Gassing NFTs with Joseph Arthur

Jim Beckmann
photo by Jim Bennett

If you’ve spent any time on social media lately or keep up with music news in general, you’ve probably heard people talk about NFTs. Non-fungible tokens, they’re called, and their rise is linked to the world of cryptocurrency. While they’re not an entirely new phenomenon, as digital artists and even the NBA have been selling them, but they’re in the news lately because artists like Grimes, Kings of Leon and 3LAU have made millions auctioning NFTs.

Now, everyone wants to know what’s up with them and how they might affect artists and the music industry, but trying to parse the new vocabulary of “blockchain-based non-fungible tokens” and understanding about having enough “ethereum in your wallet to pay the gas fee” might make your head spin. While there are tons of online explanations to explain the concepts to even the gold-storing luddites among us, I wanted to ask musician and visual artist Joseph Arthur about his own attempts to enter the world of NFTs, which he’s been documenting on his Instagram and Facebook accounts.

KEXP: Joseph, I want to talk to you about NFT's because that's what everybody seems to be talking about right now. I know they're not a brand new thing, but they’re making the news, at least, with musicians right now, and you're in a special place, being a visual artist, musician, and among many other things, boxer, podcaster, et cetera. 

Joseph Arthur: All around superhero. 

Exactly. So, what drew you to NFTs? 

Crypto. I started getting into investing in cryptocurrency and, you know, that's a rabbit hole, another interesting thing that you can become passionate about. And then in that realm, months ago I started hearing about NFTs -- NFTs are going to be this thing and it's for artists -- so when I saw that it's for artists, that piqued my attention. I started investigating the space. That app Clubhouse opened up, where there are NFT rooms. And I started being in those and listening and learning, and the thing blew up so fast and reached like critical mass that already it almost feels like it's on the downside. 

That was fast! 

Two weeks ago, no one knew about it, and I was on this new thing. Cut to now, Lindsay Lohan's already had an NFT out and it's done and everyone's sick of hearing about it. And I haven't even launched one yet! (laughs) So, I think the moral of the story is in this day and age, don't procrastinate. That's why I'm like, no more procrastination. I'm going to launch one this week. Come hell or high water, I'm launching one, because, jokes aside, it's an amazing thing for artists, especially visual digital artists because they don't have to make prints.

There's a digital signature, there's a representation of your work on the blockchain that can't be duplicated. That's what non-fungible means. Not duplicatable, like Bitcoin is fungible. You know, one bitcoin is the same as the other. But if I make an NFT based on this drawing, right, (shows physical drawing) or make a digitized version of that, and I can do a one to one, then it's basically adding another layer of value onto something because I can tokenize the digital version of that drawing and then I can also sell the physical version of that drawing.

I think that's like what musicians are also realizing about their albums, like Kings of Leon just put one out. And the first one was 3LAU, who made like $11.7 million on an album that was three years old, because it just adds a whole other layer of value. And, it doesn't take away any of the old-school realms of value. If somebody owns, say, a tokenized version of your song, it doesn't mean that they can sell that song to Nike or some shit like that. They literally just own the token, they own an asset, like a new asset class that's been invented for all... for all things really. I was going to say for art and music, but it's really all things that can be tokenized. 

But you have to go through some kind of system or platform, right, in order to put it out… I forget the term you used.

Tokenize or mint, I don't even know, I might be making those terms up (laughs) but I know I got them from somewhere, but, yeah, there are various platforms. There are open ones, like OpenSea and Rarible, which don't require any kind of curation process. Anyone can get on them and then there's Nifty Gateway and SuperRare, but apparently, now there's like a six-month waiting list to get on those or to even be considered to get on those. They’re a lot like a gallery. I guess you could sell your stuff for a lot more, but then Nifty Gateway takes, I think, a large percentage of that. It works similar to a gallery in that it's maybe worth giving up the percentage because they're going to bring in more contacts, better buyers, this that. 

So, is it the curation that you need from them or do you actually physically have to get someone like that to apply blockchain to your work? 

You need a wallet, you need to put ethereum in the wallet, because to mint an NFT, the gas fees you hear about with the ethereum is needed to mint an NFT, or to make an NFT. It's a lot of money, like one hundred something bucks or something like that. I don't know. Like I said, I wanted to do this interview after I did it (mint one), but yeah... I'm actually planning on doing that today. I have to draw a line in the sand because it’s the kind of thing where it just goes on and on and on and on and on. It's like making an album. You never want to release the mix, you know, like, "Let me listen, let's do vocal up, one db" and it doesn't matter! You know, you make the thing and then you spend the next six months dealing with like five percent, better or worse. Or, you just put it out. 

But if you have to invest $100, say, to put one out, then you have to sell it for at least $100, right? That's going to be tough for artists, I would guess. 

Well, yeah that's a factor. That's a real factor. I think they're trying to deal with the gas fees, so to speak. And on OpenSea, I believe, you can release a series so you could make a series of like, say, fifty works or twenty works and only pay one of the gas fees. So, I think there are workarounds to it. 

