift in roles perhaps. In loads of other industries and services, they’re super streamlined, because they have to save money, but there are so many middle men along the way in the music industry due to its archaic structure based on old paper collections, that a lot of the money that could go to the artist, doesn’t. It should be about maximizing efficiency for all the people along the way to benefit!”
“The music industry seems to be on the backfoot to those developing services in this kind of free for all because no-one’s taken the lead and created a playground with rules we all agree on. It feels like the industry has been chasing the tails of tech developments since the rise of MP3. Really they should have grabbed the bull by it’s horns but instead the music execs ran away from it, making criminals of music lovers, when they should have embraced it. We can’t afford to do that again in light of blockchain technology. Now is the time for a major rethink. We need to come together and figure out how we can make this music industry work for not just the elite at the top but more importantly for those just stepping foot into a career of music. Otherwise we will continue to lose great talent as there will be no mechanism to support up and coming artists.”
“On the radio for example, the performers don’t get paid in the US, but we do in the UK, which is madness as people listen to music station for the music so they should be getting paid royalties. Everywhere is different and this is also the issue. Hundreds of closed databases also make it hard for people to know sometimes where to send the money for an artist. The industry would really save so much money, cutting out endless paperwork, invoicing, and all that if we could agree on a unified approach and linked database,” Imogen explains, with more than a hint of frustration. “If everything was plumbed into an ecosystem linking to a verified database, then you could imagine services popping up on, creating new services that we can only dream of now. I’d like to create an app called ‘thank the DJ’ that would alert you as to when a song of mine would be played anywhere in the world, and allow me to both thank the DJ for playing my music and connecting live, spontaneously with those out there listening to my music in their cars or wherever. So that the songs and myself remain in contact even once they’re out in the world interacting with others. Collection societies have a role to be efficient in receiving the monies for the works they hold, this would be the natural step but perhaps not in total alignment with their business models. People feel their role could shift from collection to verification as this is going to be key to the integrity and use of the database.”
Basically… simply put, I’d like to know where and when my music is played in real time so I can act upon this information and choose my next move!
But Mycelia is also about binding the musical community together to its fullest extent. It really is – and rightly so – all about the artist.
“There is a DJ in Krakow – a huge Heap fan,” Imogen recalls, “and every now and again I get a Polish fan saying, ‘oh I just heard Imogen Heap on the radio again’, and I’m sure it’s this same guy, as I have heard another friend of mine say, ‘oh yeah this DJ guy played your stuff’, but I don’t know who it is. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to see that this DJ in this particular town supported me by playing my record? And instead of saying, ‘that’s nice’, I could actually ring him up and say, ‘Hi, it’s Imogen, I just wanted to say a massive thank you for playing my record!’ But I can’t do that at the moment. So really, it’s about helping the artists be the best entrepreneurs that they can be, and to say thank you, and to kind of find who’s in our ecosystem, our community, because at the moment, you don’t really know.”
So what stage is Mycelia at, exactly?
“The exciting thing is, I got asked by Forbes about the future of the music industry. Then people asked me to do talks, and I kind of fleshed it out in my mind much more; and along the way, I have just met incredible people who have got brains the size of planets! Now I have a much clearer picture of the technology out there, what it does and where the holes are. So I’m finding myself connecting the dots between all the services at the moment. The beginnings of this ecosystem.
It’s a beautiful vision for sure, but how is it to work financially?
“I wanted to make a foundation for Mycelia so we could protect the artists and enable us to fund the technology we need to make this happen somehow, and to see if anyone was interested in helping, instead of taking money from big companies. There would be this buffer, and they wouldn’t be able to take any money out, as it’d be a foundation,” Imogen explains, adding that the main drama currently involves a domain name. “I was looking up mycelia.music as I was searching for a home for Mycelia, and I realised that ‘.music’ doesn’t exist yet, and I thought it did. And I looked on Wikipedia, and it turns out loads of different companies are in the running to get that domain. And I thought, ‘hold on, I’m thinking too small; Mycelia could be .music!’ That could be the identity of all musicians, managers, producers, and songwriters, where everybody knows ‘if I need to find a song by ImogenHeap, I need to go to ImogenHeap.music/hideandseek, or by the same token, TaylorSwift.music/Clean’, you know? So that song you want to put in your film or play at your wedding, you just go to that address, find the terms and conditions, and go ahead and use it.”
