What’s so special about pixels?
These squares of color are miniscule — at 0.26 mm, they’re about the same thickness as standard cardstock — and put together into grids, they form digital images or displays on phones, computers, tablets, and the multitudes of other devices we use on a daily basis. We consume millions day in and day out. If they were arranged in a certain way, would you buy it for almost a million dollars?
One individual seems to believe so. An artist called “Unhomed” is selling three non-fungible token (NFT) artworks: one of a single red pixel, another of a single green pixel, and the last of a single blue pixel. They’re being marketed on OpenSea, a NFT website, each priced at $900,000. That’s the equivalent of buying a studio or one-bedroom apartment in New York City; four-and-a-half Tesla Roadsters; or an affordable private island; and almost enough to match the price of the wedding ring Dwanye Wade gifted Gabrielle Union.
None of these single-pixel NFTs have sold — at least, not yet.
NFTs are computer files, often associated with art, that come with proof of ownership. Each token is unique, meaning they cannot be easily traded with other NFTs, as opposed to fungible tokens, such as Bitcoin. NFTs are an application of blockchain — a type of database where “blocks” of transactional information are “chained” with all previous transactional information of the crypto goods. Think of it as a glass train. Each car is attached to one another in a specified order. The cars are also transparent, so everyone can see what is stored inside.
Blockchain has been around for about ten years now, but NFTs are just now starting to emerge as a new phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the digital surge and an increase in leisure time. In no time, they have roused the art world.
“Architecture, art, literature, performance, communications media, cultural events and design are the aesthetic responses to [the city’s complex and abundant] experiences that endeavour to give meaning and deeper understanding to urban space in a global environment,” Chris Hudson, an associate professor at RMIT University, writes in “Cities as Limitless Spaces of Simultaneity and Paradox.”
For so many of us, the pandemic has digitized countless aspects of our personal and professional lives, upending creative work in the process. NFTs, which is questioning the value of art itself, is just one example. Music, with concert venues closed and in-person performances limited, has also evolved into an online format. The pandemic poses as a massive “cultural depression,” and those who work in these sectors, among other industries, were deeply affected by the prevailing loss of jobs and income to say the least. In 2019, the unemployment rate for musicians was 1.1 percent. In 2020, it escalated to 27.1 percent.
As case numbers reside, many people are jittering with excitement to return to a studio setting and work with other artists by their side, or dance in the sea of sweaty bodies at music festivals. But these online formats may, like other pandemic-era habits we have, stick around. If that happens, our perception of art and music could change for good.
Less than two minutes after I met with Andrea Bonaceto, his phone rang and he briefly left our Zoom meeting to talk with who I assume to be other journalists. The NFT collector, creator, and self-taught artist, who mainly works with acrylics, recently collaborated with an artificial intelligence robot named Sophia to create an NFT, which sold for $700,000.
“Since the time the thing with Sophia happened, I’ve been really bombarded like crazy by so many people that it’s difficult to keep up,” Bonaceto said. “I get calls all the time, and it’s a bit too crazy now.”
Bonaceto is a big proponent of blockchain and has been following it as a long-time investor. He thinks it will be the next big innovation comparable to the internet. When the NFT phenomenon took off, Bonaceto saw this as an opportunity to merge his artistic interests with his passion for technology.
“Through time, I’ve had a deep, introspective, intellectual effort to try to understand who I am, what I need to do,” Bonaceto said, listing his hobbies of music, drawing, and playing sports. “This, in the end, landed to this collaboration with Sophia, but the story was more my mindset towards my life — to try to live an authentic life.”
Though the London-based artist would have loved to collaborate with Sophia in person, the entire process was remote. Bonaceto created a few portraits and sent them to Sophia and her creator, David Hanson. Sophia then processed the art using her neural networks and drew her interpretation of Bonaceto’s art. In Sophia’s portrait of Hanson, eerie remnants of an eye lay on the tip of his nose, another one or two eye-like body parts were muddied on his right cheek, and small swirls of blue, turquoise, and yellow were smeared all over.
