How Arpeggi is supercharging music collaboration online with blockchain

Clovis McEvoy
July 5, 2022
Music sampling created our favourite songs, but it's a broken industry, dominated by web2 labels who charge crippling fees. Arpeggi is using blockchain to fix it.

Music sampling created our favourite songs, reshaped the music industry, and inspired the hip-hop genre. But it's broken, dominated by web2 labels who charge crippling fees. Clovis McEvoy speaks to the team behind Arpeggi, the a16z-backed startup that's aiming to fix it.

Imagine a space where every song you hear is open for exploration. With a few clicks you can explore how the track was made, the musical layers, the arrangement, all the way down to individual sounds. And any part of this can be used as creative fuel for your own projects.

That’s the guiding principle behind Arpeggi Studio, the world’s first web3-native digital audio workstation. Founded by brothers Evan and Kyle Dhillon with their childhood friend James Pastan, the San Francisco start-up is one of the most interesting and ambitious musical applications of blockchain to date – empowering users to write, produce, mint, and share music entirely within the web3 ecosystem.

I sat down with co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, James Pastan, to discuss the roll out of Arpeggi Studio V2: a significant update that brings more powerful music making capabilities to the in-browser workstation, new social features, and removes any payment barriers from the platform.

“This is about leveraging technology to make music together.”

— James Pastan, co-founder and COO of Arpeggi

We took the closed beta for a test drive and, at first glance, the new version comes across as no different to other music-making platforms: there’s a step-sequencer for generating beats and melodies, a space to arrange and edit your tracks, and a sample library to get you started. It’s only once you take a closer look that the scope of Arpeggi’s web3 ambitions become clear – sure, there’s a ‘Mint Song’ button that lets you export your track directly to the blockchain, but the new update goes beyond streamlining the process of making music NFT’ to tackle one of the stickiest problems in the music industry – sampling and remixing.

In the 1980’s, sampling – the practice of taking beats or melodies from pre-existing songs – gave birth to hip-hop and reshaped the music industry. However, following the landmark 1991 court battle between Biz Markie, a rapper, and Gilbert O’Sullivan, a songwriter, artists were forced to get record label clearance to sample existing music – and often paid hefty licencing fees for the privilege. Since then, musical sampling has increasingly become the exclusive preserve of major label artists with expansive production budgets.

With Arpeggi, every sample in every loop in every song can be traced back to the original creator, opening the door to unrestrained creativity via verifiable attribution.

However, in Arpeggi Studio, sampling, remixing, and collaboration are placed at the very heart of the songwriting process. Within the workstation, you can browse every song on the platform, you can grab any melody, beat, or bassline and drop it into your own project. You can see how many times someone’s work has been sampled or remixed, and by whom, and you can easily trace it all back to the original author and connect with them on social media.

“In the modern music industry,” says James, “it’s really hard to sample and remix other people's work.” Financial and legal barriers result in a paradigm where “sampling is based on relationships, as opposed to the other way around.” For James, “the ethos for this project is open-source music creation and changing the standard so that any sound you hear is a sound you can create with.”

Creating a permissionless sampling and remixing culture is no small undertaking and, in James’ view, such an ecosystem is only possible if creators get credit for their work through clear attribution. “There are really good reasons why exclusivity exists within web2 when it comes to distribution, sampling, and remixing,” he says, adding “protecting attribution is incredibly important because attribution is value capture.” Creators can only capture the value of their creativity when it’s attributed to them. "If people are just stealing music with no attribution, that’s bad,” so exclusivity reigns.

Arpeggi provides users with a complete, traceable, real-time, easily visible genealogy of every sound and song – a logistical nightmare using existing web2 technology that’s made easy via blockchain. Community members who contribute to Arpeggi’s ever growing sample library, under a Creative Commons Zero licence, can feel confident that, should a song become popular using their sounds, some of that recognition will feed back to them. When the platform becomes monetised, Arpeggi will channel royalties back to musicians too.

But the ultimate goal is to put fun and freedom back into sampling and kick off a self-perpetuating cycle of music creation; where each song minted gives the community new inspiration, and new source material, for the next iteration of songwriting. “The people who submitted samples should really be celebrated,” says James. “They signed over their work for the benefit of the community. That’s not an insignificant thing.”

Of course, it hasn’t been straightforward to get to this point. In the platform’s original incarnation, James, Evan, and Kyle took an approach that can only be described as ‘hardcore’. Everything, including the songs themselves, was 100% on-chain, stored in their own hyper-efficient audio format, the ARP protocol. Storing a song as an MP3 file usually takes 3mb of storage (just over 1mb per minute), but it costs hundreds of thousands to store all those millions of bytes on chain. Through Arpeggi’s .arp format, you can store the same song in just under a thousand bytes, reducing the storage cost to two figures and thus making 100% on-chain music storage possible.

The format didn’t come without difficulty, however, and early users were limited to no more than four instruments at 16 bars each, with audio quality noticeably limited. Today's V2 finds a middle ground for .arp, with much of the data, including the all-crucial attribution data, being stored on-chain, whilst the rest is stored via arweave, the blockchain storage solution, to enable musicians to produce better and more sophisticated music. OpenGem, the smart contract auditing organisation, rates the Arpeggi solution as one of the best around.

Arpeggi plans to build the future of music sampling.

In the genesis version of the Arpeggi studio, users were given a finite supply of tokens that had to be consumed in order to mint their track as an NFT. However, James and the other founders quickly noticed a glaring problem.

“In V1 we had these Genesis studio passes,” he says. “Ultimately, they became expensive, collectible, on-chain art items - and nobody wanted to use them to make a song because it was a really significant financial decision.” Seeing this misalignment of incentives, they chose to reangle the platform away from exclusivity and back towards their core goal.

“This is about music,” says James. “It’s about leveraging the benefits of the technology to make music together – so we pivoted, changed our approach, and made it a totally free platform.” Arpeggi now covers 100% of the gas charges for minting songs, removing any barriers to users creating, remixing, and sharing.

“We see this massive opportunity to affect how music itself is created.”

James Pastan, co-founder and COO of Arpeggi

Looking ahead to the future, James says the groundwork is already in place to have a blockchain based artist royalty scheme – however, he makes clear that they are treading carefully to keep the platform focused primarily on music creation, with the added benefit of insulating the community from market turbulence.

“With an income source it'd be really easy to send funds down to all of the contributors, right down to the one-shot sample level,” James says. “The more challenging issue is where that source of money actually comes from. Are we talking about DSP royalties, other sources of licensing income? We want to build something that is going to be resistant to any macroeconomic factors. If there's a market downturn and people are less interested in collectibles, we don’t want to be affected by that.”

For the Arpeggi founders, it ultimately all comes back to an ethos that places value on the act of making rather than on what’s already been made, that sees music as a dynamic collaborative process rather than a finished and static product. “When we look at the web3 music landscape, the vast majority of platforms are focused on tokenisation, collectibles, royalties – but we see this massive opportunity to affect how music itself is created. This platform is about relationships, collaborations, and new music. It’s about creating in a truly open-source way.”

“The ethos for this project is changing the standard so that any sound you hear is a sound you can create with.”

James Pastan, co-founder and COO of Arpeggi

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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.

Collaborators and honourable mentions: Arpeggi Labs

Edit, September 26th, 2022: Six weeks after publication, Arpeggi announced a $5.1m seed raise lead by Andreesen Horowitz, with participation from investors including Steve Aoki and the Audius Foundation.