In November of 2020, I released my debut album through a small label called Corkscrew Records. As of today, it has been streamed about 3,100 times on Spotify. That is not a staggering number, but I nonetheless feel pride in this accomplishment and am grateful that so many more people than I expected have taken the time to listen to my music. From those 200 or so hours that my audience has spent listening to my music, I have earned twelve dollars and forty cents.
While the advent of streaming services is exhilarating in that consuming and distributing art is more accessible than ever before, making a living in the arts remains an option open only to a limited few. Without consideration of label and distributor cuts, one stream on Spotify is estimated to earn the artist a third of a penny.
In the past few weeks, you may have heard about high-profile artists creating Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) to auction through online marketplaces. What is compelling consumers about NFTs is their “non-fungibility–” the idea that when you own a piece of metadata, despite corresponding to an image that could be reproduced on the internet, it is yours and only yours. In simplest terms (and I will need to use simple terms because I am a musician, not a computer programmer), NFTs are pieces of digital art that are bought digitally. In less simple terms, Everest Pipkin writes, “cryptoart is a piece of metadata (including, generally- an image or link to an image/file, the creator of that file, datestamps, associated contracts or text, and the purchaser of the piece) which is attached to a ‘token’ (which has monetary value on a marketplace) and stored in a blockchain.” The currency used to purchase individual pieces of cryptoart, or NFTs, is Ethereum.
When I first read that cryptoart is an environmental “disaster,” to quote artist Joanie Lemercier, I raised my eyebrows. “None of this is real,” I thought. “How can buying glorified trading cards on the internet have any more impact on the environment than buying a song on iTunes?” The answer lies in the Proof-of-Work (Pow) model utilized not only by Ethereum but by even more well-known cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
Before I go further into this jargon-y territory, I want to make a quick distinction. A bitcoin and an NFT are virtually the same, but differentiated by the F in NFT. Just like a “real” piece of art, an NFT is its own entity and thus there is no other entity with the same worth. On the other hand, a bitcoin has the same worth as another bitcoin just like a US dollar has the same worth as another US dollar. While the value fluctuates as economies fluctuate, a bitcoin is a bitcoin is a bitcoin. However, a Grimes song is not a Yaeji GIF is not a Tobin Heath trading card.
Okay; back to Proof-of-Work.
PoW is an idea that originated in 1993 to “confirm that computational effort has been expended by ‘the prover’ (the system doing a task)” (Pipkin), but was utilized in conjunction with the blockchain to develop Bitcoin some twenty years later. You may have heard about Bitcoin “mining,” and, as I did when I first heard this phrase, wondered how one could possibly mine with a computer. “Mining” is, in essence, a competition wherein different people set their computers to solving PoW “problems” in order to validate chunks of the blockchain. On the rare occasion that a computer is able to solve one of these problems, Bitcoin is generated and the owner of the computer is able to reap the rewards. When you extrapolate out from 2009, more people start mining, the demand exacerbates the difficulty of the PoW problems, and more energy is required to sustain the validation of the blockchain.
Due to the nature of the blockchain and of “minting,” the process that asserts the non-fungibility of an NFT, making available and buying cryptoart causes outsize and unnecessary carbon emissions. I want to stress here how we have completely created this problem for ourselves. While it is a necessity that human beings have heat to prevent freezing to death, it is in no way a necessity that we buy and sell trading cards on the internet. People were fine before NFTs, and they will be fine after NFTs; NFTs are not a necessity. However, the reason why cryptoart has become so exciting to so many independent artists is that it opens the opportunity to earn substantial funds from the creation of art in a society where, to quote Gillian Welch, everything is free.
I briefly want to touch on one of the most conceptually painful traits of the cryptoart market in my eyes. The world of the fine arts is largely viewed as an inaccessible “rich people thing” because paintings and sculptures are auctioned off for thousands, sometimes millions of dollars. There is inherent scarcity to a painting because it is difficult to reproduce. However, a vinyl can be reproduced. A CD can be reproduced. An mp3 file on Spotify can be reproduced. The internet meant that there was not scarcity in music, in film, in television, in memes, before NFTs. Cryptoart manufactures scarcity under the guise of making the trade of art more accessible. The concept that anyone can buy an NFT, unlike very few people being able to buy a Matisse, is often touted by proponents of cryptoart. However, when you analyze those who are actually buying these tokens, an NFT collector is most likely to be a millennial earning upwards of $100,000 a year. Perhaps this is a slightly different portrait of an art collector than you are used to conceptualizing, but they are still a member of the global 1%.
