Business Interviews Digital Labels & Publishers

Q&A: Bruno Guez, Revelator

By | Published on Thursday 31 December 2015

Bruno Guez

This interview appeared in the December 2015 edition of the CMU Trends Report. Buy our reports from the CMU Shop or get every edition by signing up for CMU Premium.

Bruno Guez created Revelator to solve his own label’s data problem, as the monthly reports from key streaming platforms got ever larger. Now a standalone business providing data solutions to labels, distributors, societies and creators, Guez is evolving the Revelator platform to help music clients bring all their data together in one place and, crucially, to enable the sharing of data and information between the various stakeholders with an interest in any one track: label, publisher, band members and manager. We sat down with the Revelator founder to discover more.

CC: There has been much talk about data in the music community in recent years, though we’re talking about a number of different kinds of data: eg copyright, sales and fan data. Are the challenges different for each set?
BG: There are indeed plenty of challenges with data. The copyright data is the most complex, whereas the fan data is pretty easy, because you’re just collecting it from the various different channels and sources.

Sales data is just the reports that come in from the streaming services and download stores. The only challenge there is how to ‘parse’, or process, the information. But you only need to work that out once. Once you’ve built ‘parsers’ for the various reports that come through, then you know how to read those files.

The real challenge is knowing who to pay, which brings us back to the complexities of copyright data – who owns what and who are the beneficiaries? A key challenge there is matching publishing data with recording data. You need to know about both the song and the recording to effectively report and distribute income from digital services.

CC: There is no central database of copyright ownership – for either songs or recordings – but there are plenty of other databases that do record some copyright information. What are the key sets of data out there?
BG: When it comes to any song that has been registered with a performing rights organisation – and therefore has an ‘ISWC code’ attached to it – you can get the basic information quite easily.

There is the ISWC Network, which lists songs and their songwriters, and the accompanying ISWC codes. It is managed by CISAC, the worldwide association that brings together most of the performing rights organisations who deal will song rights. I imagine that it’s pretty reliable, because CISAC are the ones who issue the ISWCs.

Then you’ve got the databases of the individual PROs which work for publishers and songwriters. These will provide more information about the songs, though there is no central resource, so you have to go to each society in each individual territory. Different societies have different policies on what information they make available to everyone.

When it comes to recordings, there is no central ISRC database. The ISRCs are bought in bulk from the RIAA [Recording Industry Association Of America] or IFPI [International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry] ISRC Office. Labels buy a batch and then attach them to recordings as they release them. But because the RIAA and IFPI aren’t actually managing or controlling the issuing, there is no central database and that’s a real problem.

So you can’t easily access a database of ISRCs, unless you buy the data from a company like Medianet or Omnifone, and that has a cost. Services like Spotify and iTunes have pretty good ISRC databases of their own, because the record companies that push content to them provide pretty accurate metadata with each track, but they’re not about to start sharing their database with anybody and everybody!

Some companies, especially in the US, also outsource some of their royalty reporting to either the Harry Fox Agency or MRI, so they have a pretty good list of ISRCs too. But again, they are not accessible to just anyone.

CC: Do you think either the industry or a start-up from outside the business will ever deliver something close to a comprehensive database of song and recordings? And if so, what should that database include?
BG: I do think that a start-up is a lot more likely to do this than the industry. A start-up is providing a solution to a problem, whereas I don’t think the industry is necessarily looking to solve the problem.

The start-up is looking to achieve a specific ‘use case’ and they’ll be very resourceful in scraping the data together, tapping into different APIs and everything they need to prove their use case. There is no reason the industry would do that: it benefits the copyright beneficiaries [ie artists and songwriters], but not necessarily the industry [ie labels and publishers]. A start-up would do it because the beneficiaries would probably be their customers. A start-up has an inherent reason for being a catalyst of change, they don’t necessarily care to be governed by industry politics.

I think the specifics about copyright ownership and beneficiaries – such as how revenue is split between different parties – will ultimately always need to be kept private. But the central database can be a way of contacting the artist’s representative. I do think there should be say a Yellow Pages of all the songwriters, producers, artists and so on.