In theory, you could sell the same NFT to multiple people, is that right? 

Not unless you make it a series as such, like a seven of seven or something like that. But once you meant it as an NFT, that's it. It is what it is. It's just the one unless you decide to make it like an edition of ten or something. 

Do you find yourself more drawn to the visual part of it or is music definitely part of it? I don't know if you can even imagine this, but if you weren't a musician, is it something you'd be into or is it more because you're a musician that you're drawn to NFTs? 

Well, I was initially drawn into it as a visual artist, but obviously the music thing is taking off huge at this point. I just think it's a wonderful thing. Obviously, it's a bubble and where it bursts or where it lands when it bursts is anybody's guess. But I think it's a bubble the same way the Internet was a bubble and that yeah, it's a bubble, but it's going to change things forever and it's going to change things forever in favor of artists, which is great, you know, which is hallelujah. I think that should be the case and I'd say that even if I wasn't an artist, because it's hard to be an artist and it's hard to put yourself out there creatively and it's hard to make a living doing it. I mean, it's hard to be alive on planet Earth as a human being, so nothing's easy, but if we can make it a little easier for people to express themselves creatively and make a living doing that, nothing wrong with that. That benefits all of us. 

You must have to change some of the way you work, right, in order to fit the medium? 

I always work digitally anyway, like in addition to working in analog realms. I was always making art using painting apps and stuff like that. But the thing is, I never took that stuff seriously. And the shift that this has created in me is going like, oh, no, that's just as much artwork as anything else. Like an app on your phone can be as legitimate as oil paint and a canvas. It sort of evens out the playing field of artistic expression in a way that legitimizes digital expression to the exact same level as analog expression, and I think that's really healthy for the evolution of art in every sense, musically, visually, in every way. I mean, a purist will be like "no, man", but things have to shift and, obviously, the tools that we have digitally are astounding.

Have you checked out any of the artists that have blown up in this space, like Beeple? He's really famous. I mean, millions and millions of followers. And his work is stunning. I mean, he sold one for one of his pieces [for] over $6.6 million. That he initially sold for sixty thousand. And the great thing about the NFT space as well is that artists have a royalty now, so Beeple, I think, got 10 percent of that $6.6 million, even though he sold it for $60,000, he then made another was 600 grand off that. So that's amazing. Like that never used to be the case. An artist used to sell their work for starving artist prices. Not that 60 grand is starving artist prices, but you know what I mean. And then their work might go on to sell like crazy and they don't get any of that. Artists have long since thought that was nonsense. 

Yeah, especially for the digital artifact, right? Like with CDs, remember used CDs and Garth Brooks, among others, who was trying to get a cut of what happens when somebody resells a CD that they've bought to a store. Like, when I go and buy that CD, they want a cut of that artifact. But that wasn't in the cards. You only got the publishing part. 

Sorry, you're SOL, brah, SOL. (laughs)

But, to a point, especially where artists are not seeing a lot of returns other than their initial payment for their work, finding those ways with NFTs is great. 

It's the decentralization of everything that's so amazing about cryptocurrency in general. And then the NFT is a reflection of that in the arts because what it's going to do is democratize, I think, in a great way, with artists being able to make a living on all kinds of levels. So, it won't be like you're either starving or you're Andy Warhol. You know, there was no space in between. It's like now there's all kinds of levels in between and you can make a comfortable living doing your thing. If it blows up, great! But if it doesn't, no big deal, you know. You can pay for some TV dinners and throw a baseball around on the weekend and do it all because you like to paint freaky pictures, which is awesome. Nothing wrong with that. 

But there are still some gatekeepers, though, right? Like, the gallery owners. There's still a little bit of that, right?

Yeah, which is probably what my procrastination is sort of subconsciously about, you know. It's just like, well, will I have any footing in this space? And I'm an artist that has a little bit of a following too, but at the end of the day, the planet Earth is a challenging space and that's never going to be any different. It's always going to be challenging. 

I think about the loss of artwork with music. When music went digital, that was one of the complaints, you know. People would buy MP3's, and people are consuming music on Spotify more still, and one of the great losses to music collectors was the loss of artwork. I know that not a lot of musicians can also create digital art, though I'm sure some are teaching themselves. But, even if you hire somebody to do the art, like you would with an album, I can imagine that there could be kind of a replacement of that loss through NFTs in the digital space. 

I would say a massive improvement, you know, a massive replacement and a massive improvement. It's the evolution of it, and maybe it wasn't at first as obvious. But now as these things are happening, it's just going to open up people's creative muscles and minds to all kinds of different things and, let's face it, "merch" items. But that will be the sort of impetus for new forms of creativity. That's why Andy Warhol was so great. He knew not to separate art and finance. He knew that they were the same engine in a way, or he leaned into the fact that they could be the same engine, you know? And I think in some way he's kind of like the godfather of all this somehow. Even though it's certainly not limited to pop artists or anything like that by any stretch. But somehow it feels like his spirit is in this. 

I agree, definitely in embracing the consumer aspect of it, which, you know, a lot of people now look at also as a matter of support. It's not just ownership, although I'm sure that's part of the collectability, but, like when you said merch, people want to buy merch from artists.

