Dot Genesis: Exploring Music NFTs as a New Medium

Context is key. A frame can change the way we perceive a physical work of art, different spaces can impact our listening experience of the same piece of music, and a single word can have countless meanings depending on who speaks it and with what intention.

As a musician, I spend a great deal of time (over)thinking the context of my work -- how it is being created, where it is being heard, by whom, and for what purpose. From the advent of audio recordings over a century ago to our current streaming economy, we've seen amazing innovation and explosions of new genres, as the context for which we write influences what we create.

"How music works, or doesn’t work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist) but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it, and when you hear it. How it’s performed, how it’s sold and distributed, how it’s recorded, who performs it, whom you hear it with, and, of course, finally, what it sounds like: these are the things that determine not only if a piece of music works—if it successfully achieves what it sets out to accomplish—but what it is.” ― David Byrne, How Music Works

As new (and old) sounds, styles and subgenres are able to travel virtually anywhere in the world, we have this unbelievable access to a diverse spectrum of music. And yet, social media, streaming platforms, and other aspects of the current music industry are quick to reward "sameness" or familiarity -- sounds that have already been tested and proven to provide a return on investment -- and are slow to reward innovation. While there are always exceptions, so much of mainstream music is centered around a company's bottom line versus taking creative risks or pushing boundaries.

Working within that framework can have advantages depending on what your goals are in the industry, but it can become an uphill battle to create and share music sustainably outside of those companies if you're an artist who doesn't have the intention of finding mainstream success. Even if your work resonates with a strong niche audience, it can be hard to strike a balance between recording, touring, marketing, social media, and working an extra job or two to keep the bills paid. Perhaps your audience grows over time, but now you're faced with the pressure of creating in a certain style or genre for the rest of your short career cycle, before it's on to the next wave of trends.

If you work in the music industry or follow independent musicians, you've probably heard these struggles a million times over and are disappointed (to say the least) about the current state of affairs and glaring lack of diversity. In my case, I went to the great lengths of establishing my own record label and production company to try to directly improve some of these issues rather than just complain about them on twitter (I was going to scream if I read one more tweet asking "where are all the female producers" but didn't see those tweets backed up by any action or tangible support), but I found myself battling burnout and unrealistic workloads year after year. While there have been many moments of success that I’m extremely proud of, there have been plenty more moments of feeling defeated after every attempt to scale the company to something that could be more sustainable, without compromising on the quality of my output, my values as an artist, or my personal integrity.

Since blockchain technology officially entered the chat in 2008, and since NFTs have become more mainstream within the last three years, new possibilities of how music can be valued have already started to shape a future creator economy where artists have greater autonomy and innovation is rewarded. For the first time in years, I feel that it’s possible to be valued as an artist again rather than just a content creator, and am excited to explore NFTs as a new medium that allow me to pour the absolute best of focus and energy into fewer releases of higher quality. Because scarcity and authenticity can be valued rather than large volumes of diluted content, I’m inspired to create in a context that is more aligned with my core values and ethics.

But let’s hold that thought -- I should take a moment to properly introduce myself. Hi, my name is Kate Ellwanger (pka Dot) and I'm an artist who is new to Web3. I'm quite far from being an expert on blockchain tech, but am creating this Mirror account to share writings on my thoughts, research, and current/upcoming projects that I'm working on in the space. Rather than have this turn into some sort of "Dear Diary" style blog, I'll do my best to keep future publishings centered around my work rather than myself, but I felt it was important to begin this conversation with my intentions and reasons for wanting to build in Web3 in the first place, as well as some of the dreams I have for the future.

So all of this to say, I'm entering Web3 for the new context, community, and exploration of NFTs as a medium. I'm incredibly excited to create and share music in a space that directly values the work, where I feel less pressure or incentive to write something that is easy to pitch/sync/license/place and can feel more free to be myself or experiment with new sounds. If the work resonates with a lot of people, that's wonderful, but with fixed quantity, tokenized audio files, I see a future where innovators and forward-thinkers can thrive, even if their work isn't created for mass consumption. For the first time in over a decade, I have sincere optimism for the future of music and the communities that support it, either as fans/appreciators or as people who work directly in the industry.

