A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to be invited to join the Pacific Connect Dialogue on music. While only an observer as I couldn’t stay for the whole event, I was able to listen to the taped proceedings later on, thanks to the wonderful team at ICDP, and felt compelled to write a few thoughts and observations.
First of all, I’d like to congratulate the organisers on delivering one of the best Pacific Connect forums I have attended, on every level: an exciting topic, the calibre and expertise of participants, quality of preparatory material, insightful presentations, robust discussion and thoughtful moderation by Andrew Carriline and Nicole Jeune.
Ahead of the event, I was intrigued by the concept of NFTs and wanted to know more about the Pacific musical scene, to discover and get inspired by new sounds and new voices, to learn about independent Pacific artists and the challenges they face, and to understand better how new technologies could potentially help solve at least some of them.
And the Dialogue didn’t disappoint – starting from an excellent playlist of Pacific tunes carefully put together by Benjamin Blackshaw and a dizzying array of Wantok Musik records (including a wonderfully uplifting Mumbwe from Tio’s debut album Sorousian), through to the huge amount of useful information and insights offered during presentations and discussions, down to the potential project ideas that participants agreed to explore further.
There was plenty of new terminology and concepts to learn (at least for me) – ‘DAO’, ‘fractional ownership’, ‘minting an NFT’, ‘proof-of-work blockchains’… I think, all of us gained a great deal from the Dialogue’s critical evaluation of several music distribution platforms: the benefits as well as limitations of an extremely artist-friendly but niche Bandcamp versus the successful business models of streaming giants Spotify and Netflix; the best ways to engage with NFT marketplaces and aggregators such as YellowHart, Nifty Gateway, Foundation, Async, Audius, OpenSea, TuneCore and what they can offer independent artists.
Naturally, a large part of the conversation revolved around NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and opportunities they unlock for musicians, as both an alternative source of revenue and a new way to engage with fans. The premise of NFTs is exciting: finally, the property rights of an artist are forever ‘wired’ into the artwork itself from the moment it is created. For the Pacific region, where the issues of IP protection are especially acute, this is a game changer.
The potential of fast financial gain is, of course, another factor which drives the current hype behind NFTs, with some sales generating millions of dollars for their creators. Compare this with meagre payouts of streaming platforms currently dominating in the realm of music distribution!
While streaming services themselves determine how much a composition is worth, an NFT creator can directly monetise the value of their work and get additional revenue by selling partial (fractional) ownership of their recording copyright to fans. Market-savvy people see endless opportunities around the use of blockchain-based non-fungible tokens in the music industry, with some say it could completely revolutionise the future of fan-artist relationship.
There are, however, pitfalls, and in the Pacific, they start with access to technology (something that we in Australia take for granted). I was surprised to learn that Spotify, for example, doesn’t work in PNG, while it has only recently become available in Fiji. One of the biggest banks in PNG banned crypto-transactions on their cards (and NFTs are paid for in cryptocurrency) so a local musician would need to work with someone outside the country to create a digital wallet and buy and sell NFTs online. Poor connectivity, or a lack of internet coverage in rural areas, is a barrier for both the creators and potential consumers of digital art.
The other significant drawback is the huge environmental cost of the NFT minting process because of the amount of computing power it requires (you can burn 236 kg of carbon to mint an NFT on Ethereum, for example, according to one Dialogue participant). While there are ways to offset your emissions through platforms such as Offsetra or by choosing ‘proof of stake’ blockchains which are both cheaper and more environmentally friendly, Pacific Islanders, for whom the climate change crisis is real, can be understandably wary of such technology.
Several Dialogue participants, well-versed in NFTs, pointed to the need for technical proficiency for the end user when dealing with tokens: how to keep it safe, how to operate a digital wallet, how to interact with a blockchain. It turns out that in the world of blockchain, there are no ‘take-backs’: once you’ve sent it to the wrong place, or made a spelling error in your title, it’s gone forever. So education, upskilling and capacity building are essential.
Another issue is promotion and how to make yourself noticed in a massive and ever-growing global NFT market. I thought one of the best suggestions offered during the discussion was for the creator to partner with a large NFT aggregator and get them excited about the project. If they are interested, they can help curate the artwork to achieve a sale and cover partial or all the minting costs in exchange for a royalty percentage, similar to a distributor’s role – for example, Foundation takes 8%, while Nifty Gateway takes 20% (but they are the biggest platform). So, the advice was, “partner with the right people and work out a royalty structure”.
