This is the first in a three part series on the broad topic of NFTs in the music industry: the opportunities, pitfalls, lessons learned and new applications for the future. The first installment will focus on electronic music artists’ initial attempts with using, minting and selling NFTs, and other dalliances with Web3. The second volume will explore the potential effects of NFTs on the cultural and financial value of music, while the third and final part of the trilogy will explore how NFTs can be employed in the larger project of archiving and reissuing.
Growing up in the Bay Area hardcore scene in the mid-'00s was a crash course in what the internet could do. As a 16-year-old, it was entirely possible to book bands via MySpace, promote on the website The List, buy a generator off Craigslist and then find yourself circle pitting with 100 angsty adolescents at Warm Water Cove. At the same time, Warm Water Cove's proximity to the desolate Hunter's Point highlighted how the Bay Area was still reeling from the economic downturn of the first internet bubble — an unwanted look behind the curtain of the tech gospel spouted from billboards up and down the 101. The lasting impression was a technocratic ambivalence I still can't shake. It was easy to see the potential of the tools, but there was also a creeping sense that things weren't always as they appeared.
I start with this anecdote as we now seem to be at a similar juncture. More and more independent artists see the lure of Web3 tools but share a healthy dose of skepticism. The past year has been a watershed moment in this space. From Jacques Greene's Promise" NFT to metaverse raves to the launch of Catalog to Canadian producer Clarian starting his own NFT-based streaming site Tamago, electronic music and Web3 have only become further entwined. As the French DJ Maelstrom explains, "There is no framework, everyone is experimenting with the tools. Most will fail, but that is what is really exciting about this. So many different initiatives, using the same set of tools in different ways."
Maelstrom told me that, at first, almost no one he knew in the dance music world believed in the idea of NFTs. But there's been a slow, perceptible shift, as British producer, DJ, and early cryptocurrency adopter, Scuba, underlines: "A small number of people embrace it and want to learn with it. The majority of people, particularly in electronic music, are scared of developments and it is going to take a while to be widely adopted. It will take the emergence of a Bandcamp-esque platform to hang their idealism on for it to become accepted in a wider way."
New York CIty-based artist Bergsonist sees a larger sea change in the world of electronic music. "It’s weird. The shift is positive and negative but in general more people seem interested in Web3. Of course we're all still skeptical. So at the moment it still feels like an experiment but, personally, I want to stay hopeful," she says. "I hope more inspiring artists join and use their creativity to think of new possibilities, rather than have tech bros and venture capitalists replicate existing exploitative systems."
After the decades-long decimation of income from music sales and its recent acceleration thanks to streaming platforms (on top of lost touring revenue from the pandemic), the conditions are now perfect to rethink the types of ways that music, and art more generally, is produced and shared between creators and their fanbases. While much of the talk within the world of Web3 is prone to hyperbole — there are endless promises of revolution, not to mention the tech world's favorite buzzword: disruption — there's also been a noticeable increase in experimentation with some of the tools over the course of the past year.
LA-via-Detroit house producer Jay Daniel, for example, minted his first NFTs late last year on Catalog as a prelude to his album dropping. He saw this as a "cool idea and a cool way to get music outside of Apple and Spotify." The appeal was clear: an auction would provide publicity in the run-up to the album but, unlike just streaming an advance single, Daniel stood to make some actual money from it. Ultimately his experience of minting, the marketing aspect, and the NFT’s failure to sell all left a bad taste in his mouth. "[People] are talking about decentralized money, but it seems pretty capitalistic," he says. "It doesn't seem like debunking any myths. It's just a different form of currency."
Daniel echoes a critique that has followed NFTs since their arrival in the creative economy, and is now particularly relevant in the wake of the HitPiece fiasco. When Jacques Greene released his track "Promise" as an NFT, the smart contract built into it seemed like a radical experiment in rethinking the often myopic and obtuse chains of ownership and copyright that plague independent artists. But if you look at the bidders, many of them were well-known players in the Web3 universe, a sort of insider baseball similar to what Daniel experienced from the other side. "People that are selling NFTs have to be pretty active on Discord and active in this space [to be successful]," Daniel explains.
