It’s really amazing to do what you love for a living because it doesn’t necessarily feel like work. For me, the merging of music and web3 has increased this sentiment tenfold. As an independent artist for the last 7 years, I have been able to build a sustainable career that has allowed me freedom and autonomy over my time, actions and creativity. I’ve been able to connect with an extremely loyal and kind fanbase that continues to support me. However, navigating the brutal reality of an extremely broken music industry to make a good living while continuing to invest in myself, my vision and my art has proven increasingly challenging as culture and technology have continued to evolve. In my exploration of NFTs and their potential use in creating additional value for music, I discovered an escape hatch from the status quo and a completely new landscape for artists looking to build their own ecosystems outside of traditional structures.
Through my experiences, I’ve identified three main pillars of use cases for NFTs in music, each of which caters to a different type of potential fan.
-1/1 music NFTs: A one-of-a-kind, authenticated digital asset. Similar to a limited edition signed vinyl.
-Fractionalized ownership: Using NFTs as a tool to split ownership of an asset. This can be fractionalizing the ownership of a digital asset or having an NFT represent a piece of ownership of a real world asset.
-Experiential NFTs: Unlock access and experiences with NFTs, provide patrons and fans with real world experiences, create incentives to participate IRL and reward attendance.
This is just the beginning and I’ve only just scratch the surface of how NFTs and their utility can provide artists with increased freedom and autonomy over their art and businesses.
Adapting to changing industry landscapes has become second nature to me. I started this journey in 2014 at the beginning of mass adoption of streaming. This was the time where Hype Machine was king and established artists were actively campaigning against streaming as an existential threat that would lead to the death of the music industry. From my vantage point as an outsider, it was an opportunity for access. Spotify and Soundcloud were legitimate discovery tools then, that allowed both for curation and the potential magic of masses of people stumbling across music and helping unknown artists to connect with listeners who were hungry for something new. The democratization of the creation and distribution of music lowered the barrier of entry into an industry that had been almost fully gated by major labels and allowed artists like myself to build a viable foundation of an independent career. Bootstrapping my project with tips I made at Applebee’s in Times Square, I was able to invest in myself, grow my fanbase organically, eventually bring on investment and distribution partners and ultimately run my independent project like a small startup. With every innovation that solves a problem and opens a door, there is an unintended consequence.
Then came the algorithm.
The emergence of the efficient, yet calloused, algorithm of social platforms and streaming services to manage millions of streams and hundreds of songs per day cut off access to an audience I’d spent years building–and it was frustrating as fuck. It became impossible to constantly shift social media strategy to adapt to an ever-changing set of rules in order to have my posts show up to current and future fans. Suddenly, after years of maintaining creative freedom, I faced the dilemma of either writing and producing music to optimize algorithm discoverability or staying true to my artistic vision and becoming invisible. Socially, I felt the pressure to become a “content creator” but consistently creating videos sharing every banal detail of my existence for a chance at going viral on TikTok felt like slow, contrived torture. I recognized that I needed to adapt or die and find a new route forward. Instead of caving to these systems, I decided to look forward and build something new.
INTRODUCTION TO WEB3
My introduction to web3 was a Twitter rant from RAC talking about how inept the music industry was at properly valuing music. Prior to having him on my podcast, Anatomy of an Artist, I had pretty fixed, narrow beliefs on the value of music, tied directly to my own experiences. Fundamentally, I feel that creating music and art for a living is the ultimate privilege—the ability to indulge artistic whims and not grind ourselves down doing unfulfilling, monotonous work, feels like a dream and I still have that core belief. My perspective did shift when we got to discussing the fixed pricing of music by the industry and how essentially, it limits the expansion of that value and limits the overall marketplace from determining how much something can be worth. We’re locked in and there’s no growth to be had in the current models. We discussed how the music industry is actually terrible at its job and drives down the value of its most prominent asset—the actual music. This led me to ask myself:
What is the value?
Is something valuable just because I say it’s valuable?
Does sentimental value create monetary value?
How can I create value for my fans?
Can I use NFTs to build a better foundation for myself and my community?
These questions sparked a series of experiments, recognizing that value isn’t a fixed proposition, but a dance between two entities, ever shifting, evolving and reacting to its environment.