(I couldn’t help but notice a certain irony in this: trying to remove intermediaries through innovative models such as NFTs – and still facing the need to partner with aggregators for better exposure. Similarly, the whole point of cryptocurrencies was that they were deregulated, and yet they do depend on regulators and policies which can allow or ban their use in a particular country.)
For me, the focus on technology somewhat overshadowed the more important consideration of musical value, how we experience music, why we crave that experience and why we return to certain compositions over and over. In the end, technology is only an enabler, and consumers will always buy and look for that ‘amazing user experience’, to use the marketing jargon.
Also, technology tends to improve and get simpler and cheaper with time – just look at how music production has changed over the course of a couple of decades. What used to be a complex undertaking which required a team of professionals with different skillsets and very expensive equipment is now affordable and accessible to such a degree that one person can compose, perform (on different instruments), and mix a market-quality recording in their home studio. When I started in radio broadcasting back in Russia in mid 1990s, we used magnetic tapes to put together a programme (a rather laborious and cumbersome process). A few years later I was studying sound design in the University of Technology Sydney‘s state-of-the art studios equipped with the latest versions of Pro Tools and mixing consoles which none of us could personally afford. Nowadays, there is a plethora of choices of audio recording software, some of it distributed for free, which is available to everybody with a computer and an internet connection.
While the immediate future of NFTs in the Pacific is perhaps less certain or may take some time to eventuate because of infrastructure and regulatory barriers, the region has so much to offer to the music world. Listening to the Dialogue’s playlist, I was captivated by traditional Avaiki chants and their beautiful harmonisation in ‘Taoba’ by Kaumaakonga from the Solomons. The colourful display of Wantok Musik records, presented by David Bridie, made me appreciate how rich and diverse the Pacific music scene is – a real treasure trove for producers, collectors, world music lovers and anybody who is looking for new and unique sonic experiences.
To paraphrase and build on Inoke Kalounisiga’s comment in a closing session, the tribal nature of Pacific music is what sets it apart from mainstream offerings, what makes our experience of it so profound, authentic and real (“like listening to a didgeridoo”). Coupled with the visual aspects of Pacific culture and the exotic nature of the islands, it is simply irresistible.
I see endless potential for this music to find new audiences and new opportunities to be heard – whether in its pure musical form or at the crossing of the arts – and make its own mark on a global scale.
Looking at a broader picture, the plight of artists is universal, and creative arts will always need state support. While some nations, such as Germany and Russia, recognise the value of their cultural sector and provide significant assistance, for many more, including Australia, it’s a struggle of relentless lobbying, a lack of enlightened leaders, a lack of policy consistency, with our federal arts ministry being kicked back and forth between Communications, Environment and Regional Development portfolios. COVID-19 demonstrated just how precarious the position of an artist is, with Australian arts being one of the last sectors to receive government support.
But if Australian musicians can support themselves through alternative income streams, the reality for many in the Pacific (as we learned at the Dialogue) is that music provides their entire livelihood, with families being fed by what they can earn through their art.
Addressing this issue should start with a recognition of the economic contribution of Pacific arts as an industry sector in its own right. In preparation for the Dialogue, I did some research online but could not find any official statistics on the creative industries in the Pacific, while several reports confirmed that these industries are not identifiable either individually or as a specific subsector in the national accounts or employment data, and that neither Pacific governments nor society see creative arts as viable enterprises or a career path. The arts are generally excluded from the education systems of most Island nations, and there is a lack of industry support to enable artists to develop their craft.
In the absence of such formal support frameworks and structures, artists’ cooperation is the best way forward, and that became the strongest theme throughout the Dialogue. I loved the idea of bringing Australian and Pacific musicians closer together in a collaborative network so that recognised musicians with a profile could drive spotlight to their peers in the region. Enabling such collaborations is exactly what programmes such as Pacific Connect are designed for. I was also taken by Daniel Stricker’s idea to create a repository of Pacific 3D imagery to feed into innovative projects such as immersive VR Shifting Homes, with benefits flowing back to the Pacific community.
Being an artist takes courage and perseverance, but truly creative people can never lose their drive to create, it’s innate, it’s part of who they are – something I always find hard to explain to pragmatists (“if it’s not paid well, why do it?”). Being an optimist, I continue to believe that genuinely inspired music will always find its listener. Technology can bring us closer together and help the musicians reach out to new audiences, while the digital footprint will help preserve IP.