In a 2019 report for the International Journal of Communication, Baym et al. positioned distributed blockchain ledger technology, and what would subsequently be referred to as Web3, as a convening technology. Riffing off Barnett, a convening technology “initiates and serves as the focus of a conversation that can address issues far beyond what it may ultimately be able to address itself” (403). The case studies for the Baym et al. research—early, aspirant projects applying the blockchain concept to music publishing and distribution—are described in the piece as speculations or provocations concerning music’s commercial and social future. What is convened in this era (pre-2017 blockchain music discourse and practice) is the potential for change: a type of widespread, broadly discussed, reimagination of the 21st-century music industries, productive precisely because near-future applications suggest the realisation of what Baym et al. call dreams.
In this article, we aim to examine the Web3 music field as it lies some years later. Taking the latter half of 2021 as our subject, we present a survey of where music then resided within Web3, focussing on how the dreams of Baym et al. have morphed and evolved, and materialised and declined, in the intervening years. By investigating the discourse and functionality of 2021’s current crop of music NFTs—just one thread of music Web3’s far-reaching aspiration, but a potent and accessible manifestation nonetheless—we can make a detailed analysis of concept-led application. Volatility remains throughout the broader sector, and all of the projects listed here could be read as conditionally short-term and untested, but what they represent is a series of clearly evolved case studies of the dream, rich precisely because of what is assumed and disregarded.
WTF Is an NFT?
Non-fungible tokens inscribe indelible, unique ledger entries on a blockchain, detailing ownership of, or rights associated with, assets that exist off-chain. Many NFTs take the form of an ERC-721 smart-contract that functions as an indivisible token on the Ethereum blockchain. Although all ERC-721 tokens are NFTs, the inverse is not true. Similar standards exist on other blockchains, and bridges allow these tokens to be created on alternative networks such as Polygon, Solana, WAX, Cardano and Tezos. The creation (minting) and transfer of ownership on the Ethereum network—by far the dominant chain—comes with a significant and volatile transaction cost, by way of gas fees. Thus, even a “free” transaction on the main NFT network requires a currency and time investment that far outweighs the everyday routines of fiat exchange.
On a technical level, the original proposal for the ERC-721 standard refers to NFTs as deeds intended to represent ownership of digital and physical assets like houses, virtual collectibles, and negative value assets such as loans (Entriken et al.). The details of these assets can be encoded as metadata, such as the name and description of the asset including a URI that typically points to either a file somewhere on the Internet or a file hosted via IPFS, a decentralised peer-to-peer hosting network. As noted in the standard, while the data inscribed on-chain are immutable, the asset being referred to is not. Similarly, while each NFT is unique, multiple NFTs could, in theory, point to a single asset.
In this respect ERC-721 tokens are different from cryptocurrencies and other tokens like stable-coins in that their value is often contingent on their accurate and ongoing association with assets outside of the blockchain on which they are traded. Further complicating matters, it is often unclear if and how NFTs confer ownership of digital assets with respect to legislative or common law. NFTs rarely include any information relating to licencing or rights transfer, and high-profile NFTs such as Bored Ape Yacht Club appear to be governed by licencing terms held off-chain (Bored Ape Yacht Club). Finally, while it is possible to inscribe any kind of data, including audio, into an NFT, the ERC-721 standard and the underpinning blockchains were not designed to host multimedia content. At the time of writing, storing even a low-bandwidth stereo audio file on the ethereum network appears cost-prohibitive.
This presents a challenge for how music NFTs distinguish themselves in a marketplace dominated by visual works. The following sections of this article are divided into what we consider to be the general use cases for NFTs within music in 2021. We’ve designated three overlapping cases: audience investment, music ownership, and audience and business services.
Significant discourse around NFTs focusses on digital collectibles and artwork that are conceptually, but not functionally, unique. Huge amounts of money have changed hands for specific—often celebrity brand-led—creations, resulting in media cycles of hype and derision. The high value of these NFTs has been variously ascribed to their high novelty value, scarcity, the adoption of NFTs as speculative assets by investors, and the lack of regulatory oversight allowing for price inflation via practices such as wash-trading (Madeline; Das et al.; Cong et al.; Le Pennec, Fielder, and Ante; Fazil, Owfi, and Taesiri). We see here the initial traditional split of discourse around cultural activity within a new medium: dual narratives of utopianism and dystopianism. Regardless of the discursive frame, activity has grown steadily since stories reporting the failure of Blockchain to deliver on its hype began appearing in 2017 (Ellul).
