It’s never been harder to be an artist. Over the pandemic, the creative and cultural industries were among the first sectors to shut down, and the last to reopen. With the closure of live events, many artists — whether in music, theatre, or the visual arts — found that their entire income had been wiped out virtually overnight, and were forced to scramble to find alternate sources of revenue.
Amidst the obvious, devastating financial impact, many artists felt that they had lost access to a vital channel for building and nurturing their fanbases, as well as one of their main forms of artistic expression.
It isn’t really surprising, then, that new forms of artistic innovation would arise from the rubble. From Zoom club nights to WhatsApp theatre, many new forms of digital-first media have grown throughout the pandemic. Perhaps the most notorious of these is NFT art. While NFTs are in no way a new concept —they’ve been around since 2014, when digital artist Kevin McCoy sold a colourful, mandala-esque GIF for the princely sum of $4 — over the pandemic the movement has picked up steam, culminating in a number of obscene, multi-million dollar auctions.
As soon as NFTs began to hit the headlines, two distinct discourses began to emerge. To crypto-pessimists, NFTs are the dystopian culmination of late-stage capitalism, and the creeping financialisation of just about everything (although, it’s worth noting that this stance suggests that art was somehow free from speculation and financialisation prior to NFTs, which is frankly a little silly, as any working artist will know).
To crypto-optimists, however, NFTs represent a radical corrective for a number of ills within the broken system of the art world — everything from artist’s pandemic-induced depleted finances, to the digital revolution which has transformed art into digital assets and, subsequently, rendered them endlessly distributable and almost worthless.
Image from Latashá's NFT promotion on her Instagram page
Brooklyn rapper and visual artist Latashá can relate. While she was lucky enough to have “bills and essentials” taken care of by a sync deal, a cancelled tour had “messed up the trajectory” of her career, and she struggled to engage with new fans over lockdown. Unable to start any new projects, she decided to mint an old piece of work on NFT marketplace ZORA. Her piece sold within minutes, netting her $1,000. For Latashá, minting her first NFT was a transformative experience: “Selling that first piece really transformed my perspective on what is possible within my career, and my understanding of my own value.”
View this post on Instagram
While much has been made of the profiteering and speculation associated with NFTs, less has been made of their liberatory potential, especially to artists who may be locked out of traditional careers within the art world. Latashá is a multi-hyphenate artist, whose work spans rap, pop and spoken word, and who does not slot easily into the traditional genre categories still used by labels to market music to different audiences. NFTs allowed her to circumvent traditional music industry gatekeepers, offering her a way to monetise her fanbase directly:
“Many decision-makers in the music industry aren’t ready to support new sounds — they make their decisions based on blueprints of what they already know, and what’s been successful before. But because the metaverse is a new space, there aren’t the same levels of risk management. I really believe that the metaverse is made for niche artists.”
View this post on Instagram
On a more practical note, many of the logistical processes in the music industry are sluggish and outdated — in particular, music royalties are based on a 19th century system, which has struggled to keep up with digitalisation. During the pandemic, there was a huge slowdown in song registrations, which led to thousands of artists failing to receive royalty payments for several months.
For Latashá, minting an NFT proved that she didn’t have to rely on sluggish, bureaucratic systems in order to receive what she’s worth: “As musicians, we’ve been programmed to believe that we have to wait for the money, and even when it does come, it will be in very small amounts.”
Bolstered by her experiences, Latashá quickly became passionate about how she could help marginalised artists take up space in crypto communities, especially those who may not “feel like they have a seat at the traditional music industry table.” She joined Herstory DAO — a collective which aims to collect and preserve crypto art by marginalised creators, especially by black women.
In case you’re not familiar with the term DAO, they’re essentially social communities formed on the blockchain. This is where the decentralised nature of crypto gets really interesting — while traditional communities are typically hosted on a third party platform, and managed by a site admin, or another form of community manager, DAOs are explicitly non-hierarchical. Rules are inscribed in code, and are made fully accessible to all DAO members, while decision-making can only happen through consensus. Unlike a traditional organisation, every DAO member has voting rights, and all transactions (including the distribution of profits) are made fully transparent and accessible.
The liberatory possibilities of DAOs are obvious — and when combined with a potentially huge profit generator like NFTs, it’s easy to see how the combination could result in a fairer, more radical way of rewarding artists. Traditional arts institutions are famously elitist and prone to mismanagement — scandals such as the #MeToo movement have proved to us how quickly powerful, tyrannical figures can accumulate power, and grow virtually untouchable within cultural spaces. Imagine if similar levels of transparency were applied to decision-making processes around which artwork makes it into an exhibition, or whether a particular artist is offered a recording contract?
Latashá now works as Community Lead at ZORA, an NFT marketplace with a specific focus on equipping artists with the tools they need to launch their own products. ZORA has a specific focus on artistic longevity — their main product allows artists to auction their art, and gives them a stake in their art’s future market value, creating a circulating token which increases in value as an artist’s audience grows. This allows artists to benefit from growing and nurturing a fan community around their work, rather than executing a series of flashy, hype-driven drops. Compared to the current state of the art world — which sees many early career artists signing away their recording rights or early works for pittances — the possibilities presented by platforms like ZORA seem endless.
While crypto is still a fast-developing set of technologies, and it’s still unclear how future legal and regulatory activity will impact its progression, its existence has exposed many of the cracks in how our current systems operate, and has granted many artists the space to imagine a different kind of artistic career. For those who care about art, that can only be a good thing.