A Classical Musician's Journey in Web3

My exploration of the web3 space began in the summer of 2020 - a time when the classical music landscape seemed bleak with canceled seasons, funding shortfalls, and unpredictable timeframes. While the future of live music was uncertain, everything seemed possible in web3’s emerging digital marketplace where 3-D art, generative art, photography, and multimedia collaborations live comfortably side-by-side. I found artists extremely supportive of one another and there was an encouraging camaraderie between creators and collectors. The excitement around combining artistic expression and blockchain technology was contagious and I wanted to be a part of it. As a composer in the classical/new music world for twenty years, this was a refreshing change.

I began releasing multimedia NFTs with visual artists, and it felt like a natural extension of my work with choreographers. My most experimental project was string quartet Whirl, composed for the generative art site Async. I worked with macro photographer James Fox on this interactive audiovisual piece. Whirl comprises four individual stems (violins 1 & 2, viola, and cello) with three variations for each line. There are 254 possible renderings of Whirl depending on which versions of the stems are active. Collectors who own the individual stems choose which version of the stem (0, 1, 2, 3, or 4) is active. This makes the music interactive and creates a changeable piece that I ultimately don’t control. Whirl is streamable on Async and every minted version is archived. It was intriguing  to write a quartet that can change based on other peoples’ decisions. Whirl was one of the most difficult compositions to formulate but also one of the most fun to put together!

The ethos of the web3 music space is quite different from the atmosphere of the classical/new music world. There is an open line of communication between artist, audience, and collector. The communities around each music platform are proficient in sharing artists’ work with dedicated Twitter Spaces, Discord chats, video interviews, streaming events, and newsletter highlights. My work has been performed in the metaverse and I was able to chat with the audience during the show. I’ve been able to connect directly with my collectors, inviting them to concerts and sending special airdrops.

In the Fall of 2021 I released my album Ex Voto as individual NFTs on the platform Catalog. Ex Voto is a collection of nine pieces for piano, cello, and violin. It contains some of the most personal music I’ve written and I wanted to give it a place of permanence on the blockchain. I released one track at a time, focusing on the story of each composition. The first single, Chant, went live for auction on November 3rd and the last track, Ex Voto, on February 5th. I was unsure how collectors would respond to a solo piano recording because Electronic and Hip-Hop/R&B are the two largest genres in web3 music.  Ex Voto sold out on July 20, 2022 with 7 individual collectors!

Ex Voto on Catalog
Ex Voto on Catalog

The possibilities are endless for releasing music in web3. Artists have the flexibility of minting work through a platform or with their own custom smart contract. They have the option of creating 1/1’s or editions, conveying copyright or not, designating work as royalty free or attaching a large royalty percentage to secondary sales. The creativity for releasing art is limitless. Learning about blockchain, provenance, and decentralization has made me see how this technology could help alleviate friction points for classical musicians.

  • Classical Music Today
    Orchestras across the country are folding or cutting back on their programmed seasons. According to a recent WolfBrown study, 25% of audiences will not be returning to live performances. Numbers for digital classical music consumption aren’t much better. In 2021 the US recorded music industry generated $15 billion. Classical music accounted for 1% of all streamed music and this number includes motion picture scores.

  • Funding for Individuals  
    Grants for New Music largely depend upon location with a majority of awards going to musicians based in New York and California. Many grants charge expensive application fees or require a composer to create a new work on spec without compensation. Some prestigious awards are by nomination only and favor locations and networks.

  • Education
    Conservatories do not place an emphasis on entrepreneurship and music business. Basics such as publishing and PRO’s, sync licenses, royalties, commissioning contracts, and storefront websites are glossed over when they should be a fundamental part of an artist’s education.  An undergraduate degree from a music conservatory costs ~$100,000. Musicians face a difficult occupational landscape and should approach their career creatively with a fluency in the music business.

  • Performance Royalties

    Composer royalty payments for concert music are determined by a survey of performances and broadcasts, and by submitted copies of concert programs. They are distributed once a year. It’s common for pieces to get missed in the survey or for royalties to be paid years afterward because of delayed or missed reporting.

  • Streaming Royalties 
    One million streams on Spotify nets an artist ~ $4,000 — on Apple it’s ~ $5,000.
    According to Music Business Worldwide, just 21.6% of artists on Spotify today (1.7 million) have a monthly audience on the platform greater than 50 people. It’s difficult to earn a consistent income from $0.004 per stream even if an artist owns 100% of their masters. Classical musicians have an added obstacle as the least streamed genre of music.

Solutions in web3

  • Equity for Artists
    Artists' careers should not be guarded by institutions. NFTs are the epitome of a free market allowing artists to be creative in selling their work to an audience. There are opportunities for grants and funding regardless of location, tax status, institutional affiliation, and other restrictions, opening up resources to artists worldwide.

  • Provenance
    Proper attribution for artists’ work is documented on the blockchain through smart contracts. The origin of a work is encoded into its NFT and artists retain full ownership of their work. An NFT represents a digital signature of authenticity by the artist.

  • New Opportunities
    Blockchain makes it easy for artists to collaborate by codifying automatic splits for sales and royalties. The web3 marketplace creates a space for artists to release work free from restrictions of playlists, genre, concert halls, and labels. This is especially important for music where platforms focus on the artist and not on the artist’s genre and metrics.

  • Direct Sales
    There are no payment intermediaries to take a cut of an artist's profit if an artist sells their work on their own site. Artists may choose to sell directly to customers through custom contracts. There is no third party to approve transactions and payments are immediate. There is a direct relationship between artist and collector.

  • Prompt Payments
    Artists receive payment as soon as a work sells. There are no invoices or wait time for payments to process. Funds are transferred directly to the artist’s digital wallet. If there are multiple artists on a project, the funds are split and distributed directly to each artist involved. The splits are written into the smart contract and executed upon sale.

  • Royalties
    Artists receive royalties in perpetuity from the secondary sales market. The artist can decide what percentage of sales is allocated to royalty payments. The standard is ten percent but it varies. If there are multiple artists on a project, the royalties will be distributed to their digital wallets automatically. There is no waiting period or third party intermediary involved in royalties.

  • Know Your Audience

    An artist is able to connect directly with a collector. There are no platforms with ever-changing algorithms that act as middlemen. When a work is purchased, it is transferred from the artist's wallet to the collector's wallet. It's possible to airdrop a collector special edition art, tokens, or anything else.

  • Community
    Artists will gain more power from owning their art and audiences will participate directly in the ownership of the art they love. Digital assets and identities have value and the blockchain codifies these structures. NFTs allow artists and collectors to become part of a community that appreciates digital artifacts.

Web3 gives artists the tools for creative autonomy. After years of dependence upon institutions, artists are able to craft their own story around a community that they own. The opportunities for collaboration and innovation are endless. Classical musicians make up a small part of the music NFT space, but our numbers are growing. I created a guide to help musicians get a better understanding of web3. You can download it here and join our Discord server for more tips and discussions.

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