Why Are NFTs Suddenly Taking Over the Music Industry?

"After 10 years of the nihilism brought on by Spotify, I'll entertain any conversation that at least posits itself on 'bringing value to artworks,'" says Jacques Greene

Illustration: Shingo Shimizu (shingo.ca)

BY Kyle MullinPublished Mar 11, 2021

Any music fans overwhelmed by the sudden news onslaught about non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and the dense techno-babble therein, may not expect to find clarity from '90s star Raine Maida of all people. Yet, the famed Our Lady Peace vocalist is gaining fresh attention as a Chief Product Officer for S!NG, an app designed to help musicians easily create NFTs of their art. What's more: that app's users can skip the prior required crypto know-how and begin using those unique digital tokens (hence the "non-fungible" in their name) that allow for ownership within blockchain technology (i.e., an online ledger that can't be modified or hacked).

For users, buying these NFTs serves as a seal of proof that the particular version of your purchase is uniquely yours. Creators, meanwhile, can sell their art directly to fans via this increasingly mainstream market and economy while also getting a cut each time the NFT is sold thanks to a special feature of the tech.

Prior to his S!NG stint, Maida co-founded an ahead-of-its-time streaming platform called Record Mob in 2014, focusing on indie musicians, but it couldn't compete with deeper-pocketed competitors. He seems far more hopeful about the prospects of this current craze, eagerly telling Exclaim! over Zoom that confused newbies should think of NFTs like hockey cards. "Most of us got in on trading cards early. Maybe we aren't buying Grimes or Steve Aoki's expensive NFTs, but there are a lot of little cards we can get in on."

There are many analogies for NFTs — such as vintage record collecting or baseball cards — but singer-songwriter Devon Welsh (formerly of Montreal's Majical Cloudz), and fellow members of the artist collective Spumante, call any such comparisons "utterly wrong." The organization (who insisted on writing their answers to Exclaim! as a collective, as if to add to their sly mystique) has a far more cynical take on the NFT frenzy than its throngs of enthusiasts. After Kings of Leon announced their intention to be the first band to release an NFT album, Welsh's band Belave (an experimental duo with Matthew E. Duffy) beat them to the punch by 36 hours with a fraction of the resources and marketing push. Spumante call those tokens mere files that are assigned hash numbers. The catch, in their view, is those files "must then be hosted online on some kind of shadow marketplace, continually being authenticated by the 'chain.' It's just normal digital art, with a cult of authenticity — a morbid zombified aura superimposed onto the aesthetic artifact."

And Spumante won't stop skewering NFT-mania there. When asked if they were attempting a crypto arms race with Kings of Leon, Spumante instead said they aimed "to satirize… [and] highlight how ugly the speculative culture is becoming."

Not all musicians share Welsh and company's misgivings. After Grimes made headlines for selling digital art as NFTs to the tune of $5.18 million USD ($6.55 million CAD), she was outdone by electronic musician 3LAU, who sold $11.7 million USD ($14.8 million CAD) worth of crypto-albums. Those dizzying sums pale in comparison to the other wares available on this fledging market, like Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and infamous Shark Tank billionaire Marc Cuban tokenizing mere tweets for steep prices.

Although those flashy transactions caused flurries of headlines, Maida was first attracted to NFT's after considering the potential for an intellectual property renaissance. He describes swaths of young creators with big outputs online. Many of them are chasing clout and followers rather than, in Maida's view, realizing they are creating valuable IP on Twitch or TikTok that they could protect and own.

One on-the-rise NFT enthusiast is Montreal-born, Toronto-based producer Jacques Greene. He sold the publishing of his new song, "Promise," via cryptocurrency marketplace Foundation on February 22. "There was definitely a sense of 'no way back, off into the unknown' as I 'minted' the piece and started the auction," Greene tells Exclaim!

He's adverse, however, to the "big tech money" flooding into NFTs, because it reminds him of Amazon, Uber and Airbnb falling far short of their early utopian rhetoric. And yet, in tweets announcing his blockchain debut, Greene also called it a galvanizing opportunity after recently untangling himself from a "bad publishing deal."

It's a sentiment that Spumante's members understand, especially as concert-stifling lockdowns drag on. Without that revenue artery, the collective say artists are "forced into this desperate and desolate situation, looking for anything and locked into a digital world. And now​ t​here is a huge media bloom concerning NFTs and cryptocurrencies." Even though eager headlines make NFTs look like the antidote to musicians' COVID-19 woes, Spumante says the trend "creates a market of scarcity only the wealthy can afford" and only amounts to a way for those deep-pocketed crypto enthusiasts to "flaunt their wealth, particularly tech-bros and faux-futurists."

"It's almost the opposite of that," says S!NG CEO Geoff Osler when asked about tyranny of the rich for NFTs. "This is an opening of resources to regular people that has never existed before," he says, before describing an ideal long-term scenario where young creators put something up, carve out a fan niche, and begin making money with middle men or gatekeepers. Maida agrees, describing the current headline-hogging big spenders as "the people that were involved with crypto first. But this thing is going to open up to the masses very soon."

Similarly, Mark Campbell, the Associate Chair of the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at the University of Toronto, sees NFTs as an opportunity for musicians "to have their work supported beyond the power reach of major corporations and industries, whose extractive logics have done more harm than good." While he harbours some skepticism, Campbell can't deny that NFTs "represent a moment for artists to gather a more equitable share of their own labour and art."

That potential for wealth redistribution can't be ignored, according to Greene. For him, "After 10 years of the nihilism brought on by Spotify, I'll entertain any conversation that at least posits itself on 'bringing value to artworks.'"

Greene's crypto wish list by no means ends with the musicians — he hopes his equally short-shrifted album artwork and music video-helming pals can gain from NFTs, because the tech is so "visuals-forward." It all makes him daydream of "photographers being paid for the use of their image whenever their photograph is embedded into an article. Or a band being paid — in real time — every time their song gets played in a store."

Those aspects make Greene "really glad I just jumped in with both feet." They also make him keen for the future: "It's most definitely not the last time I 'mint' anything. I think this still-early chaotic bubble will also subside into something a bit more manageable."

The easing of that current flurry of excitement, along with development of the technology, should help lower the cost of such minting soon, according to Osler, who points out that his app lets users mint for free. He is also eager to connect S!NG to several existing NFT marketplaces, so that his customers can easily put their NFTs on those sites, along with building a new marketplace for his app, in the weeks and months ahead.

Maida, meanwhile, looks forward to dropping Our Lady Peace music through such means soon. If only these options had been available at the outset of the band's career. "I would not embarrass myself by telling you what I signed my first publishing deal for, and how I gave all my IP away," he says with a laugh. "That's why the mission is to give these incredible young new creators the ability to own their stuff."

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