NFTs are not without controversy. Many people cite concerns over the negative environmental impact of emissions created in mining NFTs. Numerous scams and fraud have developed out of the NFT mania. It is also quite simple to turn another person’s digital work into an NFT and claim the credit as your own. Bringing in artificial intelligence, another controversial subject, NFTs blur the line between the computerized world and the real world even more.
“I don’t think from an aesthetic standpoint, [COVID] really changed the way we perceive art,” Bonaceto said. “NFTs just accelerated the trend of how we trade.”
Art, in general, has increasingly been undervalued because of its omnipresence; people tend to appreciate art less when they are constantly exposed to it, like feeling desensitized to an unhealthy obsession of 24kGoldn’s “Mood” playing on Spotify for hours on repeat. Digital art, however, is undervalued even more so, bashed for being “easy” to create compared to traditional art like oil paintings.
Some artists themselves even feel like they’re cheating when creating digital art. Meanwhile, the short-lived market for NFTs seems to be thriving; in 2020, collectors spent $250 million on NFTs, and in March 2021 alone, collectors spent over $200 million on them. Technology is further changing the way art is bought and profited off of.
In mid-March, the new NFT phenomenon spread like wildfire in news reporting after Mark Winkerman, better known as Beeple, sold his flamboyant NFT collage of 5000 digital images he created called Everydays: The First 5000 Days, for $69 million, which ranks as one of the priciest NFTs ever sold. A set of concentric squares with a flashing square in the middle resembles a clock in Time is the Most Valuable Asset, a NFT created by aida. This NFT priced at the highest, beating Beeple’s NFT by $1, selling for a whopping $69,346,251. These flashy NFTs make Unhomed’s single-pixel NFTs seem like nothing in comparison.
In a time of financial stress and uncertainty due to COVID, some digital artists view NFTs as a genuine opportunity to make money. Bonaceto notes that traditionally, artists have been underpaid, and with NFTs, there is less of a middleman, which results in more money going directly to the artists themselves.
The hype about customers paying substantial amounts of money for something that seems like it can be seen and shared online at no cost sent some people scrambling to try their hand at creating and selling NFTs in the crypto market. It left others behind, puzzled.
Matt Stephenson, a trained behavioral economist pursuing a PhD at Columbia University, has been in the NFT space since 2018. Stephenson reckons the appeal of NFTs is that in the digital world, the concept of uniqueness is different from what we’re used to in the physical world.
“NFTs are something that give you a primitive that acts a little more closely to this natural sense of unique real-world objects, such that these things have a beginning,” Stephenson said through Zoom. “They have a chain of ownership and a history to them, and you can sort of see that through time, and that’s quite new in the digital space. It has interesting and suggestive psychological aspects, because it’s just mirroring something we’re so used to in the real world.”
Stephenson uses a metaphor as an example to highlight the hedonic (or sentimental) aspect embedded in NFT value, noting that NFTs give the supply but not the demand. The demand (or functional value) has to come from somewhere else. Perhaps someone thinks it’s beautiful, or another can flex with it.
“If you go into a bar or a restaurant, sometimes you’ll see that somebody has framed their first dollar that they ever got in their business,” Stephenson said. “That obviously must mean something to those business owners — if you find something really special, it means something in and of itself.”
With glasses perched on top of his head, Colborn Bell sat in front of a patterned brown wall a few shades darker than his caramel brown hair. Bell, the founder of the Museum of Crypto Art, was introduced to NFTs in 2017, largely through the CryptoKitties project. Also an avid NFT collector, Bell estimates he spent around $400,000 on a total of about 2,000 NFTs.
“This past year, a lot of wealth was created in the crypto movement, and that in particular does several very powerful things,” Bell said. “It signifies to the art world, ‘Hi, we’re here, and we are going to be participating in our own cultural movements, and if you didn’t pay attention in 2017, you should really pay attention now.’
