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A lot of people don't know this about me but when I was in college I produced and hosted an R&B and Hip-Hop show every Friday night. I produced that show the entire four years that I was there. Something that you could call a running joke while I was at school and even after was my relationship with T-Pain. Long story short, T-Pain was doing a show at a now defunct club in my small college town and my campus radio station (NPR-affiliated) was going to get access to T-Pain for an interview after the concert.
This was in 2007, I believe. T-Pain certainly wasn't a household name in the music business but I think most of the students at my college had heard of him. He was coming off moderate chart success with "I'm Sprung" - a track that eventually went platinum in the US. I was actually supposed to interview T-Pain following his show at the night club but couldn't make it because I left town for the weekend. I sent a friend who also worked at the station in my place to just ask a few questions and get a drop for my show. It's actually kind of funny. I still have that drop and you can listen to it here.
"Do ya thang, pimpin' - you already know."
Thanks, T-Pain. I love you too. In hindsight, I wish I had gone to meet him myself. Oh well.
While T-Pain's music certainly isn't for everyone, I don't think there's any denying that the guy is ahead of the curve. T-Pain is largely credited with popularizing the auto-tune movement. Auto-tune is a software that allows bad singers to not suck as much by fixing problems with pitch. Many artists started using it after T-Pain made hit singles with it. A lot of people hated auto-tune. I'm actually someone who has personally never cared for it. I've taken the old school view that it helps create "studio stars" who can't actually sing. Though, I've softened in my 30's and view auto-tune more as a stylistic choice for some people. T-Pain apparently being one of them because we found out years later that he actually can sing despite his auto-tune use. Don't believe me?
T-Pain beat Gladys Knight, Donny Osmond, and Joey Fatone in a singing competition in 2019. That competition was the first season of The Masked Singer; a show that at the time was weird and not fully appreciated. It has since become one of the most popular programs on television/streaming and it is actually the only show on broadcast TV that my wife, my daughter, and I all enjoy together. Again, T-Pain was at the beginning of a trend and helped propel that show forward because his win was so surprising.
I share these stories with you all because of something that came across my "digital desk" this week. T-Pain tweeted this graphic with the caption, "just so you know" to his 1.3 million followers.
He obviously got the screengrab from a reddit thread, but the point he's making is absolutely spot on. And it speaks to why I have a drop from T-Pain in the first place. No offense to the Gem City (hey, Quincy. I miss you), but with a platinum record, T-Pain was probably too big to be performing at the Backwaters night club. So what the hell was he doing there? Artists have notoriously not made money from releasing records. They make their money touring. The record label/artist relationship, in my opinion, has skewed too far to the label. For what essentially amounts to a small advance to produce an album, the label funds a project and then gets basically everything when that project is monetized through royalties.
Again, I know this because of my time at a radio station playing music. Even at a college station in a very small town, I was lucky that I had a contact at Def Jam. This contact sent me vinyl, hooked me up with artist interviews (so damn close to landing Nas one time), and most importantly, the contact got the artists on his label played on my station. That's historically been the role of the label. The artist signs their life away and the label then makes decisions on marketing, distribution, and even the content itself. The more spins, the more royalty payments. While artists get paid royalties for those spins, he who holds the masters holds the world.
It's easy to argue that labels should make money off the artists because the label is essentially working as a venture capitalist and as a publicist. The label is taking the chance on artists that might not make it. Most artists don't make it, even good ones. But, over time the artists that do make it end up getting pimped if their agreements with the label are too one-sided, as most are. Now, if you're an artist, you can go independent and not give your rights to a label. Streaming has largely changed the game. Artists don't need a label distributing their material to thousands of radio stations all over the country anymore. It's very easy to just upload music to platforms like Spotify or Apple Music and get discovered. And that brings us right back to the reddit graphic. How many streams should it take to earn a $1?
Artists like Taylor Swift are re-recording their old albums and hoping their fans make adjustments to which versions they stream. The graphic above shows how many streams you need to make $1 in revenue. I don't know what the correct number is, but I think we can probably agree there is something very wrong with what YouTube Music is paying. There are several different ways that this revenue gap for artists can be solved and there are a handful of groups that are working on it. One is Audius.
According to Audius, artists get just 12% of the $43 billion in annual music revenue. That's pretty bad. Audius is basically a crypto-centric music streaming platform. The token for Audius is $AUDIO. The projects white paper details what that group is aiming to do for artists by making the relationship a little more direct. Even still, though it claims to be a decentralized protocol for governance reasons, the platform is a centralized entity. When you get into the tokenomics aspect of it, the project can become confusing. I'm not against Audius at all. I think it's a step in the right direction. I just like the digital collectible route more than the streaming rights route to fixing the music industry.
Centralized platforms are hard to avoid. I get that. Even though you don't have to, chances are you're reading this on a centralized platform. There are a bunch of other groups trying to fix the artist/fan relationship as well. Rally.io comes to mind - token is $RYL. Royal.io comes to mind. One that I've recently discovered is Sound.xyz. Sound.xyz is taking a very interesting approach; rather than messing with royalties and confusing governance tokens, artists and fans can link through Sound.xyz to transact in NFT versions of new song releases.
The song drops on Sound.xyz are limited to 25 editions and each edition costs 0.1 ETH to mint. Sound.xyz has been doing new drops each day and selling them out very quickly. For instance, yesterday's MoRuf drop sold out in under 30 seconds. Sound.xyz isn't the only platform selling music NFTs. I shared one that I'm very fond of in a previous members only post (our little secret for now).
There's another one called Catalog.works. Catalog functions a little different from Sound.xyz because it has more of an auction format than a minting format. What's cool about Catalog is it doubles as a music player. I played a track through Catalog and when it ended, a different track from a different artist started playing. I could buy each song and own them as NFTs (for the right price, and it's high). Many of the asks are the equivalent of thousands of dollars in Ethereum.
I've made no secret that my main approach to NFTs is of the IP/Domain variety. I'll buy digital art if I actually like it. But mainly my focus to this point has been music ownership. The platforms that allow for NFT minting have been on my radar for a bit. I've been paying attention to the drops and checking out the artists. In many cases, I've discovered very talented people who I wouldn't have otherwise heard through some of these platforms. Yesterday, something happened that has never happened before. I saw an upcoming drop from an artist that I have already been listening to for years.
Jesse is a neo soul singer who has been active for over a decade. If you care about these sorts of things, he's Grammy nominated and has recorded with numerous higher profile acts. I first heard him in 2010 on The Foreign Exchange's Authenticity album (FIRE btw). Like all Sound.xyz drops, each mint costs 0.1 ETH. Which as of writing, is roughly $375. To me, owning an NFT version of Jesse's new song would be awesome. But, I think it's more important that Jesse is even doing it. Many of the artists on these platforms are younger and more crypto native. In Jesse's case, this is an established artist who is entering the crypto/NFT music space after already having success. Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's something. Personally, I think it's a great sign.
And I'm not being facetious about T-Pain. I really think he's been ahead of the curve in the music industry. T-Pain gets it. He knows change is coming. When he joins one of these platforms... look out.
Disclaimer: None of this is investment advice. I have no certifications. NFTs will probably all go to zero. I have no exposure to the $AUDIO token. Currently, I do hold $RLY tokens. I have not purchased any music NFTs through Sound.xyz or Catalog.works as of publishing. That could certainly change.