What follows from the collapse of NFTs?

Dom Aversano

Almost a quarter of a century after Napster fired a torpedo into the record industry one might have expected stability to have returned, but the turmoil continues well into the new century without any signs of resolution.

The story is familiar. MP3 collections never felt like record collections, making them ripe to be superseded by full-catalogue music streaming. Streaming is unprofitable for the companies selling it and unsustainable for the musicians on it, so in a bid to save themselves, not music, the platforms are now transforming into rivers of algorithmically recommended muzak. Ironically, the oldest medium is in the healthiest state, vinyl, and while it is inspiring to know people still go out and buy records, it does not help solve the problem of digital music.

Given this context, it was always tempting to see NFTs — or non-fungible tokens — as the saviour of digital music. But with Sam Bankman-Fried now standing on trial and 95% of NFTs estimated to be worthless we should be asking, what went wrong?

It is beyond the scope of this article to explain what NFTs are — which has been done well elsewhere — but what can be said is the heavy nomenclature they carry can make it feel impenetrable and confusing: you have blockchain, minting, wallets, cryptocurrency, drops, Bitcoin, Metaverse, Web 3, smart contracts etc. The time required to make sense of this — much like an NFT — is a luxury few can afford, providing a wall of obscurantism that imbues the culture with an aura of mystique and intellectualism.

My experience took me down a winding path. Initially, I found NFTs interesting, as they seemed like an innovative method for digital ownership that could help fund the creation of new music and provide fans with a strong connection to their favourite artists, but as my research accumulated their appeal steadily diminished. A combination of too-good-to-be-true promises and scammy behaviour made it seem murky, if not at times actively sinister.

While I am not closed off to the possibility of something valuable emerging from this world (for instance, smart contracts seem genuinely interesting) based on the evidence, NFTs were always doomed to fail.

Here is why.

  1. The torrent of terminology in this culture makes it easy to be blinded by the science and lose sight of the obvious — for instance, cryptocurrencies, despite the name, are not currencies. There is barely a thing on Earth you can buy with crypto. It is actually an asset untethered to economic activity, or simpler yet, an elaborate gambling token. Just as nobody wants to appear a philistine for not appreciating a certain art form, nobody wants to feel like a Luddite for not understanding a particular technology, but spend your evenings and weekends dispassionately breaking down the terminology and you’ll find little of substance remains.

  2. Most people try to understand cryptocurrency in a purely technical sense and ignore the sociological of its emergence. Bitcoin arose shortly after the 2008 financial crisis when mistrust of banking was at an all-time high. At this time having a so-called currency circumventing banks was music to people’s ears, and the Hollywood superhero manner in which Bitcoin entered the world through a mysterious unknown figure called Satoshi Nakamoto only added to its anarcho-utopian appeal.

  3. Blockchain sounds cooler than it is. Some blockchains create huge environmental damage, have very long transaction times, and are vulnerable to privacy breaches and theft. If you lose your password to your digital wallet or if it falls into someone else’s hands you may lose everything, without any recourse to institutional support or insurance. Most concerning of all, far from being a tool for honesty and transparency, cryptocurrency is regularly used by organised criminals as a tool for money laundering. For these reasons, blockchain has been referred to at various points as ‘a solution in search of a problem’.

  4. Experts have much less faith in cryptocurrency than the public. An economist who famously predicted the 2007–08 subprime mortgage crisis, Nouriel Roubini, called crypto ‘a scam’ and a ‘Ponzi scheme’ that preys on young people, people on lower income, and minorities, and advises people to ‘stay away’, referring to those who run the industry as ‘crooks’ that ‘literally belong in jail’.

Even if none of the above really dents your belief in the validity of cryptocurrencies/NFTs/blockchains, there is a gaping flaw that is impossible to ignore.

NFTs have no intrinsic value.

I can put a photo of the Taj Mahal on a blockchain and link it to you, but that doesn’t mean you own a brick of it.

Writer and programmer Stephen Dhiel, who is a vociferous critic of cryptocurrencies, offered the following analogy about NFTs in a Twitter/X thread.

There is one comparable market to NFTs: The Star Naming Market (…) Back in the 90s some entrepreneurs found you could convince the public to buy “rights” to name yet-unnamed stars after their loved ones by selling entries in an unofficial register (…) You’d buy the “rights” to a name [sic] the star and they’d send you a piece of paper claiming that you were now the owner of said star. Nothing was actually done in this transaction, you simply paid someone to update a register about a ball of plasma millions of light years away. (…) NFTs are the evolution of this grift in a more convoluted form. Instead of allegedly buying a star, you’re allegedly buying a JPEG from an artist. Except you’re not buying the image, you’re buying a digitally signed URL to the image. 

With NFTs now largely worthless, it’s hard to argue with Dhiel’s analysis. So where does this leave us?

Few genuinely innovative ideas remain, but a company called JKBX has proposed that people can buy royalty shares of their favourite musicians’ songs. The problem is, even if it worked, would it be healthy to have fans treating their favourite artists’ songs as investments? Would listening to All You Need is Love feel the same if you were waiting for your share of a royalty payment to come through? Is turning music into a weird stock market for royalties really the best thing we can dream up?

