On March 16, 2021, Multi-Platinum Hip-Hop Producer Kenny Beats dropped what could be considered his most interesting project to date: A few 30-second, original and unreleased tracks set to trendy animations by illustrator Drew Pulig of an anthropomorphic smartphone, or a kid on a flying motorcycle on loop. While this seems like the average cute and unexpected way that music and media on the internet combine for some likes on Twitter or Instagram, what’s interesting to note is this might be one of the single highest-paying projects in this popular producer’s career, ever. With bids to purchase these digital art pieces from fans reaching almost 10,000 USD for a .gif paired to some thumpy, groovy jams, these art pieces were Kenny Beats’ first foray into the world of NFT: Non-Fungible Tokens. 

As more and more artists take the plunge to sell virtual artwork and music via crypto and code, and uncover the secrets this technology holds for their art, one has to ask: What are NFTs and what are they able to do for a musician?

More and more the public, especially those tuned into the world of digital visual art and music have been tossing the term NFT around without actually explaining what exactly it is you’re claiming ownership of when you “purchase” one. To put it simply: A Non-Fungible Token is a piece of code stored in a digital ledger known as a Blockchain, that allows a specific copy of a media file to be labelled as unique. Essentially the equivalent of being able to call one version of an image file or .MP3 “legitimate” and another “fake.” This is the very same technology that allows cryptocurrencies, while not existing in the physical realm, to be owned, exchanged, and stored! It’s a huge leap forward in the realm of ownership over intellectual property, and with the concept showing promise, more and more artists, fans, and media outlets are jumping on the current rise of this technology while it is still in its infancy. 

Musicians have already started using the tech in inventive ways. Some such as the aforementioned Kenny Beats and the patron saint of pioneering tech in the music industry: Imogen Heap have been taking the traditional almost “trading card” -esque route. They use the Ethereum cryptocurrency-backed code to give proof of ownership over mixed media set to their music to auction or sell limited quantities to turn a profit, sometimes with charities getting a piece of the pie as well. Others, however, have already become more daring with the concept, pushing the boundaries for the tech. DJ 3LAU was the first musician to sell an entire album as an NFT, and it fetched a whopping 11.3 Million Dollars USD, Something that would take an artist decades on streaming services to achieve in royalties! Another, Canadian DJ and Artist from label LuckyMe Jaques Greene minted a brief snippet of a new song, “Promise” as an NFT but with a twist: “Jacques Greene set a further precedent by offering a publishing contract empowering the buyer in possession of the AV clip to hold the publishing rights to the song.” Music Week reported. These unique instances open a world of possibilities for independently funding, supporting, and growing an artist’s career, much akin to when David Bowie sold “Bowie Bonds” in 1997, essentially giving buyers futures in his music’s net worth. This is the solution that allows for artists who have long grappled with the worries of piracy, editing, unlicensed distribution, and the simple “copy-paste” and “sample” culture of the internet a way to legitimize, authorize, and monetize the movement of their art around the Web!

But, is this a world we want to move forward into blindly? Many sources and musical artists would say no. There is a growing ambivalence to NFT in its current state for a multitude of reasons.

To start, the data of an NFT, like all Cryptocurrency, needs to be stored, and “mined” or generated by massive server farms. These servers can wind up using massive amounts of energy. Since Blockchain is a ledger, all transactions require an insane amount of energy to keep the currency running and up to date. As a brief example, according to The HillEthereum mining consumes about 26.5 terawatt-hours of electricity a year. To put that into perspective — that is nearly as much energy used annually by the entire country of Ireland.”

As more and more attention is drawn to Ethereum-based NFTs, and additional transactions are generated, the energy consumption is on an exponential spike. While there are calls even from the founders of Ethereum and artists such as “Beeple” (Whose strange 3D renderings scored him a whopping $69 Million USD when auctioned as an NFT by Christie’s) to donate proceeds and invest towards making Ethereum and NFT works carbon-neutral, there is still much work to be done on this front. 

While many artists are skeptical not only for the environmental crisis, some musicians are simply concerned to jump onboard while NFT tech is still in its early stages of development. For example, Singer-Songwriter Zola Jesus was ambivalent about the concept, weighing the pros and cons of the tech in its current state on an article about NFT’s from Pitchfork:

“I really like the parts of NFT that foreground the support of artists directly, and I love seeing whole new forms of art flourish in a new medium. But I think the financialization around the NFT space needs some heavy auditing before it’s an actually fair market for the artists themselves, and that the art is being purchased for the merit of what it expresses, rather than what profit it could yield in the future. I don’t want people to bet on me like a racehorse.”

It makes sense to be a skeptic as a musician in the age of the Web. The music industry tends to find itself on the bleeding edge of tech rather than the cutting. From new forms of distribution to monetization, it only makes sense after the piracy panic of the 2000’s and the streaming royalty disputes of the 2010’s, artists are excited, but concerned to take the plunge into yet another shiny new way of making a living off of the music they craft so meticulously. 

NFTs have only been in the public eye for around 8-10 months now. More and more questions arise as to what the value of these contractual bits of code can and can’t, should or shouldn’t be able to do. Is a tweet a work of art? Is someone’s screenshot of that Tweet a different piece of art? Does it hold a different value? Will the energy crisis crypto is positioned to worsen be solved? Is this a sustainable form of monetization?

We have only just seen the first wave of possibilities and problems NFT’s generate. With each step forward, more answers and questions arise. As the technology of NFT art itself develops to calm these concerns, outlasts the hype of it’s novelty, and answers the ethical and financial questions that have been raised by musicians, only time will tell what possibilities the NFT can truly hold for music and the Internet at large.