Early coverage around blockchain, music, and NFTs echoes this capacity to leverage artificial scarcity via the creation of unique digital assets (cf Heap; Tomaino). As NFTs have developed, this discourse has become more nuanced, arguing that creators are now able to exploit both ownership and abundance. However, for the most part, music NFTs have essentially adopted the form of digital artworks and collectibles in editions ranging from 1:1 or 1:1000+. Grimes’s February 2021 Mars NFT pointed to a 32-second rotating animation of a sword-wielding cherubim above the planet Mars, accompanied by a musical cue (Grimes). Mars sold 388 NFTs for a reported fixed price of $7.5k each, grossing $2,910,000 at time of minting. By contrast, electronic artists Steve Aoki and Don Diablo have both released 1:1 NFT editions that have been auctioned via Sotheby’s, Superrare, and Nifty Gateway. Interestingly, these works have been bundled with physical goods; Diablo’s Destination Hexagonia, which sold for 600 Eth or approximately US$1.2 million at the time of sale, proffered ownership of a bespoke one-hour film hosted online, along with “a unique hand-crafted box, which includes a hard drive that contains the only copy of the high-quality file of the film” (Diablo). Aoki’s Hairy was much less elaborate but still promised to provide the winner of the $888,888 auction with a copy of the 35-second video of a fur-covered face shaking in time to downbeat electronica as an Infinite Objects video print (Aoki).
In the first half of 2021, similar projects from high-profile artists including Deadmau5, The Weekend, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Blondie, and 3Lau have generated an extraordinary amount of money leading to a significant, and understandable, appetite from musicians wanting to engage in this marketplace. Many of these artists and the platforms that have enabled their sales have lauded the potential for NFTs to address an alleged poor remuneration of artists from streaming and/or bypassing “industry middlemen” (cf. Sounds.xyz); the millions of dollars generated by sales of these NFTs presents a compelling case for exploring these new markets irrespective of risk and volatility. However, other artists have expressed reservations and/or received pushback on entry into the NFT marketplace due to concerns over the environmental impact of NFTs; volatility; and a perception of NFT markets as Ponzi schemes (Poleg), insecure (Goodin), exploitative (Purtill), or scammy (Dash).
As of late 2021, increased reportage began to highlight unauthorised or fraudulent NFT minting (cf. TFL; Stephen), including in music (Newstead). However, the number of contested NFTs remains marginal in comparison to the volume of exchange that occurs in the space daily. OpenSea alone oversaw over US$2.5 billion worth of transactions per month. For the most part, online NFT marketplaces like OpenSea and Solanart oversee the exchange of products on terms not dissimilar to other large online retailers; the space is still resolutely emergent and there is much debate about what products, including recently delisted pro-Nazi and Alt-Right-related NFTs, are socially and commercially acceptable (cf. Pearson; Redman). Further, there are signs this trend may impact on both the willingness and capacity of rightsholders to engage with NFTs, particularly where official offerings are competing with extant fraudulent or illegitimate ones. Despite this, at the time of writing the NFT market as a whole does not appear prone to this type of obstruction.
What remains complicated is the contested relationship between NFTs, copyrights, and ownership of the assets they represent. This is further complicated by tension between the claims of blockchain’s independence from existing regulatory structures, and the actual legal recourse available to music rights holders.
Music Rights and Ownership
Baym et al. note that addressing the problems of rights management and metadata is one of the important discussions around music convened by early blockchain projects. While they posit that “our point is not whether blockchain can or can’t fix the problems the music industries face” (403), for some professionals, the blockchain’s promise of eliminating the need for trust seemed to provide an ideal solution to a widely acknowledged business-to-business problem: one of poor metadata leading to unclaimed royalties accumulating in “black boxes”, particularly in the case of misattributed mechanical royalties in the USA (Rethink Music Initiative). As outlined in their influential institutional research paper (partnered with music rights disruptor Kobalt), the Rethink Music Initiative implied that incumbent intermediaries were benefiting from this opacity, incentivising them to avoid transparency and a centralised rights management database. This frame provides a key example of one politicised version of “fairness”, directly challenging the interest of entrenched powers and status quo systems. Also present in the space is a more pragmatic approach which sees problems of metadata and rights flows as the result of human error which can be remedied with the proper technological intervention.
