Should You Try NFTs? | Part 2 of 3 | NFT Experiences in Massachusetts
by James Heflin
In part one, we discussed how crypto and NFTs work, and what they are. Now that you are, hopefully, armed with enough knowledge to make some sense of this strange new world, you might want to go poking around in it as you consider whether to mint your own NFTs.
Even so, if you explore the main NFT marketplace, Open Sea, you may quickly feel at sea. It looks rather like a futuristic eBay from an alternate, cartoon reality.
There are clear trends in evidence – many NFTs are part of collections of characters, avatars, and related virtual items. The artwork often has an anime aesthetic, or a cheekiness akin to the Garbage Pail Kids stickers of the ’80s. Some NFTs are clearly fine art, but fewer than you might expect.
Alongside art and music tokens, however, you’ll see much that has to do with the “metaverse.” Many NFTs are more along the lines of passes giving you permissions and privileges to do something in the virtual world, often visiting and participating in a group or a part of that world. Some are virtual “property.”
This rapidly evolving alternate and artificial universe doesn’t at first glance seem particularly welcoming to creators who simply want a new medium in which to sell work without a lot of additional involvement. In searching for Massachusetts artists who’ve dabbled in NFTs, it quickly became clear that most creators haven’t found it easy or rewarding.
Yes, Beeple may have sold artwork for $69 million. But creators who aren’t minting items that spring from perceived needs in the metaverse or who don’t already have large audiences – they simply aren’t selling artwork for millions. In some cases, they aren’t selling their NFTs at all, despite listing them. There’s a whole lot of noise, and creating a coherent signal isn’t easy.
In searching for Massachusetts artists who’ve dabbled in NFTs, it quickly became clear that most creators haven’t found it easy or rewarding.
It would be easy to dismiss NFTs at a quick glance, and easy to shy away given recent headlines about market drops and volatility in the crypto world. I spoke to different artists in Massachusetts who have explored the NFT space to hear their opinions.
These include a Valley seller of Japanese woodcuts, David Kutcher, a Boston percussionist/bandleader, Brian O’Neill of Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, and Valley artists Nayana LaFond and Sabato Visconti.
Kutcher and O’Neill have done their NFT homework and come back with strong opinions about what’s worth it or not. LaFond found she had to grapple with questions of ethics with her first NFT experience.
In Visconti’s experience, I found the embodiment of that strange phrase "the exception that proves the rule" -- the reasons Visconti can make a large portion of his income from NFTs are in many cases the very same reasons that have dissuaded O'Neill, LaFond, and Kutcher. In this installation of our NFT series, we’ll look at O’Neill, Kutcher and LaFond’s NFT experiences. In part three, we’ll hear why Visconti is finding success and opportunity.
Brian O'Neill: Old-school music, old-school audience
Maybe it's obvious, but if your audience isn't already interested in NFTs, you're unlikely to create that interest. That’s primarily what led Brian O'Neill away from the NFT idea. O'Neill is a busy percussionist, and also leads Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica, a band with decidedly retro leanings. Its main focus is the genre called "exotica," a precursor to “world music,” the sort of thing that seems like proper accompaniment to mid-century modern design and to a well-crafted cocktail.
O'Neill cut straight to the chase when the CEO of an NFT startup asked him about minting NFTs for Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica. O'Neill surveyed his fans -- a group which skews male and post-40 -- to see if they were interested. The answer was a clear "no."
Mr Ho's Orchestrotica Megaband. Photo: Courtesy Brian O'Neil.
"Some younger people," O'Neill says, "don't understand the experience of digging through a bunch of vinyl records, and saying, 'Hey what's that? It's music for a Chinese dinner!' Or 'It's Eastern ska!'"
But the fans of the Orchestrotica certainly do. “The irony here is I have fans who love to collect stuff. But it’s probably something like an obscure mug from a tiki bar that closed in 1981. They love to show people what they’ve found. They love the story that goes with it, and they love the scarcity of it.”
