Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have certainly arrived in the art world. In March of this year, artists like Grimes and Beeple made headlines with multi-million dollar token drops. Since then, artists of all levels of fame and success have been jumping onto the trend left and right.
Additionally, NFTs have begun to pop up in the music world. 3LAU and Eminem have both sold or announced the sale of NFTs associated with music. However, the details of what is actually ‘owned’ when an NFT is purchased are somewhat dubious.
Critics of NFTs as we know them in the music and art world have claimed that NFTs do not really serve any practical purpose; that they are nothing more than speculative investments that have no meaningful future in the art world.
However, there are a number of platforms and creators that are seeking to change the functionality of NFTs in art and music. Sam Brukhman, the Manager of Business Development at NFT platform Async Art, as well as the Artistic Director of the Verdigris Ensemble, is one such person.
The Verdigris Ensemble is an innovative choral ensemble based in Dallas, Texas. As someone who wears a hat in the art world as well as the platform development side of the crypto world, Sam spoke to Finance Magnates about the ways in which programmable art and music can create practical use-cases for NFTs and create a more interactive artistic experience.
Moreover, the Verdigris Ensemble is preparing to launch Betty’s Notebook, an interactive, NFT-based piece of audiovisual media that combines classical music with blockchain technology.
This is an excerpt. To hear Finance Magnates’ full interview with Sam Brukhman, Head of Business Development at Async.Art and artistic director of the Verdigris Ensemble, visit us on Soundcloud or Youtube.
What Is “Programmable Artwork”?
Sam told Finance Magnates that Async.Art’s platform is specialized to support non-fungible tokens that have been tied to programmable artwork. What is programmable art? The concept is fairly simple: programmable art is dynamic “art that changes over time” according to a predetermined set of conditions.
At a basic level, “Programmable art can be built with autonomous features, meaning that the art can change based on things like statistical data, geographic location,” et cetera. In other words, Sam explained, a piece of art could be designed to change colors based on the time of day, the population of a country or the number of clouds in the sky.
However, programmable art can be designed in such a way that certain elements of the piece are in this way, tying non-fungible token tech into programmable art can give a new definition of what it means to ‘own’ a piece of artwork.
For example, on Async, NFTs and programmable artwork are inextricably related to one another. Sam explained that programmable art is created in two primary ways “multiple NFT ownership, meaning that certain parts of the artwork can be changed or edited based on the artist’s intent.”
An artist could create a piece of artwork with NFTs that could allow their holders to change certain elements of the art: the objects that the subjects hold, the color of the subject’s clothing, et cetera.
“Let’s take the Mona Lisa, for example,” Sam said. “The Mona Lisa could be split into three different parts, or ‘layers,’” each of which could be sold as an NFT. “The first layer of Mona Lisa could be her eyes: the owner of the eye NFT could customize her eye color, based on options that the artist has provided.” Other layers could include the clothes that she is wearing, or the background she sits in front of. Each of these could be controlled by an NFT.
“When You Have an NFT That Gives You Partial or Full Ownership of a Piece of Programmable Art, You Are Able to Influence the Way That Other People [Experience] the Artwork.”
In this way, programmable art provides a new set of use cases for NFTs. Critics use of non-fungible tokens in the art world have pointed out that while owning an NFT associated with a piece of art is technically an investment, the NFT ultimately serves no practical purpose.
Programmable art could act as the solution to this problem: even though NFT owners may not own the intellectual property associated with a work of art, their tokens do have a practical purpose.
Through this model of multiple NFT ownership, “you get a community that responds and reacts to one another,” Sam said. “When one person changes one aspect of a piece, someone else may respond by changing a different aspect.”
“That’s the beauty of what programmable art is,” he continued. “When you have an NFT that gives you partial or full ownership of a piece of programmable art, you are able to influence the way that other people see the artwork…this is a bridge into new ways of [creating and interpreting] art.”
While this model of NFT-powered multiple ownership has taken shape in visual art on Async’s platform, Sam explained that the platform is working on building support for an entirely different type of programmable creative media: music.
And, coincidentally, this is where the two roles that Sam plays as the Head of Business Development at Async and the Artistic Director of the Verdigris ensemble become one.
The Unlikely Place Where Classical Music and Non-fungible Tokens Collide
Sam explained that his interest in cryptocurrencies began several years ago when he was studying vocal music at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. “I had wanted to combine music, and choral singing specifically, with crypto since 2017,” he said.
When Sam founded the Verdigris Ensemble, a non-profit choral music performance organization based in Dallas, Texas, he did not necessarily imagine that the group would link crypto to music performance.
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However, the group’s purpose has always been “to reach a wider spread of audiences through creative concert programming, performance in unconventional spaces, and collaboration.”
As such, the group aims to fight against the narrative that classical music is ‘exclusive’. But, the narrative is powerful: “what we began to see as we looked at statistics is that audiences for classical music are decreasing at staggering rates every year,” he said. “If we don’t do anything about it, we won’t have classical music in 50 years.”
