In 1939, in a recording studio in South Africa, a singing group called The Evening Birds recorded one of their songs. They did three takes, and on the second one, the group’s leader, a Zulu migrant worker named Solomon Linda, decided to improvise. He sang a counterpoint to the song’s main theme in a light, haunting falsetto voice. The result is captured in the following audio clip:
If you recognized the tune, that’s because it is the most famous melody to emerge from Africa.
Ironically, its journey from a recording by an obscure African choir to one of the most famous songs in the world is also a cautionary tale of the ills that plague the music industry today — copyright infringement and royalty issues.
Fortunately, every cloud has a silver lining. The story actually sets the stage for the coming of blockchain in music that promises to make things right. But is it possible? Let’s take a closer look.
An Unfortunate Series of Events
So the song you just heard is called “Mbube”, and it is the most famous melody to emerge from Africa. The Weavers, an American folk music quartet, discovered the original recording among some music sent from Africa. They recorded their version of it, mispronouncing the Zulu word “uyimbubeh” as “wimoweh”. “Wimoweh” made it to the Top 10 of the American music charts in 1952.
An executive of the studio where “Mbube” was originally recorded tried to lay claim to the music, but the Americans countered that since the tune was from a traditional folk song, it was in the public domain. It also became known that Solomon Linda had signed away all his rights to “Mbube”. “Wimoweh” was instead credited to a certain Paul Campbell, a fictitious person created by The Weavers so they could collect royalties from the song. In 1961, George David Weiss arranged the song and wrote the lyrics to a pop adaptation entitled, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. This version was recorded by The Tokens and is most familiar to us today, notably since it was used in the Lion King creation.
As a result, while “Mbube” was able to elevate itself from an inconspicuous folk tune to a truly international hit for almost a century now, its creator, Solomon Linda, was only recently properly credited for his work. Sadly, despite the millions of dollars in revenues and royalties generated by this iconic tune, he was never paid fairly for it during his lifetime.
The Persistence of Problems
The story of Solomon Linda and “Mbube” underscores a number of deplorable issues that exist in the music industry, even to this day.
Establishing attribution and ownership
To be fair to the American record producers in this story, they had no way of knowing who originally created “Mbube”. There just was no facility that provided that information during that time, and there still isn’t one today. Since sampling and digitization are extensively practiced by today’s composers and musicians, having the ability to attribute sampled work is crucial to keeping the industry fair and ethical.
The artists and producers that lifted from “Mbube”, or outright used it infringed on Solomon Linda’s intellectual property, whether they were aware of it or not. The situation isn’t much different today for many musicians. The music landscape is dotted by copyright infringement litigation with artists suing other artists over their use of sampled work.
Since attribution cannot be fully and practically enforced, and as a result, intellectual property is frequently infringed, artists fail to profit from their work. Solomon Linda’s plight is a glaring example, and it’s an issue that persists until today.
Using Blockchain to Right the Industry
Based on how blockchain has disrupted the financial sector and unveiled many previously unimagined opportunities (notably in agriculture and marketing), people are looking toward the technology to rejuvenate the ailing music industry and provide real and impactful solutions to its troubles. After all, if blockchain can manage something as volatile as currency, it can certainly do the same for music. Here’s how.
Making attribution possible
Blockchain can create a central database that records and stores all the pertinent data about a piece of music. The technology will ensure that every work can be attributed to its rightful owner, and that the system cannot ever be tampered with. In Solomon Linda’s case, the record producers in the US would have instantly known that he created “Mbube” and he could have rightfully demanded credit for it, as well as a share in revenues generated from covers and adaptations.
Simplifying licensing and pricing
Blockchain is designed to provide a mechanism for licensing and pricing. This transfers control over a work’s revenue potential from the record companies to the artists. Solomon Linda would have been able to set his price and licensing details for “Mbube”, and performers such as the Weavers would have been informed of the license and the costs.
Monitoring use and automating payment
Blockchain will be able to detect if a piece of music is being used. At present, a few manufacturers are testing prototypes for blockchain speakers that record when music is being played, then automatically transact with the database for licensing and cost information. This transaction is then entered into the ledger. Solomon Linda would have made a killing each time “The Lion King” played on someone’s video system.
Musicians can then get paid automatically. They no longer need to wait for the record companies to account for sales and royalties.
Solomon Linda’s plight is the reality faced by many of today’s musicians, songwriters, producers, and performers. In fact, it is alarming that conditions that exploited them almost a century ago still persist to this day. Blockchain concepts have the potential to get rid of these unsavory elements, and artists have a lot at stake in it.