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A Small Choral Group Is Betting Big On Tokenizing Their Art With Blockchain

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Blockchain has taken the art world by storm. That is the technology that powers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. These digital art pieces - paintings, gifts and videos - are fetching tens of thousands, even millions of dollars online. Some big names in music have started offering fans crypto collectibles. Christie's has even started auctioning crypto art pieces. And a small choral group in Dallas thinks their new piece could also draw big bucks using this technology. Miguel Perez with member station KERA sat in on a recording session with Verdigris Ensemble to find out more.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing).

ANTHONY MAGLIONE: Can we stop? Sorry to be a pain.

MIGUEL PEREZ, BYLINE: Producer Anthony Maglione is shuffling through sheet music inside a recording studio in Dallas. It's almost 10 p.m., the end of a five-hour session for the singers on the other side of the glass.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Vocalizing).

MAGLIONE: Yeah. All right. Yeah. That was a much better take. Well done.

PEREZ: Sam Brukhman, the founder of Verdigris Ensemble, is sitting next to Maglione. They're in the middle of recording a piece called "Betty's Notebook," which composer Nicholas Reeves based on the story of Betty Klenck, who claimed to have her distress signals from Amelia Earhart on her radio.

SAM BRUKHMAN: It's like we're putting the audience in front of a really old 1930s radio. But there's all of this sort of, like, white noise and jazz standards and other things that block us from clearly hearing what Amelia Earhart was saying on that day.

PEREZ: Now, the group has performed "Betty's Notebook" live before, but this time, they're working with a digital art platform called Async Art to transform this new recording into a one-of-a-kind sound installation using blockchain technology. And Brukhman wants to sell the piece to the highest bidder.

BRUKHMAN: We've gotten very positive feedback from several museums and galleries across the world. Whether that's actually going to happen, I just don't know.

PEREZ: The choral group has poured a lot of money into this, hiring a production team and buying valuable studio time. It's a huge risk.

BRUKHMAN: But I wouldn't do it if I didn't, like, really, truly see the vision and how it could be successful. And I see it so clearly.

PEREZ: The use of blockchain in the digital art world has been gaining steam for several years now. So how does it work? Let's say you create a digital painting, and you share it on Twitter. It goes viral, and it's copied and pasted all over the Internet. You don't get a cent from that, and no one even knows that you made it. But what if you had created a piece of code, a unique digital token attached to the work that helps solve the problem?

BLAKE FINUCANE: You can prove that you're the original owner of something that exists online - an image that exists online, a video that exists online - in ways that have never been possible before.

PEREZ: Blake Finucane wrote one of the first academic papers on tokenized art. These digital works are known as NFTs, non-fungible tokens. And that means they're not interchangeable. Each one is special and identifiable. It's that non-fungibility that helps keep track of things like provenance and authenticity. Finucane says that, in turn, creates scarcity for digital art. Elena Zavelev has spent a lot of time explaining NFTs to art professionals as the founder of New Art Academy in New York.

ELENA ZAVELEV: The clearest value potentially is actually artists getting paid sort of like a royalty on the resale of their works.

PEREZ: Musicians can write their own royalty terms into an NFT - for example, guaranteeing a 10% cut every time the piece is resold. Music and technology writer Cherie Hu says this kind of system could be a game-changer in music, where artists get paid fractions of a penny per stream.

CHERIE HU: All signs seem to be pointing to, like, a race to the bottom on pricing. Royalty rates have actually not been increasing. They've only been decreasing kind of as these streaming services scale, and that's definitely worrying to a lot of artists and to the music industry. So anything that can kind of help reverse that course is appealing to them.

PEREZ: Instead of chasing streams by the millions, Hu says musicians could sell a single NFT - say, to a superfan or a gallery - for a similar price tag. Now, that's not the same as buying the definitive, sole copy of a song, though. The artist hasn't handed over the copyright or the distribution rights to the music.

HU: Something I often say that's, like - makes more sense to the music industry, it's like a digital piece of rare merch.

PEREZ: Like a unique gift paired with an unreleased demo. That's what Canadian pop artist Grimes just auctioned off. One of her debut NFTs sold for more than $380,000. And Sam Brukhman with Verdigris is banking on a similar outcome for his choral group. He set the bidding to start at $150,000.

BRUKHMAN: We could very well at the end of this entire process sell "Betty's Notebook" and actually, like, make a profit and be able to support and give a fair wage not just to our producer or our sound engineer or the composer, but also to the singers.

PEREZ: Certain corners of the music world are well-versed in crypto art, like electronic artists. But an NFT from a choral group is pretty much unheard of. Whether crypto art is a passing fad or the future of art collecting, right now, Verdigris is hoping it'll pay off.

I'm Miguel Perez in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUNSQUABI'S "ANYTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.