My first mint was quick and clumsy, mid-February 2021. I'd been granted early access to Zora and had a gut feeling I should just learn by doing. My independence was an asset for me, since I own all of my music and have a back catalog of 50+ songs. I decided to start by minting the first song I released as VÉRITÉ, Strange Enough. I pulled an all nighter, creating a very simple moving image of the Strange Enough artwork and paid four hundred dollars to mint the piece onto Zora. At the time I had zero concept of what gas fees were and just assumed they were the cost of doing business (I paid too much…). I said fuck it, minted the piece and promoted it with a tweet. I received ~10 bids on an audio/visual NFT of a song that I had released in 2014, each bid rising in the USD equivalent. The auction process was more unsettling than I expected, but I accepted a bid from a fan who was established in web3 and excited that I was entering “the space.” I accepted their bid for 1 WETH and haven’t looked back since.
Early mover advantage can be a real asset. I was mint #411 on Zora before music NFTs were popular and my debut NFT drop generated interest and excitement. In February 2021, there were very few musicians actively in web3 and almost all of them were male and electronic musicians, so every new participant was met with a spotlight of support. There’s immense value in learning through action and remaining curious of the result. My first sale showed me the power of letting the marketplace determine the initial value of a piece. Not setting a floor price, not limiting the ceiling and allowing bids to come in naturally gave me a sense of how others perceived and valued my work, which gave me insight into how I could move forward and grow. My first three drops had no reserve price and generated 17.5 ETH (~$50K).
Since then, I’ve been part of the inaugural Catalog drop and experienced the reemergence of patronage in music through a collector who hoped that this exchange would provide me with the financial freedom to continue creating and sharing my art. My subsequent drops on Catalog explored the idea of merging this idea of patronage with experiences such as commissioning additional, personalized letters and exclusive access. I’ve also sold 1/1 NFTs with zero perks, but tried to create excitement around the auction by playing my song Somewhere in Between live at the Music NFT Movement event at NFTNYC, linking an NFC chip in my jacket to the auction, inviting people to tag my jacket and participate by collecting the song as a memento from the event. My Async piece, Warm Season, a song with 246 unique variations, allowed collectors to mint their own unique version of the song and experiment with different layers of soundscapes to create their own listening experience.
Overall, what I found is that collectors want to feel connected and like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to interact with the art they love while having an integral role in its continued success. 1/1 music NFTs create a top tier of value around the music-–they’re exclusive. While the idea of exclusively selling 1/1 records on Catalog seemed appealing, I realized that value proposition a) wasn’t available to everyone because of its high price point and b) wasn’t of interest to everyone as not everyone is a “collector” and not everyone values the exclusivity of owning something rare. This led me to consider how I could expand the scope of active collectors by bringing the experience of digital ownership into the real world by using NFTs as a vehicle for ownership of the actual song.
I spent a lot of time reading about SEC regulations and what constitutes a security in the process of preparing for my release of By Now, a song where I auctioned off a percentage of the master recording to a collector on a sliding scale, with a one million dollar valuation for 100% of the master. This was April 2021, and I couldn’t find a relevant example of an artist who had sold an NFT in this exact manner and I decided that dropping a song in this way would push the conversation forward. I had already known that there was a market for purely digital assets and wanted to know if there was a hunger for real world ownership and “skin in the game” when it came to music in all realms. I created an audio/visual representation of By Now, wrote up a price breakdown for the auction, set the valuation of 100% of the master recording to one million dollars, spent hours in Clubhouse rooms, speaking and sharing my vision. By this drop, I felt the novelty of newness wearing off and felt it hard to gain traction in generating hype for the drop. I definitely was still existing outside of what felt like an elite NFT artist circle and I felt extremely awkward messaging active collectors to invite them to participate. Going into the drop I felt nervous, but there’s a power in executing and following an idea through.
The By Now auction settled at 11 ETH, which was 23,000 USD at the time, equaling 2.3% of the master recording. The collector and first owner of any percentage of any master recording of mine in perpetuity was a fan who swooped in at the last minute to secure the winning bid. Upon communicating post auction, he translated that he felt it was important for a genuine fan to own a piece of the work. This was the first time I had seen my work sell at my own predetermined valuation and I felt empowered setting my own worth.
