Since the invention of records, music has been a multimedia art experience.
Elaborate art on album jackets was the first thing fans saw when new records hit the stores. Browsing, collecting, displaying, and trading vinyl was a part of the experience. While it’s no longer a mass product, vinyl still has its die-hard fanatics among many niche music communities.
Most of us, however, no longer even buy music. We just open a streaming app and start listening.
But a new format is emerging to offer the best of physical and digital: music NFTs.
An LP vinyl record is a piece of plastic that can play about 22 minutes of music on each side.
The artwork on album jackets was the key channel for communicating the artist’s vision and selling the record. Unless they’ve already heard the artist at a concert or on the radio, the album jacket was the only way to grab the audience’s attention.
For new artists, selling records was often the main avenue to getting recognition. Independent vinyl record stores were more than just selling: they were curators, trendsetters, and opinion leaders.
Album jackets, of course, also have a specific utility: they protect the vinyl. Scratches damage the quality of music, so records must be properly handled and stored.
However, vinyl is heavy and takes up space. Even for major aficionados, there is some limit to how many records they can own.
Also, playing vinyl records gradually damages them. The needle physically moves across the record and introduces micro scratches. As a result, new, unopened vinyl records (aka in “mint” condition) are more expensive than those that have been played.
This created a curious game dynamic: buy and hold or play and have the resell value go down.
Of course, most vinyl records were never rare — they were a mass product, often with many unauthorized copies.
Recording vinyl records is relatively easy and cheap.
So during the heydays of vinyl in ’60s and ‘70s, bootleg records were widespread.
Bootleggers would often respond to new trends faster than mainstream recording companies.
By the time bootleggers made big profits, that was hardly a problem for established musicians. They were selling out huge concerts, raking in royalties from authorized sales and other deals.
Bootlegged records were also the primary way of enjoying the latest Western music in the USSR and countries of the Eastern Bloc. People recorded forbidden Western music on used X-rays— ‘the bone music’.
Even in the West, underground artists continued experimenting with recording and releasing their own vinyl records. Again, indie artists distributed music through small independent shops. With just their album jacket art to stand out from the crowd. The history of techno and early electronic music was made on vinyl.
Over the past years, vinyl sales have made a comeback. A vinyl record costs about $7 to produce and sells for upwards of $25, usually directly to fans. So artists keep most of the profit.
As a result, for the first time since the 1980s, vinyl records are set to outpace CDs as the most popular physical music format. However, supply chain issues make it difficult to satisfy the growing demand for vinyl records.
That doesn’t mean fans will be left without music.
Today anyone can release and publish music with just their phone. Yet getting deals with recording companies is harder than ever: the competition has never been as high.
But there is another way, oddly reminiscent of the good old vinyl days.
Music NFTs are non-fungible tokens that have music files linked to them.
An image, a GIF, a video, and any metadata could accompany the music. Some NFTs also unlock exclusive downloadable content.
Music NFTs are not a new standard. It could be the regular MP3 or any other file format. It could be any length, from a single loop to several hours.
It’s not theory, this is already happening now. OpenSea alone lists over 370,000 music NFTs. And it’s not only unkown indie musicians. Established artists like Snoop Dogg, Kings of Leon, 3LAU, and Armin van Buuren have launched their NFT collections.
What makes music NFTs unique is that you can own digital music.
Again, the ownership could take any shape and form. The NFT could be a token of your support for the artist, similar to buying their merch. Or the NFT could grant some on-chain rights, discounts to a future release, and anything else that can be described in the smart contract. Traditional legal contracts can also share some IP ownership rights with NFT holders.
Music NFTs could be 1-1, copies of limited editions, unique versions from the same collection, or even unlimited mints.
All these choices are up to the artist.
While new platforms are emerging to make it easier to create music NFTs, artists can do everything by themselves, fully owning the whole creative process.
The distribution of music NFTs, however, is similar to the days of independent vinyl records.
New artists need the vouches of curators, fellow artists, and other trendsetters. These could be music NFT platforms or simply well-known wallets that mint new drops. Even just seeing that your friends all collected a new artist could prompt you to check them out.
Importantly, it’s all digital and on-chain. The properties of the NFT smart contract define the ownership. But anyone can simply listen to music.
Music NFTs open new creative possibilities for artists.
In addition to music and cover artwork, the smart contract adds new dimensions to the experience.
The artist can choose:
Who and how can mint the NFT?
How many NFTs will be there?
How will NFTs categorize based on the metadata?
What are the resale royalties, and how do they work?
What on-chain and/or off-chain rights does the NFT holder get?
By answering these questions, artists can create new dynamic and rich experiences for buyers, collectors, and traders.
It is time to break out from thinking about NFTs as JPEGs. NFTs can be so much more than 1:1, limited editions, and 10k collections.
Music can open a stream of ideas to reinvigorate creativity around NFTs as a medium, fostering genuine communities beyond pure speculation.
Some of the music NFTs mentioned in this article: