In 2021, the inevitable occurred, as NFTs were embraced by a music industry that was more than eager to find alternate revenue streams once the COVID-19 pandemic effectively cut off musicians from their primary sources of income — live shows and merchandise sales. However, the industry’s acceptance of NFTs should surprise no one, really. After all, the “music biz” has forever been bound to technology, and industry actors have always adapted to keep pace.
This year, more than any other previously, artists both well-established and up-and-coming realized that they could go directly to their fans, and sell unique, tokenized versions of their songs, albums, and artwork — and ultimately, those musicians could yield substantially higher profits. As a type of digital asset, NFTs offer up a new way for creators to market and sell their content, expanding the possibilities of how art, music, literature and more can be disseminated and consumed.
Music NFTs will continue to revolutionize the way that artists and fans create community together as we enter the upcoming year — undoubtedly changing the trajectory of countless budding music careers. Now that the possibility of sharing wealth within an independent, digitized ecosystem of fans and creatives has been actualized, the future of the music industry seems even less predictable than it did in the midst of a global pandemic.
So with 2021 ending, we’ve partnered with Coinbase and UnitedMasters, who recently partnered to pay out musicians in cryptocurrency, to look back on the music NFT moments that made the most waves — historic moves that could signal a paradigm shift in the way the music industry operates.
February 21: Jacques Greene sells music publishing via Foundation
Early in 2021, U.K.-based record label LuckyMe announced that one of its hallmark artists — pioneering Canadian electronic sensation Jacques Greene — would be auctioning off the publishing rights (“in perpetuity”) to his brand new single, called “Promise.” Before the auction, fans got a mere six-second tease of the tune, which was offered through digital art marketplace Foundation. The track sold for 13 ETH (or around $23,000 at the time).
“I’m excited (and scared) of what possibilities and promises lie in this field, and for arts and culture in general. I have a lot of hopes and fears tied to it. Much rather think and talk about what might happen than sitting around feeling dread. This platform is a promise.”Jacques Greene via Twitter
February 28: 3LAU raises $11.7 million in Ultraviolet NFT album auction
Justin Blau — better known by his artist moniker, 3LAU — is perhaps one of the earliest adopters of the music NFTs, having sold his first NFTs back in the fall of 2020. But back in late February, the electronic dance music star’s Ultraviolet collection of 33 different NFTs netted him a reported $11.7 million over the course of a three-day auction. After the sale, Blau cemented his status as one of the technology’s biggest proponents, announcing in August he was forging an NFT music platform called royal, which will enable token owners to secure royalties from a musicians’ songs.
“We were all cheering, and then everyone just stopped talking. Trust me, I didn’t know it was going to go this high.”Blau via interview with Forbes
March: Catalog audio NFT platform launches
With an eye towards revolutionizing the music business by empowering independent artists while providing them direct access to their fans, Catalog entered the NFT conversation back in early March, becoming the first marketplace designed specifically for audio NFTs. Recently, Catalog partnered with Bajan artist Haleek Maul to sell off the four tracks comprising his asset-backed Inner EP. Over the course of one week in late October, the 13-minute offering generated 56 ETH (or around $235,000), with a single song — “Touch” — going for 17.1039 ETH (or $68,491).
March: Grimes, Steve Aoki sell millions in NFTs via Nifty Gateway
In March, Gemini’s NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway helped make Grimes nearly $6 million richer in 20 minutes. The Canadian songstress made $5.8 million selling a suite of 10 exclusive digital artworks — some, accompanied by original songs — called the WarNymph Collection, Vol. 1. A week later, using the very same platform, electronic DJ/producer Steve Aoki dropped his inaugural NFT collection, Dream Catcher, selling it for $4.25 million. Dream Catcher’s 11 unique works were created in collaboration with celebrated visual artist Antoni Tudisco. They further boasted one-of-a-kind sounds and impressive animation. These sales helped pave the way for future seven-figure sales on the platform by headliners such as The Weeknd and Eminem.
