It sounds like a dream: Songwriters and musicians getting paid to make tracks before any work is done, shorn of the greedy money-grabbing of lawyers, managers and hangers-on.
But a new project has proven that it’s possible to upend the norms of music creation, rethinking how songwriting camps work—and how those behind the music get paid for their labor.
Over the past month, a “headless band” of 50 musicians has become one of Web3’s biggest hits. The project, called Camp Chaos, brought together songwriters — plus another 30 designers, storytellers, engineers and operatives — from around the world and grouped them in teams of three musicians over the course of eight weeks to write and produce a song each. After two weeks, those bands were split up and their members rematched again for another songwriting collab. This played out three times, until 45 songs were written and recorded, and then released as NFTs.
The various headless bands thrown together in Camp Chaos wrote their songs, with the story told through Chaos Radio, a multi-part podcast, episodes of which are released every three weeks on Spotify. The songs were released June 3 as 21,000 unique art pieces sold through NFTs, each of the 45 songs given specialized artwork and put up for sale, giving back cash to the creators in addition to their UBI. While the creators’ split shares fluctuates depending on the perceived value each artist contributed to the project, as defined in a blog post, Camp Chaos’s founders say each artist taking part receives around 0.8% of all sales revenue on average.
Since the June 3 drop, Camp Chaos has become one of the month’s biggest music NFT projects: 2,334 NFTs were sold at .2 ETH ($238 at current conversion rates) apiece for 446.8 ETH ($532,750) in primary sales, plus another 7.3 ETH ($8,260) in secondary sales since then, as of Wednesday (June 29). For their initial time spent on the project, the artists were given a universal basic income (UBI) of just less than $1,000 each, paid as the camp got underway. The project’s members are in discussions to release the tracks on digital streaming platforms, with a work group created to thrash out how revenue would be split. The group is also considering synch licensing. For holders of “supercharged NFTs” which give a split rights percentage, revenue splits will be received autonomously as long as the Chaos NFTs are being traded and sold both on primary and secondary markets.
Songcamp, the artists’ collective behind the Camp Chaos project, launched in March 2021, the brainchild of Montreal-based genre crossing musician Matthew Chaim, whose music is influenced by the likes of Bon Iver, Coldplay and Tame Impala. Chaim had recently moved back to his hometown of Montreal from a stint in Los Angeles, and was generally dissatisfied by his experiences at traditional songwriting camps.
At the same time, Chaim became interested in Web3, a vision for a new, decentralized version of the internet, where power is wrestled away from big business monopolies and put into the hands of the people. He also began learning about non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which are entries in the blockchain, a public database that underpins large parts of Web3, and are often sold alongside artwork. “I wanted to basically tie it to what I was doing,” he says. “How does this meet culture and stuff like that?”
On March 26, 2021, Chaim smoked a bowl then launched a server on chat app Discord as “a place for music and the new internet to crash into each other,” he says. The idea was explicitly to throw stuff at the wall and see what stuck. The first experiment was a digital song writing called Camp Genesis, where nine musicians, two visual artists and two project managers created three songs with associated artwork that were sold as music NFTs for a combined 10 ETH ($11,316 at today’s prices, since cryptocurrency tanked earlier this month — but $33,000 at the time). A subsequent follow-up, Camp Elektra, did something similar in the summer of 2021.
3 weeks ago 13 strangers came together on the internet to make art
today the value of that art was realized — at a total of 10 ETH (equivalent today to $33,000 USD)
of that 10 ETH, 100% of it went to those involved. instantly.
i'm going to sleep. 😴
— matthew chaos (@matthewchaim) May 5, 2021
The idea was exciting, says Chaim, because of the way it followed traditions while upending them. “[Traditional] songwriting camps are so exciting because you fall in conversation with all these incredible, creative people, and make all this amazing art that becomes an artefact of this moment in time that you just created,” he says. “But then it sort of just gets lodged and stuck, and doesn’t flow through this thing we call the music industry.”
That frustration chimed with Mark Redito, a Filipino musician based in California, who took part in Camp Genesis. He’d previously been on physical songwriting camps where up to 36 songs were produced in collaboration with others—with only two commercially released, and even then, years after the fact. “There’s already this sense of musicians and artists feeling undervalued in the current musical landscape,” he says. “I was just fascinated with how things are being explored in the Web3 space.”
Camp Chaos promised to do something similar to the preceding two camps, but scaled up. If the two prior camps had managed to prove the concept could work in theory, the third attempt would put the utopian rhetoric of Web3 to the test, overhauling the usual power imbalances of music making with a decentralized approach.
When New York-based producer Pozibelle joined the project, she says she didn’t know what to expect. She was initially paired up with a musician in Bangalore, India, and a singer in Ohio. The globe-spanning nature of the band allowed them to work 24 hours a day producing their track — before they were thrown into a new band to do it all over again. “Everybody I worked with was all in, like, ‘Let’s go, let’s create something to our highest capacity’, which was really refreshing,” Pozibelle says. “Sometimes when you enter collaborations, it can get fragmented.” But the time pressure — and the novelty of the project — meant people worked intensively and collaboratively.
That pace of work was a shot in the arm for Redito, given his prior frustrations with the glacial pace of the traditional music industry. “I’ve been part of long email threads with 100,000 people on them, mainly industry people fighting over percentage points,” he says. “Nothing ever comes out the other end.” This was an opportunity to avoid that, given that all those participating had already agreed to a decentralized way of sharing any profits, should they come, and just release music. (In a late June email, Redito does admit that “when the value of ETH went down, so did our earnings,” but adds that “on a community level, members are more excited than ever to continue growing the project and seek creative ways to share the story further.”) “One of the things that was intriguing about Web3 was that I saw there was immediate value being flowed to the artist,” says Pozibelle. The UBI was meaningful, she says, as a way of “being immediately valued and not having to wait for your streams to come in or some royalty check.”
Next, Chaim says Songcamp is undergoing a “quiet, reflection period” to reflect on the Camp Chaos project and build off successes — and failures — for the next project. They are also considering an artist retreat for alumni and tentative plans for another camp in the fall.
“What really excites me is I feel like an early adopter in this space,” says Ontario-based musician Michael Onabolu. He points that music has long embraced new technology as a way of making music for and distributing music to audiences—from brick and mortar stores, through Napster, iTunes and Spotify. He says: “I really see Web3 and NFTs and what’s being created with these different methods of connecting with our audiences as being a natural evolution in that.”