CC: Although, as you said, in theory it’s easy to process sales and usage data from the digital services – once you have parsed their reports the first time – labels, publishers and CMOs all struggled with the flood of data that started to come in once those services gained momentum. Do you think they are now coping better with all that?
BG: Not yet, no. I think there are very few that have the technology stack to deal with it. Certainly every customer we talk to is struggling with the demands of big data.

Some of our customers process more than 300 million lines a month. A good independent label will process something between 30-50 million lines of data a month, a large distributor will process around 300-500 million lines, a major can process a billion lines a day. We’re dealing with big data and none of the companies are used to receiving 500 reports a month, and they don’t have the ‘parsers’ or the cloud solution to ingest them efficiently.

It could take you two to four hours to process the data. A large YouTube or Spotify file can’t open in Excel, as it doesn’t support a file bigger than 1GB, and a Spotify file can easily be 4.5GB, YouTube could have four million lines in a file, but you can’t even open it! So I don’t think many labels, publishers or rights societies have yet found a way of managing this problem efficiently. So they outsource it, or are interested in Revelator’s solution as we are built for scale and we really simplify the process.

CC: Beyond processing the files and the money, is the industry fully utilising the marketing and consumer insight potential of all this data?
BG: No, I don’t think it is, and even where companies are trying to utilise the data in this way, they are often looking at it in a very fragmented way. They’re looking at social data, and they’re going somewhere else to look at revenue data, and elsewhere to look at audience data. This is ineffective. If you don’t integrate this data into one place, then you’re dealing with fragmented insights that don’t give you the big picture. People are increasingly aware that there is a need to better combine all this information, but they don’t necessarily have the integrated solution yet for them to do it well.

CC: Why did you decide to create Revelator?
BG: It was a solution for my own label originally. I didn’t want to run my label the old fashioned way any more. I wanted a more modern way of sharing information with my artists, the publishers and other rightsholders. I wanted a more efficient business, not least because of the drop in recorded music revenues in the last ten years. And I wanted to focus on the content, the art and the creative side of releasing music, and therefore to spend less time on the admin of running a label, on the back office.

In fact, I ultimately decided I didn’t want to run a label if I had to continue with the same cost structure and human resource requirements as in the past, it just wasn’t interesting to me. But at the same time, cloud-based solutions became a reality, providing the opportunity to move many of the label’s workflows and operations online to provide a new level of efficiency and automation, making it easier to scale.

I didn’t really understand the problem of big data when I started this venture, because my label – Quango – isn’t that big, but I still had more data than I could handle. I still had hundreds of thousands of lines monthly to reconcile from various sources, and I didn’t want to have to pay accountants to process all this information.

I felt it was time to invent the future of what a digital label should be. Until now, there’s been nothing digital about how record companies work besides distribution. That was really the inspiration, to move more elements of the label online, including managing the assets, the metadata, reporting, accounting, analytics and now the promotion. The promotion tools are starting to look really good.

CC: Now you are making this system available to others too, who are your main target clients?
BG: Anybody who’s running a digital business. Anyone who has a need for managing metadata assets and revenue data, and a need to account to other people.

Beyond labels, it’s other rights owners and rights managers, anybody that fits within those kind of frameworks. It could be an artist manager that needs to account to their artist or wants to turn their management company into an independent label. Or an artist wanting to take more control of their business.

One of our clients in Saudi Arabia started out as an artist, then upgraded to become a label so he could distribute his friends’ music, because he realised he could manage that himself, because you are basically just pushing content, pulling data and claiming revenue, and then re-distributing that.

CC: For rights owner clients, what kinds of data is your platform designed to process? And how does it access the data?
BG: If you’re a label and you have direct deals with Amazon, Google, YouTube, Spotify, Deezer and so on, then you’re getting revenue reports every month. And you have to put all those together into a consolidated summary of what you earned, so that you can in turn account to your artists and other rightsholders.

You have to remember that each of those digital service providers has multiple elements to their business. So when you look at Apple, that has four different services and 34 different statements for each, Google Play has three services in around 60 countries, so that’s another 180 files you’re getting from them.

So you’re actually selling to a lot more stores than it might initially seem, and you’re having to manage the different revenue files they provide: services may be reporting separately for an ad-supported service, subscription streaming, interactive radio, non-interactive radio, locker and downloads, and so on. There are different ways you can process all this data with our system, though at its simplest, people can drag and drop reports onto the platform and process and consolidate them.

