Oana Ruxandra — Warner Music Group’s chief digital officer and executive vp of business development — has lost a lot of sleep due to Web3. Not because it troubles her. That’s just her working process. Over the holidays last December, she was up all night on Discord and crypto Twitter, “getting inundated, living it, breathing it, being part of it. It’s the only way to understand it,” she says. And that was one of many such experiences. “I haven’t slept in three years because of the work that we’re doing,” she says.
Celine Joshua — executive vp commercial innovation and artist strategy at Universal Music Group — says that 18 months ago when she was explaining non-fungible tokens, cryptocurrency and the metaverse, CEO Lucian Grainge encouraged her to push forward. Now superstar artists like The Weeknd are selling NFTs, and 2021 sales of NFTs of all sorts generated nearly $25 billion. “The doors are wide open. A year ago, if somebody wasn’t interested, they were probably reading just the bad crypto headlines,” Joshua says. “Now, you’re seeing fandoms rally around this technology in an undeniable way.”
Ruxandra and Joshua are among the top Web3 evangelists inside the major labels. Both have helped usher their label groups into investments and partnerships. WMG has been especially aggressive recently, making deals with blockchain gaming developer Splinterlands; the Sandbox, a virtual gaming company; and Blockparty, which helps artists create and swap NFTs. UMG has partnered with NFT platform Curio, beginning with a project this spring from British singer-songwriter Calum Scott, and Joshua’s UMG joint venture label, 10:22PM, works with NFT blue-chip projects World of Women and created KINGSHIP, a first-of-its-kind virtual act made up of Bored Ape Yacht Club characters. Sony, too, has made deals in the space recently, contributing funding to NFT market MakersPlace and helping one of its singer-songwriters, Madison Beer, create a Verizon-sponsored virtual concert, complete with digital avatar, for TikTok Live. Label reps declined to comment.)
Along the way, both Ruxandra and Joshua say they have had to contend not just with the skepticism of a label culture that has been cautious, if not adverse, to tech since the days of Napster 20 years ago, but with bro-culture of the tech and crypto worlds. “It’s just walls,” says Ruxandra. “And I tend to break them down with a sledgehammer.”
Ruxandra, who has also moved Warner into deals with virtual-avatar specialist Genies, gaming giant Roblox and virtual-concert powerhouse Wave, views Web3 as an opportunity for artists and songwriters. It will help them reach their fans more directly by “enabling storytelling and creation” and giving financial and logistical resources to artists who understand Web3 and help educate those baffled by crypto and decentralized autonomous organizations.
A former game master at a laser-tag arena who still owns every video-game console she wore out as a kid, Ruxandra moved to the United States with her family from Romania when she was 4 and did “what kids do when they don’t have any friends — I sat in my room and played games.” Through Call of Duty and other gaming universes, she communicated on headsets with online friends everywhere. So it wasn’t much of a stretch, when she became a digital-music executive, to adapt to Web3.
Like Ruxandra, Joshua started her career as a budding music-tech futurist — her first industry job was in WMG’s IT department, working with engineers and developers “to solve the problems by doing.” Later, she was a top digital executive at Disney and Sony, then in 2018 joined Universal, where she formed her own high-tech imprint, 10:22PM (because she thought of the idea at 10:22 one night).
Both Joshua and Ruxandra talk about Web3 as a new frontier where possibilities are still taking shape and the model of musicians creating content that audiences consume is in flux. “Web3 is going to be redefining in the next few years,” Ruxandra says. “It will change the way in which communities operate and interact and ownership and control happens. Content will turn into experiences that are also created by the audiences and the community.”
Some of those experiences could be harnessed in familiar ways — blockchain ledgers and other crypto logs can collect data to be used to sell tickets or promote new artists. But there are wide-open possibilities. “In a science-fiction future mindset, imagine if Billie Eilish knew everyone who streamed ‘Ocean Eyes’ on SoundCloud and how many shows everyone went to,” says Tom Windish of Wasserman, agent for UMG artist Eilish and others. “And maybe she knew the person who was at that first show. That’s incredibly exciting.” Universal’s partner, Bored Ape Yacht Club, shows an even more tangible path forward: It has sold 10,000 NFTs, and they now cost a minimum of 94 ethers, or nearly $300,000 apiece; they have reportedly generated $1 billion as of early January. “That’s powerful,” Joshua says.
Asked whether Web3 has generated revenue thus far for WMG, or whether the label is concentrating on potential Web3 revenue in coming years, Ruxandra replies, “Both.” When WMG act twenty one pilots staged a virtual concert on Roblox last year, fans visited more than 13 million times, looking for hidden tracks and prizes as well as purchasing virtual merchandise. Ruxandra points to in-app purchases as an opportunity for future music revenue: If millions of Fortnite users are willing to pay for Travis Scott concert tickets, Lil Nas X merch and Diplo DJ sets, they might also pay to stream songs on a jukebox in a virtual bar or make their own playlists at clubs or parties. The recent purchase of Bandcamp by Fortnite developer Epic Games could help enable this kind of in-game music spending.
“We can help to educate, build projects and have artists understand what they can create in these new worlds,” Ruxandra says. “It’s definitely heavy hand-holding right now. It’s a lot of time and energy to make sure that we get things right.”