This doesn't mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater, though Daniel raises some questions that are worth unpacking. Within the NFT world, it can feel like the art being sold is circulating within a fairly small vacuum. As David Turner put it in a recent Penny Fractions: "[We're] left with the rhetoric of a revolution spoken into siloed Discord servers."
The artists Daniel sees as successful in the Web3 space "have a mission statement [and are] always talking about changing how music is perceived. It isn't based on the quality of the music—the context is more important," he says. Out are the Instagram and Facebook posts announcing a new album stream. In are the ethical mission statements on Discord and community-oriented language of Web3.
In whatever new guise this form of capitalism dresses itself up as, Daniel suggests, artists are still being asked to produce what the cultural theorist Leigh Claire Le Berge describes as "decommodified labor." This is a form of labor that artists produce to sell their work, but which, in the end, they aren't compensated for—as is the case of Daniel's NFTs, which are collecting virtual dust on Catalog.
Still, what even constitutes "an NFT" is changing rapidly. You could see this in at least two different ways. Scuba, counter to Daniel, views it as freeing, flagging the fact NFTs "can be anything almost. The exciting thing is that NFTs can be open-ended." But for someone like Daniel, this means that there is a prioritization of the idea of the NFT over the actual item or artwork.
Alongside releasing a track, Daniel, for example, included a sample pack and a signed poster as part of his NFT. This has become fairly standard. The music NFT marketplace, in this sense, has mirrored the model set out by products like NBA Top Shot that are marketing "Moments" rather than the actual art itself. Bergsonist had a similar experience, choosing to mint the artwork for her virtualité alongside the traditional release—so the NFT wasn't the music but instead something supplemental to it. This folds back into what resembles a more traditional album release PR cycle but that is, of course, changing with new start-ups emerging almost daily. Still, it points to a bigger question about what a music-first NFT could or should look like.
Atlanta producer Nikki Nair thought about this at length when he was invited to participate in the first round of NFT drops. "It seemed like something new that was something different to how things were done now that would be fair to artists," he says. "I wanted to make these songs that were exclusively on there, not just making alternative versions." He's vehement about this last point. He wanted his release to be free of gimmicks or anything that felt like schticky PR. This wasn't a chance to bust out demos that shouldn't see the light of day or sell production lessons to aspiring musicians, but an opportunity to release a finished project that would stand on its musical merits.
I bring this up to Maelstrom and he agrees. "[NFTs] feel natural for visual arts because that is the way visual art is priced in the art market," he tells me. "Your art is going to be priced by the collector depending on exposure, but still you are never going to have two sculptures at the same price. The history of music is different. Music has been priced [the way it has] by the music industry because music is distributed through physical formats that has translated to the digital realm with mp3. It's the same approach as if they are selling CDs online." NFTs require us to learn new vocabularies and technologies and a new mode of valuation, to change how we think about music more generally.
Maelstrom offers an analogy that feels particularly prescient: "Ableton Live has been a revolutionary tool for music producers, you can make the most amazing music and utter garbage. The tool is amazing in itself [...] but what you do with it depends on the people using it." This is an apt way to summarize the current temperature of NFTs. The majority of NFTs, like music more generally, will land somewhere between amazing music and utter garbage.
In a recent episode of Interdependence, the founders of Web3 streaming platform Audius discussed what might be a more banal future for NFT — the idea that they will become as pervasive and valueless as .mp3s. Mp3s were revolutionary in their own right, but we don't often hear an artist discuss releasing "an mp3" with exaggerated fervor. Where the radical potential for underground music lies, however, is the fact that NFTs may rethink the relationship between artists, their art and fans in the first place.
For now, the perception of these new tools is about as volatile as the boom and bust cycles that currently drive them. "I hear a lot of mixed opinions, which is good," Jimmy Edgar, an electronic music producer who has found great success through minting visual NFTs, told me. "There may be a masculine dominant vibe at the moment since it's synchronized with tech and finance, but that will inevitably change, just as the internet did. Even some artists who were vehemently opposed to Web3 ideas in 2021 are already planning their involvement. There's room for everyone and at any pace."