NFT's D.I.Y. Problem
Interview with Zora's 'Head of Culture' Michail Stangl by Joshua Glazer & Chris Monaco
To most of the Internet, Russian-born Berliner Michail Stangl is known as the man with the microphone enthusiastically introducing the acts on Boiler Room broadcasts from around the world—from Shanghai to South Africa. But the multi-hyphenated music professional has spent most of his life working behind the scenes, helping to elevate entities like the highly-experimental CTM Festival and the notoriously riotous Leisure System parties from local faves to international sensations.
With such a forward thinking CV, we weren’t surprised to find Michail working with open-source NFT platform Zora. And he was happy to go beyond the current state of hype surrounding the technology and offer a much more ambitious view of what is possible.
The Cadence: How did you find yourself at Zora?
Michail Stangl: With the majority of my professional life relying on live shows, 2020 was obviously very disruptive. I was actually preparing to step away from my Boiler Room duties and spend the year touring as a DJ for the first time.
So during COVID-19, I began researching the possibilities for artists. We were taught for decades that it's not the music that matters, it’s the secondary income—it’s the merchandise, the tickets, all the other stuff. And all of a sudden you don't have that. And most musicians began realized the reality between having a fraction of a cent and a cent. The ten-fold increase of income that you don't have because Spotify will not give you that increase.
Immediately, 10 new things popped up and all of a sudden artists found themselves not having to navigate two tools, but five or seven, of which half of them were completely new and without much strategy for most artists to learn or apply.
So I was doing research and thinking, how do we rebuild what obviously was a toxic relationship with the platforms that surrounded us? Ultimately, of course, I looked at what was happening in blockchain because you have very interesting sociopolitical promise, which is renegotiating the power relationships that are inherent to data.
Can you elaborate on that a little?
When we talk about the internet, we talk about the hierarchy of data. We talk about the power relationships that hierarchy forms. Obviously, those are completely flawed because ultimately they are all skewed towards the platforms that took ownership of all the relationships that we have with each other—with creators, with music, with everything. Everything was completely aimed towards whatever benefits them because they designed those systems 15 years ago.
So I looked back at blockchain because that sociopolitical promise always interested me, but it never really manifested because for many years it has been basically the playground of a bunch of white dudes in gaming chairs circle jerking each other off over Disney dollars, you know? It’s really limited to the lift realities of the 1% of the 1% in a very small part of the planet, which is usually Silicon Valley. And that is not representative of the social realities and the kind of societal constructs and relationships that we have for the rest of the world.
So it was not that interesting, but as a curator, any technology that benefits social political realities is potentially interesting for me. NFT had been on my radar because of crypto kitties and crypto punks and so forth. But this was media art experimentation for me, rather than a real, tangible solution. But checking in on that, I saw things happening. You see digital art, which traditionally doesn't get monetized outside of institutionalized kind of media art circles, all of a sudden there is an audiences for that—and apparently money.
But the moment I looked into that, it just looked like shops with crypto buzzwords. That's not really what I was imagining. Then I came across Zora.
How was it different?
Their first experiment that probably most people saw was the thing they did with RAC, where they helped him tokenize physical goods and kind of claim ownership of this whole market. One of the biggest issues that electronic music lovers have is an LP goes out of sale and goes straight to Discogs for 10x the price. And I saw the experiment to tokenize physical goods as a way that the artists could own the secondary market.
And the language that Zora uses resonated deeply with me. I'm coming from a little bit more leftist background, anything that has the word manifesto attached to it, you know, triggers me.
So I wrote them on Twitter and I asked them, “Is this legit?” Or is this yet another technologist attempt to co-opt radical language to sell a woker business model? Because we've seen that plenty as well.
For the last 10 years, we’ve lived in a state of uncanniness, seeing how technology that was supposed to amplify and enable us made everything slip out of control. That goes from the way discourse on the internet is structured nowadays to the second coming of fascism.
You’ve seen a breakdown of a lot of traditional businesses that were built around small communities that would build circular economies—like fanzines, for example. But because of that power relationship that I spoke about earlier, they died a slow and horrible death.
