Capitalism All Along: A Conversation on NFTs with Shae Altered

Earlier this year, in the height of NFT talk, Indie/Alt met with Portland pop artist Shae Altered for a critical conversation about cryptocurrency and NFTs in music and art. Cover art: “Ghosts” painting acrylic on canvas by Shae Altered.

Note from the Editor: This podcast was recorded back in February of 2022. This was the height of the NFT talk across social media, and a massive surge in interest in cryptocurrency. Though the talk of NFTs and crypto has died down a bit since then, it is still an ongoing and expanding industry. Many artists continue to create and sell NFTs, and crypto ads still dominate media across platforms. For this reason, we felt that this is still a very pertinent topic that should be explored and discussed. The following are excerpted quotes from our conversation focused specifically on the relationship between NFTs and art. For the full conversation—including background on NFTs and cryptocurrency—listen to the full podcast episode above. – Bren

Shae: [NFTs] is such an odd concept. One of the biggest arguments that I see for NFTs is that they’re helping artists. We all know artists are underpaid. We all know we’re all broke. And I have seen a couple cases of an artist making an NFT collection and it selling for a whole bunch of money and all of a sudden they can afford to pay their bills. That is not the norm, but of course that’s what’s being broadcasted to help along the idea. That argument breaks down where that’s not happening every time an artist makes an NFT collection, like that’s really rare. And the other thing is like, why does it have to be an NFT? If you want to support artists, what’s stopping you from purchasing thousands of dollars in physical art from this person?

It’s because it’s not about the art. The art is just a by-product. It’s more about the ownership. I think most people would agree about that. Like, if you look at NFTs, you look at the apes and the pixel people. I think most everyone would agree they’re pretty ugly. They’re not cute. If someone designed that and they printed that out on a piece of paper and were like, here, I’m selling this, this is worth thousands or millions of dollars. Do you want to purchase it? Put that into real world context. Like who’s going to purchase a print of an ape that’s wearing a sailor costume? So I think that’s where that argument falls apart. Because it’s not about the art. It’s not really about supporting artists. It’s just about having ownership of something.

***

The whole NFT thing is harmful in several ways. It harms visual artists because a lot of the time, people that just want to sell NFTs, they’re taking people’s actual art and running it through a shitty filter and then selling it. These people are literally committing art theft and because it’s so new, there’s no regulations on this shit.

We all know it’s bad for the environment. We’re in a fucking climate crisis and the amount of energy it takes to mint an NFT is insane. And then it harms the consumers because people get into this space without understanding it. A lot of celebrities and musicians, they’ve gone on talk shows. They put it in music videos. You’ve got to take responsibility for what you’re selling too, because that’s what they’re doing. Whether they’re trying to sell their own NFT collection or they have a brand deal, they’re selling the idea of an NFT. A lot of people, they’re going to do whatever their favorite artists tells them to do or whatever their favorite celebrity tells them to do. You’re going to have all these people that are going to get into it and invest in it. And it’s an idea that has no proven track record of viable longevity. So there’s no guarantee of success. It’s like getting into the stock market without having any sort of person to help you. I feel like it’s so dangerous. 

There’s no guarantee. There’s no safety net that this isn’t gonna all blow up. And then what do you have if you’ve spent millions of dollars on this thing, and now it’s worth nothing. That’s a really scary concept. And it might not be like scary for a celebrity or a really famous musician or these people that have so much fucking money they don’t know what to do with. But someone who’s been sold this idea of if you buy this, invest in this, trade enough NFTs, you’re going to pull yourself out of whatever shitty financial situation you’re in, you could end up getting yourself into an even worse situation because you don’t know what you’re doing.

***

Digitizing art or working in a digital space, there’s nothing wrong with that to me. It just scares me when people are writing articles and saying shit like “NFTs are the future of the art world.” I’m like, please, God, no. I hope not. I don’t think someday we’re going to be living in a universe where there’s no physical art. I don’t think we’re going in that direction. I just wish there was a way for us to find a similar practice with NFTs, like selling online, trading content, creativity, whatever, but that’s not in such an exploitative and environmentally shitty way. I’m not a hundred percent against the idea, just how it functions now is terrible and non-viable. 

Bren: I fully agree. And I see the points that people make regarding why they’re getting into the NFT space. There are a few artists that I follow who are very much into the NFT space and have very much gotten involved with it. One of them is a Portland based artist, RAC. They wrote a thread about why they’re into the NFT space, and I found it interesting to get that perspective. 

Bren: I think the part that interested me was the idea that the entire point of NFTs is to make content free while making ownership scarce. From what I gather on that aspect is that what some of these artists are doing with the selling of NFTs is to sell the ownership of their music, to people in this field, and then the person who now owns the NFT can give it away. So, you can still consume NFT art for free, but they’re making more money off of it rather than selling to a label or something that is going to take a portion of it and you’re not going to get as much.

Shae: So does that mean, with a music NFT, they own like the .wav file or does that person own the master in the way a label would? Because I would never in my life give away a master to one of my songs as an NFT, because if I no longer own that master, like just a random person, it’s not even a label or someone that invested in your career, what are they going to do with that? That’s such an odd concept. 

Bren: I don’t know for sure. However, my assumption would be that the artist always has ownership of the original master and that when someone buys a music NFT, they’re getting a .wav file, which they can then distribute in any way that they want.

Shae: So then how does that create scarcity though? Are you no longer going to sell vinyl or you’re not going to sell CDs? Are you not going to sell digital copies through like Apple Music? Are you then only like, you buy the NFT or you stream my music? And then also how do you then rely on the person that owns that NFT to be able to distribute it, to share the work with other people? It’s such an odd concept to me. And I get that like, yes, streaming fucking sucks. The amount of money that artists make with streaming is god awful. Like I have Spotify and make 0.003 cents per stream or something. It gets ridiculous. But I don’t know if I’d be willing to sacrifice other people listening. Like, do I want my music in everybody’s hands, but I make less money or do I sell my music for a lot of money because I’ve made it scarce, but only so few people can enjoy it? I guess that’s a decision you would have to make for yourself. And again, I might be thinking about how a music NFT works all wrong. 

Bren: Yeah. So this is kind of what you talked about already. This was another thread RAC posted about money and music. 

Shae: I don’t disagree with that. I think he made very good points that anybody who is a musician or artist relates to. I just think there should be a way to do what he’s saying without it being exploited by other people or shitty for the environment. And I think, like I said before, I would love to get to a place where we can get there. To have an NFT-ish idea about creating, trading, spreading art, music, whatever. But as it exists now, it sucks. And I guess that’s the decision you have to make for yourself. He’s made the decision to participate in this community. And I guess he has to live with the fact that maybe what he’s done has made a bad impact on the environment. I guess that’s just a personal decision you have to make for yourself. And I don’t think I could. The way NFTs exist right now, I personally could not in good conscience participate in it. But he’s not wrong. I don’t disagree with what he said. I think it just sucks that it sucks in the first place. To make a living as musicians and artists, this is what we have to resort to instead of just being paid fairly for our work. I think that is the core problem in itself, but that’s not something where I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to address.

This article has been edited for space and clarity. Support Shae Altered through non-NFT means by buying her music at shaealtered.com or by buying merch and/or prints (including the art featured on this article’s cover) in her online shop.

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