We Are All Musicians Now
Artists are canaries in the coal mine of modern business, experiencing seismic tech disruptions years before those in other industries. Follow the music, see the future.
One might say March 11th, 2021 was the final day of the most surreal 12 months in recent memory. Yet by nightfall, a pandemic-stricken world only seemed even more upside down. Enabled by the advent of something called a Non-Fungible Token, or NFT, an artist named Beeple sold a piece of digital art at a Christie’s auction for $69 million. It was the third-highest sum received by a living artist, dwarfing recent sales of works by late masters like Rothko, Lichtenstein and Picasso. But the accompanying NFT craze was no surprise to music business aficionados: the concept was at least seven years old.
One could argue the first NFT release actually came in 2014, when the Wu-Tang Clan decided to sell only a single copy of its furtively-produced Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. Around the same time, fellow hip-hop star Nipsey Hussle tried out the concept as well, offering just 1,000 copies of his Crenshaw mixtape for $100 apiece (Jay-Z bought 100). The most expensive NFT release before Beeple’s bonanza? A batch of 33 copies of superproducer 3LAU’s three-year old album Ultraviolet, totaling $11.7 million this February.
Musicians aren’t just ahead of the curve when it comes to NFTs—they’ve served as canaries in the coal mine of modern business for half a century. And trends that reshaped the music industry have subsequently disrupted nearly every other sector on the planet. Take the shift from analog to digital, in which vinyl and cassettes were replaced by CDs long before DVDs conquered VHS. Or the move from physical to virtual, where Napster destroyed record stores and almost bankrupted the major labels even as bricks-and-mortar retailers from Borders to Blockbuster blindly chugged toward their doom.
In the current millennium, Apple’s iPod music player served as a template for the modern smartphone, while a new class of Silicon Valley founders grappled with questions familiar to up-and-coming rock bands: When do we quit our day jobs? Should we take outside funding? What constitutes selling out?
At the same time, acts such as Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and DJ Khaled helped drive the mass adoption of social media’s most popular platforms, using them as a place to cultivate and communicate with loyal customers long before big brands did. Spotify conquered streaming years ahead of the phrase “Netflix and chill,” while other niches such as book publishing continue to grasp for answers of their own.
Just about every industry on Earth has been touched by these seismic shifts—indeed, in a very meaningful way, we are all musicians now. And that’s why I’m writing this book, which will be available exclusively to my paid subscribers, serialized in weekly excerpts right here on Substack and delivered straight to your inbox.
Though the business of music has consistently found itself at the vanguard of broader market forces, artists as a group have learned this through a process of trial and error—and much of the latter. Tales abound of blues singers trading their publishing rights for a Cadillac and a bottle of wine, while record labels notoriously spent decades exploiting artists like the Beatles and the Jackson 5 to the tune of pennies per album. More recently, labels leveraged their catalogs to negotiate billions in equity from nascent streaming services, only agreeing to allow artists a taste of IPO windfalls after a public shaming.
Covering music for Forbes over the past decade, I’ve had an ideal perch from which to experience and identify these trends. The public shaming mentioned in the last paragraph came in the form of my magazine feature “Revenge of the Record Labels” (co-written with Nick Messitte, who edits my Substack). I broke the news of the Wu-Tang Clan’s secret album. Nipsey Hussle sat with me just weeks before his tragic passing, explaining his own NFT-esque experiment and detailing his next big move: buying the strip mall where he earned his nom de rap, and creating a framework for other stars to lead reinvestment in their own communities.
I also put Bieber, Perry, and Khaled on the cover of Forbes, translating their business lessons for an audience of millions. And my books on musicians from Jay-Z to Michael Jackson have pointed a spotlight on the importance of ownership as practiced by the world’s most successful musicians.
Any entrepreneur or professional can gain a greater understanding of individual trends—from NFTs to the broader business climate—by studying what has happened to (and because of) musicians. And doing so offers a path to wrapping one’s brain around what may yet be coming down the pike in any industry. Spiced with anecdotes from my years of reporting, and driven by new interviews with my contacts in the music business, We Are All Musicians Now will educate and enlighten while offering the audience backstage passes to the most fascinating industry transformations of the past fifty years.
I hope you’ll join me on this journey.