From Villain to Hero: GTI Enables GEMA to Give Music Artists the Right Royalties

By David Knight |

GEMA, it’s fair to say, hasn’t exactly cultivated a positive image in the minds of many  in Germany. Whether it’s a lengthy fight with YouTube over money (and error messages) or provoking mass protests amongst Berlin’s club scene, the music rights organisation – which represents the music usage rights of musicians, composers, lyricists and publishers – could probably do with a few lessons in good PR.

But ultimately, GEMA – the Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs- und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte, or the Society for Musical Performing and Mechanical Reproduction Rights – is a state-sanctioned body there to help the creators who provide the music in the first place.

It was the clubber protests in 2012, sparked by an increase in fees for playing music which many claimed would sound the death knell for some of Berlin’s famous nightclubs, which saw the seeds of an idea form in the minds of a group of clubber-techies. Where does the money paid in royalties go? How is it calculated?

The work GEMA does is most important to non-mainstream artists, just the kind who might have their music played in clubs, but the group – Gavin Burke, Alexander Roland, Martin Gould and Alex McMahon – discovered that the system for establishing which songs had been played when in what venue was (and is), frankly, rubbish. Currently, according to Roland, only 120 clubs out of 5 or 6,000 are monitored, and then it’s just one hour of music being recorded which is then listened to by experts who try to identify the tracks.

In order to come up with a better system, the group and their company, Future Audio Workshop, have developed Geo Track Identifier, or GTI. It’s a hardware/software blend that sees a device installed in a club which identifies the music being played and uploads the information in real time to the GTI servers. This information can then be used to form a far more accurate picture of what is being played (the company claims a success rate of higher than 90 percent), data that enables GEMA to collect and distribute royalties correctly.

But surely clubs won’t actually want to voluntarily pay more?

“Actually they do,” Roland told Silicon Allee, with more than 20 clubs in Berlin and beyond having signed up since the system was announced last month. “They often support artists by booking them or have record labels themselves, so they are culturally aware that a fair distribution of the royalties that they pay is really needed and is overdue.”

The GTI process takes in four steps: A low-cost device – which was partly developed in the Berlin Hardware Accelerator – is installed in a club, or any venue where music is being played. It then runs an identification algorithm specifically built to handle the challenges of music played in clubs.

“DJs often mix records seamlessly into each other, or change the pitch of speed of a record, and our system will have no problem handling that,” Roland added.

Thirdly, the identification algorithm connects to database of musical ‘fingerprints’ – identifying pop music is easy compared to speciality music that you might find in a Berlin club. To that end, the GTI team has gained access to a database of speciality music from a partner, Juno, that digitises a lot of vinyl-only releases. Creators can also submit their tracks directly.

Finally, the information is uploaded to the backend, which offers analytics and reporting for clients such as GEMA. The business model, Roland said, was to charge performance rights organisations to use the system, with a license fee per device per month – taking some of the 15 percent administration fee GEMA, for example, charges rights holders for collecting royalties.

And the organisation is on board: “GEMA is really interested in the topic just like other performance rights organisations,” added Roland, “because it is a huge problem for them not being able to do their main job which is distributing the royalties they collect.” GTI is running a pilot project at the moment with GEMA in co-operation with the Berlin Club Commission, at clubs like Prince Charles.

The team is currently bootstrapping the product, but is actively looking for investors – especially considering it is a hardware solution. Until then, they will concentrate on testing the device in real environments; figuring out where the install the boxes etc. They are also looking at other GEMA-like organisation in EU countries, and although Roland refused to be drawn on exactly where, the UK is one key market they will be focusing on.

At the very least, GTI offers an opportunity for GEMA to gain a bit of goodwill for a change by highlighting how it is helping the creatives in the music industry who really need it – and in doing so, supporting Berlin’s celebrated club scene.