And it's beyond merch because it becomes a partnership. What I love about it. Say I make a painting and I make an NFT out of it and you buy the NFT, right, we become business partners in that asset, so it's active. It's more active than an old-school painting on your wall. It's an asset that is existing in a digital wallet that you could trade, sort of on a dime. I mean, you'd still have to find a buyer and all that, but it's much more movable. It's much more of a living feeling, like a living asset, and I feel like it breeds that spirit of partnership between the artist and the collector. 

Now, one thing that does tend to happen with collectors is that while it's great for the collector who has the piece, it’s maybe not so great for the people who don't have the piece. So, on the one hand, you're allowing somebody to own that particular work, then you're also not allowing the others to. To what extent is the work still shareable in some way? 

It's entirely shareable. That's the other thing that's hard for people to get their head around because it's like, well, wait, I can have it on my phone. Yes, you can, but you don't own it. Well, I have it. What's the difference? Well, kind of on some level, there really is no difference. (laughs) But people like to own shit, you know. And that's the whole thing: I feel like once people get their head around that a whole new layer of value has been created over all things, that's when it will click. It looks like a whole new world. The metaverse is born now. Cryptocurrency is here to stay, and art can be turned into a digital asset now. And the ownership of that is like collecting rare Pokémon card. You know, like why is a Pokémon card valuable? Well, it's valuable because we all agree it is. A certain amount of people agree. 

It also has a relative rarity to it as well. 

Yeah, well, that's the non-fungible aspect. Not duplicable. It's absolutely rare. The analogy people always make is anybody can have a Mona Lisa on their wall, but it's not the real Mona Lisa. If you own the real Mona Lisa, that's still like something people would want to do. I wouldn't. It seems like too much responsibility. (laughs) But that also underlines the whole point of this, is responsibility. If you own artwork, you have to take care of it. And painters understand that, like I have years and years and years of paintings that on some level I have to deal with, whereas if you collect NFTs, that's all in your phone. It's easy to take care of. So, it makes a collector's life easier too. And since we're moving more and more into this metaverse, so to speak, or, you know, the universe of our phone and the digital space, that's it. That's another way for people to understand it. People want to collect, and where do we spend most of our time, if we're honest? In our phones, you know? And so that's where the collection will be. 

Right. I know this may be jumping way ahead of where you see yourself right now, but do you imagine putting an album out this way? 

Of course. Yeah. I'm like talking about it, you know, for the last couple of weeks. Every discussion I'm in with every label I'm dealing with, I'm bringing up, "Hey, NFTs". I'm in the middle of negotiating a deal right now with a side project, and I informed everybody on the team of which there's like old school, big-time people, and I was like, "Hey, there's this thing called NFTs." 

I'm sure their receptivity to that or their ability to receive that has become a lot easier in the last couple of weeks, given the news that's come out with other artists. 

Absolutely. How did the Kings of Leon one do, like six million dollars or something like that? 

I'm not sure, and I don't know how it was broken down in terms of what was earned exclusively through NFT. (It was actually $1.4 million in NFT at auction.) Now of course, not to call them a groundbreaking band, but, you know, they're helping open up people's eyes of maybe some of those old school folks who maybe wouldn't want to go this direction. But now, the labels must see this as another potential revenue source for them as well. 

Absolutely, but it's clunkier for them because the nature of it is to help the independent artists. Its nature is that, so the record companies will have to figure out a way to kind of dip their hands in the artists' pockets on that level as well. 

For sure, and for independent artists, it's great. You have your own gallery, right? And I know you've published on your own labels (Lonely Astronaut and Moonage Rebel). So, you're in a unique spot in many ways, both the way that you've run your own creative output, your business, your different modes of creativity. I mean, it all kind of flows and seems to find a sweet spot in this. 

Yeah, it's great for independent artists, it really really is, but also, it's quickly going to get flooded. It already is flooded and it's quickly going to get extremely flooded. 

Do you think that might help, though, in regard to not having so gatekeepers, like you'd end up having more gatekeepers rather than fewer perhaps, and maybe lower fees, the more people that get involved?

I don't know. It'll be interesting to see. I mean, they'll be more gatekeeper's, I would also say there'll be more of everything, there'll be more gatekeepers and they'll be more open-ended platforms. It's going to be like the Internet, you know, it's going to be like social media, like when you first go on to a social media platform, it's easier to get followers, and then pretty soon the whole world is there and it's like you're just lost in the sea of everybody trying to swim. 

Yeah, absolutely. And also, you had fewer options, too. There are fewer pools to swim. Like when you had to use AOL or whatever back then.

AOL and MySpace, baby. We're definitely in the AOL / MySpace era of this. But we're watching these things reach critical mass so much faster than they ever did before. We've gone from no one hearing about NFTs to Lindsay Lohan launching an NFT inside of two weeks. It's like zero to one hundred and twenty in three seconds. It's like, That was fast! It went from being revolutionary to overplayed in five seconds. I've ever seen anything that fast before.

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