March 5: Kings of Leon become first band to release LP as NFT
On March 5, the new album from renowned Nashville garage rockers Kings of Leon, called When You See Yourself, hit record store shelves. Issued by RCA Records, it was their first new collection of songs in three years. Simultaneously, the band of brothers became the first musical group to also make their album available the same day as an NFT. And boy, did it pay off! Using the Yellow Heart platform, they generated 820 ETH (or $1.45 million). Exclusive versions of the album, unique digital artwork, and lifetime concert passes were offered as part of the offering. Afterwards, the “On Call” and “Sex on Fire” quartet donated more than $500,000 donated to Live Nation’s Crew Nation Fund, established to support road crews, sidelined by the pandemic.
“It’s crazy that the NFT blew up the way that it did. We’re all somewhat educated on it, and, at least in the beginning, I’m still scratching my head and trying to figure it all out.”Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill via interview with CleveRock.com
March 9: RAC launches SixNFT agency
Before introducing his SixNFT Agency back in March, Portland-based musician and producer RAC (born: André Allen Anjos) was well-versed in music-based NFTs. In 2017, the Grammy-winning artist released his album, EGO, through blockchain-powered beta music streaming and download platform Ujo Music. The aim of Six, according to a press release, is to help “musicians, brands, and visual artists break into the world of NFTs.” Already, Six has helped California IDM master Tycho, Swedish dance duo Galantis, and globally-recognized musician BT with highly successful drops.
March 19: Delphi Digital purchases “The Disclosure Face” for $125K
What happened when English electronic music duo Disclosure sold the infamous image from their 2012 EP The Face? A bunch of their fans — already NFT investors — decided to go all in, securing it for $140,000. The Zora transaction also included a lifetime of Disclosure concert tickets for the NFT’s owners. In the months since, the fans have become friends with the group, and in recent months, Disclosure has even performed sets during Delphi Digital events.
April 9: Don Diablo sells first full-length concert film NFT for $1.26 million
Dutch DJ Don Diablo made NFT history in 2021, offering up the very first full-concert film as a crypto asset through SuperRare. Called Destination Hexagonia, the one-hour DJ set from the man behind “Cutting Shapes” and “Cheque” featured sci-fi style visuals with 3D rendered sets. In addition to the NFT, the winning bidder — who ponied up 600 ETH (or $1.26 million) — received a unique USB stick containing the file. Diablo said it took a year to plan the concert, “and the goal was to create a next-level sci-fi inspired live set with a cinematic approach as a unique piece of futuristic art.”
April 16: VÉRITÉ becomes first artist to auction master recording rights in perpetuity
In April, Brooklyn-based songsmith VÉRITÉ released her ethereal and new single, “By Now.” The artist — who has never signed with a record label, and whose songs have amassed more than 350 million streams — sold 2.3% of the master recording in perpetuity for 11 ETH as an audiovisual NFT on Zora. The sale earned VÉRITÉ accolades within the NFT community and remains a monumental milestone for independent artists.
May 3: SongCamp releases genesis NFTs
This spring, musicians and visual artists from around the globe came together to collaborate on three brand new songs. Divided into three teams that eventually took on band-like names, the artists worked over five weeks to create the multimedia tracks, which were then sold as music NFTs. Altogether, the creative collective of 13 strangers earned 10.05 ETH (roughly $34,000) from selling the songs “Static Twist” by The Lunar Veil, “Hold on Hope” by Driftwood TX, and “Antid0t3” by Rainbow Punch.
May 8: First piece of classical music sold on blockchain
In early May, a Texas choral group auctioned off an NFT of a unique digital recording, making it the first piece of classical music to sell on the blockchain. The Dallas-based Verdigris Ensemble recorded the song “Betty’s Notebook” in January. The 21-minute-long tune, composed by Nicholas Reeves, was listed by Async Art, a digital art auction blockchain platform, and the winning bid was 56.46 ETH (or $375,000). The proceeds were distributed to all who were involved in the historic recording.
