Between high-profile celebrity endorsements, historic institutional adoption, and an executive order signaling some form of imminent governmental regulation in the states, it’s been a transformative year for crypto. But tech bros and venture capitalists aren’t the only ones cashing out. Thanks in large part to the rise of the NFT (or, for those still learning the acronyms, a non-fungible token) independent musicians and digital artists can count themselves amongst those with a new asset class to generate, trade, and collect.
For many artists, minting their work on the blockchain (a theoretically incorruptible ledger tracking the ownership and use of a piece) and auctioning it off to the biggest bag of Ether is precisely the pivot in digital creator commerce they’ve been waiting for. “Music should be a fine art. I think with NFTs, music is allowed to be,” says producer and songwriter, SassyBlack. One of many independent artists flooding into the crypto fold with an optimistic outlook on this new frontier for artists and patrons, Sassy hopes the space will provide a welcomed and overdue reset for musicians who have been preyed on by the various tentacles of a ruthless and unrelenting industry.
“I was doing music before [Digital Service Providers] really kicked off, before Spotify, and all this stuff popped off,” Sassy said in a Zoom call with friend and fellow crypto convert Latashá Alcindor. “I was signed before that. I toured the world, but at one point my booking agent for Europe came to me with the same price points as three years ago. I was just like, ‘This is crazy’. I went to school for music. I was signed. I released records. And people are still like, ‘Do you want to show up for a hundred dollars?’ Meanwhile, I get into the Metaverse, into Web3, and people are like, ‘Hey, we could do you for an eth.’ An eth that is low is $2,600 for like 30 minutes. People are coming and valuing what I do. They wouldn’t even think to come at me with a hundred dollars.” Rate-hike aside, Sassy sees the shift to publishing work through a blockchain as a means of pressuring the industry to take creators seriously and value them accordingly. “It actually is pushing the music industry to have to think differently. The Grammys has NFTs. Macy’s has NFTs. Snoop [Dogg] got NFTs. They’re changing the way that they’re thinking about it because this ecosystem is forcing them to.”
Sassy’s sentiments are echoed by Alcindor, who minted the first NFT music video and became the first woman rapper on blockchain in the same week. As both a creator and Head of Community Programming at ZORA, a popular marketplace and open-source protocol for NFT creation, Alcindor is uniquely stationed at both ends of the exchange, where she hopes to expand the market by building out the collective support of it, but not before repairing the battered and abused psyche of musicians who have grown tragically accustomed to their own exploitation. “The music industry has done a lot to the mind. A lot of artists are still coming from this ‘Web2 mentality,’ as we call it. And that is competitiveness, jealousy, and all those kinks that come with the music industry,” Alcindor said. “I’m trying my best to onboard artists that have good alignment between their spiritual and creative selves, who understand that community is really key to actual growth in this space.”
While Sassy and Alcindor stand firmly in their belief in NFTs as a necessary proxy for artistic empowerment, some musicians aren’t as ready to openly embrace the new shape of the digital art market. “Honestly, man. I don’t see anything good about it,” Keenyn Omari, a prolific producer with more than 100 beat tapes lining his Bandcamp page, said. Like Sassy and Alcindor, the producer can readily identify how the music industry’s failure to support independent artists has made the NFT a particularly compelling alternative to mainstream distribution channels like Spotify, TIDAL, and Apple Music. However, Omari can also sense the pangs of desperation in the artists attempting to infiltrate the space and how years of mistreatment have oriented some of them towards the most purely capitalistic sales model yet. “They’re buying your work because they can trade your work in the same way you can trade Dogecoin or Bitcoin or any cryptocurrency,” Omari said, wondering whether art can resonate in the NFT market beyond its potential profit margin.
The producer goes on to explain how prohibitively expensive gas fees — the cost of minting art on a blockchain — can create yet another barrier to entry for artists. “There was a point in time when I wanted to put out a tape as an NFT, but the gas fee was crazy. And I wasn’t in the position to pay like $200, just so I can drop something,” Omari said. “So only certain people who have the money to do that can do that.” For Omari, the market isn’t just feeding off the FOMO of a gold rush moment. It’s disguising itself as a paradigm shift, while forcing artists to engage with new middlemen. “If artists and musicians want freedom and sovereignty and independence, and be able to make money and be successful, we have to move away from all these platforms,” the producer said, noting how even an indie-friendly company like Bandcamp only offers the whole bag to artists on a single day of each month.