Programmable Art Becomes Programmable Music
And, indeed, as audiences for classical music are dwindling, so is the funding for classical music. Musicians across the creative spectrum were perhaps more affected by the economic blows of COVID-19 than workers in a number of other industries. Many classical musicians, who often rely on centralized institutions like opera houses and orchestra halls for income, may have been hit particularly hard.
“When coronavirus happened, the big question was ‘how do we continue making music?’”, he said. “Choral music requires people to stand in the same room and sing with each other,” a feat that COVID had rendered virtually impossible.
Sam said that the “game-changing” moment occurred when he “recognized what Async.Art was doing from a programmable standpoint on the visual art side,” and realized that the same principles could apply to music.
Exploring Betty’s Notebook
The rest is history. “Async.Art approached the Verdigris Ensemble with the opportunity to create a programmable piece of music [that would be tied to NFTs],” Sam said.
Sam explained that the project, called ‘Betty’s Notebook’, is ‘an interactive simulation’ based on a series of events surrounding Amelia Earhart’s final distress calls as her plane went down in 1939. Betty Klenck, who was 15 years old at the time, heard Amelia’s final transmission and wrote it in a notebook. She spent the rest of her life trying to prove that her beliefs about what she heard were true.
The piece consists of five musical ‘layers’ or ‘stems’, each of which can be owned as an NFT token. Each token holder will have the ability to control certain elements of the piece.
Layers one through four represent different movements of the piece, written by composer Nicholas Reeves: ‘The Choir’, which consists of choral music; ‘Betty’s Voice’ and ‘Betty’s Choir’, which are derived from the audio of Betty Klenck’s testimony; and ‘Betty’s Radio’, a series of jazz standards. Each of these layers involves a visual element that changes along with the sounds.
The fifth layer, the ‘master track’, includes an old-school radio that has been retrofitted with a WiFi connection, speakers and screen so that the piece can be updated and heard in real-time.
The owners of each layer “don’t get to ‘remix’ the sounds” of each layer, Sam explained. But, NFT ownership privileges do give their holders control over certain elements of the piece: “they get to choose from a menu of options based on the composer’s intent,” which include elements such as tempo, timbre, and narrative.
Each of the layers is slated to go on a live auction on Async.Art’s platform on Thursday, April 29th. Interested parties can buy ‘Editions’, blank NFT-based ‘records’ that allow users to ‘press’ a piece at any given time. The idea is that because programmable music is always changing, each moment of the piece’s life is different. Users can create and then trade, these ‘Limited Editions’ based on the piece’s four musical layers at any given time.
“As We Continue to Build Technology, the Carbon Output Has to Be Zero.”
“I really hope that the risk that Verdigris Ensemble is taking on as the first to create an [NFT-based] piece of programmable music will allow others to feel more confident to enter into the NFT space,” Sam said.
And indeed, there is a certain element of risk. For one thing, NFT creators have been the subject of quite a bit of pushback from critics who say the practice is bad for the environment. The exact environmental impact of NFT creation has been the subject of much debate.
“As we continue to build technology, the carbon output has to be zero,” Sam said. “There’s no question about that…the point of what we’re doing is actually to decrease the carbon output of what we’re doing, rather than increase it.”
Indeed, NFT proponents have argued that the creation of non-fungible tokens is less than the environmental impact of the traditional art industry, including the carbon costs from travel, waste produced by physical events and more.
Additionally, Sam said that Verdigris will be offsetting the carbon costs of Betty’s Notebook. As a longer-term solution, he said that Async.Art is exploring the usage of blockchains with lower carbon footprints than the Ethereum network.
NFTs Could Create a Robust Economy for Independent Musicians
Even with the risks associated with the creation of the work, Sam said that he hopes that Betty’s Notebook will be the first of many NFT-based pieces of music. Why? “For the first time in a very long time, we have the prospect of being able to give musicians strong financial support,” he said.
Indeed, because of the royalties that NFT trades generate, musicians can theoretically use NFTs to build a steady stream of income. Anyone who creates a non-fungible token will receive the initial windfall of money when it is sold for the first time. However, NFTs can also be created so that they give 5-20% payoffs to their creators each time they change hands.
“I’m not saying we have to ditch everything that we’ve been doing,” he added. However, “NFTs can be a great supplement to what is already happening within classical music and the music [industry more generally.]”
“I hope that through the sale of the Betty’s Notebook NFTs, we can encourage other organizations and artists to follow suit and leverage NFTs to create their art. At the end of the day, the whole point of [Async.Art’s mission] is to bring art to a wider spread of audiences. Blockchain technology is able to do that, and Async.Art, in particular, gives new avenues to be able to experience it, create it, interpret it, feel it, express it.”
“From that perspective, I think that there’s a really strong future for artists and for musicians here,” Sam said.
This is an excerpt. To hear Finance Magnates’ full interview with Sam Brukhman, Head of Business Development at Async.Art and Artistic Director of the Verdigris Ensemble, visit us on Soundcloud or Youtube.