Addressing that uncanniness, that is what I read in the manifesto.
Talk to Michail LIVE on the next Cadence Clubhouse (Thur., Mar. 25 @ 10:30am PST)
How does that idealism square with what we’ve seen in the past few weeks in terms of the NFT hype in the art and music worlds?
You know, no matter what technology, no matter what marketplace, no matter what music genre, there always that freak accident when something completely absurd get blown out of proportion because it speaks to certain interest in mainstream media, mainstream markets or people with money. We should not dismiss everything else because, “Weird thing sells for X amount of dollars,” is the easiest headline.
If you look below that, there's so many more interesting things happening.
One has to consider the fact that we've been living in such a state of awareness that things are not okay. This asymmetry of power. Audiences and musicians at large are aware that we need alternative propositions that are not exclusively built on convenience, but maybe a built on something that is more principled—and principled usually means empowering the artists.
I think a really good binary in that is Spotify versus Bandcamp. Spotify is incredibly convenient. I've been using Spotify since 2007, but nonetheless, it's inherently dystopian. And then you have Bandcamp, which has an awful user interface. But over $700 million has been made through Bandcamp, which means there's a huge audiences that is willing to go a principal route, even if it's inconvenient. So that's a really good starting point.
What about the implication that what’s happening with NFTs right now is being driven by the masters of the universe behind crypto and blockchain, and using it as a marketing platform to drive awareness.
You have to make multiple distinctions here. First of all, cryptocurrencies are only one application of blockchain technology. You can use blockchain technology for tracking music rights or shipping papers, security or digital art.
The thing that I find so exciting is we’re at a point where scalable platforms are democratically accessible in a way that they were not 15 years ago. If you wanted to build something 20 years ago you had to have access to the bandwidth, to the servers, to the engineering acumen. Now you have tools that allow you to build really interesting, scalable, exciting things in a way that that was not possible, which means that you can design it in ways that most of the money people would have not thought of. If you want to build something based around solidarity, then you can put that into the smart contract. If you want to build something that is only based around non-monetary interaction, you can do that as well. Yes, historically, most people choose money, but you don't have to if you don't want to.
It is ultimately like 10 or 20 lines of code, but those 10 or 20 lines of code have been made part of the business model by a lot of platforms, which means they do not fulfill any of the promise that blockchain technology really offers.
We decided to take those 10 lines of code and make them part of open source protocol because we're of the opinion that artists should have all the tools to make those decisions themselves and not be part of the business model of a platform that at some point will flip a switch from enabling to extracting. That is a much harder story to tell because it does not imply, “Animated space cat sold for $600,000!”
So how do you describe your role with Zora?
I'm a mixture between head of culture, curator, minister of propaganda (obviously). Basically, what I do is talk to a lot of artists just to understand where artists are right now and what they hope to achieve from this and how we could accommodate that as we're building out a technology.
So I talk to a lot of artists big and, particularly, small. There's a lot of people who describe Zora as punk. It's not punk. It's just that we really care about the kids that you usually don't get through the door because they don't look like money.
Yet you mentioned curation.
There’s a book by Michael Bhaskar called Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess. It's just a very informed way of structuring things. Having an informed understanding of what's possible and how to interpret that.
All of my work over the last 10-plus years has been always informed by building platforms for artists that don't really have access to what are usually Euro-centric, US-centric media marketplace and audiences.
Outside of all the cynicism, that was what Boiler Room ultimately tried to achieve. To provide infrastructural access to broadcasting to amplify music communities that don't have access to what is usually this Berlin, London, New York electronic music discussion. To provide them with a tool with which they can claim space.
That's why Zora is designed in a way that Zora.co is just one interpretation of how you can look at this protocol. It’s open source because we want a thousand interpretations. Certain artists might want something completely different.
Zora is, as of last week, ultimately open, Anyone can open up an account. You also have to understand, we started eight weeks ago. We’re just operating in a space where a week feels like a year and a month feels like a decade.
Talk to Michail LIVE on the next Cadence Clubhouse (Thur., Mar.25 @ 10:30am PST)
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