It feels important to acknowledge that, predatory as they may be, streamers comprise a bit of infrastructure for musicians that simply hasn’t existed for artists working in other mediums. For visual artists, NFTs and their corresponding markets are an entirely new system of monetization and ownership, providing the means to collect back pay on effectively generating the raw materials that built two prior generations of internet. “There are companies out there that can help you self-publish and get your music out there and registered already,” says Samuel Call Wilkens-O’Brien, an audiovisual engineer with several high-profile projects in experiential marketing who is a firm believer in blockchain technology and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Computer Science at The Roux Institute in Portland. “That space is a little different for these visual effects guys who make amazing, beautiful art. And then, it just sits on Instagram, or their personal website, and nothing ever really happens to it,” Wilkens-O’Brien said.
Wilkens-O’Brien points to Mike Winkelmann, a venerable digital artist known as Beeple, who became one of the three most valuable living artists in the world with his utilization of the NFT market. His piece, “Everydays – The First 5,000 Days,” was the first NFT presented by a major auction house when it was sold by Christies for nearly $70 million last year. “Beeple is a great example of someone who’s really, really, really benefited from NFTs. He’d been putting out amazing artwork every single day for 10 years and giving it away for free. Then, all of a sudden, he was able to capitalize on a way to actually sell his art to people,” Wilkens-O’Brien said. Beeple-scale gains are as uncommon in the digital market as they are anywhere else. But Winkelmann has effectively proved the concept and process of NFT creation to both venture capitalists (who are dumping money into NFT markets like OpenSea and SuperRare) and similarly situated artists who have only recently gained the ability to monitor the exchange of their work. Still, Wilkens-O’Brien isn’t convinced we’ll reach the pinnacle of creator power in the art market before the space shakes off some of the bad actors it accumulated over the last year. “The scamming aspect of it right now is particularly alarming. I will say that. I don’t love having my box full of people trying to sell me NFTs that are worth nothing.”
Scams alone are far from the only concerning factor of the NFT trade. The substance of the market and the artistic mission of its contributors have prospective participants sitting out the opening rounds. “In my spaces, in music, I don’t know anybody making any money from [NFTs.] I don’t know anybody who even remotely understands them. And I have struggled to find anything really encouraging about them, to be honest,” says Bryndon Cook, a musician and songwriter who records as Starchild & The New Romantic and has credits across albums by Solange, Blood Orange, and Kindness. To Cook, the NFT bears a triggering similarity to so many of the tech innovations of the last 20 years, promising fortunes and freedom beyond comprehension only to fall short by a mile and add a few more hats to a generation of artists already wearing far too many. “It’s like you’re telling me it’s a life raft, but I can see that it’s got holes in it. Meanwhile, this Titanic has an iceberg in it. How many problems are you making me deal with?” Cook asks broadly.
Though he empathizes with visual artists who can finally secure their due, Starchild anticipates NFTs, like streaming or the mp3, inevitably working against the interests of blue-collar musicians and ultimately becoming a net negative influence on the general quality of music released. “The democratization of music has been a beautiful thing, but it’s also been a dark twisted fantasy in a sense. It has opened a floodgate for a certain consistency of mediocrity within art because anybody can do it and if you have certain capital, you can bypass it being excellent in certain ways,” Cook muses, addressing the double-edge of art creation becoming too accessible. Cook can also spot the rhetoric of a racket when he hears it. “I would almost respect the NFT dialog if people were more upfront about it really just being a money thing.”
In each of the conversations that shaped this piece, the artists bounced between cautious optimism and reluctant acceptance. Cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology appear to be here for good. And NFTs have been unfairly assigned with demonstrating their usefulness and practical purpose. The implications of the grander NFT experiment are potentially life-altering, for better or worse. On one hand, establishing actionable digital property rights for creators fueling the current and past iterations of the internet is an industry-wide disruption worth the learning curve. But this new structure has yet to present the needed safeguards to protect artists from an industry destined to consolidate like all others or the volatility of the currencies underpinning it.
It should be noted that several of these artists at least mentioned Kanye West’s Stem Player as a novel alternative to both traditional distribution and this new form of self-publishing. But all were quick to acknowledge how West, arguably the most famous and successful rapper of his era, is singularly positioned to take on the risk of releasing proprietary hardware and absorbing the responsibilities that would otherwise be shouldered by the platforms artists are forced to interface with. For now, artists appear to be treating the current phase of digital art’s evolution as a case study. One that’s rearing more questions than answers at the moment. And it’s unclear whether NFTs can sift out enough bad actors, private and/or corporate, to fully gain the trust of those who stand to gain and contribute the most in its ecosystem.
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