I said I wasn’t gonna write about NFTs because nobody wants to hear it and I’m not sure I have much worth saying about the whole concept, but they’ve been on my mind. Or at least the idea of them and why I’m so instinctively turned off by them. If you’re looking for an understanding of what NFTs (or Non-Fungible Tokens) are, this isn’t the place. I’ll direct you to Arielle Gordan’s Stereogum piece or Terry Nguyen’s Vox piece for that.
An easy answer to why I’m not all that interested is that I’m skeptical at best of framing the tech industry as positively shaping art from a monetary standpoint. Tech companies are vastly overvalued and that overvaluation has helped create an artistic landscape that undervalues the art and media it relies on. I’m generally skeptical of framing NFTs as something broadly positive for arts on the whole.
Then there’s the fact that crypto anything uses an obscene amount of energy. The ecological impact of the whole operation is hard to imagine and enough reason alone to discourage using it. The same could be said for vinyl production, though, so maybe I’ll get off my high horse on this one.
I think at the end of the day my instinctive antagonism comes from a total disinterest in the idea of giving something value because other people don’t, or can’t, have it. This is digital manufactured scarcity. The value is in having something that you’ve been told is unique and special. It’s not a far cry from buying one of a kind tangible artworks or buying limited drops from streetwear brands or hunting for first pressing or otherwise rare records. It’s all the result of an exclusivity collector mindset that doesn’t make any sense to me.
While certainly not everybody involved in those things are looking to flip their finds, I do think that’s intrinsically part of it. The idea that you’ll spend however much money not because you love and value The Thing but because you value what it represents. For a lot of people, it represents being able to turn around later and sell The Thing for way more than you bought it for. Or maybe it’s just bragging rights that you have the cooler version of The Thing.
Creating a collector economy for digital things isn’t surprising, but it feels inherently antithetical to why I buy things and how I feel about art. There’s an argument made about how it’s pushing digital art (be it music or visual art or whatever) closer to what the major fine arts industry has been doing for a long time. I think that’s certainly true, but I think fine art dealing is weird and gross, too. And at least when people buy artworks for obscene prices at auction or wherever rich people get art, there’s at least utility in having something they could hang on the wall.
Maybe that seems to go against my long promoted idea that online and digital spaces are real and we should treat them as such. Digital art has value. Of course it does. There’s not value tiers based on medium used to create music or visual art or writing.
But when we look at NFTs, what value is owning that thing bringing to the person who bought it? To me, digital experience is given value by the community and cultural significance around it. Digital spaces like Patreon and Twitch and other live streaming methods are very real spaces for community development and community based support. That’s their value and what makes them real.
And in tangible collector culture, even when kids are getting scammed by streetwear brands and resellers at least they’re getting like.. a pair of shoes or a shirt or whatever. The greater value is in what it represents (usually “hey look at me I have more money than you”), but the physical item is still there. You still get the shoes or you can still play and look at the rare record.
NFTs, to me, just seem like they’re mashing together the digital space and collector culture, but removing the good thing about both until you’re just left with this vapid, truly useless thing. Congrats you own a .gif of a moment in sports history the whole world can see whenever they want.
The one good thing, or at least interesting thing, about cryptoart and crypto in general is the sense of permanence that doesn’t exist elsewhere online. This can’t be the answer to the problem digital media faces when it comes to all kinds of art, music, and writing existing solely on media platforms, but I think it further exposes that problem by showing an alternative.
We’ve already seen a mass loss of music because it lived on a social media platform. Myspace wiping a decade of music from their site was a huge loss and I can’t imagine it’ll be the last time we see something like that. There was mass amounts of video content lost when Vine shut down, even though the really big videos remain accessible through compilations and people having downloaded them. Beyond just the loss of content, the shut down and restructuring of sites ends up decontextualizing it and wiping the cultural aspect of a social media site which I think matters a lot to understanding the people who were a part of it.
On a smaller scale, the AV Club seems hellbent on not making anything they did over even 3 years ago accessible as it was originally intended to be except the very basic blog aspect. Their Undercover cover series videos are only able to be found as reuploads. Their interactive site is unusable full of broken links and destroyed formatting. You can find an article from 2005, but you can’t fully access something published in 2017. It’s a loss not only for the future of trying to understand and contextualize music made in the 2010s, but a huge loss for people who spent years of their lives writing for big websites like AV Club.
Now, imagine the loss if sites like Bandcamp or, arguably worse, Soundcloud decided in 10 years to wipe everything before a certain point. Every link to it would suddenly be broken. Thousands of scenes that exist predominantly online, just gone. Music and art have always been vulnerable to being forgotten by time and obscurity, but that was never at the whim of a handful of corporations in the same way as we’re seeing now. Even what we consider DIY is beholden to some corporation allowing their music to remain accessible.
The internet is a graveyard of websites and blogs. It’s not free to have a website and host video or music. It’s obviously not always profitable to do those things. Things will shut down, companies will wipe your data. That data might be years of your life, it might be your whole life, but it’s just data to them. They don’t care about you.
I can’t imagine the answer to this inevitability is in blockchain, at least in its current ecologically irresponsible iteration. I’m not sure the answer lies in new technology at all. If we want to preserve works, we’re probably going to have to do it the way it has always been done. It’s gonna be long term, intentional archiving and documenting.
As someone whose true interest lies mostly in making physical products, I would encourage people (especially people who write and make photos and other stuff that doesn’t need to be physical) to not just let their work live digitally. Print zines and photo books. There’s value in making physical items for people beyond just musicians looking to sell merch. Anyone can do it and everyone should, in some form or another. I promise it’ll feel good, but you’re also creating something which can’t be corrupted by the whims of a corporation. Do it with friends. Do it just for yourself. Get someone else to help you do it. But do it.
Archiving and preserving digital works doesn’t necessarily have to mean physical products, but it almost certainly will mean intentionally taking work from a platform and making it accessible in a way which can be controlled by people who care about it. I think the omnipresence of certain social media sites makes people forget that just because something seems huge and impenetrable now doesn’t mean it will stay that way.
The blockchain solution gets at this, but there have to be other ways that are more sustainable.
As always, this stuff comes down to intentionality and believing the things you make and that your friends make are worth protecting and documenting. Maybe that sounds presumptuous, but nobody else is gonna do it unless it’s gonna make them a bunch of money. Make stuff that gets to live and exist on your terms as much as possible.
I should probably copy all my substack articles into word documents.
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Miranda Reinert is a music adjacent writer, zine maker, and law student based in Philadelphia. Follow me on Twitter for more on music and other things like when I get to be on the Endless Scroll Podcast: @mirandareinert. I also just opened up a paid tier of this newsletter which for $5 a month (or $40 a year! what a deal!) you’ll get free zines as I make them and one upon sign up! Wow! Click the button below to get in on that! But as always, thanks for reading!