As I continued to dive into the web3 community, I obviously kept one foot firmly planted on the ground with my core fanbase, curious if they would follow me into this new world. The short answer was, no. The By Now auction was the only concept that caught a little traction with fans on Discord, who admitted they would LOVE to own a piece of a song, but the high price point was inaccessible. For everything else, there was little interest and even less crossover between the traditional fan and the collectors of NFTs and I became curious what could possibly motivate a natural onboarding of a fan into the web3 eco-system. There is a bubbling of idealism that can be heard from those who are excited about the prospect of NFTs reinvigorating the value of music and allowing artists an opportunity to break free from predatory record deals and antiquated royalty payment systems. In the short-term, I felt that same idealism coming off my first few sales. I saw the vision and was tripled down on the blockchain’s potential to revolutionize the music industry, but having a long view, realized that in the long term, it’s necessary to have both the high value NFT collectors and the average fan be able to participate in the same ecosystem.
This presents a really brilliant and unique challenge for artists, one that we will be facing for years to come. The reality is that fans won’t want to get involved with NFTs and crypto until the technology is simplified with the UI seamlessly integrated and there’s a fear that this will only happen in a centralized manner, inevitably creating the same problems of platform dependency we’re currently trying to escape from. We need to consider that not every fan will be a collector and not every collector will be a fan. It’s my job to continue to explore and build with care and consideration to every person, despite their motivations for existing in my orbit, and if I do this well, I’ll be able to cement a new, solid foundation for myself and other artist’s to mirror.
My focus is now, how can I use NFTs to cater to both collectors and traditional fans, viewing my project holistically and creating multiple access points to my world with the goal of not excluding any individual, not gating access to myself or my music and providing everyone with meaningful interactions. I’m extremely conscious of creating a floor of value, some sort of experience that solidifies the delight of the fan/collector that isn’t tied to the speculative monetary value of the NFT. An example of this can be seen in my collaboration with IYK called Guestbook, which allowed fans to collect NFTs by attending shows from my last tour. We created a flow which prompted fans to leave me a message at the show and enter ETH address to claim the NFT. I passed around disposable cameras and co-created the NFT artwork with the audience. The core of the experience is creating artwork and communicating with an artist at their show; that value expands when you claim your NFT and receive rewards for future attendance. This concept of creating a value floor of experience for fans will continue later this month, when I fully fractionalize ownership of a song. Each NFT will be tied to a limited edition, signed cassette tape and access to private discord channels where fans and collectors can dissect the stems of the song, request to hear alternate versions and get an in depth view of how the song was created. Crafting a sentimental experience for collectors, providing a positive onboarding experience into NFTs for fans and being conscious of each individual’s motivation expectation is extremely important for artists to consider as we continue to experiment.
My first year in web3 will officially wrap at the end of January 2022. In addition to fully fractionalizing ownership of a song, I will begin to create my roadmap for rewarding collectors and fans by giving away VÉRITÉ Black Cards to my top 5 NFT collectors along with two lifelong fans, which will be tied to our Black Card NFT and hold lifetime tickets for any VÉRITÉ show, I’ll be wrapping my first official audio/visual collaboration where we’re bringing our NFTs into the real world through interactive sculptures, bringing the digital art into real life.
What I found in my pursuit of continued creative autonomy in web3 last year was freedom and the ability to exhale for the first time in a long time. It’s been a nonstop rollercoaster of ideation, creation and execution. It’s been marked by the opening of doors and circumvention of gates and their keepers—a relentless grind that has tapped edges of burnout, taken a nap and gone back to grind again. The why’s, the how’s and the outcomes of my experimentation in web3 can be helpful for artists to dissect and see how they can move forward as they enter the space. I view NFTs, their utility and the community that comes along with them as a tool for artists to build their own worlds and their own businesses, not reliant on platforms or intermediaries, but grown with their fans and supporters. This gives artists the potential for freedom from the unrealistic expectations and demands of the music industry and social and streaming platforms. Once we expand the notion of what we can be as artists–not only conceptualizing songs and building productions and worlds, but also strategizing how we distribute music, create new business models and build foundations that will allow us to have lifelong careers–we will realize that ultimately, we are creative problem solvers. It is easy to lament the sad state of the music industry, but this is an invitation to any artist who feels boxed in and underserved by the current systems to challenge the status quo, actively circumvent gatekeepers and work to build your own independent communities, platforms and worlds, one experiment at a time.
Come say hi!