Take the Power Back
From painters to songwriters, creators are taking control of their destiny with web3 — and shaping the Metaverse to come
We are inching ever closer to achieving a decades-long dream of an open Metaverse: a global network of shared 3D virtual worlds destined to become the next Internet. But there is still a lot to be done. We need industry-wide open standards and infrastructure; easy content creation tools used by millions; and lots of great venues people want to hang out in, day after day. After nearly three decades in this endeavor, I still wake up every day looking forward to contributing to the effort and helping to guide our immersive computing future as it unfolds.
Meanwhile, another game is afoot: web3. While some of us continue to grind away at building the fantastical virtual worlds of tomorrow, digital media in the form of JPEGs, MP3s, MP4s and glTF models is being minted, shared and shilled to the tune of billions of dollars, today. The creator economy is in full force, remaking the fabric of the Internet, and the kids are taking the power back. Very soon we are going to have the Metaverse we need… just not the one a lot of us expected.
Old Media is the New Media
Until recently, you would have rightly described me as a 3D maximalist. I have spent decades developing tools and engines, on a singular mission to democratize the creation, distribution and consumption of interactive graphics. I love 3D and I can’t get it out of my blood.
But just as the industry is getting its immersive Metaverse on with extreme urgency, I find myself being pulled in another direction. I am a lifelong musician. As a young man I made a faustian bargain and back-burnered my artistic ambitions in favor of pursuing a career in computer software. The latter has been gratifying and rewarding, but I can no longer keep the music side of me bottled up. I am now in the thick of an audacious opera project, and last summer I started thinking about how I should release the music, build a worldwide audience around it and, lord willing, someday turn it into a stage production. I knew the streaming services wouldn’t be of much help; I’d be paying just to build an audience, and forget ever making a dime there.
Late last year I started following music NFT topics on Twitter, on the hunt for clever ways to fund and make a living from my creative work. Since 2018 I had been keeping up on the ideas around trading digital assets as collectibles on the blockchain — new ways to sell art, some groundbreaking, others downright suss. After a short bust, the blockchain boom came back with a vengeance in 2021, led by NFTs. I soon discovered a small but thriving group of artists starting to forge a sustainable path with web3. With respect to the music industry, creators weren’t cashing in on a fad so much as they were finding their way out of a wilderness they had been wandering in for the last twenty years.
And that’s when the lightbulb went off.
We are seeing the beginnings of massive disruption, led by music. Over the past two decades, initially because of file sharing but more recently due to the hegemony of the streaming services, the world has been conditioned to accept the inevitability of digital distribution obliterating copyright and driving all but the biggest acts to the margins and the poverty line. The pandemic put a final dagger into artists’ hearts: not even touring and selling T-shirts — the supposed “right way” for musicians to earn a living during this bleak, value-disintegrating period — were possible now. Pushed to the brink, but at the same time being offered a new toolset for building audiences and earning a living, musicians began taking their fate into their own hands with web3.
It was then that I realized that the primary driver of the Metaverse was not going to be games or chat worlds. Those experiences will no doubt push the state of the art, but I think the economic engine is actually going to be traditional media. Artists need to get their fair share from paying audiences, and fans want to support them. Web3 is remaking the fabric of the digital media business, starting with music. Everything is being upended, from social networks and online interaction to live performance, distribution and payments — and these new interrelationships are the foundation of the emerging Metaverse.
A New Metaverse for a New Generation
If you’re bearish on NFTs, I am going to ask you to put your skepticism aside and take a short walk with me.
NFTs are not just for collectibles like Bored Apes. I have no interest in those, because I am not a collector. I also have no desire to get into the speculative side of NFTs that is driving some of the more insane economics, and which I assume is going to have a day of reckoning once the supply of bigger fools runs dry. But I love art, so I have been collecting NFTs by artists that I like for good old fashioned reasons, i.e. because I like the work and I want to support the people who make it.
NFTs are also about utility. Tokens are code, and code can do a lot of things. Creators continue to stretch the limits of what is possible with smart contracts, and much of that innovation is happening in music, by artists who not only want to be fairly compensated for their work but who also are being thoughtful about the value exchange between themselves and their fans. They’re not just uploading MP3s of their tracks and, say, attaching pretty album visuals; they are creating unique offerings that confer multiple and long-lasting benefits to their buyers. Here are just a few examples of the new generation of artists who are rewriting the rules in real time.
a year in music and web3...
It's really amazing to do what you love for a living because it doesn't necessarily feel like work. For me, the merging…
VERITÉ auctioned off fractionalized ownership of the master of her song By Now. The collector with the winning bid owns a percentage of the work and therefore is entitled to a percentage of the upside as well. But this wasn’t just an economic exchange; after the auction closed, the buyer explained that he “felt it was important for a genuine fan to own a piece of the work.” Read Verité’s blog post above and follow all of her writings on this subject; she is thoughtful as well as incredibly talented.
Josh Savage sells limited editions of his songs, typically packaged with video performances and hand-typed snippets of lyrics. These tend to run in small batches of 10 or so, and sell at a few hundred dollars each. Josh also recently released a 1/1 live acoustic version of Mountains in Hurricanes, an emotional piece about a person close to him suffering from mental illness, which sold for thousands of dollars.
Violetta Zironi has an otherworldly voice and plays virtuoso guitar and ukulele, and her songs transport me. Not just a wunderkind, she is a leader in this new movement, having launched novel NFT drops that give her collectors awesome perks such as lifetime concert tickets and in-person visits to her studio sessions, based on the particular NFTs purchased. And her drops, like her most recent MOONSHOT collection, are generating thousands of dollars for her and her launch partners.
