Web3, NFTs, the metaverse and the future of the music industry
We speak with VNCCII, Julian Mudd and Daniel Allan about what it means to be an artist in an evolving virtual world.
The headlines are hard to miss: Snoop Dogg is turning the legendary Death Row Records into an NFT label, El Salvador is building a crypto city powered by a volcano, Universal Music Group signed a collection of Bored Ape Yacht Club characters as a musical supergroup, and even Matt Damon is minting TV slots telling average joes to bottle up their courage and buy bitcoin.
- READ MORE: Audius CEO Roneil Rumburg: “Web3 is happening, with or without us. It’s the funnest place in the world to be building things”
Ready or not, Web3 is here, and it demands our collective attention. The sheer amount of ink spilt over the subject is eclipsed only by the breadth of opinion that Web3 generates. For some, it’s the latest chapter in a late-stage capitalist hellscape, for others, it’s literally going to reshape the universe itself.
With so much polarising talk, it can be hard to separate Web3’s genuine potential from all the hyperbolic promises, FinTech jargon, and whatever the hell this is:
One thing’s for sure: while this may have all started as a strange, pixelated Wall Street, Web3 has increasingly become the space du jour for music makers looking to forge new paths, build communities, and push the limits of high-tech creativity.
Part of Web3’s attraction is financial. A booming crypto-economy has turned NFTs into a bona fide goldmine, allowing artists such as Grimes and 3LAU to rake in huge sums from their sales. Seeing the writing on the wall, many artists have jumped on the non-fungible bandwagon, and who can blame them? Compared to the ever-shrinking income that most artists make from streaming royalties, NFTs may well be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to profit from the craft of songwriting.
High-profile NFT drops are generating the most buzz but this is not where the true disruptive potential of Web3 lies. The real revolution is taking place in the nitty-gritty of how artists fund, copyright, manage and monetize their work.
Take funding. What once required major-label backing is now being achieved in DMs and Discord servers. Using direct community engagement, artists are trialling a new style of patronage where fans come together to jointly invest in the creation of new music. In return, these fans stand to reap financial benefits should the resulting tunes be commercially successful. This crowdfunding approach is facilitated by what are called ‘smart contracts’. Written in computer code and transparently distributed on the blockchain, these self-executing legal agreements can automate essential business transactions, such as royalty payments, between artists and fans.
When it comes to managing ongoing issues or decision-making in musical projects, we’re seeing the increasing use of DAOs – Decentralised Autonomous Organisations. Despite the name, these are intensely human-driven systems that enable groups to collectively make decisions without traditional hierarchies. Instead of retaining sole control, artists are essentially transforming fans into teammates, giving those who supported the music a say in how it’s developed and monetized going forward.
Then there are the artists who go beyond new business practices and use Web3 technologies as creative tools. Based in Los Angeles, Julian Mudd is one such example. His 2021 debut single Growing Pains, written after a relationship break-up, takes a generative, Web3-specific approach to popular music production.
“It was a turbulent time of growth for me,” says Mudd, “and I didn’t even know what NFTs were at the time. It was later when I came across these generative art NFT projects that I felt inspired to release it in the way I did.”
You can check out the song on all the usual streaming platforms but should you choose to buy an NFT of the track, a unique collection of instrumental parts will be algorithmically selected, mixed, mastered, and delivered. You’ll even get uniquely generated album art. The key here is that you have no idea what version of the song you’ll end up with, instead getting something truly unique for your payment. In Web3 parlance, this a process called ‘blind minting’.
Holly Herndon has been at the vanguard of experimental electronic music since her 2012 debut, Movement. Her latest project, Holly+ offers a ‘deep fake’ vocal model of Herndon’s voice for fans to create and compose with. Alongside this is a DAO that is incentivised to curate fan-made content: works approved by the DAO can be minted as an NFT, with 50 per cent of profits going to the creator, 40 per cent to the DAO members, and 10 per cent to Herndon.
She describes the Holly+ project as a “virtuous cycle”, where “the best artworks and license opportunities are approved by DAO members, profit from those works will be shared among artists using the tools, DAO members, and a treasury to fund further development of the tools.”
Not every musician is tech-savvy enough to take advantage of these more adventurous aspects of Web3, which is why companies such as Audius are stepping in to provide a more user-friendly bridge between the traditional streaming infrastructure that many artists have come to rely on and the decentralised, direct-to-fan engagement that Web3 is built around. While the user interface is comfortingly familiar, they’re simultaneously bringing a number of gamified features to the community, promoting adoption and usage of the platform by distributing their own native cryptocurrency, $AUDIO.
Looming behind all of this is the one technology that divides opinion almost as much as crypto: the metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg and his metamates have kicked things off in typically cringy fashion, and the prospect of buying a virtual plot of land in the Snoopverse seems an awful lot like Club Penguin for grown-ups. But once you get past the headlines, things start to get a lot more interesting.
Sami Tauber has been living in the future for some time and is happy to welcome us now that we’re finally catching up. Since 2014, she’s been building a distinctly forward-focused music career, centred on the “Super Sentient Super Heroine”, VNCCII.
