“What day is it, Thursday?” André Allen Anjos asks with a laugh.
Yes, it’s a Thursday afternoon in mid-March, though the Grammy-winning musician and producer known as RAC could be forgiven for his confusion. He’s speaking over Zoom from his home in Portland, Ore., where he’s spent the past two weeks fielding constant calls from friends and a handful of music icons whose names he asks to be kept confidential. Everyone is seeking his advice about one thing: non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, the music industry’s favorite buzzword since late February. “What is my life?” he wonders aloud to no one in particular.
As recently as six months ago, NFTs — unique digital collectibles bought and sold primarily on the Ethereum blockchain — were a niche interest for cryptocurrency enthusiasts. They can take almost any form, from virtual trading cards to tweets, and can also be linked to experiences (like a meet-and-greet) or physical items (like a vinyl album). Creators set rules for their NFTs in a “smart contract” designed to automatically execute behaviors like giving the creator a cut of the resale total — typically 10% to 25% — each time the NFT is resold in the future.
But thanks to headline-grabbing sales from digital artists like Beeple, who has generated nearly $80 million auctioning off NFT artwork since December, the music industry seemed to collectively wake up with a start to the financial and creative potential of NFTs last fall, and artists like deadmau5, Grimes, Ozuna and Shawn Mendes swiftly began launching their own. The turning point came on Feb. 28, when electronic DJ 3LAU finished auctioning off $11.6 million worth of NFTs, a record for the primary sale of an NFT collection at the time. The market for music NFTs has since exploded, with major-label acts like Halsey and The Weeknd each selling millions of dollars worth of their own.
Not all acts are seeing immediate success: King of Leon’s album NFT sale in March was extended after the band’s fanbase struggled to understand the purchasing process, and a Mick Jagger animated video NFT sold at auction for $50,000 in April — somewhat low for an icon. But interest hasn’t gone away, and by late April, music tech newsletter Water & Music reported that music-related NFT sales had surpassed $70 million since last June, with the vast majority happening within the 75 days prior.
Anjos, on the other hand, had been anticipating all this for years. Outside of his work as an in-demand artist, producer and remixer for the likes of Lana Del Rey and Phoenix, he is an early cryptocurrency adopter and has dabbled in digital art since 2017. He sold his first NFT — a pastel audiovisual titled “Elephant Dreams” — at auction for more than $26,000 in October, and has since grossed nearly $1 million worth of NFT sales, including a close to $700,000 haul for a collection released in conjunction with his March EP, YOU.
Now, “A lot of people are like, ‘Hey, do you have two hours to explain all this stuff to me?'” says Anjos, an affable and talkative 36-year-old who dabbles in computer science. “I feel a bit validated.”
For Anjos, a longtime artists’ rights advocate who went fully independent in January after 10 years releasing music under labels like Interscope Records and Ninja Tune, NFTs are about more than making a quick buck. Because they allow the market to determine the value of music, are built on transparency, streamline instantaneous payments and cut out the middleman, he sees them as a way to fundamentally shift the way we think about the value of music — and put more power in the hands of creators.
That’s why he is parlaying his influence in the sector to launch his own NFT creative agency, called 6. With it, he hopes to help other artists capitalize on NFTs both creatively and financially — and prove that the much-hyped new art form is more than a passing, eye-roll-inducing trend.
“I’d really hate for it to be like, in six months, ‘Hey, remember NFTs?'” he says. “But I think we’re past that.”
In 2007, as a college student in Illinois, Anjos recruited a group of online remixers to create the Remix Artist Collective, which became his solo project post-graduation. Three years later, he garnered attention for a 2010 remix of The Shins‘ “Sleeping Lessons,” and by 2016, Anjos was fully immersed in the music industry: he’d released music independently, signed with Interscope Records and then Ninja Tune imprint Counter Records, worked on official remixes for artists like Foster the People, Tegan and Sara and Theophilus London in addition to his own solo work, and even won a Grammy for his 2016 remix of Bob Moses’ “Tearing Me Up.”