Graphic from cryptoart.wtf
It is at this point in the essay that I return to the question that launched me into this investigation. Cryptoart is not sustainable; the carbon cost of one single-edition NFT is equivalent to one month of an EU citizen’s electricity consumption. What can we do, sustainably, to ensure that musicians and artists are able to make a living when their work is so easily accessible? This question feels even more pertinent in the midst of a global pandemic that has eliminated the possibility of touring as a way of earning income.
The first time I ever released music, I did it completely on my own through the website Bandcamp. The platform allows musicians to set the number of times a patron can stream their music before purchasing, digitally or physically. Near the beginning of the pandemic, Bandcamp launched “Bandcamp Fridays.” This event has taken place on the first Friday of each month for the past year, and they are special because Bandcamp waives all revenue shares, thus ensuring that all of the money spent on an independent musician’s work goes directly to them. In the indie music community, Bandcamp Fridays have become the impetus for new, sometimes creative, merch releases. It has excited me to see musicians I love sell zines and lyric booklets on Bandcamp Fridays rather than vinyl, the now default money-maker for an independent artist. I love the sound quality of vinyl as much as the next music nerd, but the undeniable truth is that vinyl is plastic that will exist on this earth far longer than you or I will be alive. While the carbon cost of a vinyl record is nothing close to that of an NFT, I have spent the past three weeks conceptualizing ways to circumvent both of these modes of income. In an ideal world, the average music listener would feel compelled to send $10 or $20 or $1000 to an artist whose music they love through a platform Venmo in appreciation with no expectation of personal gain. However, until this world is in view, the existence and popularity of NFTs suggest that individuals want a thing to represent their fandom and dedication. Rather than creating digital things that require outsize carbon emissions or new, physical things that require carbon emissions throughout the production process and depend on the labor of exploited workers in the global South, why not share recycled things?
When I first had this idea, I did not know exactly how to express it. I imagined an online marketplace wherein musicians, multi-disciplinary artists, et cetera are invited to auction off items with sentimental value that they are let go of. These could be notebooks, polaroids, old audio equipment, used instruments, battered copies of poetry books with their favorite stanzas underlined. The cults of personality encouraged by platforms like Instagram and Twitter, wherein celebrities feel more accessible than ever before, lead to parasocial relationships wherein fans are deeply invested in the interests and lives of artists alongside their art. Singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers recently raised funds for the family of Daunte Wright by writing out her lyrics for her fans so that they could get tattoos in her handwriting once they had sent proof of donation. While entitlement to the life of a public figure can be unhealthy and harmful, I wonder if musicians could take advantage of this atmosphere in order to earn money in the pandemic or raise money in service of issues they care about.
My proposal is to build an online marketplace wherein musicians are invited to raffle recycled items that would then be sent through the mail to the winners. I propose raffling rather than auctioning because it creates a more equitable playing field as opposed to the “richest person wins” ethos of NFTs. My next action items are as follows:
- Develop a clear plan for the function of this marketplace. How do transactions work? What does it look like?
- Reach out to connections within the music industry in order to get “names” attached. I reason that due to the cult of personality that NFTs thrive on, my proposal would not be viable unless some of those personalities are involved.
- Reach out to pre-established marketplaces like Bandcamp about integrating this idea into their platforms.
Thank you for taking the time to learn about this wild corner of the internet and its environmental cost, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments. Works Cited
Akten, Memo. “The Unreasonable Ecological Cost Of #Cryptoart”. Medium, 2021, https://memoakten.medium.com/the-unreasonable-ecological-cost-of-cryptoart-2221d3eb2053. Accessed 19 Apr 2021.
Goodkind, Andrew et al. Cryptodamages: Monetary Value Estimates Of The Air Pollution And Human Health Impacts Of Cryptocurrency Mining. Energy Research & Social Science, New Mexico, 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2214629619302701. Accessed 20 Apr 2021.
Lemercier, Joanie. “The Problem Of Cryptoart”. Studio Joanie Lemercier, 2021, https://joanielemercier.com/the-problem-of-cryptoart/.
Lundstrom, Kathryn. “Nfts Are All The Rage, But Who’S Actually Buying Them?”. Adweek, 2021, https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/nfts-are-all-the-rage-but-whos-actually-buying-them/.
Pipkin, Everest. ““BUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES WITH CRYPTOART WILL BE SOLVED SOON, RIGHT?””. Medium, 2021, https://everestpipkin.medium.com/but-the-environmental-issues-with-cryptoart-1128ef72e6a3. Accessed 17 Apr 2021.
Single Edition NFT Carbon Costs. 2021, http://cryptoart.wtf/#list=nfts. Accessed 14 Apr 2021.