“I’ve always anticipated that the future of music would be multimedia, with gaming, avatars and XR technologies,” Tauber says. “I envision a future where multimedia metaverse-native franchises are built, and where the relationship with a fan and community is redefined and enhanced through a co-creation experience.”
For Tauber, who also hosts the metaverse deep-dive vodcast, Future Humans 3.0, innovations in Web3 have come at the perfect time. “I’m an independent artist and own all my IP,” she says. “The NFT and blockchain space is a natural cultural fit for the ethos of VNCCII.”
As the Metaverse grows, it may well turn out to be the lynchpin that ties together Web3’s technological philosophy, speeding its adoption. The need for digital native currency starts to make a whole lot of sense once it can be used to purchase tickets to must-see virtual music festivals – where, of course, you’ll want your avatar to be seen wearing the latest Adidas NFT gear. As Tauber puts it: “There’s a seismic shift happening now where artists are reclaiming power, IP, and communication. Innovations like game development, blockchain technology, and avatars are some of the key drivers for the music metaverse’s tangible future.”
With that reclamation of power comes new levels of responsibility; independent artists now need to stay on top of a complex array of business, legal, and marketing responsibilities (oh, and writing music too). Digital burnout is an increasingly important issue for ‘plugged-in’ artists and, in the Web3 space, the need to interact with your online community takes on new dimensions. These are no longer just a musician’s fan club, but now their investors and stakeholders too.
Producer Daniel Allan, whose album Overstimulated received $140,000 in funding from his fan base, spent months making connections and securing investments. “In a lot of ways, it’s limited my capacity to make music,” says Allan. “The sexy time to make music isn’t between 7am to 9am, but that’s the only time that I can do it right now because my afternoons are filled with calls.” However, Allan also makes clear that he considers the trade-off more than worth it. “I love doing it because, at the end of the day, if one more person can hear about the community that we’re building then I’m happy.”
Tauber expresses a similar sentiment, noting that while communication is a key part of a Web3 career, it’s vastly different from the impersonal and overwhelming echo chamber of social media. “That’s what’s cool about the Web3 community,” says Tauber. “You don’t need to have millions of fans on Web2 social media platforms. I find the fans and connections in Web3 can be more interpersonal as they are directly investing in your NFTs, brand and project and will see a financial, cultural, and social return on investment for believing in the artist or project early on.”
Of course, it’s not all roses. Making your fans into investors can only add new layers of complexity to an already delicate relationship. Venture capitalism is not for the faint of heart and a certain amount of failure is a given in such undertakings. It’s been noted that many of the contracts being drawn up between artists and fans are worryingly vague, built primarily on personal trust, and lacking in clear enforcement mechanisms. For emotionally invested music lovers, tying part of their fortunes to the rise or fall of a favourite artist is not without risk.
The crypto economy that underpins Web3 transactions has some seriously troubling issues. The single largest drawback to the promises of Web3 is its staggering environmental impact. Every artist working in this space is trying to plot a path that balances artistic and economic potential against an almost gleefully wasteful ‘proof of work’ model that consumes huge amounts of energy. Many creatives who dabble in the crypto realm make a point of emphasising their efforts to use Web3 in an environmentally conscious way, often through some form of carbon-offset scheme.
Most are pinning hopes on a switch to the ‘proof-of-stake’ model that derives its security by placing financial liability on the people validating transactions. “Ethereum, the chain I launched on, will upgrade to proof-of-stake very soon,” says Mudd. “Thus I’m not worried about the long-term implications of blockchain on the environment.”
A widespread move to the proof-of-stake model would be a significant step forward but Ethereum has been promising a shift to proof-of-stake since 2017, and there seems to be no firm date for when this change will happen. Given how much capital has been invested in crypto mining rigs by the industry’s biggest players, a shift away from ‘proof-of-work’ is unlikely to happen overnight. Hopefully, pressure from artists and other members of the community will speed up the transition but, at present, many of the most popular blockchains are still using it.
Tauber at least shares Mudd’s optimistic outlook. “It needs refinement and development as well as eco-conscious NFT platforms and marketplaces,” she says. “I believe we are heading in the right direction. Being conscious of the environment without stifling innovation is key.”
There is a freshness to the discussion and development happening around Web3 but the underlying principles behind NFTs are not one of them. The great miracle of digital technology is its ability, at nearly no cost, to reproduce content ad infinitum. So, on some level, it’s counterintuitive to turn this scientific marvel on its head by imposing artificial scarcity in pursuit of ownership. However, in the absence of any truly new economic models, creators have little choice but to adapt the old ideas of supply and demand into the digital realm.
Nevertheless, when you take in the overall picture, it’s clear that the technology of blockchain is enabling artists to break free from old career models and do something radically different. Direct-to-fan engagement, collective funding and management, gamified music platforms, augmented reality concerts, and virtual jam spaces – these are fundamental paradigm shifts for the music industry as a whole.
There is much experimentation going on, and much left to figure out regarding what works and what doesn’t. If there’s one constant in the Web3 and Metaverse community, it’s enthusiasm. “The open metaverse represents a new era,” says Tauber. “[a] creative renaissance where we’re all creators and builders that engage in finance, technology, and co-creation of culture. Buckle up because the metaverse will be quite a ride.”
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