But the totality of the experience he calls “being an artist in the typical music industry” left him disillusioned. “I was not enthusiastic about it, to put it lightly,” he says. “I was frustrated with the middleman and the amount of control that three labels have over the entire market.”
It was around that time that he discovered cryptocurrency, the digital, encrypted and decentralized medium of exchange intended to help people evade the bank-reliant financial system and control their own money. Cryptocurrency (most commonly Bitcoin) operates on a blockchain, a transparent and publicly-accessible ledger which securely and instantaneously records transactions.
At first, the concept struck a chord with Anjos because it reminded him of file-sharing website BitTorrent, the decentralized successor to Napster that was his main source of music while growing up in Porto, Portugal. “A lot of people don’t connect those two, but I think that they’re ideologically aligned,” he says. “This idea of a decentralized network that doesn’t have a single point of failure that no single party can control — that’s what I was really excited about.”
He was quickly swept up in the growing community of cryptocurrency advocates, which he lovingly describes as “a group of misfits and people that are a little crazy. It has kind of a hacker vibe to it,” he continues, “where it’s like, ‘We’re changing things.'”
Specifically, crypto advocates like Anjos want to create a better financial system for the music industry, which would increase transparency and make more accurate payments in real-time. The technology, as he and his fellow crypto fans see it, could even be used to stop ticket scalpers and hold the copyrights to songs and catalogs (the latter would be challenging to execute given music’s complex web of rights holders). “There’s tons of value that’s being left on the table or that’s going to the wrong people” in the music industry, he says. “This technology essentially enables [us to] replace a lot of the plumbing.”
In 2017, Anjos discovered Ethereum, the blockchain on which the majority of NFTs are sold, and home to Ether, the second-most popular cryptocurrency after Bitcoin. “I was like, ‘This is going to change the world,'” Anjos says. He laughs and gives a little self-conscious eye-roll; he knows most ideas involving the blockchain are still years away from wider music industry adoption. But in the meantime, he’s been steadily experimenting. As soon as he became aware of Ethereum he partnered with the blockchain-based music startup Ujo Music to release his introspective second album EGO on the currency (as well as on streaming services), allowing fans to purchase a digital download for the equivalent of about $10. The album sold about 130 copies on Ethereum — a solid showing for the first album to be sold as a collectible on the blockchain, predating the NFT standard.
Then, in May 2020, Anjos released his next album BOY and sold 100 cassettes as the token $TAPE on the Ethereum-based NFT marketplace Zora. Each token, which had a starting price of $28, represented one physical copy of the cassette, and the owner could redeem it for the physical item at any point — driving further scarcity for the token. “Instead of just putting it on a website and selling it, I decided to create a market for it,” Anjos explains. “I was just happy to be the experiment and try it, because I’ve got nothing to lose. If it fails, who cares? It’s a cassette, you know?”
In the end, the price of a single $TAPE token soared to nearly $13,000, which Anjos believes marks the most expensive cassette tape ever sold. (“We haven’t found anything more expensive,” he says; the closest he’s seen was a $5,000 Prince cassette on eBay.) Seventy of the cassette NFTs are in circulation today, trading at around $4,000 at the time of this story’s publication.
“That’s very much in line with my mission, which is to challenge this notion that music is worth 0.000-whatever cents,” Anjos says, referencing streaming royalty rates. “Recorded music is far more valuable than what we’re selling it for. This is proof of that.”
Soon after the sale, as digital art marketplaces started to gain traction, Anjos huddled with his manager, YM&U Group’s Zael Ellenhorn. “He’s like, ‘Yo, we’re going to start dropping NFTs,'” Ellenhorn remembers. “The guy’s been making music for 10-plus years now. He’s been in the crypto world for 10 years now. And this was kind of the first time that those two things really clicked and started working in tandem instead of separately.”
For his first NFT, “Elephant Dreams,” Anjos wrote an original clip of music and collaborated on visuals with Andrés Reisinger, an established visual artist who created the BOY album art. Like many musicians, Anjos was drawn to an NFT format where a clip of music plays over an image or video on loop.
