Blue Roses, NFTs and making rent
“You can only do so much with a like on Instagram” said Donnie Dinch, founder of Bitsky, on a recent NFT-themed edition of Clubhouse’s Good Time Show. All the seeds of a historical turning point are packed in that pithy statement. The heady promise of NFTs is to give rise to a new type of relationship between fans and creators over the internet, one based on economics and ownership. And there is the tantalising hope in amongst the froth of one day making it easier for modest artists to make a reasonable living from their work.
Because being in the long-tail of artists is tough economically, as Spotify revealed last week: of all musicians with over 1,000 followers, only 1.2% are making more than $50k (just around the median salary in the USA). Streaming pays the bills if you have a vast fan-base — Ed Sheeran is not struggling — but even for a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter like Nadine Shah, paying the rent is a worry. The economics of streaming treat all listens as equal (worth about $0.00318)¹, but this isn’t really how being a fan of an artists or musician works. The connection between creators and their fans can be deep, emotional and very personal; it is just on a completely different plane to the trivial, disposable currency of likes, shares and plays.
My vote for unknown musical gem of the 2000s might be Blue Roses, the self-titled debut album of Laura Groves. Its a passionate, delicate folk album recoded in the houses of friends around England at the age of just 21. How do I give full expression to my belief that this album is important, and valuable and special (at least to me) in a way that is different to most other albums? Right now the answer feels very analog — buy the vinyl perhaps, go to a few gigs. Beyond buying the album on iTunes there is no digital mechanism to express the value I place on this album.
And this is where NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) get interesting. What Laura Groves could have done — in a parallel crypto universe — would have been to create an NFT of the album. Perhaps one for the whole album and one for each track. Buying the NFT basically means owning the ‘original’ — where the original in this case means an audio file of some sort. I could buy it, and then I would be the sole owner — sole owner in the whole world — of the original of this most wonderful album. What would it be worth now? Very hard to say of course but the vinyl is selling for £110 on Amazon right now, perhaps £1,000? Maybe even £10,000? It only takes a couple of individuals with money and sincere passion to drive up the price of something precipitously when there is such extreme scarcity as a ‘one of one’.
But how would any of this have helped Laura? A crucial detail touched upon in that legendary Good Time Show was a convention emerging of artists getting 10% of any resale of an NFT, in perpetuity. Of course this whole space is very early and who knows who the dynamics will shake out, but this particular feature holds a fascinating opportunity for all long-tail artists. What income would Laura Groves have been able to take from any resales of any of the Blue Roses NFTs (individual tracks or the whole album) over the past decade? It depends obviously on how many times its traded hands but it could quite feasibly be in the thousands. That may not sound too much but consider that the top track from the album has had 986k plays, which at an estimated $0.00318 per stream amounts to $3,100. The whole album looks unlikely to have generated more than $5,000 in streaming fees. So it is beyond the bounds of possibility that derivative NFT income on resales could materially contribute to the income of an artist.
For Ed Sheeran this is just more money in the bank, but for a vast swathe of long tail artists — and not just musicians, but painters, writers, poets, playwrights, sculptors, photographers — this could shift the economic scales one step further from penury, and one step closer to stability. And one hopes that most artists are not in the game to make millions, the overriding economic consideration would surely be to simply lift them from the day to day economic worry of getting by. Wouldn’t it be so much a better world if a widely-acclaimed singer like Nadine Shah didn’t have to worry about making rent at the end of the month? It doesn’t need to be millions, it simply needs to liberate her from the weight of worrying about how to pay the bills, so she can focus all of her precious, rare energy on creating music that everyone else on planet earth can enjoy? It seems a travesty of sorts, albeit an old one, to have admired, loved artists wasting their energy worrying about how to cover for the basic costs of living. In today’s world of extreme abundance, where more than a billion people could be on the other end of Spotify listening to your track, it seems absurd that a better model cannot be found for digitally monetising the passion of your top 500, top 100, top 5 fans.
NFTs — especially with a resale convention baked in — offer the hope of doing this. And as well as practical, pay-the-bills income there is something that feels right about the principle of economic value flowing back to the artist seamlessly through a 10% resale cut. Laura Groves was 21 when that album was made, she was a complete unknown. It took three months for Pitchfork to review and several years no doubt for it to reach a wider audience. Over time — more than a decade now — the album has, I would say, held the test of time. And it is time really that establishes the value of collectible things, as people realise the artworks proper place in history. But all of this is lost to the artist who’s economic connection with the original as a collectible is severed the day they publish (or at least when someone first buys it). This seems unfair, they are cut out from the upside of the concentration of economic value in the collectible, the one-of-one, dimension of their own creations.
Quite why the digital sphere has failed so distinctly to monetise the top-fans, collectibles end of the fan-artist spectrum is a bit of a mystery, but I rather suspect it has to do with a certain grubbiness in artists putting pricing tiers and the like into their products. We prefer our artists pure, generally, not mimicking some corporate football stadium with private boxes. NFTs present a neat way to finesse the return of economic value to artists without the grubbiness, the sullying of the magic, you get from crude, ‘restricted access’ type offers.
So NFTs, so much hype and froth, do contain within them something very exciting. Just imagine a world where the NFTs for an album (and the tracks)are trade-able through Spotify, and as the owner you can embed that one-of-one ownership anywhere across the internet, in your twitter profile, your facebook, your blog, whatever. It is an incredibly powerful, an emotional resonant statement of what you think matters, and what you care about it, it is singularly expressive in a world of overwhelming abundance. And best of all a slice of the the ‘value’ that lies in that special statement finds it was back, seamlessly, to the artist who made it all possible in the first place. And who will now be better placed to keep doing more of the same, instead of eyeing the utility bills on the floor with trepidation and hearing the nagging voice of ‘maybe its time to get a real job’. Wouldn’t that be a better world indeed.