An NFT, in O’Neill’s view, is basically a digital proof of authenticity. “Our fans care about things like authenticity, but there's a huge disconnect between our brand and that digital idea. They love the idea of finding that unexpected pot of gold at the rummage sale. But they often care because they can tell someone else, show someone else.”
O’Neill has plenty of tech know-how, and says he isn’t opposed to the idea of NFTs in general – he just thinks it’s not for his audience. “If I thought it was right for my audience, then fine. I'm an artist. I’m here to provide a valuable service in return for money. If there's a logical reason to provide something, no problem.”
"Maybe it's obvious, but if your audience isn't already interested in NFTs, you're unlikely to create that interest."
He raises a particularly interesting point: buying an NFT, owning any digital property, “leaves little room for the random.” It’s much harder to find something entirely unexpected, especially, he points out, when listening is determined by algorithms on a streaming service, where finding something that’s akin to what you’re already listening to is the main idea.
In the end, O’Neill sees the whole issue of selling NFTs or physical objects like CDs as about marketing above all. And for Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, the relationship between audience and artist is key. “I’m not gonna create a relationship with an NFT. It doesn't work that way. You have to give away a lot, then maybe there's an exchange for something of value. In music, it’s no longer the album as much as it's the experience around the album. But I still sell CDs, because my audience cares about the artwork and the product.”
It might be argued that O’Neill and others are missing the chance to find new fans via NFTs. In answer, O’Neill says, “Sure, maybe you'll pick up a fan because you have an NFT. But I guarantee you that the issue isn't that people just need NFTs. It’s like saying, ‘If I just had a wireless mic, I'd pick up more fans.’ First you really need a problem that you’re solving. For certain fans and groups, there may be some really good uses for NFTs.”
Nayana LaFond: Intellectual property questions and NFTs
For artist Nayana LaFond, entry into the world of NFT art came suddenly, of necessity: “I received information about an online art contest for the movie Woman of the White Buffalo, where they were asking indigenous artists to make work inspired by MMIW [missing and murdered indigenous women].”
That fit LaFond’s latest work – portraits of missing and murdered indigenous people, and their advocates and family members – very well. But then came a surprise: “The initial open call didn’t mention it being an NFT virtual show.”
A screenshot from Nayana's website showing some of the work from her MMIWG/P project. Photo: Courtesy Nayana LaFond.
For LaFond, it was unfamiliar territory. “It has been awkward,” she says. “Figuring out how to make one, how to operate in the space and how everything works is confusing. “
Fortunately, the NFT aspect of the Woman of the White Buffalo show came with some help, in the form of instructions on minting an NFT. “I followed the instructions, but decided not to allow the piece to be for sale,” LaFond says. “I made a piece specifically for their open call, but they asked me to exhibit one of my other pieces from the series.”
LaFond didn’t offer the work for sale as an NFT. “I decided not to allow it to be available for sale because it would be disrespectful to the families who have trusted me.”
It’s been a central part of the portrait series, LaFond says, that it’s not about money. “Part of my project is that it’s not for personal profit. I have painted over 85 [portraits] so far, and each family or individual gives me permission to exhibit their painting and to make prints available for sale to help cover the costs of doing the project. However, I do not make merchandise or sell digital files such as NFTs of the work.”
“I decided not to allow it to be available for sale because it would be disrespectful to the families who have trusted me.”
That’s in part because of what happened even before NFTs entered the picture. “The painting they chose to feature, ‘Kimberly in RED,’ is one which has already been stolen a couple times and made into saleable products online without my permission. I have had to send cease and desist letters several times.”
LaFond didn’t want to risk facing such issues again via an NFT. And it is a murky question, without a lot of established case law to delineate where an owner’s, creator’s, or even a screen-shotter’s rights end. Entering the NFT space can get complicated in these ways.