O’Dair and Beaven argue that blockchain presents an opportunity to eliminate the need for trust which has hampered efforts to create a global standard database of rights ownership, while music business researcher Opal Gough offers a more sober overview of how decentralised ledgers can streamline processes, remove inefficiencies, and improve cash flow, without relying on the moral angle of powerful incumbents holding on to control accounts and hindering progress.
In the intervening two years, this discourse has shifted from transparency (cf. Taghdiri) to a practical narrative of reducing system friction and solving problems on the one hand—embodied by Paperchain, see Carnevali —and ethical claims reliant on the concept of fairness on the other—exemplified by Resonate—but with, so far, limited widespread impact. The notion that the need for b2b collaboration on royalty flows can be successfully bypassed through a “trustless” blockchain is currently being tested. While these earlier projects were attempts to either circumvent or fix problems facing the traditional rights holders, with the advent of the NFT in particular, novel ownership structures have reconfigured the concept of a rights holder. NFTs promise fans an opportunity to not just own a personal copy of a recording or even a digitally unique version, but to share in the ownership of the actual property rights, a role previously reserved for record labels and music publishers.
New NFT models have only recently launched which offer fans a share of IP revenue. “Collectors can buy royalty ownership in songs directly from their favorite artists in the form of tokens” through the service Royal. Services such as Royal and Vezt represent potentially massive cultural shifts in the traditional separation between consumers and investors; they also present possible new headaches and adventures for accountants and legal teams. The issues noted by Baym et al. are still present, and the range of new entrants into this space risks the proliferation, rather than consolidation, of metadata standards and a need to put money into multiple blockchain ecosystems. As noted in RMIT’s blockchain report,
missing royalty payments … would suggest the answer to “does it need a blockchain?” is yes (although further research is needed). However, it is not clear that the blockchain economy will progress beyond the margins through natural market forces. Some level of industry coordination may still be required. (18)
Beyond the initial questions of whether system friction can be eased and standards generated without industry cooperation lie deeper philosophical issues of what will happen when fans are directly incentivised to promote recordings and artist brands as financial investors. With regard to royalty distribution, the exact role that NFTs would play in the ownership and exploitation of song IP remains conceptual rather than concrete. Even the emergent use cases are suggestive and experimental, often leaning heavily on off-chain terms, goodwill and the unknown role of existing legal infrastructure.
Audience and Business Services
Aside from the more high-profile NFT cases which focus on the digital object as an artwork providing a source of value, other systemic uses of NFTs are emerging. Both audience and business services are—to varying degrees—explorations of the utility of NFTs as a community token: i.e. digital commodities that have a market value, but also unlock ancillary community interaction. The music industries have a longstanding relationship with the sale of exclusivity and access tailored to experiential products. Historically, one of music’s most profitable commodities—the concert ticket—contains very little intrinsic value, but unlocks a hugely desirable extrinsic experience. As such, NFTs have already found adoption as tools of music exclusivity; as gateways into fan experiences, digital communities, live events ticketing and closed distribution. One case study incorporating almost all of these threads is the Deathbats club by American heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold. Conceived of as the “ultimate fan club”, Deathbats is, according to the band’s singer M. Shadows, “every single thing that [fans] want from us, which is our time, our energy” (Chan). At the time of writing, the Deathbats NFT had experienced expected volatility, but maintained a 30-day average sale price well above launch price.
A second affordance provided by music NFTs’ ability to tokenise community is the application of this to music businesses in the form of music DAOs: decentralised autonomous organisations. DAOs and NFTs have so far intersected in a number of ways. DAOs function as digital entities that are owned by their members. They utilise smart contracts to record protocols, votes, and transactions on the blockchain. Bitcoin and Ethereum are often considered the first DAOs of note, serving as board-less venture capital funds, also known as treasuries, that cannot be accessed without the consensus of their members. More recently, DAOs have been co-opted by online communities of shared interests, who work towards an agreed goal, and operate without the need for leadership. Often, access to DAO membership is tokenised, and the more tokens a member has, the more voting rights they possess. All proposals must pass before members, and have been voted for by the majority in order to be enacted, though voting systems differ between DAOs. Proposals must also comply with the DAO’s regulations and protocols. DAOs typically gather in online spaces such as Discord and Zoom, and utilise messaging services such as Telegram. Decentralised apps (dapps) have been developed to facilitate DAO activities such as voting systems and treasury management.