After nearly a quarter of a century of unsuccessfully trying to resurrect the 20th-century music recording industry for the 21st-century, perhaps it is time to ask, was this ever the right goal? MP3s, streaming, and NFTs, did not balance the boat, which still rocks about aimlessly on stormy seas.

Perhaps the original goal was never ambitious or imaginative enough, after all, why resurrect an old method of distributing music when you could create a new one? NFTs were attractive to people for many reasons, but a major one was they promised a new internet culture — Web 3, metaverse etc. — that could offer ordinary people economic dignity. That people found this appealing is grounds for hope, as it demonstrates there is an appetite for a radical departure from the stagnant and centralised world of the social media empires.

The question that remains is: can we imagine it and build it? And if not now, when? If music wishes to remain a relevant art form, it can’t afford another quarter-century of floundering.

Do you have thoughts on what you have read? If so, please leave your comments below.

Further information on cryptocurrency/NFTs/blockchain

The Missing Crypto Queen — Podcast by investigative journalist Jamie Bartlett

The Case Against Crypto — Essay by programmer Stephen Diehl

Crypto is dead — Debate between Yanis Varoufakis & Viktor Tábori

What do recent trends in generative art mean for music?

Dom Aversano

Manu #34 by artist Rich Poole

In his provocative and fascinating book, Noise, the French musicologist and economist Jacques Attali wrote the following about the prophetic power of music.

Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code.

For a long time I considered this flattering statement about music to be true, but the more I learned about visual arts the more I saw that at various points in history it seemed to push ahead of music. Decades before Brian Eno used the term Generative Music the term Generative Art was being used, which does not mean there were no generative processes in music before then — there certainly were — but the terminology helped articulate a theoretical framework through which the art could be understood and developed.

In the last few years a big shift occurred in visual generative arts, somewhat obscured by the huge attention given to advances in machine learning and large language models, but worthy of examination for anyone interested in digital arts.

This innovation was fuelled by NFTs or non-fungible tokens (you can read more about them here). Putting aside the controversial ethical and technological aspects of cryptocurrency and NFTs — which I hope to cover in a future post — the economy it produced provided many generative artists with a living, during which the technical aspects of the art grew more sophisticated and publications like Right Click Save emerged to document the movement. This year the NFT economy fundamentally collapsed, making for an opportune moment to review what happened during its boom, and its relevance to musicians and composers.

In 2021 the generative artist and writer Tyler Hobbs wrote an important essay called The Rise of Long-Form Generative Art, which helps make sense of the recent changes to generative art. Within it, he describes two broad categories of generative art: short-form and long-form.

Generative art has traditionally favoured short-form, which he describes as follows.

First, there was almost always a “curation” step. The artist could generate as many outputs as they pleased and then filter those down to a small set of favorites. Only this curated set of output would be presented to the public.

The result of this is often small collections ranging from a single image to about a dozen. The artist is still largely in control, creating art in a manner that does not radically deviate from tradition.

In a jargon-dense paragraph Hobbs describes long-form art, with the last sentence being especially significant.

The artist creates a generative script (e.g. Fidenza) that is written to the Ethereum blockchain, making it permanent, immutable, and verifiable. Next, the artist specifies how many iterations will be available to be minted by the script. A typical choice is in the 500 to 1000 range. When a collector mints an iteration (i.e. they make a purchase), the script is run to generate a new output, and that output is wrapped in an NFT and transferred directly to the collector. Nobody, including the collector, the platform, or the artist, knows precisely what will be generated when the script is run, so the full range of outputs is a surprise to everyone.

This constitutes a fundamental change. The artist no longer directly creates the art but an algorithm to create art, renouncing control over what the algorithm produces from the moment it is published. It is a significant shift in the relationship between the artist, the artwork, and the audience, that calls into question the definition of art.

Manu #216 by artist Rich Poole

Within the same essay, Hobbs describes a concept for analysing long-form art that he calls “output space”.

Fundamentally, with long-form, collectors and viewers become much more familiar with the “output space” of the program. In other words, they have a clear idea of exactly what the program is capable of generating, and how likely it is to generate one output versus another. This was not the case with short-form works, where the output space was either very narrow (sometimes singular) or cherry-picked for the best highlights.

This concept of an algorithm’s spectrum of variation is valuable. After all, scale without meaningful variation is decorated repetition. Paradoxically — in a superficial sense at least — algorithms can simultaneously have infinite permutations and a great sense of predictability and monotony. The notion of output space is perhaps a more accurate way to evaluate generative works than their literal number of iterations or other quantifiable measures.

In reflecting on how the concept of long-form might exist in music, two works sprung to mind.

The first is Jem Finer’s Longplayer. The composition was created with the intention of being played for a millennium and is currently installed at Trinity Buoy Wharf in East London. For almost a year I worked part-time at the Longplayer and had the opportunity to listen to the installation for hours on end. It struck me as a novel and ambitious idea with an attractive sound, but I was not able to detect any noticeable variation or development from one hour, week, or month to the next. To use the language of generative art, its output space felt narrow — at least over a duration that is short in comparison to its intended length.

