What are NFTS? And can they save independent music?

Mat Dryhurst explains why million-dollar GIF auctions only scratch the surface of blockchain's disruptive potential.

  
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In late February, Grimes and her brother Mac Boucher made $5.8 million in under 20 minutes by selling copies of two short videos on the blockchain, among other digital artworks: The roughly 30-second clips, “Earth” and “Mars,” featured a cherub floating in outer space, set to a bit of spacey music. Days before, the artist Christian Torres sold a gif of a famous cartoon cat at auction for almost $580,000—even though the meme had long been available in the form of a YouTube video, where it went viral in the way that makes things kind of belong to all of us.

Kings of Leon, an act hardly associated with the cutting edge of music and technology, followed in their footsteps on March 5, when it became the first major rock band to release an album as an NFT, or non-fungible token, which loosely translates to a kind of digital certificate of ownership that exists on a blockchain. The release, When You See Yourself, netted somewhere between $1.4 and $2 million in five days, and the auction isn’t even over yet. Tory Lanez, Mike Shinoda, Steve Aoki, and Shawn Mendes have jumped on the bandwagon, too. 

For fans of independent music and culture, it’s been hard to bear witness to the NFT’s sudden eruption in the mainstream conversation without feeling a bit… queasy. Dizzy? We spent most of the first season of The Culture Journalist talking about how the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the existing structural inequalities of the culture industry. How is the spectacle of already-popular artists making unimaginable sums of money by selling their work as speculative assets on the blockchain supposed to be anything but a reminder of the excesses of financialization and the widening gap between the rich and the poor?

At points, the frivolity almost felt like a troll: After we wrapped recording for this week’s interview, we logged online to discover that artist Ryder Ripps and his new bride-to-be, Azealia Banks, had used the technology to sell a 24-minute sex tape as an NFT, for $17,000. That many of the beneficiaries of these buzzworthy sales donated a portion of the proceeds to charity almost seemed like a tacit acknowledgement of the cupidity in the air. (Although maybe the Ryder Ripps and Azealia Banks stunt was just supposed to be some kind of commentary on that dynamic.)

Image courtesy of Mat Dryhurst.

For Emilie and Andrea, one question in particular stood out: What does the unfolding NFT craze mean for the future of music—and particularly, for independent artists? To help us make sense of this strange new chapter in the cultural economy, we enlisted Mat Dryhurst, a Berlin-based artist, technologist, and teacher who you’ve probably seen commenting on such brain-bending matters on Twitter—and who co-hosts the fantastic Interdependence podcast with Holly Herndon. He’s been exploring the possibilities of blockchain technology in his work for some time, and is a firm believer that it has the potential to rewire the economics of independent music from the ground up—just not in the way that you might expect, judging from the recent hullabaloo.

We spoke to Mat about how NFTs work, how cryptocurrency may represent a potential antidote to streaming's devaluation of musical value, and why the boom-and-bust speculation market we're seeing right now is only just the "GeoCities era" of this technology's potential. 

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