Collective ownership of digital assets (in the form of NFTs) has become commonplace within DAOs. Flamingo DAO and PleasrDAO are two well-established and influential examples. The “crypto-backed social club” Friends with Benefits (membership costs between $5,000 and $10,000) serves as a “music discovery platform, an online publication, a startup incubator and a kind of Bloomberg terminal for crypto investors” (Gottsegen), and is now hosting its own curated NFT art platform with work by the likes of Pussy Riot. Musical and cross-disciplinary artists and communities are also exploring the potential of DAOs to empower, activate, and incentivise their communities as an extension of, or in addition to, their adoption and exploration of NFTs.
In collaboration with Never Before Heard Sounds, electronic artist and musical pioneer Holly Herndon is exploring ideological questions raised by the growing intelligence of AI to create digital likeness and cloning through voice models. Holly+ is a custom voice instrument that allows users to process pre-existing polyphonic audio through a deep neural network trained by recordings of Holly Herndon’s voice. The output is audio-processed through Holly Herndon’s distinct vocal sound. Users can submit their resulting audio to the Holly+ DAO, to whom she has distributed ownership of her digital likeness. DAO token-holders steward which audio is minted and certified as an NFT, ensuring quality control and only good use of her digital likeness. DAO token-holders are entitled to a percentage of profit from resales in perpetuity, thereby incentivising informed and active stewardship of her digital likeness (Herndon).
Another example is LA-based label Leaving Records, which has created GENRE DAO to explore and experiment with new levels of ownership and empowerment for their pre-existing community of artists, friends, and supporters. They have created a community token—$GENRE—for which they intend a number of uses, such as “a symbol of equitable growth, a badge of solidarity, a governance token, currency to buy NFTs, or as a utility to unlock token-gated communities” (Leaving Records). Taken as a whole, the spectrum of affordances and use cases presented by music NFTs can be viewed as a build-up of interest and capital around the technology.
The last half of 2021 was a moment of intense experimentation in the realms of music business administration and cultural expression, and at the time of writing, each week seemed to bring a new high-profile music Web3 project and/or disaster. Narratives of emancipation and domination under capitalism continue to drive our discussions around music and technology, and the direct link to debates on ecology and financialisation make these conversations particularly polarising. High-profile cases of music projects that overstep norms of existing IP rights, such as Hitpiece’s attempt to generate NFTs of songs without right-holders’ consent, point to the ways in which this technology is portrayed as threatening and subversive to commercial musicians (Blistein). Meanwhile, the Water and Music research DAO promises to incentivise a research community to “empower music-industry professionals with the knowledge, network and skills to do more collaborative and progressive work with technology” through NFT tokens and a DAO organisational structure (Hu et al.). The assumption in many early narratives of the ability of blockchain to provide systems of remuneration that musicians would embrace as inherently fairer is far from the reality of a popular discourse marked by increasing disdain and distrust, currently centred on NFTs as lacking in artistic merit, or even as harmful.
We have seen all this talk before, of course, when jukeboxes and player pianos, film synchronisation, radio, recording, and other new communication technologies steered new paths for commercial musicians and promised magical futures. All of these innovations were met with intense scrutiny, cries of inauthentic practice, and resistance by incumbent musicians, but all were eventually sustained by the emergence of new forms of musical expression that captured the interest of the public. On the other hand, the road towards musical nirvana passes by not only the more prominent corpses of the Digital Audio Tape, SuperAudio, and countless recording formats, but if you squint and remember that technology is not always about devices or media, you can see the Secure Download Music Initiative, PressPlay, the International Music Registry, and Global Repertoire Databases in the distance, wondering if blockchain might correct some of the problems they dreamed of solving in their day. The NFT presents the artistic and cultural face of this dream of a musical future, and of course we are first seeing the emergence of old models within its contours. While the investment, ownership, and service phenomena emerging might not be reminiscent of the first moment when people were able to summon a song recording onto their computer via a telephone modem, it is important to remember that there were years of text-based chat rooms before we arrived at music through the Internet. It is early days, and there will be much confusion, anger, and experimentation before music NFTs become either another mundane medium of commercial musical practice, or perhaps a memory of another attempt to reach that goal.
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