In the latest Water and Music newsletter, Cherie Hu notes a startling development in music monetization. Utilizing the blockchain, a pair of electronic music acts auctioned digital artworks — “short-form, looping videos soundtracked by original music” — earning close to $40,000. Using non-fungible tokens (NFT), the buyers can own (or control) these pieces despite the content’s digital replicability.
Cherie’s article then considers scarcity, a fan-driven quality of music and collectibles that, in the digital age, rarely exists outside of touring. As Cherie says, “In a capitalist economy, artificial scarcity creates the conditions for discovering culture’s true market value.” In old school (but still existent) terms, think of limited edition albums, the hand-crafted numbered cassette, or that t-shirt you can only buy directly from the touring band. But applying this to the digital marketplace is a tough nut to crack. Cherie writes:
… artificial scarcity could not be more antithetical to how the streaming economy works today, because we expect digital music to be as close to free and ubiquitous as possible — i.e. the opposite of scarce. In a noisy online media landscape, many artists also feel pressured to achieve the same level of ubiquity as the services that monetize their work, constantly churning out content in order to keep up with “the algorithm” and maintain fans’ attention — a burden that is ever more amplified in a world without touring.
After reading this piece, I checked out Shawn Reynaldo’s latest First Floor newsletter. Shawn speaks with electronic musician Jordan GCZ about his embrace of the Patreon platform. Jordan suggests that he may release music only through Patreon — that is, not on vinyl or Bandcamp or the streamers, but only to his 36 (as of right now) supporters. And these won’t be cast-off tracks or outtakes — the artist promises to release some of his best songs this way, delivered only to his most ardent fans.
Unless there’s something like incorporating tokens as Cherie writes about, there’s nothing non-fungible about Jordan’s Patreon-only music releases. These fans are free to copy and pass on these music files, and they might end up on piracy sites and YouTube. The scarcity is only in the files’ initial distribution. But I am intrigued by this idea — albums and releases distributed only through ‘fan clubs’ as an alternative to the corporate outlets. I just wonder if the status of membership and being the first to receive the music is scarce enough.