You may have noticed that I went out of my way to highlight the financial aspects of each of the above stories. This is precisely the point. Using new models, creators are making more money than they ever could with the streamers… and taking on established industry in the process. This is just the beginning.
IT IS THIS NEAT MIX OF PATRONAGE, FANDOM, AND COLLECTING THAT COULD NOT EXIST BEFORE.
— Chris Dixon, Decoder interview on The Verge
Artists are getting paid via a hybrid of utility, patronage and consumption, powered by blockchain smart contracts. It’s not that we couldn’t do such things before using individual platforms like Patreon; it’s just that the tech makes it much more frictionless (ignoring the current abysmal state of web3 UX) to put together unique offerings and combine models that used to require multiple memberships on different services, some of which don’t even talk to each other. With web3, identity is in the control of the consumer, the artists dictate commercial terms, and (at least the current hope is) the platform and service providers take a reasonable share of the bounty, based on actual value they provide. Venture capitalist and Web3 champion Chris Dixon thinks so; I hope so. Time will tell.
Communities are the New Scale
The creators I profiled here are original and super talented singer-songwriters. They are also innovators, and I think really brave to put themselves out there like this. They are not alone. I have come across hundreds of NFT musicians in the last several months. I have made many connections and now count several frens among these artists. Which brings me to my last point: more than anything, the founders of this new movement are building communities.
Like most things web3, it all starts with Discord. I joined several servers to meet with musicians working on NFT projects and get the latest info on drops, online performances and IRL tours. I have been to live shows on Discord stages that featured multiple artists. The audio quality has generally been amazing; it’s an intimate setting that feels like you’re in a coffee house, except the performers and audience are jacked in from all over the world.
Twitter is the other community venue, the Street by which one discovers, meets and makes lasting connections with these amazing people. Once connected, it’s not long before you find yourself spending countless hours listening to the artists and invited guests share their journeys in Twitter Spaces. Of course, at some level everyone is shilling (aren’t we all?), but there is genuine conversation happening, at least in the small and medium-sized Spaces. And I’ve got fam there now. There’s no feeling quite like the warm greeting and welcome onto the stage I get from Josh, Violetta, and the gang — virtual hugs halfway around the world, from people who know we’re all gonna make it, if we stick together.
There is also tech machinery starting to whir into motion, new tools to power a new economy. Through Twitter meet-and-greets I have gotten to know another brilliant musician Nifty Sax. Besides being a gifted performer, he’s a partner in Nifty Music, a team helping artists like Violetta launch their projects. I say “team” because I hesitate to call them a startup, or a company, or a platform, or an agency, as of yet. Like many things in web3, it could end up being all or none of the above. Nifty and his partner WeiZ are launching NFT artists by providing tools, setting up drops and, at least for now, actually writing custom smart contract code for the artists. How it will play out as a business is anybody’s guess, but a shop like theirs could change the game within a few years.
Not gonna lie, all this community building takes time. I know I’ve spent hundreds of hours in Twitter Spaces over six months. I don’t think the artists are getting much sleep these days. So you may be wondering how sustainable this is going to be over the long haul. And how it could ever — and now it’s time to invoke that Silicon Valley stalking horse — scale.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t need to scale — at least not in the web2 sense of the word. I have to thank Cortney Harding, a fellow immersive techie and music aficionado, for reminding me about Kevin Kelly’s concept of 1,000 True Fans. Kelly wrote this essay in 2008, before social media and streaming services managed to vaporize so much of the value chain, but the idea is still sound. All an artist needs is a small number of loyal fans who will pay for anything: albums, live shows, merch and so on. Just a thousand fans that pay a hundred dollars a year each, for example, can be enough to support an independent musician. Or adjust that for inflation and double either of the numbers, and you have a pretty good living by today’s standards. When you look at it this way, it seems like it shouldn’t be too hard for most musicians. And yet, in the web2 era, it became an impossibility. To make $100,000 from Spotify, an artist would have to have 33 million streams a year.
33. Million. Streams. A year.
That’s a lot of streams. Just ask NFT rapper Dyl; he’s done the math.
Contrast this with web3. Artists can make real money with only a few NFT drops. Sure, it’s early days, speculation is out of control and some of this could turn out to be a fad. But about that last part, I don’t think so. This is music we’re talking about: something so fundamental, and so universal, that there is no need to debate the value proposition. And we have most of modern history proving that people will pay for the music they love. The models may change, but the relationship between artist and fan endures. Other art forms like painting or film might follow different trajectories but eventually reach similar outcomes. Small communities of loyal buyers and fans could support individual artists or works, and in aggregate, power large industries at scale.
I find it fascinating that web3 appears to be coming full circle back to what gave birth to the consumer Internet: virtual communities. Take away the UX trappings, dial down the bandwidth and remove a couple of zeros from the audience numbers, and this feels a lot like the early days of BBSes: people connecting out of shared interests, building relationships, working and playing together.
More from Chris Dixon’s Decoder interview:
The next Disney or Marvel would not come top-down from a company. It would come from an internet community who comes together using NFTs, tokens, and other kinds of Web3 concepts to create stories and characters, and would actually own parts of those characters and have control over them. Instead of having to sit there on the sidelines and debate what should be canon on the next Star Wars, they can actually decide that as a community… This to me is the ultimate power of the internet.
And there it is. As much as 3D stalwarts like myself are chomping at the bit to finally have a Metaverse in all its Stephensonian glory, first things first. The 3D skin will come soon enough, but for now, web3 is the Metaverse. The kids know it, which is why they haven’t been shy about owning the term. And good for them, because it’s their Metaverse after all.
And to my immersive computing friends, I am going to urge a little more patience and humbly suggest that maybe — just maybe — the real Metaverse is the NFTs we collected along the way.