“And NFTs,” he continued, “aren’t going anywhere as a technology.”
NFTs aren’t limited to digital art — they can be music, too, though some argue that the format of NFTs doesn’t best support music. Still, musicians have made $42.5 million in primary NFT sales, with most of the money going directly to the musicians themselves.
Some see it as a way of making up lost revenue from the pandemic and connecting with audiences in a way that isn’t only focused on online performances and social media. Like NFTs, music has also reoriented into a digital format, and technology continues to transform the way musicians profit off of music during the pandemic.
Throughout the past year, the majority of musicians have been learning, teaching, and performing music — something that desperately needs to be in person — through a screen. Students have been taking music lessons mainly on Zoom and FaceTime, where the sound is far from ideal. It might even sound better to play music in a cave. Some teachers use software audio plugins, like Cleanfeed, to improve the audio, but even with this, the character, dynamics, and other nuances the student is playing with is often lost to the technological abyss. Think of a non-Chinese speaker making an effort to listen for the subtle pronunciation differences in the four tones of Mandarin.
Performance-wise, some musicians have taken COVID precautions and connected with audiences during the pandemic through outdoor and socially-distanced performances and concerts. Musicians have also been engaging with their audiences through online and pre-recorded performances.
But there are challenges that come with the online aspect of music as well.
“As soon as you go into something that is technology-based, there are automatic inequities,” UCLA biology professor Dr. Debra Pires said in a Zoom interview.
Clarinetist Chloe Finder (they/them), a junior studying music education at New York University (NYU), never envisioned a crisis for music in their twelve years of playing clarinet, much less living through one.
When the pandemic hit the U.S., Finder was studying abroad in Prague and living in the same dorm with other music majors, collaborating and creating melodies all the time. Due to safety concerns, Finder and their classmates were immediately sent home, isolated from one another. Ever since, Finder has been taking lessons and working in chamber ensembles completely online.
“Luckily with the [private] lesson, you’re just playing by yourself, so as long as you have a decent sound set up, it’s not too hard to do lessons online, although it’s worse that there’s more of a disconnect between you and the teacher when you’re separated through a screen,” Finder said about NYU’s altered wind music education. “But I would say out of all of the music experiences this year, online lessons have been one of the less challenging transfers.”
Chamber ensemble, where a group of instruments play together, has been more difficult for Finder. They mention that most of the music-making in chamber music consists of playing and recording separately, and then combining all of the recordings, which Finder remarks is “sort of collaborative, but it’s not in the moment.”
For Finder, conducting has been one of the greatest challenges in the online format of music. For juniors in the music education program at NYU, that is when students learn how to conduct ensembles and direct large groups of students at a time. But since large groups of people can’t gather, Finder’s class is split into groups of three to four students, and the experience is more of an individual coaching situation as opposed to directing.
“[This is] definitely something that I and my cohort are concerned about going into next year because senior year is where you do your student teaching,” Finder said.
Online music classes and remote collaboration, along with the challenges they pose, is just the most basic digital format of music during COVID. Beyond that, technology has also been modifying the way musicians are sharing and profiting off of their work.
Former Broadway conductor Stan Tucker teaches in both the NYU Piano Studies program and the NYU Vocal Performance program. In the Spring 2020 semester, Tucker’s students weren’t able to perform live at NYU venues, such as the Black Box Theatre, like they normally would because of COVID regulations. Instead, they turned to the Internet.
“[One of my students] streamed their first recital last spring on YouTube, and they had over 600 hits — 600 people watching them on that night,” Tucker said. “What do you get if you do it at the Black Box? Maybe 150 people in there at most.”
Fueled by global lockdowns, vanishing jobs, and loss of revenue, some musicians have turned to the booming streaming market during the pandemic in hopes of supplementing their dwindling or nonexistent income.
World-class violinist Jennifer Koh has had a music career only a handful of aspiring classical music performers may ever experience: appearing on the world’s top stages, and working with world-renowned orchestras and other musicians of her caliber. COVID swallowed a year’s worth of her booked performances and by December 2020, Koh was living off of food stamps in New York City.