But we’re trying to be smarter and more efficient about it too. So, you can gather together all your own reports and drag them onto the platform, or we can pull in much of that data directly from the DSPs. So, the customer goes into their account settings, looks at all the services we are directly connected to, and enters their own account information in our system. This allows us to connect to the DSPs and pull the customer’s data and automatically process that information, which the client can then see through their personal dashboard.

Our platform could similarly pull in data from the social networks, website analytics, and other marketing data, and consolidate all that into a dashboard that makes sense, and which helps people understand the impact of their campaigns, and the conversion of their artist’s fans to customers who are streaming and buying. The great thing is when you can see the marketing data alongside the revenue data, that’s when it becomes really interesting.

What I’m focussed on now is building the digital marketing, social and audience layers of the platform, so the analytics suite will be complete and you can actually compare other types of data sets besides the revenue and trending data. You’ll be able to see if your marketing campaign had an impact on downloads and streams, or you can see if your social traffic actually moved the needle on your sales.

CC: One of the challenges in the music industry is you have a number of different stakeholders who all need access to the data. How does the platform go about, for example, sharing data between labels, artists and management?
BG: This is one of the things that none of our competitors do at all. We have a very unique architecture to the platform which enables the ‘passing through’ of the data to each different stakeholder in the value chain. So it can go from the DSP to the distributor to the label, and directly onto the artist, to different band members, and to management.

So rather than the distributor accounting its customer – the label say – and then it having to separately account to its customers, so artists and managers, our platform can pass through data from one party to the next. So in the enterprise account of a distributor, you can invite your labels to a portal and enable them to see their revenues, but only their revenues, obviously.

Labels who sign up can then use the same platform to report to artists. So they put contract logic into the system for each artist – so, say, we split this revenue 50/50 – and then they can invite their artists into their portal, where each artist only sees revenue relevant to them. So if the distributor takes 10%, and the label then splits that 50/50, the artist sees the 45% of original income they are due. The artist can then put in their management contract terms, and let the manager see what information he or she needs, including what their cut of the revenue will be.

Each stakeholder automatically sees the data they need to see, with the flow of data controlled by the stakeholders further up the chain. This is the unique architecture that we have designed for the platform.

CC: Some music rights companies have talked up their own data platforms in recent years. How does Revelator compare?
BG: We’re still at the stage where we are still trying to solve a problem, so we’re not yet at the stage where we’re bragging. We’re trying to provide solutions to customers that have 300 million data-points to manage each month. What’s becoming interesting is mining that data and making sense of it, and creating a user interface for the product that can be used in a meaningful way.

We don’t aggregate and collect data to sell it, the data we have is our customer’s data, it’s not our data. Data security and data portability are really important to us. So if you’re not happy with the service, you can export your data and move on, we’re not going to hold you hostage. When my label ended its affiliation with The Orchard, I couldn’t take my data with me, none of my metadata, my assets, nothing. So I had to rebuild my metadata elsewhere. We’re not like that.

Some people might say that’s not a good business model, because the data passing through out platform is very useful, and we could sell it, or build services around it, but it’s not our data – it belongs to our customers.

We are also distinct in our ‘software as a service’ offering. Most other companies provide their platform as part a wider distribution or rights management service. The technology may be a USP, but ultimately they are selling you another service. If you don’t want to use that service anymore, you can’t have access to the technology. We’ve taken a different approach. We’re really more of a technology company than a distributor and we’re providing technology so that other people can build layers on top of our stack.

This also means we bill differently. Typically in the past, the music distribution model was always based on a percentage of revenue, which you’d have to give up in order to distribute your music. There has been a new model, as we have seen with Tunecore and CD Baby, where you pay ‘a la carte’ every time you want to release a single or an album, or annually to access services. But there hasn’t yet been a service where you pay a flat monthly fee and then all the available services are at your disposal. As a ‘software as a service’ company we can offer that package.

CC: Your platform can be utilised by other start-ups. How does that work?
BG: The API infrastructure we built is there for anyone to use and to build new services with. So that could be start-ups, music companies, video companies, and so on. What that means is, we’ve created workflows that can be used by any company to create payment, accounting, reporting, analytics, distribution, rights or asset management systems. It can be used in part or in whole to simplify the complex processes of the music business.

