The Question[s] of Innovation

Part of being in web3 is undoubtedly lurking on Twitter (just as much as engaging). I often find myself engulfed in conversations I am not part of, just a curious bystander ruminating on other people’s thoughts and seeing what comes out the other side. One of those recent occasions was over a tweet by Black Dave - an artist, thought leader, and early adopter of web3 technology. In the tweet, he states, “Thinking about how little music NFT innovation there’s been so far this year, my own included.” Artists and collectors began chiming in with their own hot  takes, discussing innovation and the projects they think are worthy of the moniker. LackHoney agreed with Black Dave, remarking on how few truly remarkable innovations get introduced in the music NFT landscape. Past3l of Outsiders Collective pointed out that the collective’s recent mixtape was actually quite innovative, sharing that their goal as a community “is to innovate and push the space forward with everything we do.” Sound of Fractures questioned the expectations that using music NFT technology puts on artists: “If you’re using it, we expect you to push it? Can it not just be amazing music?” The conversation sat marinating in my brain and kept leading me to one question: how do the narratives of innovation shape and influence people in the music NFT landscape? In this piece, I will explore the many questions that lie within this larger one. The intention is for this article to be a starting point for larger conversations on how we exist and interact with one another within this constantly evolving space.

What is innovation? 

Before we can start to truly discuss innovation, we have to define it. It is easy enough to do a google search for ‘innovation’ and find it defined as “a new method, idea, product, etc.” It starts to get sticky when you look at its synonyms: variation, rearrangement, transformation, upheaval, REVOLUTION! Now, sure, rearranging your furniture can be somewhat of a revolutionary act, especially if the new layout inspires you to throw a small gathering where a friend introduces you to anarchist thought, but in other cases, these synonyms illustrate just how differently we can conceptualize innovation.

‘Innovation’ tends to fall into two broad categories - radical and incremental. Radical innovation often produces a new product that challenges the status quo and disrupts an industry. The introduction of blockchain technology into the music sphere is certainly a radical innovation - it has created upheaval in the music industry and revolutionized how artists can sell their art and build their communities (to say the least). The earliest music NFT adopters were able to capitalize on the perks of being the first to experiment with releasing music in this new radical space. As more artists joined, incremental innovation began to proliferate rapidly. Incremental innovation is more subtle. It is the adjustments, slight changes, and modifications to how the technology is used that add additional value to the original innovation. For instance, not only are artists minting music NFTs (still a strange absurdity to many outside of web3), now artists are also experimenting with new features like bonding curves that create infinite editions or custom smart contracts that allow your NFT to be an entire mixtape, and highlighting being the coveted ‘first’ to do it.

Who defines what is ‘innovative’?

When we realize how sticky the term ‘innovation’ is, we can start to ask new questions like who defines what is innovative in the music NFT landscape? There is no measuring stick or barometer for incremental innovation. Each of us can define it for ourselves and perhaps debate about it on Twitter, but whose definitions shape and influence the public perception of music NFT projects? Is it the artists? The collectors? The thought leaders or NFT influencers? We have gotten used to seeing popular weekly round-ups of the most ‘innovative’ (read: newsworthy) projects in the music NFT landscape. And each of these articles has a person informed by their own definition of innovation, as well as their own personal experiences, tastes and biases behind it. These ‘innovative tastemakers’ have the power to elevate a project and provide visibility, playing a key role in successful drops and further opportunities. They influence the entire landscape, impacting how artists design and market their projects. It can be hard to break free from this outside influence (hell, maybe you just want to use the tools and could care less about being innovative) and define innovation for yourself. 

What are the impacts of the pressure to innovate?

The innovation > visibility > opportunity pipeline can create pressure to constantly experiment in order to maintain relevance in the space - I certainly have felt it and have witnessed others lamenting it. In its best moments, this atmosphere leads to new practices that benefit artists across the web3 music landscape; in its worst moments, it creates a spirit of individualism and competition that leaves many of us fighting to be the first to do, well, anything new in the space. And in the context of structural inequity, this atmosphere undoubtedly creates privileges for well-resourced communities with the time, money, and connections to build novel projects or hire engineers and developers to do it for them. 

I can only imagine how this pressure must feel for new artists entering the space. Should they really be trying to create a new type of smart contract while still learning what they even are? Broader signals across Twitter suggest ‘yes’ even as many of us shake our heads no. Now I am not saying we should not try to push the space forward - innovation got us here, from the first musicians to sell their art as an NFT or put a music video on the blockchain. What I am curious about is, if we take the pressure off of innovation and allow it to develop naturally and spontaneously, would the innovations produced be more impactful? Would our artist community be healthier and more collaborative? I can only speculate. 

How do we alleviate the pressure?

What is our best defense from the pressure of innovation? Self-inquiry. The web3 music space moves so quickly, it is easy to forget why we are making certain choices and end up stressed, burned out, and bitter. If we acknowledge the downsides of expecting artists to innovate on top of artistic creation and start to ask ourselves questions like, why am I innovating  (for the joy of experimenting with technology; to improve and democratize technology; to have a marketing edge; to gain a moment of glory and recognition) and who am I innovating for (myself; my fans; my community; Vitalik Buterin) we might be able to cultivate a more slow, intentional, and inclusive environment for artists in web3 - at least that is my hope.

About The Author

Blaire Michael is an artist, music producer, researcher, and early adopter of web3 technology. She is well-known in the music NFT space for fearlessly advocating for artist sovereignty and women and gender-expansive artists in web3. Her DIY Sound drop with Cam Murdoch taught artists the power of using their own smart contracts to mint their NFTs. She was a member of the first HiFi Labs artist cohort and is a contributing community curator for Catalog. Currently, Blaire hosts "[We]b3 Music, Sponsored by Vault" a biweekly space that examines the nuances underlying issues and opportunities for growth in web3 music. She is also the program manager of Syryn Records, a youth-run record label that uplifts women and gender-expansive youth artists and aspiring music industry professionals. She is looking forward to using her position to onboard more young women and gender-expansive artists to web3.

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