“The way that I consume art is I’ll go to a museum, look at a piece for 30 to 45 seconds, and then move on,” Anjos says. “I was like, ‘How do I make something [digital] that is made for that experience?’ That’s how we landed in that 30 to 45 second loop, where you can get the experience and keep scrolling away if you want.”
He put the one-of-one NFT — meaning there’s only one copy — up for sale on the marketplace SuperRare on Oct. 5, and watched from his computer screen as bids rose into the thousands. “My heart was racing, I had sweaty palms, I was freaking out a little bit,” he remembers. Five days later, he accepted the highest bid of $26,128 from a digital art collector known as Max Stealth. “It was a telling moment for me, because it would take me years to make that on Spotify on one track,” he says. “I kind of never looked back.”
Feeling “a little self-righteous,” he jumped on Twitter. “I hope the music industry is watching,” he wrote. “You’ve been devaluing music and art for decades and we’re gonna change things.” Four months later, 3LAU closed his then-record-setting NFT drop. Around that time, Anjos had begun throwing around ideas for an NFT agency in a group chat he belongs to with other NFT and cryptocurrency proponents. 3LAU’s success was a turning point for them, too.
“3LAU had his big auction on Saturday and on Sunday, we were like, ‘Guys, we need to launch this tomorrow,'” Anjos says. “Because literally everybody in the music industry is going to sit down and have a meeting at eight in the morning to talk about this.”
Ellenhorn and Anjos awoke to a barrage of texts. While members of the group chat started divvying up calls to artists hungry for information and advice, Ellenhorn drafted an email template to speed up his response time and Anjos’ friend Bobby Hundreds — of streetwear company The Hundreds, a master of physical drop culture — set up a weekly drop-in Zoom session to explain the new art form.
“The past three weeks have been the busiest of my entire life so far,” Ellenhorn says, speaking over Zoom from his home in California in mid-March. “Everybody smells opportunity and everybody smells money. There’s a lot of hype.”
Anjos announced his agency 6 on March 1, alongside partners Jesse Grushack, the co-founder of Ujo Music, and Georgio Constantinou, a former music manager who has worked with artists like Tyga, Afrojack and Ty Dolla $ign.
The agency aims to help artists develop and manage their releases (usually taking a cut of the revenue), and has already worked on NFT drops for electronic acts like duo Galantis, whose March 25 collection of five NFTs reimagining their sea fox mascot brought in more than $400,000; and Tycho, whose first NFT collection on April 15 earned more than $200,000 and included a $32,000 lifetime VIP pass to his headlining shows. Eventually, 6 will branch out into other digital monetization models like social tokens, a form of cryptocurrency which can be exchanged for perks like exclusive content and merch discounts (Anjos’ social token is $RAC).
“We want to create something that’s long-term and viable, and create entire economies around artists — not just NFTs but social tokens and Metaverse [the concept of shared virtual spaces] stuff,” Anjos says.
In its rush to capitalize on NFTs, the music industry has also been inundated with widespread confusion and some lackluster projects. In early March, Kings of Leon extended an NFT auction pegged to new album When You See Yourself after their fanbase struggled to adapt to the new technology and purchase process. Collectors must connect a digital wallet with cryptocurrency to the NFT marketplace in order to buy and sell NFTs, which can seem daunting to newcomers.
Critics also like to point out that music NFTs harm the environment, since the blockchain has an enormous carbon footprint — a view which frustrates Anjos, who (as he explained in a lengthy Twitter thread) acknowledges the view isn’t untrue, but lacks an understanding of the full picture. (The system supporting blockchain is bad for the environment, but efforts to change it are ongoing, and the existence of NFTs doesn’t make a big difference).
The NFT frenzy has also raised important questions about how music for NFTs should be licensed, and who deserves a cut of the revenue. As an independent artist who is creating new music for his NFTs, Anjos chooses to split the proceeds (as well as a 10% resale royalty) in half with his artist collaborator. (Ellenhorn takes a management commission from Anjos’ cut.) But not every artist is able to make that call on their own.
