If you were on the internet at all in the past month you've no doubt heard of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. The cryptocurrency-based collectible market has exploded recently, with digital artworks in the form of JPEGs and GIFs going for tens of millions of dollars and musicians selling publishing rights on the blockchain. NFTs are hardly a new phenomenon, but given the immense amount of money they’ve attracted in recent weeks, they’ve become a lightning rod for debate over art and capitalism.
British producer Mura Masa participated in his first NFT exhibition at the beginning of March, and he was surprised to quickly see a massive bid on his digital artwork. One bidder offered 10 ETH, or about $15,000, for the pointillist glyphs, which the artist (whose real name is Alex Crossan) created during the making of his 2020 album R.Y.C. The bid was later removed, but the auction got the producer thinking about exactly who’s participating in the NFT marketplace and how value is ascribed to art.
“It's fair enough saying, ‘Oh yeah, NFTs are a way for finance bros to buy crypto art for ridiculous money,’ but it got me wondering about whether it's so ridiculous that these pieces should have such high market values,” he says. “The devaluation of art, music, creative work in general in the digital age is in my opinion a huge problem, and NFTs present a potentially interesting alternative to music streaming, etc.”
Crossan’s not alone in seeing NFTs as an opportunity for artists to find new ways to get paid. From critically-acclaimed electronic pop auteurs to Grammy Award-winning, stadium-headlining groups, more musicians than ever are experimenting with NFTs these days, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take away revenue streams such as touring and playing festivals. Canadian producer and singer Grimes sold a series of ten digital artworks for $5.8 million on NFT market Nifty Gateway. Besides traditional platforms like Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon, rock band Kings of Leon made their latest album available on YellowHeart as three types of tokens, which allowed fans to access perks including limited-edition vinyl and front row tickets to future concerts.
Some artists are even experimenting with selling the publishing rights to their work via NFTs. Canadian producer Jacques Greene sold the publishing rights to his song “Promise” on Foundation. “I'm excited (and scared) of what possibilities and promises lie in this field, and for arts and culture in general," the producer wrote on Twitter, also mentioning that he recently “got out of a long, pretty bad publishing deal.” His LuckyMe labelmates, the duo TNGHT (Hudson Mohawke and Lunice), also sold an original horn sound they created. This week, rapper Azealia Banks sold an audio sex tape NFT for more than $17,000 on Foundation that included the right to resell it.
The exhibition Crossan participated was a collaboration between entertainment company IAMSOUND and Zora, a protocol which allows creators to mint, share, and exchange NFTs, and featured work from musicians and visual artists including Toro Y Moi, Yaeji, David Rudnick, Jonathan Zawada, and more.
“I think musicians have had a front row seat to what it means to really have zero ownership in the art that you create, and zero say in how that art is monetized,” Zora co-founder Dee Goens said in an interview. “Back in the day, we had technology which allowed you to make music high-fidelity, you could remaster a song so it would sound better. Now we have technology that allows you to remaster the markets.” He and other co-founder Jacob Horne left their jobs at cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase in the spring of 2020 to start the company, which originally started by selling limited edition physical merchandise like a cassette tape by electronic producer RAC and shoes by Nike designer Jeff Staples. They were successful, but soon realized there was an opportunity to build a creator-focussed protocol that removed the need for any intermediaries. “
This week, their team launched Catalog, a music streaming service built on Zora. It allows users to listen to songs for free, but they can also be purchased and resold as NFTs. The participating artists (there’s 20 right now) make 100% of sales, plus a self-determined share of every resale, without surrendering their copyrights. “Historically speaking media has been monetized by restricting access to it, you pay to buy a song with iTunes, you have to pay for a subscription to Netflix,” says Goens. “That is the idea that’s being disrupted right now.”
Clearly some artists and collectors see value in today's NFTs, but there's also a fair amount of criticism being levied against them. One common criticism is that most visual NFT art is bad and geared for profit in a cynical speculative market; another is that they don't offer enough novelty to justify the price tag; and still another: the underlying Ethereum blockchain that most NFTs exist on comes with an environmental cost due to the mining process that mints new ETH tokens as a reward for processing blocks of transaction data (which include NFTs). And then there is the problem of stolen works, since almost anything can in theory be tokenized by anyone, whether or not they actually created it.
Somebody who has been at the forefront of many conversations about the possibilities of new technologies in digital art is Holly Herndon. The Berlin-based electronic musican hosts the podcast Interdependence with her partner and longtime musical collaborator, Matt Dryhurst (who teaches at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute), which features interviews with people involved in music, technology, and politics. They’re also part of the artist collective Guild, which have been sharing resources and information about different Web 3.0 projects online.
“Rest assured there are people doing really interesting shit that doesn’t get the same attention span because it's actually really friggin' complicated”
“I think entities that are not providing value to artists are going to be challenged to either provide that value or get out of the way, because artists are having more tools to crew up and communicate with their audience directly and have more sovereignty over their own material,” said Herndon.
At the same time, she understands artists’ disillusionment with the current NFT craze, which is seen by many as being led by craven speculators and profiteering tech investors. However, that doesn't tell the whole story.
"There’s a lot of talk from people like us who are talking about the collective potential and amazing possibility of this tech, and then people see a famous person sell a JPEG for a million dollars, and they’re a musician at home who have lost their viability to tour and it's really alienating," Herndon said. "It just feels like this popularity contest and I totally understand why there’s a disconnect between what this technology can do and the kind of attention certain projects are getting now."
"I really just think it's the early days," she added. "These are kind of the flashy, shiny things that happen early on that grab attention, but rest assured there are people doing really interesting shit that doesn’t get the same attention span because it's actually really friggin' complicated."
While Herndon and Crossan are wary of the barriers involved with NFTs, including the environmental footprint inherent to Ethereum's proof-of-work blockchain, they recommend artists curious about it jump in with both feet and experiment.
“People are just going to be left in the dust if they refuse to come to grips with this in terms of it being a very important, dynamic shifting development,” said Crossan. “If you're not careful right now your kids are going to be exhaustedly explaining non-fungible cryptographic tokens to you.”
According to Herndon, we should be encouraging experimentation with things that can move art to a more fair playing field. “I hope we can move past the platform paradigm that’s ruling all of our online lives right now, and move to something that’s more humane, more equitable, and creates communities in a healthier way and a more sustainable way,” she said.