Artist image site OpenAura partners with Getty, AP, and others: Why this is a big win for musicians

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on April 16, 2014

From The News Desk

In some ways, technology has made it easier to be a musician. If you have something to sing, you can record it, upload it to Soundcloud or YouTube, and then pray someone discovers it. We see artists like Lorde become pop superstars through the savvy use of these platforms (and a ton of blind luck).

In other ways, however, the digital age hasn't been too kind to musicians. Whether their music is consumed on Spotify or Pandora, or if it's pirated or uploaded to YouTube without a license, non-superstar artists are unlikely to see meaningful revenue from these platforms. (Though you could make the argument that artists never saw much cash from selling records either).

Beyond that, there's also the issue of controlling the non-audio content surrounding your musical brand -- that is, images. Nowadays all it takes to access an artist's photo is to go to Google Images and find the best one that is *hopefully* not licensed; the artist has no part in this stream of available images, nor is he or she able to make any money from this process.

OpenAura is a startup in beta attempting to put this content back into the hands of artists. It provides a website that aggregates artist images and gives musicians a cut when they are used. Today OpenAura has announced a slew of important content creator partners, including Getty Images, The Associated Press, Beggars Group, The Orchard, Pitchfork Media, and Sony Music Entertainment.

OpenAura's platform automatically culls together every image of an artist. It pulls from content creators, the artists' social accounts, and other sources on the web. According to the startup's CEO Kevin Arnold, this platform helps "truly represent who an artist is and how they interact with their fans today."

Artists who claim their OpenAura page get a checkmark next to their profile, and anytime someone pays to use a licensed image through the platform, the artist gets 30 percent and whoever licensed the photo gets 20 percent. OpenAura keeps the rest.

Arnold sees this as the next big innovation for artists. He explains that if anyone wants to find visual or social links to an artist, "that kind of information fragments around the web… There's no centralized platform for someone to go to get this access."

It's important to realize that this isn't some small facet of the music business. Everyday people use artists' images for myriad reasons -- and it's true that there hasn't been a centralized place to legally access these photos. If someone knew a photographer who happened to be at a show and snapped some good photos, they'd be in luck. But even these small photographers haven't had a place to deposit their photos to ensure people know they exist.

As Arnold explained it, "this is a huge revenue stream."

At first glance I wouldn't have thought OpenAura's model would work. I agree that artists should get revenue for their images, as well as have a centralized place where others can access these images. At the same time, getting content licensors to give up some of their cut is a different story.

Today's announcement, however, seems to have proved me wrong. Some of these partners are huge behemoth photo distributors (Getty) as well as some impressive labels (Sony and Beggars). If these groups are okay with partnering with a smaller platform to aggregate and organize artists' visual material, OpenAura has a real chance.

For Arnold this was a big win. He says that this was the third major hurdle to overcome, and now "the basic plumbing has been routed." The first two hurdles were getting artist interest and setting up the site's API. But his work is not over, as he sees "other aspects of identity" that need to be aggregated.

Of course, he also knew what he was getting into. He founded IODA, which provided marketing, sales, and distribution services for independent artists. It merged with another digital artistic aggregator, the Orchard, with Sony serving as a strategic investor. While it's unsurprising that both Sony and the Orchard are part of this newly-announced partnership, this also shows that Arnold knows the world he's trying to disrupt.

In any case, OpenAura is a win for artists who want to have some say in the revenue stream beyond merely their music. This at least gives them a chance to have some control over what images can be used relating to them and how they are accessed.

It's only been operating in beta for two months, so whether it actually takes off is another question. We'll have to put that into the 'wait and see' category. But with the likes of Sony and Getty taking part, it has a real shot.

[Image courtesy Dan Cox]