She points out that these issues do, of course, exist with online art, whether it’s in the form of an NFT or not. For LaFond, NFTs haven’t been a draw; she doesn’t plan to continue pursuing them as a medium. Her reasons make sense – the digital realm inevitably comes with new challenges, and a particular loss of control over one’s art.
David Kutcher: From antique woodcuts to NFTs
David Kutcher is an Easthampton-based seller of Japanese woodblock prints (from the late ukiyo-e and shin-hanga periods, mid-1800s to mid-1900s), and he has turned some of these artworks into NFTs. That experience left him with some strong opinions.
In some ways, Kutcher seems like a natural fit for the NFT world. “I’m a digital native,” he says, “but at the same time, I sell antique paper. It sounds like I should be gung-ho.”
He already offered his buyers something akin to an NFT. “When people buy the actual print, I also send them a high-res scan. Some collectors will put the piece away, and just use the scanned image as their laptop’s background image or whatever. They get to look at it, and they also have the physical piece.”
Some of the woodblock prints for sale on Kutcher's website. Photo: Courtesy Moonlit Sea Prints.
All the same, Kutcher says, he prefers real paper – and that’s part of his uneasiness with NFTs. “The NFT craze takes away that sense of touch that we respond to without necessarily realizing we respond to it.”
Because he’s so tech-inclined, though, he gave minting NFTs a try. That much was easy, he says. “Minting an NFT takes five seconds. You and everybody and their mother can mint an NFT.”
What happened next – or didn’t happen – changed his thinking. When your work is part of a vast number of offerings on Open Sea or another NFT marketplace, how do you get from just having an NFT for sale to actually selling it?
The answer seemed clear. “If you don’t have a marketing team, then your minted NFT isn’t going to go anywhere. There’s a lot of work that goes into [selling an NFT]. Beeple didn’t just put this art up and instantly sell it.”
It felt familiar, he says. “You build an audience, you build hype, you get people excited about your project, maybe get early adopters in on your project by giving them a discount or a freebie to promote it. It pretty much turns into a multi-level marketing scheme, and that’s how you sell an NFT. And that’s when I realized I want no part of this.”
He doesn’t think that means NFTs are wrong for every artist. “I try not to yuck other people’s yum – but I feel like if nobody can explain it to me, that’s usually a good indication that it’s not quite right.”
"It pretty much turns into a multi-level marketing scheme, and that’s how you sell an NFT. And that’s when I realized I want no part of this.”
In his thinking, NFTs serve a different function than a piece of art. “The vast majority of NFT 'art' is essentially a marketing play, not a product or investment.”
To Kutcher, the blockchain/crypto aspect of the NFT world – the way it exists outside the scrutiny and regulation of regular currency -- is problematic. "Because the blockchain is mostly anonymous, there are a lot of unscrupulous things that can happen in the NFT market – for instance, people driving up prices with blind bids. Nobody will ever know to some extent who buys these. Who really knows? Maybe everyone who’s behind these Bored Apes is just laundering money through them.”
Kutcher believes artists aren’t really missing out on much by not participating in NFTs. The important thing? “Understand that it’s got a low bar of entry, but there’s a high bar in terms of having a real chance of getting ahead.”
Kutcher sees the most potential value in NFTs that are more than just a digital version of art, particularly those that incorporate experiences. “If you create something that’s an experiential piece, for instance,” Kutcher says, “and in order to be part of it someone has to be a part-owner [through an NFT], it becomes like a clubhouse with secret keys. That could be fun. I get using it in that way. That makes sense to me.”
At the end of the day, he prefers the time-tested model of selling artwork. “If you’re an artist who’s self-employed and trying to figure out the best way to use your time to get ahead, I don’t think NFTs are anywhere in that outlook. The odds of striking it rich are next to nothing. If people just did their art and did gallery shows, they’d be much more likely to be successful. If you’re an artist who doesn’t market yourself well, this is not the avenue for you.”
Kutcher does think the landscape will eventually look different. “Right now, I think we’re in the Beanie Babies phase. I do think someone is going to find better uses for these, and the others will fade away.”