I should point out this might well miss the point of the composition, designed as it is to make one reflect on vast time scales and to invite intergenerational collaboration.

The second example is Brian Eno’s composition Reflections, released both as an app and a series of musical excerpts. Eno describes it using the metaphor of a river.

It’s always the same river, but it’s always changing.

Having discovered this piece relatively recently I have not listened sufficiently to have an opinion, although there are many glowing online reviews about its ability to transform and change mood, and people listening to it extensively.

The requirement of extensive listening highlights an important difference between music and visual art. It is much quicker to scan over a collection of 1,000 images than to spend, hours, weeks, or even months attentively listening to an algorithm unfold, which helps explain why long-form generative art is currently more popular than long-form generative music, though there may be another reason too.

You might ask why has long-form generative art become so popular recently as it is by no means a new concept. In 1949 the abstract artist Joseph Albers began a 25-year project working on an iconic and influential series called A Homage to Squares, comprising over 100 paintings that combine squares of different sizes and colours in a variety of ways. By contrast, you now have artists developing algorithms in a couple of months to create ten times more images than Albers’s series. Is this meaningful art, or a hi-tech example of the philosophical more is more?

While it might be cynical to reduce an art movement to a single economic factor, it would also be naive, to ignore it. A significant number of people were made wealthy in a very short time by the boom of NFTs, and the supply and demand relationship was transformed as digital art can be produced with dramatically less time and cost than traditional art. Huge demand could be met with huge supply with little more effort than adding a couple of zeros to the number of iterations.

The rates that certain pieces sold for at the height of the hype are astonishing. A single image in a collection of Cellular Automaton sold for 1,000,000 Tezos (£537,000). I do not know whether this was motivated by some murky financial practice or credulity on the part of the collector, but to have a single work in a collection of 1,000 — composed from an 80-year-old mathematical concept — selling for such a huge price indicates that money significantly shapes the culture. Despite the rot, some art that emerged from this movement is genuinely inspiring and thought-provoking.

Take Dreaming of Le Corbusier, by the Norwegian artist Andreas Rau. It is an impressive algorithm that generates a new ‘architectural’ abstract artwork each time you click on it. Some works have the appearance of having been designed deliberately, with the consistent quality of the compositions being remarkable.

There is also the work of Rich Poole which is featured in this piece. The series feels musical in its composition — reminiscent of a beautiful music sequencer, where colour, height, and length correspond to some musical parameters. The owners of the NFTs choose from iterations of an algorithm what work they would like, meaning the series is ‘collector-curated’.

What happens to generative art now that NFTs have collapsed? That is anyone’s guess. It is hard to envision the sudden emergence of an economy remotely comparable to the over-hyped NFT market. Yet there has been a shift and a new potential glanced at, not just by the artists involved, but by all of us.

The artworks featured in this article are shared with kind permission by the artist Rich Poole. You can view his entire series for Manu here

Introduction to NFTs for music and digital artists – LIVE Session / November 16th

Learn the fundamentals you need to enter and successfully navigate the NFT world as a creative.

Date & Time: Tuesday 16th November 2021 6pm UK / 7pm Berlin / 10am LA / 1pm NYC

Level: Beginner

Overview of what you’ll learn: NFT brings new opportunities for creators to build audiences, promote products & profit from their creations. 

In this interactive session, we will explore the fundamentals of NFTs, how to navigate the space safely and mint your first NFT!  

  • Why NFTs?
  • What is an NFT? 
  • Intro to cryptocurrency
  • Who are NFTs for?
  • Where to buy/sell NFTs?
  • Activity: Make an NFT Together!

 

Level of experience required: Workshop best suited for anyone who would like to better prepare themselves for the inevitable NFT world. No experience required. All curious-souls are welcomed!

Who is this workshop for?

Musicians & Artists who want to understand the basics of NFTs.

Developers who want to understand how NFT technology is unfolding itself in the creative space.

Session Learning Outcomes

By the end of this workshop a successful student will be able to:

  • Explain the 5 W’s of NFTs (Why, what, who, when, where)

  • Navigate the NFT world with confidence

  • Explore both established & new NFT marketplaces

  • Mint their own NFTs on OpenSea

Session Study Topics

  • Cryptocurrency intro

  • NFT Fundamentals

  • NFT Marketplaces

  • NFT Risk, Security & Safety

 

Requirements

  • A computer and internet connection

  • A webcam and mic

  • A Zoom account

  • Have Metamask extension installed in Chrome.

About the workshop leader 

Heen is a London based music producer, artist and NFT educator.

As a creator himself, he is a classically trained pianist who has spent his life exploring sonic possibilities with classical, jazz, electronic and cinematic music. He joined ROLI as a full time product specialist after studying a degree in Computer Science, and since then have continued to combine his passions to his growing portfolio. 

Outside of ROLI, he is currently co-running Originally:Creative – a digital marketing consultancy for creatives, with a mission to help creators navigate & win in the digital space. So far they have worked with artists including: Tomfoolery, Wharf, CRISP&CLASSY… as well as working closely with Jordan Rudess on his upcoming NFT project.