It may surprise you that roughly $1.2 billion of NFT sales have so far involved music NFTs. But given its importance to the prehistory of generative art, classical music is yet to realize its market potential in the NFT space. Aside from isolated examples, the classical music industry remains behind the curve, partly due to repeated COVID-19 lockdowns that have forced musicians to find novel solutions to the lack of live recitals. Sadly, a number of studies show that classical musicians have suffered disproportionately in their mental health over the course of the pandemic. While recent data reveals that, between 2019 and 2020, the US arts economy shrank at nearly twice the rate of the economy as a whole, with a 40% decline in motion picture and video production, performing arts presenting, and performing arts companies.
As we pointed out in our recent whitepaper, in the US at least, artists have been earning below the national average income despite higher levels of educational attainment. Of course, the pandemic also catalyzed an NFT explosion that stands to level the playing field by allowing creators across the arts to build their own markets based on their skills and followings. The most recent available data shows that classical music streaming revenue more than doubled between 2016 and 2018 to $140.8 million worldwide. This proves that classical music has a future as a digital product. What needs to change is how musicians are compensated. By cutting out (or at least eroding the hegemony of) traditional publishers, NFTs allow creators to connect directly with their fans. Platforms like OneOf aim to support musicians by leveraging their brands, while Royal is purpose-built to ensure that artists receive income every time a song is streamed.
What these examples show is that, after the hardships of the pandemic, NFTs can serve as a new source of income for musicians everywhere.
Classical music has particular qualities that are tailored to the current market for digital art. First, with practically all classical music now in the public domain, digital artists can save on licensing fees if they want to use music to enhance audience experiences. Second, classical music provides an intellectual foundation for the recent surge of interest in code-based art, whose long history reinforces the cultural importance of NFTs in reviving generative practices. Multiple pioneers of generative art have spoken recently of the overlap between musical and visual systems, with Vera Molnar asserting:
You know, [algorithms] have been around for a long time. I’ve been telling everyone this — did you know Mozart also used dice? He worked with chance.
A seminal architect of musical systems, Mozart is often regarded as the originator of a dice game called Musikalisches Würfelspiel (musical dice game), whereby the roll of a dice is used to generate random combinations of numbers that correspond to precomposed musical fragments. Between 1757 and 1812, at least twenty musical dice games of this kind were published in Europe, enabling those who had not studied composition themselves to compose different forms of popular dance.
Publications like Musikalisches Würfelspiel, which followed Johann Kirnberger’s own version of 1757, served as a model for subsequent games that use chance to determine art. It also inspired our own NFT project, Magic Mozart, which offers passages from Mozart’s composition for The Magic Flute (1791) with a governance stake in Living Arts DAO, providing mentoring and micro-grants to musicians around the world.
Aleatory music experienced a revival in the twentieth century, with chance serving as the basis for visual compositions by Marcel Duchamp and other members of the Europe-wide Dada movement. It also underscored John Cage’s seminal Music of Changes (1951), while Iannis Xenakis developed a stochastic synthesis algorithm to find order within musical chaos. Today, indeterminacy forms the basis of much techno, though dance music continues to rely on an underlying eight-beat structure. How far artists should control the level of randomness in a work was a constant source of debate between Vera Molnar and the composer, Pierre Barbaud.
Barbaud claimed that [when you write] a program in which randomness or chance plays a part, that program has value on its own. You shouldn’t intervene — you can’t. That was his opinion. My opinion was that randomness was a tool you could use, a sort of artificial intuition. (Vera Molnar)
The NFT’s ability to commodify ephemeral art forms suggests that music can benefit from tokenization in much the same way as contemporary generative art. One of the challenges is safeguarding NFT projects with watertight licenses in a way that offers both security for creators and clarity for collectors over what they are actually buying. To this end, Andreessen Horowitz recently proposed some basic templates based on the Creative Commons model. The beauty of many works of classical music is that, because they are now in the public domain, they are easily adaptable to digital art collections.
What makes classical music classical is that it has stood the test of time, which is why Apple was so keen to acquire the classical streaming app, Primephonic, back in 2021.
Two core affordances of NFT technology — authentication and ownership — have also defined the cultural valuation of individual musicians throughout history. Before the modern era, classical musicians used to train under a mentor, who would not only mentor them but also vouch for them as their agent. That mentor would receive some remuneration based on the musician’s future revenues, but ownership of the work resided principally with the musician. In a case from the early nineteenth century, the English composer Isaac Nathan persuaded the well-known tenor John Braham to lend his name to the title page of Nathan’s Hebrew Melodies (1815) in return for fifty percent of any profits.
At a time of widespread skepticism about NFTs and cryptocurrencies, reframing classical music as a prehistory of generative art can bolster the NFT in the public eye. At the same time, NFTs can help to revive the market for classical music and the livelihoods of individual musicians right now. Art and music’s close relationship is nothing new. What is new is technology that allows individual musicians to package and personalize transformative experiences for their own fan communities. As the NFT opens up avenues across the creator economy, it’s time for classical music to realize its place in art history.
Christos A. Makridis is the co-founder and CTO/COO of Living Opera, a Web3 multimedia startup that combines classical music with blockchain technologies. He is also a professor, writer, and adviser with doctorates in Economics and Management, and Science and Engineering from Stanford University.
Soula Parassidis is the lead founder and CEO of Living Opera. She is also an international opera singer, speaker, and passionate advocate against human trafficking with a BA in music from The University of British Columbia.