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Music

Are NFTs the future of music?

@jackwhatley89

Like the sweetest doughnut on a Krispy Kreme conveyor belt, I become entirely glazed over when anyone mentions NFTs. Non-fungible tokens, as they are more appropriately known, only really made their way into the collective consciousness during the pandemic in 2021, when the world was falling apart and the idea of a digitised history suddenly felt like the only tangible way to have art survive the impending apocalypse. Since then, the furore has died down, the crypto-bros have somewhat subsided, celebrity social media accounts are no longer brimming with nonchalant apes or other pixellated farmyard masterpieces and the desire to find out exactly how they work and why we need them has all but vanished. Instead, the concept of NFTs is quietly seeping into every facet of our culture, including music.

If, like me, those three letters induce a state of quasi-comatose, then we must implore you to shake yourself from your slumber. While the intricacies of blockchain ownership may prove to be the perfect sleeping aid, there is a strong contingent of voices from within the music industry that thinks NFTs could be the future of the business allowing artists to not only be paid fairly and collaborate more easily, but to retain a far greater artistic control on their work now and from beyond the grave.

Let’s get some of those pesky intricacies out of the way. In 2021, the fervour surrounding NFTs threatened to explode across the internet. NFTs operate as digital tokens on a blockchain which keeps an accurate record of ownership and was constructed, in part, as an attempt to reduce digital piracy — like adding an immovable “verified” blue tick to your work to confirm it as the true source. Whether it is luxury goods, art or, indeed, music, NFTs sales jumped from $95 million in 2020 to an incredible $25 billion the following year. Huge figures are now being reached in 2022 also, with Opensea suggesting that 2021’s figure will pale in comparison to this year’s total. One place NFT experts suggest will be most radically disrupted by the boom is music.

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Lyrics, songs, albums, and catalogues are all pieces that could be turned into NFTs. Lostboy collective is one place where music is already being incorporated into digital art to make a singular piece, sold as a way of not only sharing great music and artwork but tackling mental health issues too. Kings of Leon put their name in the annals of music history when they became the first band to release an album as an NFT with their record When You See Yourself being offered in three packages that come complete with music and artwork from their longtime collaborator Night After Night. It’s a proposition that will become more widely available as smart NFTs continue to be developed to house both music and PDF resources, allowing the visual and sonic expression of a band to sit in one place.

Chances are, all of these cyber-compressions will leave you feeling a little sterile. But, much like the doctor’s surgery, such clinical attitudes can prove to offer up better results. And, in truth, there is no patient more deserving than those in the music industry. Over the last ten years, the industry has been swarmed by issues. Not only does streaming offer little to no opportunity for a growing band to be able to make enough money to devote themselves to their art, as Spotify’s top 1% of artists earn less than £50,000 a year, but being on tour has now become an almost impossible venture. Not only is touring an incredibly expensive process but now venues happily take a 25% cut of merchandise sales and that’s without even acknowledging the practical impossibility of touring Europe as a British band. NFTs, in this instance, could prove to be some welcome medication.

Traditional revenues shares on record contracts work out at around 50/50, with the artist taking 50% of profit home and the rest share between agents, executives and such like. But there’s a real feeling that this sort of balance hasn’t been achieved in years, and this is where the opportunity for NFTs lay. Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park fame recently shared his first NFT and raised $11,000 for the sale, he took to Twitter to share his thoughts on the notion: “With NFTs, we can let the early figures speak for themselves. Even if I upload the full version of the contained song to DSPs worldwide (which I can still do), I would never get even close to $10k, after fees by DSPs, label, marketing, etc.”

There are further benefits of releasing music as NFTs too. Look around to see iconic artists selling their back catalogues and you’ll see singers and bands trying to safeguard their futures. While many of those icons are cashing in — Bruce Springsteen sold his catalogue for a figure close to $500 million — selling a catalogue to a trusted source means that any secondary or tertiary uses of the music are controlled by establishments like Hipgnosis and not the greedier side of the record industry. With NFTs, that deal can be made instantly and stop the current practice of artists giving away their rights within the first few breaths of a meeting. NFTs do provide artists with the chance to relinquish their rights when minting but can also add in particular presets that ensure the artist can make money from reselling as well as directly, picking up royalties every time the NFT changes hands.

It’s not only monetarily that NFTs provide a safe haven for artists. Collaborations and remixes are also made easier and more effective through this channel. One of the main facets of pop music over the years has been the art of collaboration and with Steve Aoki digital artist Maciej Kuciara releasing their own collection the idea of NFTs as a new “digital canvas” for collaboration to take place on, the market could soon be drenched in visual art supported by music. The mechanisms at hand allow both artists to bake in royalty percentages or agreements at will, never to be disputed in court. Upgradable NFTs, tokens that can evolve over time, provide a similar option for remixes or fan edits, removing intermediaries between the original artist and anyone looking to create more content off the back of the original NFT.

Like any luxury good, one of the most easily recognisable pathways for NFTs to provide revenue for their creator is through the rarity of the product. Scarcity is a driving factor in any economic field and with the opportunity to add on special features such as personalised messages from the artist, the uniqueness of these tokens could initiate a huge bidding war. However, this for me at least, is where the proposition largely falls down.

Thus far, NFTs are being produced on a comparatively small scale to the thousands of songs that are uploaded to streaming platforms every day. Knowing, as we do, the energy needed to create such works of art, the idea of turning the millions and millions of songs in the world into NFTs seems impossibly large. Equally, if such a transformation would be possible, how would one continue to listen to music with the veracity they do now? Streaming is far from the ideal concept for creators of music, but for music lovers and listeners it really isn’t that far away. Being able to flit between the work of your 500 favourite musicians is a notion that would have been reserved for science-fiction magazines even 30 years ago. Now, we can walk around our daily lives with the entire catalogue of popular music at our fingertips.

Of course, there has been a historical NFT-adjacent scheme that has been running for decades and found a brand new lease of life in the 21st century — vinyl. Physical vinyl sales have rocketed in recent years with over 40 million units being sold in the US alone and, while the plastic discs offer up their own environmental challenge, the opportunity to dive into the complete artistic world of the album’s creator as well as support them financially. It’s a notion that, with a little extra support, could see artists’ pockets more appropriately lined with album sale dollars from Baby Boomers to Gen-Z and beyond.

With that said, it’s hard not to recognise the opportunities NFTs could hold for artists in the future. Whether it is a better distribution of the wealth generated by their art, a great sense of control of that art once its created or the chance to ensure their work is forever minted in the annals of digitised history books, the Non-Fungible Token is unlikely to be phased out entirely from music. However, much like its Bitcoin brethren, until the exclusivity of the language, creation and distribution of this content is destroyed and the accessibility of music — the universal ability to connect across religion, gender, race over a single string of notes — put to the forefront, then NFTs will remain a subject we all try to avoid at dinner parties in favour of dropping the needle on your favourite record and “putting some tunes on”.

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