Ingenious! So is there a company suitable for this kind of venture?
“I found this company called ‘Dot Music’,” Imogen tells us. “They have been trying for the last five years to get ‘.music’ the domain, and I found out through LinkedIn, so I had to call this guy; I liked their mission statement, and I wondered if he knew about Blockchain technology and wanted to share a big picture vision with him. So I contacted him through a friend, grilled him for a couple of hours, found out what he was about and what he’s hoping to do, and I felt we could really merge our ideas.”
And this is where the people power really comes into play:
“the time has now passed as to people being able to send in letters to ICANN (who decide these matters!) but in response we at Mycelia have created a page where people can add their names to a petition. If Amazon or Google win the bid instead of DotMusic perhaps this will encourage them to look at their domain names in a different and fairer light.”
This all goes far beyond making life more convenient for songwriters. For Imogen Heap, this is a question of ethics.
“We are talking about a fair trade, sustainable music ecosystem – for the listener, fan, person interacting with that music, they shouldn’t have to choose between fair trade or not… it should just simply be down to the music industry to create that and deliver it. For services to grow within it using agreed ethical technical and commercial standards. This won’t happen overnight but perhaps in the meantime, you could imagine listening on Spotify, on one side you have the normal route of streaming subscription, which isn’t much working for artists at all, but imagine every time you listen to an Imogen Heap song, or Tiny Human – which is the song of mine that is free of all publishing and labels at the moment – that a little light appeared on your Spotify playlist, and showed it’s being streamed via a fair trade route directly to the artist. So you know when you play that song, a small amount of money goes directly into my account that day rather than via anyone else.” It could be a start that services run with the current system and routes for existing material but new songs could be dealt with in this way. Until complete adoption happens when it becomes the most efficient route, the most frictionless route.
By now, most of us have heard about how the money artists are receiving from the likes of Spotify is often way below minimum wage. But are these services to blame?
“What streaming has done is bridged a gap from people not paying for music to people paying for a music subscription, so getting used to paying for music again,” Imogen states. “It’s not that people aren’t willing to pay for a good experience that works for them. Again, I believe it’s up to the industry and community at large to sort it out for us as artists. We want it to represent absolute fairness and transparency.”
Mycelia would also be making life much easier for iTunes, Spotify, et al:
“They would be able to get info like lyrics, videos, direct information, musicians’ information, latest press images, and a biography – and every time you had a new press image for your profile page Last time I looked on iTunes, the biography was outdated, but if they were linked to the verified Imogen Heap content page in the ecosystem, then they would never have to worry about that. I could also use these mechanisms to share information or current projects with anyone looking at that page”
Imogen concludes her argument nicely by stating, “there’s no place in the world for greed.” There’s still plenty of that in the music industry, but perhaps thanks to Imogen, that greed could be wiped out.
We were keen to find out more about Imogen’s song, Tiny Human, which as part of an experiment, was released and became the first ever song to send direct payments to all musicians in a smart contract using the Ethereum Blockchain. It started when Sennheiser approached her to write a song for their new Orpheus 2 campaign for arguably the world’s best and most expensive headphones.
“They wanted something for a promo video, a campaign song to build the revealing of these very high end headphones and they also paid me for a concert in London. This was a great gig to get and so I felt able to put it out for free and experiment which is great,” Imogen explains. “But I was four months into being a mum at the time, and [Imogen’s daughter] Scout had colic, so I had no sleep, and needed to finish it. I watched the video, and there are breaking and cracking rocks, so I decided to start with some drum sounds to match this.”
Poor Scout’s colic ironically ended up being the creative impetus for the song:
“Juggling scout and music making, I had scout in the studio with me and she was messing around with her play gym. I recorded her squeezing and scrunching the toys… and when you pitched those sounds down an octave or two, hey presto! Breaking rock sounds! Technically, scout is the percussionist on this song!!” Imogen laughs.
