Starting at the dawn of the web, retroactively named Web 1, a new generation of writers and artists burst onto the internet independent of any publisher, promoter or label. In time, many of them would become leading cultural figures: writers and editors Cory Doctorow, Paul Ford and Choire Sicha, musicians Justin Bieber and Adele, comics artists Kate Beaton of “Hark! A Vagrant” and Randall Munroe of “xkcd” and political pundits Ana Marie Cox, Markos Moulitsas and Josh Marshall. All these and more first came to public notice on personal websites and early, barely-moderated networks like Blogger and Myspace. The heady, anarchic spirit of Web 1 emanated from people like these, many of them deeply weird, who’d come up on their own terms.
Then Web 2 came, and the algorithms ate the internet. Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix are now fiercely competing for, recording and monetizing every moment of your attention online, and “influencers” are a mass-market phenomenon operating on a global commercial scale. As the mega platforms’ control tightened, they bled away the internet’s original weirdness – its natural ability to surface the interesting and messy, the restless and far out.
That’s why, just by restoring a way for artists to find and communicate directly with their audiences again, away from the dictates of corporate mega platforms, Web 3 has already recovered something of the wild spirit of the internet’s early days.
These broader cultural possibilities really came home to me in March, when the indie rock band Kings of Leon launched their new album, “When You See Yourself,” as an NFT project offered through a company I’d never heard of called YellowHeart. This sale connected digital tokens not only to digital art commissioned by the band’s longtime collaborators, but also to physical vinyl albums, to music downloads and to experiences – tickets to shows, in this case, including a very few “Golden Tickets” that entitle holders to four front-row seats at a Kings of Leon headline show in any city in the world, one performance per tour, for as long as the band continues touring. Also included: a personal car and driver for eight hours, concierge service, swag bags and a backstage meet and greet with the band.
In addition to a zillion eyebrows, the sale raised in excess of $2 million, $500,000 of which the band donated to Live Nation’s Crew Nation fund for the support of live music crews during the pandemic.
But to my mind, the sale’s signal innovation is the band’s forging of an unbreakable, permanent bond with each token buyer. Kings of Leon will be able to contact each fan, or specific subsets or all of them, for as long as the internet lasts – with airdrops, with art, music, announcements and merch offers – whenever they like, and with anything they like. Those connections don’t belong to a platform, a label or a publisher. They belong to the band itself. This is a completely new means of cultural connection.
“I’m glad you see it that way,” YellowHeart founder Josh Katz told me in a recent phone call. The Kings of Leon sale was the culmination of many years of his thinking. But had it not been for the pandemic, he said, the opportunity to realize his vision would not have come as it did.
“The world caught up because of COVID,” he said.
Katz had been a music executive and entrepreneur for years, as well as an investor in ethereum and bitcoin. In 2017-18, his worlds collided into the realization that tokenized tickets could combat scalping by setting a maximum price for resale in a ticket’s smart contract. He founded YellowHeart as a blockchain-based ticketing company to bring this and many other innovative ideas to market. But in the first quarter of 2020, the pandemic hit. Live shows were going away for a long time, and his funders pulled the plug.
“I had to let the entire staff go,” Katz said. “I had to do all this by myself, early summer of ‘20, I just kept going to work by myself every day, with no money.” But it soon became evident that bands like Kings of Leon – unable to support album sales in their usual way, by touring – were running out of options.
“For a band like them, what else could they do?” Katz said. “Originally it was just art, then we got the album, and then supertickets … it just finally kind of worked out, once they understood. They were great partners.”
It’s a real pleasure hearing how someone who really loves and understands culture and fandom, and who was told “no” for so many years, has been able to prove his point. And Katz thinks that these innovations will expand throughout the media.
OK, I asked him, how will this work for, say, magazines?
“My grandma subscribed to The New Yorker, she kept all of them, and she kept TV Guides. That was a form of collecting, and collecting media will happen again,” Katz said. “When you try to gate people [as with paywalls], you gate them out, not invite them in. NFTs [non-fungible tokens] are inviting people in; they’re protected media that allows for ownership authentication; you can take any form of media, and you can say who its owner is.”
“Media companies that have been struggling so much … but when you have compelling content, readers are going to want to own it. You’ll start to see history owned by people. I might own one of the 20,000 copies of The New Yorker, and can pass it on to my kids … It will literally be the memorialization of history.”
