Last week, the highly sought after NFT collection Bored Ape Yacht Club swiftly came to the music industry. On Thursday, UMG-owned label 10:22PM announced it had signed a virtual group made up of Bored Ape characters called KINGSHIP. Separately, on Friday, Timbaland launched a new, independently-owned entertainment company, Ape-In Productions (AIP), which uses Bored Ape characters (like its first signee, TheZoo) to perform music and sell NFTs.
But what are these quirky cartoon apes in the first place? Why are they so important?
Since the company Yuga Labs launched the project in April, Bored Ape Yacht Club — known as “BAYC,” “Bored Apes,” or simply “Apes” to its friends — has become one of the world’s most lucrative NFT collections to date. Consisting of thousands of different illustrated ape characters, each affixed as individual images and minted on blockchain to be bought and sold, the goal was to create an NFT project that had cultural cache, much like CryptoPunks and other collectible art NFTs had already done, but was more than just a JPEG file affixed on the blockchain. What if purchasing a Bored Ape NFT acted as a ticket into a gamified community?
The idea had a bit of a slow start, but it quickly turned into a sensation overnight, leading the coining of the Web3 lingo of “Apeing In,” or taking a chance on an unproven investment. Now, tokens related to BAYC have generated around $1 billion, according to Rolling Stone, and purchasing a Bored Ape has become one of Web3’s ultimate status symbols. Many owners of Bored Apes will set it as their profile photo on social media and boast about exclusive club events, like the in-person Ape Fest 2021 in New York City. Sensing its potential, Maverick founder Guy Oseary, known best for his work as manager of Madonna and U2, is now representing the BAYC project. Even celebrities like Steph Curry, Jimmy Fallon and Post Malone have purchased them, while the second hand resell market has become a lucrative space for NFT flippers — and because a percentage of every resell goes back to the BAYC, it also benefits the company.
Another feature of buying a Bored Ape is that the NFT also offers monetization, or commercial usage, rights of the cartoon’s likeness to purchasers. This means if a Bored Ape owner wanted to create and sell products based on the art they own — or, say, use their likeness for a virtual band in this case — it is within their right to do so. These individual projects would not be represented by Oseary, rather, the individual owner of the NFT would be responsible for managing their project independently.
That’s what Jimmy McNeils is testing out now. A notable NFT collector, who goes by the moniker “j1mmy.eth” online, McNeils has signed a group of four of his Apes to UMG’s 10:22PM, a new label focused on bridging the gap between music and Web3, to try to create the next big band. Just like when a traditional artist signs a contract with a record label, contracts with virtual performers include a provision, allowing the label to use the artist’s likeness. In exchange for typical concessions like this, an artist (virtual or human) will receive a share of royalties from the music’s success.
Though the news feels unprecedented, it builds upon older trials of avatars as artists. In China, for example, virtual idols have been a fast growing sector of the music business for years, like artists Luo Tianyi and Ayayi. Though American audiences haven’t been as quick to adopt this concept so far, there is still some precedent. Miquela — a virtual singer and influencer with over 3 million instagram followers — has managed to gain a foothold in recent years, peaking at No. 47 on Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart in 2018 with the song “Hate Me.”
The expansion of NFT characters as musical artists also coincides with recent announcements by companies like the recently rebranded Facebook (now Meta) and Microsoft to develop their own metaverses. Acting as the next phase of the internet, the metaverse will allow people around the world to connect in a virtual space, seemingly face-to-face, using virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. Think of it like meeting up with a friend in a multi-player video game, except far more realistic, or as the virtual world in the book-turned-blockbuster Ready Player One.
The metaverse will open up many possibilities for the music business to expand its presence and to rethink old business models. This is why Timbaland has launched his independent company Ape-In Productions, to capitalize on this and to form virtual bands. To launch the new supergroup, Timbaland himself will be producing TheZoo’s first single “ApeSh!t,” which will be released later this month. Along with the bands themselves, AIP hopes to sell virtual merchandise as NFTs.
But it’s not all just Apes. Other NFT projects also offer monetization rights to buyers, meaning other NFT characters could become the next virtual idols in the future. Right now, Grimes is also launching her own “A.I. girl group,” NPC, which released their first song “A Drug From God” with Chris Lake on Nov. 12.
Though it’s unclear if any of the existing groups — like KINGSHIP, NPC, or TheZoo — will become major musical players, one thing is certain: virtual groups are going to continue to crop up as we approach a metaverse-inclusive reality. The real question is who will be the first one to break through.