Two key factors that make this kind of value and community-building possible are trust and transparency. From my understanding, they are woven into the fabric of the technology, with smart contracts now enabling artists to collaborate and split or allocate funds with ease, build DAOs or other organizations to support and share the work. All while retaining full ownership to the rights of their music, at least as the format currently stands (I imagine this will change in the near future, with NFTs holding songwriting and publishing rights as well).

Unspeakable Records Production Workshop its our first studio location, 2016
Unspeakable Records Production Workshop its our first studio location, 2016

If you happened to follow my work prior to reading this, then you know how important community and collaboration has been to me since I started producing and releasing my own music. My first introduction to the LA beat scene was as an intern for Alpha Pup Records back in 2011 -- I would work at the label a couple days per week for school credit, and go to Low End Theory nearly every single week to hear new music and support the artists who played there. It was rare for me to ever miss a Wednesday night at The Airliner. Eventually I went on to release some of my first projects on Alpha Pup, and in 2012 became one of the founding members (and only woman) of Team Supreme, which was a collective of 19 producers, challenging one another with weekly beat cyphers and sample flips. These experiences shaped so much of who I am as a producer today, and I forever love my brothers in those communities, but I also felt a painful lack of diverse gender representation in those spaces and longed for some sort of sisterhood in my creative life. This eventually led me to create Unspeakable Records in 2014, which I never could have guessed would change my life in so many profound ways over the last 8 years.

Team Supreme Show at The Echo Los Angeles, 2017
Team Supreme Show at The Echo Los Angeles, 2017

While I fully intend to carry these lessons and experiences into my next chapter in Web3, I don't have any short-term plans to assert myself as an organizer or leader in the space at this time. I recognize and respect those who have worked hard to create amazing collectives and DAOs to promote diversity and representation in art and music, and would love to support and uplift those leaders any way that I can. Rather than trying to immediately bring Unspeakable Records or old Web2 models into the space, I prefer take my time and see what community structures may come about organically as it pertains to my own work.

I also don’t view this technology as a means to replace those who are working in the music industry to support artists -- there are so many talented individuals and teams who genuinely care about music, and blockchain technology can serve as a tool to strengthen these teams as a whole. There is a beautiful opportunity in front of us to establish new “industry standards” and creative ecosystems where artists aren’t preyed upon, and transparency is the norm.

All in all, I'm very excited to be building in Web3 this year, and hope that anything I offer here will have a positive impact on all those who experience the work -- either through music, events, collaborations, artist retreats, or whatever new formats may emerge. While I spent the last decade with my focus and energy being spread across many roles and responsibilities in music and business, often prioritizing myself as an artist last, I’d like to spend the next decade putting my musicianship first and giving even greater energy and time to honing my craft and exploring new sounds. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with all the reasons I began making music in the first place, and create/innovate as much as possible in this medium with as much time as I may be blessed with in this life.

The mainstream population may not be ready for Web3 (and Web3 definitely isn’t ready for that volume of use yet), but I see a future where blockchain technology becomes so integrated with our modern lives that most people will not need to have a thorough understanding of it, or even be aware that they’re interacting with it in order to use it. The average American probably can’t explain to you how a cellphone works, and yet about 97% of the country’s population carries them around in their pockets. The sooner we can get artists and visionaries thinking about the vast potential of NFTs and creative ways they can be used, the better established we’ll be in supporting/evolving the cultures and creators we care about. Artists can have greater control over the context in which our work is created and shared, and not just function as machines for high volumes of content.

If you’d like to keep the conversation going, please come find me on Twitter or Instagram!

My first music NFT series can be found on Catalog, with much more work to be released in 2022 and beyond 🚀


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