CC: There has been lots of talk of the blockchain in music circles this year. What is it, and how could the music community use it? 
BG: The blockchain is essentially a ‘chain of blocks’ online in which transactions are recorded. So it’s a general ledger – a complete record of all transactions – that’s distributed across the internet.

It’s the underlying technology of the Bitcoin virtual currency. So every time a Bitcoin transaction takes place, it gets recorded on the blockchain. It’s secure and enables one person to pay another person without them knowing each other, because there doesn’t need to be trust between the two parties, because they can trust the system to record the seller and the buyer’s contract.

In music we are looking for ways to transact more efficiently, so transactions are faster and cheaper, with fewer intermediaries in the middle. So the idea is that we could use this ledger – the blockchain – to record transactions. Smart contract logic can then dictate how the money gets split between parties, which means you get a ‘trustless’ exchange, in that all parties know the system is trustworthy, so you don’t actually need to trust anyone else in the transactional chain.

Ultimately, if music transactions were recorded on the blockchain, and with the smart contract logic, you could create a real-time payment infrastructure, so that as somebody consumes the content, the rightsowner is paid in real time. That’s the real promise and it would be transformative for the industry. Right now people are often waiting 60-90 days to get paid, so if you could listen to my song now and I could get paid right now, that’s worth working towards. It’s exciting.

The blockchain could also be used to power entirely new business models. For example, an iPhone app where an artist and a fan connect, and the artist crowdfunds a project from the fans by selling them shares in future content, the management of which would be handled on the blockchain. The fan can then follow the song they helped fund, see when more transactions are posted against that asset, and track the value of it. An app like that becomes a virtual stock exchange around music, with the blockchain used to automate it all.

To me, the blockchain offers an engine of growth for a transactional economy, and that’s how the music community should use it. It’s still too early, and people are wary of it, but it’s the first thing I’ve seen in terms of the promise of a new model that can deliver a more automated, streamlined and above all real time transactional business for music.

CC: What is the blockchain project you are working on?
BG: Revelator is developing a blockchain-powered search engine of global IP. We have created an integration with Colu – who are a developer platform for the blockchain – and we’re now pushing asset and rights information through. The plan is to create a decentralised database of content and IP, to make the metadata more transparent and accessible, and to provide more monetisation opportunities around the information.

As we discussed, it can be hard to identify who controls a song or a recording. The information may simply not be available online, or if it is, it can be hard to find. This can lead to lost income for the music community. If a company uses a song or recording, but simply doesn’t know who owns it, then money doesn’t get attributed to the right person and it stays with the service until someone claims it.

So metadata is the new gold, and better accessibility of metadata provides greater monetisation opportunities. Which means, by providing the opportunity to register metadata and assets to the blockchain, we are providing more opportunities for rightsholders. We aim to bring the search engine to market at SXSW 2016, and until then we’ll keep building our infrastructure, and adding extra layers of interesting metadata.

CC: What are your other plans for 2016?
BG: A real focus is mobile. We realise that we’re living in a mobile-first economy, people are going to their mobiles before they go to their computer. And artists are always on the go, especially when they are on tour, and want to be able to do more from their phone.

Revelator’s mobile analytics app is being launched early next year, and we’re now looking at bringing our digital marketing solutions to a mobile application too, so you’ll be able to create your promo pages direct from a mobile device. Imagine creating a website for your music, your video, your album, all from your mobile device, and promoting it to your audience based on the data you’re collecting, which is all available for you on your phone, that’s unique. We’re almost there and it’s amazing.

Our clients are very excited about it – in fact, most people can’t quite believe it when we show it to them! It feels like people who work in the music industry don’t understand that the business of music can also be on mobile. They haven’t made that leap yet, and that’s what we are providing.

On a personal level, my mission is to bring transparency, simplicity and efficiency to the way record labels and music publishers manage their businesses in today’s fragmented digital landscape. With the industry finally ready to embrace streaming and mobile, the market dynamics are right for Revelator to accelerate the growth of everyone in the rights management value chain, and enable artists and creators to realise their dream of making a sustainable career out of their talent.

This interview appeared in the December 2015 edition of the CMU Trends Report. Buy our reports from the CMU Shop or get every edition by signing up for CMU Premium.