“I thought it was important to tell the truth because there are members of my musical community that are doing worse than me,” Koh told me in a Zoom interview about an article in The New York Times that featured her harrowing pandemic experience. “Much worse.”
In response to the pandemic, Koh launched “Alone Together,” an Instagram and Facebook live-stream concert series designed to help members of her community, especially younger musicians and freelancers. Twenty-one composers in good financial standing each donated a short violin piece for Koh to perform. Each also recommended a freelance composer to contribute to the project and receive paid commission for doing so.
“There are many different kinds of digital platforms,” Koh said, referring to online performances, streaming, and merchandise. “I think definitely streaming and digital content will continue.”
The two primary forms of profit in the music industry include live performances and recorded music. The pandemic silenced the former, but not so much the latter. During COVID, performers, like Tucker’s students, hunted for methods of connecting with audiences virtually through live-streaming platforms like Zoom, Twitch, Instagram, and Youtube. Twitch, in particular, saw a 524 percent increase in viewership in the Music and Performing Arts category.
While traditional streaming of recorded music through platforms like Spotify and Apple music initially fell directly after the pandemic, they saw a surge in subscriptions and revenue. From 2019 to 2020, the two platforms had the greatest increase of subscriptions in a single year. Similarly, revenue from streaming increased by 9.2 percent.
The statistics seem promising, but Mat Dryhurst, a Berlin-based musician and researcher, is skeptical of streaming as a viable medium for all musicians to make an income.
“I believe streaming is viable for the top one percent of artists for whom the per-play valuation model works, and perhaps the 90 percent of casual musicians who make similar music and aspire to be part of that 1 percent,” Dryhurst wrote in an email interview. “For everyone else, [streaming] has had a decade to demonstrate its viability, and it has failed.”
Streaming services, such as Apple Music and Spotify, continue to advance rapidly, but many artists are still paid a fraction of a cent per stream, after rights holders and distributors get their share of the money. Spotify, for instance, pays artists $0.0033 to $0.005 per stream. That means it takes around 200 to 300 streams for artists to earn a dollar.
“I believe that these are the people who will begin experimenting with Web 3,” Dryhurst continued, “and ultimately the most viable economy for musicians is the one they build for their own context and art.”
COVID has accelerated the inevitable digital transformation of society. The older art world of oil paintings, sculptures, and murals have been losing relevance for years, and the rise of digital art like NFTs is threatening its extinction. Crypto art deserves its own place in art history, revolutionizing the speed at which art is bought and sold, but most importantly, transferring ownership in the transaction process. The concept of ownership in art, especially digital art, has always been a hypothetical situation, but the changes brought by NFTs make it a reality.
However, a sliver of the vast art world has ever made money from art. Dryhurst notes that the narrative of generating value around monopolizing “the new” was already challenged simply by the development of the internet as a technology. Over time, online expression and sharing has become a source of novelty and experimentation, seizing more traditional areas of the contemporary art market.
While NFTs and streaming alone won’t be able to make art and music profitable for the majority of people, perhaps tools in the futuristic Web 3.0 space will do so.
Web 3.0 is a new phase of the internet, also known as the Semantic Web, which is marked by machine-readable data and artificial intelligence. These features allow machines to form connections between varying forms of information, which they were previously incapable of.
Today’s Internet is centralized, meaning it’s built from giant corporations, such as Google, Spotify, and YouTube. These corporations control much of the digital landscape for artists and musicians.
Like NFTs, Web 3.0 gives individuals direct ownership to the content they create and a portion of the revenues generated from that content, as opposed to online platforms consuming it all. With Web 3.0, the internet can become more self-sustaining and open to everyone, which decentralizes the current industry of a select few people making decisions that impact all artists and musicians.
“The bigger picture,” Dryhurst wrote, “is decentralisation and releasing tools for artists to create their own economies.”