“And I liked the idea of it being a waltz, like a dance. I had been breastfeeding every two hours, and then changing nappies, then breastfeeding again and I wasn’t getting much chunky time in the studio, so I got some industrial hospital breastpumps, and attached them to myself so I could pump up some milk for Scout; and while I was doing that, I realised it actually made quite a good sound [Imogen imitates the rhythmic sound of the breastpump out loud], so I recorded it, and in the stems, it actually says ‘breastpump!’ [laughs] So that’s basically how it was built – out of pure necessity! Which actually is at the core of how most of my music is make, bringing life around me into the microphone”
Amazing! What other production techniques did you use, aside from breastpump recording..?
“Well [laughs], at the time, I was working on my [Sonnicouture] ‘Box of Tricks’ – it’s a virtual instrument sample set of 13 instruments recorded in my studio, from whirly-tubes to boomwhackers, voice and body percussion, all sorts,” she reveals. “Come and play with my Box of Tricks… [laughs]. Anyway, in the music, there’s boomwhackers and an arpeggio motif [Imogen sings an arpeggio], and that’s from my Box of Tricks. I was working on that at the time, so everything just fused into the song, and that’s how it happened.”
Imogen first got into sampling at school and would trigger samples live on stage but it wasn’t until she came across Swiss double bass player, Mich Gerber, that she realized she could do this live:
“He was the first person I’d seen who sampled and looped his playing live. It was still a bit rough round the edges with timing and sync and all that due to the technology around but for his tour I was on, I started looping my voice too and never looked back! I bought an Electrix Repeater, and started to use that – I was 19 at the time. I do all my sampling inside the computer now though! When I’m in the studio, I record pretty much everything on my TLM103 Neumann mic and the Avalon 737 preamp. I use ProTools and Ableton on my Mac and more and more am integrating my gloves into both live and in the studio set up more and more. They’re my standards and now software instruments I really love SonicCouture’s work which is why we did the Box Of Tricks together.”
The (Mi.Mu http://mimugloves.com/) gloves Imogen refers to are worth an article in itself. She worked with a team of technicians to create a pair of gloves more or less solely for the purpose of her live show, so that she could trigger all of her MIDI/OSC synths, stored sounds, and effects, play software instruments and sample live, using just gestures while on stage. This may sound difficult, but Imogen turns it into a beautiful ballet. We recommend you watch her demonstration on YouTube. This is her latest performance at a TEDx event in Cern above the Large Hadron Collider! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oeEQhOmGpg and an early performance with the first song she wrote with the gloves, Me The Machine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6btFObRRD9k
However, all this dabbling in music tech can have its ups and downs.
“Yesterday, we dismantled a huge obsolete bit of kit – the ICON [console] by Digidesign; it’s really just a glorified mouse and a coffee table for those of us who know their way around Pro Tools software,” Imogen smiles. “I am nostalgic about when I did use analogue desks – there would be four of us across a desk adding delays, altering the mix, it’s how we mixed my first record, iMegaphone, all hands- on; and that nostalgia made me think I could do this with my digital desk. But I didn’t ever really use it, as it was too slow, and not as much fun!
“We tried to sell it, but we couldn’t shift it, so I’ve decided I want to turn it into a mechanical art piece in the barn at the bottom of the garden – which is pretty big – so you can kind of ‘play’ the barn, and humiliate the desk by making it turn on the kettle, flush the toilet, and open the doors!”
And when she’s not producing music, creating sounds, playing piano, scoring the Harry Potter play (something we haven’t even mentioned yet!) or being with Scout she’s working toward a fair and sustainable music ecosystem vision she calls Mycelia, that will see all those who create and love music benefit!
“It’s time the industry was turned onto its feet, as it’s always been the wrong way up. We need the creatives at the core and for the ecosystem to be built around them. This industry is no longer sustainable the way it operates” Imogen concludes. “It’s full of friction and now thanks to Blockchain technology, the industry is being catapulted into rethinking how it does business, how it can flow better. Finally we may be able to create together a verified music and its metadata database. Mycelia is doing it’s best to connect the dots to all those interested in seeing this come to life. It’s an exciting time!”
Imogen deserves the full backing of musicians everywhere. Please sign the petition on change.org for the .music domain. We’re only in the first chapter of the Mycelia story, with many challenges ahead, but if this industry is to find the solution it so desperately needs, don’t be surprised if Imogen Heap is the one who delivers.