May 19: Chi Modu, acclaimed hip-hop photographer, passes away after minting NFTs of work
If you ever picked up a copy of The Source during the 1990s, you have already seen the incredibly candid work of hip-hop photographer Chi Modu. The Nigerian-born, Jersey-bred visionary snapped what remain some of the most iconic images of Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, Mobb Deep, Nas, and the Wu-Tang Clan. Modu died on May 19 at the age of 54. But just prior to his passing, Modu minted 19 NFTs of his photos, making them available through his website, hiphopimages.com.
May 26: BT releases 24-hour song as NFT
Trance musician BT spent 10 months working on Genesis.json, a unique “piece of software” that sold as an NFT on SuperRare. Described as one of the most technologically-sophisticated NFTs to date, Genesis.json boasts more than 15,000 hand-sequenced audio and visual moments that will play out over the course of a 24-hour period. The artwork’s cycle, a press release explains, will repeat daily, so long as the internet exists. The song sold for 88.8 ETH (or $212,000). “I believe the blockchain and decentralized technologies are a paradigm shifting system that respects artists and their work,” BT said at the time of the offering.
August 10: Tory Lanez releases NFT album to controversy
Canadian rapper Tory Lanez stirred up a bit of controversy this summer when he released his album, When It’s Dark, as seven separate NFTs. But Lanez teamed up with E-NFT, which conducted the auction. Fans took to Reddit in the wake of the auction, to complain about the platform, noting irregularities and glitches that stymied efforts to buy the NFTs, and later, to sell for a profit. Many took to Twitter to express their displeasure, with some saying they felt duped by the rapper. Lanez has remained mum on the matter.
August 16: Audius becomes first streaming service to partner with TikTok
When it comes to music streaming services, Audius is unique. Launched in 2018, Audius is controlled by artists and owned by a community of token holders, rather than a single, centralized entity. In a deal announced in mid-August, Audius — which utilizeds$AUDIO tokens — revealed it was working with TikTok, to make the songs of its more than 100,000 artists available for use in TikTok videos. Audius — which counts Diplo, Weezer, and Odesza as clients — has more than 5 million active monthly users. TikTok would later enter the NFT space in September with its “Moments” project, featuring Curtis Roach.
August 18: CryptoPunk rapper Spottie WIFI sells $192,000 in music NFTs in seconds
For years, Mig Mora was an Illinois rapper, struggling to make a name for himself in the unforgiving music business. And in 2012, it dawned on Mora that his music days were probably over, and that it was time to get a job. In February, Mora got a second chance at a music career after purchasing CryptoPunk #5528. With newfound inspiration, Mora became the world’s only CryptoPunk rapper after adopting the persona Spottie WiFi. On Aug. 18, Mora released a seven-song EP that was limited to 2,000 copies. Each copy came with a mystery mint NFT, enabling the purchaser to instantly obtain sync rights to the NFT’s master recording.
September 22: Snoop Dogg reveals himself to be NFT collector Cozomo de’ Medici
After his debut in August, influential collector Cozomo de’ Medici quickly rose to prominence in the NFT community. Turning heads with million-dollar purchases and his cryptic style of tweeting, the outlandish influencer first stumped followers by revealing his connection with superstar Jason Derulo. After a month of gaining popularity in the NFT space, Cozomo agreed to announce his true identity during some playful banter with fellow collectors. When none other than Snoop Dogg came forward as the person behind the account, it was clear that the true puppet master behind Cozomo de’ Medici had resolved to keep his identity a secret. Snoop Dogg has remained active in the NFT space, most recently collaborating with OG crypto artist Coldie on a piece that sold for 188 ETH ($731K) on SuperRare.
October 20: PleasrDAO buys rare Wu-Tang album
It has not been heard by many, making it one of the rarest albums ever released: the Wu-Tang Clan worked six years on Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, releasing a single copy of the LP in 2015. Three years later, the government seized the album from its original owner — “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli — and now, it is owned by PleasrDAO, a collective of DeFi pioneers. SixNFT helped broker the recent sale, which cost the group $4 million.