Then he shared the very same insight that spurred my own involvement in the media/blockchain space many years ago.
“The best part about watching this happen for creatives is the elimination of the rent-seeking middleman. If I read a great piece, I’ll be able to buy direct from the writer, and it’s because I want you to keep going. Writers, artists, content creators: the consumers want to look after them, and corporate middlemen extract value from that. As a consumer you may start to think – Oh, I don’t like this corporation, I don’t like what they represent.”
“The purpose of YellowHeart is to create a symbiosis between artists and fans. Our job is to get out of the way.”
The Huntington Beach, California, metal band Avenged Sevenfold is currently minting and selling 10,000 “Deathbat” tokens on the OpenSea platform. These tokens are part NFT, part contest and part fan club; they entitle holders to skip the lines at shows, and to receive “ticket stubs” containing show highlights, airdrops, physical giveaways and discounted and/or private merch sales.
Registered fans could mint tokens before the public sale began on OpenSea for .08 ETH (about $326 at the time of writing), but there’s a neat twist: the tokens’ special initial attributes are a surprise that wasn’t revealed to buyers until Dec. 15. A lucky few received extra benefits like special merchandise and lifetime tickets.
At the time of writing, the band’s NFT site indicated that 6,121 of the tokens had been minted, netting the band roughly $2 million (at today’s ETH price) in the first few days of the sale. Good money, for sure, but a lot of people are working very hard for it. The band’s Discord has a “mint-support” channel showcasing the roller coaster of joy and fury familiar to all who’ve ever seen a crypto n00b board, with fans struggling mightily to buy ETH, to understand gas prices, to navigate OpenSea and so on.
Still, though, it’s obvious that the Avenged Sevenfold community is having a lot of fun. I also know for sure that if an opportunity like this had been available for me to buy Roxy Music, or Siouxsie Sioux or Todd Rundgren artifacts and experiences when I was a kid, I would have crawled on broken glass to do so.
As a musician, and as the founding journalist and editor of The Hard Times satiric punk news blog and the crypto/gambling blog Hard Money, and founder of freelance payments system OutVoice, Matt Saincome is at the exact center of the Venn diagram where crypto, culture and journalism meet. It was he who told me to look into the Avenged Sevenfold sale, in a recent conversation. He is like a volcano of ideas.
“The metaverse stuff now seems like just an over-engineered version of all the nerdy stuff from my childhood,” he said. “I bought bitcoin so that I could buy land in Second Life, which wasn’t an NFT, but it was – you know, Second Life looks a lot like that Meta demo that Zuckerberg showed off. All this stuff happened, like 10, 15 years ago, right? Habbo Hotel, Puzzle Pirates, all these different virtual worlds; I had gaming clans, I had a Minecraft server running on the same computer that I mined bitcoin on when I was in college.”
In other words, there’s a whole generation for whom the world of NFTs is, in many ways, already second nature.
But, Saincome added, an early NFT project at Hard Times didn’t go over well with the readership, which made him refine his strategy.
“I don’t want to always fight,” he said. “If you’re running an entertainment business, you give the audience what they want … Sometimes you want to challenge them, but I don’t want to make it my mission in life to teach a bunch of punk kids, like the kid I was, about crypto. Because you know what, that’s a hard battle to win.”
“So we created Hard Money, where our brand and ethos is all around making money, that’s what the podcast is about. And that’s what our Crypto Ponzis project is, the second version of my NFT project. And that one sold out in an hour,” he said.
He concluded, “People also don’t want this to be environmentally disastrous. I think you could look at Ripple’s $250 million NFT fund as an example of addressing that. Building on the XRP ledger wouldn’t be environmentally dangerous.”
“And then there are projects saying look, you want to be part of a fan club, you want to meet the band backstage, you want to be closer to the band without Facebook being between you, without Twitter being between you; you want a true relationship. This is how you get it. You don’t need to say, ‘It’s an NFT.’”
Which dovetails perfectly with Josh Katz’s remarks, and also with how I’ve felt about this for about forever. It’s almost uncanny hearing people echo one another more and more, reaching the same conclusions. Just like in the days of the old internet.
YellowHeart employs 40 people now, Josh Katz says. “Luckily we had some good people who came back. I was very misunderstood by the entertainment business, by Hollywood and New York. But this is the future.”