The major record labels — Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group and Warner Music Group — are plotting their own NFT strategies to drive revenue for their artists and themselves, and major label executives predict that NFTs will soon become a standard part of artists’ release strategies. There’s not yet a clear consensus on what types of licenses are needed to use music in an NFT, especially since NFTs can take a variety of formats. But labels are calling NFT marketplaces “to make sure that they’re aware that we will assert our rights when we need to and that they need to come to us,” as one source recently put it to Billboard.
Even so, Anjos points out that major labels’ efforts clash in the first place with the reigning ethos among NFT creators and collectors, who are often distrustful of corporate entities. “I got pitched by one of the major labels, and they were like, ‘We want to do our own branded NFTs of our best albums,'” he says. “I’m like, ‘I don’t think you guys get it. This exists because of you. This is the anti-major label thing.'”
Because of that clash in ideology, and because major labels will aim to take a cut of their artists’ NFT revenues, Anjos thinks independent and emerging artists stand to gain the most from the emerging medium.
“That’s a bit unfortunate [for major-label acts], but then again, I don’t really see the more interesting stuff coming from those artists,” he says. “The more interesting work is coming from independent artists who are treating it as a new art form, versus trying to reappropriate something else. A lot of people do, ‘Well, we paid five grand for these tour visuals, can we just sell them?'”
While the NFT market is almost certainly in a bubble — and eight-figure paydays like the one 3LAU enjoyed are unlikely to happen again — Anjos and Ellenhorn argue that when done right, the revenue stream from NFTs can offer artists more freedom to work on the music projects they love. Anjos helped demonstrate that with his latest project, YOU, a five-track EP and NFT collection released on March 26 which explores how mundane objects from past relationships can carry special meaning.
The EP’s corresponding NFT series on Nifty Gateway, created again in partnership with Reisinger, included eight NFTs representing left-behind items — like a shell from a trip to the beach, a hotel keycard and a postcard with a handwritten poem — each of which had 100 copies available, sold in a silent auction. Instead of rehashing the songs in the EP, he created a new, original “sonic mood” for each item, and collectors of editions 3 through 12 of each also received a free vinyl copy.
The drop also included a pair of one-of-one NFTs: “The Object,” which could be redeemed for a physical sculpture and speaker containing a one-hour ambient piece of original music; and “The Room,” a package including an audiovisual of the album cover, all eight of the silent auction NFTs and one signed vinyl.
“This is one of the most cohesive [music] launches I’ve ever done, in terms of having multiple ways to interact with it,” Anjos says. More so, he created a moment for people to gather around virtually, driving emotional value for the digital collectibles. “The further [the music] spreads, the more valuable those NFTs become, because it becomes a cultural artifact that people are attached to,” he says. “It’s a collectible, but it’s also like, ‘I was there. You had to be there.'”
To call the project a success would be an understatement. The collection grossed $708,000 — including $300,000 for “The Object” and $83,300 for “The Room” — which Anjos says is “far more” than he’s made off of three albums over the last decade.
Attaining that kind of financial freedom can be game-changing for an artist. As soon as Anjos began releasing NFTs, “We were like, ‘We don’t need to do as many remixes. We have the power to say no,'” Ellenhorn says. “It changes the way music is made. If you’re making enough money from NFTs, you can make music that maybe is not going to get on the bigger pop playlist. Maybe it’s just the music you actually want to be making.” NFTs can also drive attention back to artists’ catalogues: For a week in early March following “Elephant Dreams” and the debut of 6, Anjos’ Spotify plays jumped by 25%.
And now, 6 finds it’s not alone in the marketplace. On April 13, longtime cryptocurrency proponent deadmau5 (a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman) launched PIXELYNX, a company which will help clients digitize their brands into collectible goods for use in gaming and virtual worlds. As far as Anjos is concerned, the NFT playing field is wide open, and that’s exactly how he likes it.
“It’s completely undefined right now,” he says. “That’s my favorite place to be, because then you actually have a say.” He could go on, of course, but Anjos has to jump. He’s late for his next NFT Zoom.