“We firmly believe there are ways to share this musical masterpiece with the world. A lot of things in life are temporary, fleeting, impermanent. But remember this — just like our blockchain, Wu-Tang is forever.”PleasrDAO blog post
October 31: Bored Ape Yacht Club throws Apefest during NFT NYC
One of the most influential events to happen during 2021’s memorable NFT.NYC conference was undoubtedly Bored Ape Yacht Club’s Apefest. Held over the course of four days, the BAYC event included merch pop-ups, meetups and more, all culminating with a massive party that saw the Bored Ape crew take over the Brooklyn Steel warehouse for a wild night of live music that was open only to owners of a Bored Ape Yacht Club or Mutant Ape Yacht Club NFT. Featuring performances from The Strokes, Lil Baby, Beck and Questlove with Chris Rock and Aziz Ansari as MCs, the festival-like event sent a clear signal that the Guy Oseary-represented project was not messing around.
November 11-12: Universal Music launches Bored Ape band Kingship, Timbaland launches Ape-In Productions
In late April, the world of NFTs got a little more interesting with the launch of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, a collection of NFTs created by four pseudonymous developers: Gargamel, Gordon Goner, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, and No Sass. All 10,000 unique iterations of the cartoon primates were snatched up at a price point of around $190 in ETH. Bored Ape Yacht Club has since gone on to become one of the hottest NFT projects with more than $950 million in total sales volume. In November, Universal Music announced the formation of Kingship, a virtual band of Bored Apes. Also last month, producer Timbaland launched Ape-In Productions, a firm to create music and animation around Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT avatars; it has already released a single by virtual hip-hop group TheZoo.
“Creating Kingship has been incredibly fun and imaginative. I started 10:22PM to push the boundaries of innovation in the music industry and with Kingship, we’re literally inventing what’s possible in real-time.”Kingship Founder Celine Joshua press release
November 26: Rare Scrilla and Ghostface Killah release Rare Pepe NFT
A slew of NFTs hit the market on Black Friday, but it was Rare Scrilla and founding Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah’s rare fake Pepe NFT GhostFake that attracted most of the attention. Bidding on the hip-hop crypto art piece began at midnight on Nov. 26. Featuring Scrilla’s visuals with Ghostface’s music and lyricism, the asset sold for $281,136, according to online records. The owner — Starry Night Capital — also now owns the master recording of Ghostface’s song.
December 14: Unreleased Whitney Houston Demo Track Sells as NFT
On December 13, music NFT marketplace OneOf launched an auction of a Whitney Houston “OneOf One” NFT which contained a never-before-heard demo recording of Houston at age 17. Paired with a digital video created by 17-year-old critically-acclaimed artist Diana Sinclair, the single edition NFT sold for $999,999. The auction winner of the “OneOf One” NFT received full personal use rights of the demo track, meaning while the public distribution of any kind is strictly prohibited, the owner has full private access to the song. Similar to legacy auction houses becoming involved in the NFT ecosystem, this landmark auction illustrated the potential of NFTs to help bring iconic artists into a new era of music culture.
Honorary Mention: Celebs ape into Bored Apes, CryptoPunk NFTs
The rich, famous, and infamous entered the NFT space in a big way in 2021, with celebs of all types signing on and picking up their own Bored Apes. Last month, the likes of NBA star Steph Curry, musician Post Malone, and late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon acquired their own Bored Apes, as did musician Marshmello, The Chainsmokers, Shaquille O’Neal, Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, influencer Logan Paul, and entrepreneur Marc Cuban. And you can count Jay-Z, Serena Williams, musician Jason Derulo, Snoop Dogg, and NFL player Odell Beckham as owners of unique CryptoPunks.
NFTs have made a massive splash in 2021, creating a ripple effect felt throughout the tech, finance and creative industries. Yet, the music industry alone seems to be presenting the most illuminating litmus test for how blockchain technology could facilitate co-creation and co-ownership of intellectual property.
From 3LAU breaking industry records with his $11.7 million Ultraviolet NFT drop to CryptoPunk Rapper Spottie WIFI bootstrapping a community that helped him earn $192,000 in seconds, NFTs have given independent musicians the power to sustain themselves around the concept of digital ownership. With mainstream adoption of NFTs on the horizon as some of the most successful brands in existence become involved in the non-fungible marketplace, a paradigm shift within the music industry is seeming less far-fetched with every passing month. Bring on 2022!