Imagine a future wherein a decentralized artist drops music through a community-governed record label co-owned by thousands of members that collaborate on said artists’ songs. From there, they might vote on the next single — its beats and hooks, its release date, and its marketing plan — and start the process over again with a built-in base of invested superfans supporting the cause.
That future is now.
Outside splashy NFT drops from the likes of Snoop Dogg, The Chainsmokers and Diplo, omgkirby is one of Web3’s most popular music acts — a faceless project run by a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) that quietly launched in 2020 and currently has more than 1.2 million monthly listeners on Spotify and 22.1 million on-demand official U.S. streams, according to Luminate. In the first week of June, omgkirby had the top two music NFT collections in the world, based on secondary sales according to OpenSea, the internet’s largest NFT marketplace. In total, omgkirby has already generated more than 293 ETH, which was worth around $330,000 at press time after the value of Ethereum fell dramatically earlier this month. (119 ETH had gone to the DAO, as of June 9; the rest was split amongst omgkirby’s creator, the team, and online sales platform Notables.)
Even though omgkirby has come to epitomize what a Web3 music project can be, it wasn’t born from any futurist ideology. Its creator — an under-the-radar musician with a background in tech, who’s asked Billboard to use they/them pronouns to maintain their anonymity — launched the project simply as a way to connect with other people feeling isolated early in the pandemic. They didn’t want to hear pop bangers from Top 40 stars or songs about epic romances; they wanted comforting, lo-fi tracks for lonely days. So they started covering famous songs and remixing them, slowing them down and adding reverb.
As Web3 began to emerge as a trendy topic of conversation last year, omgkirby’s creator paid close attention. They soon realized that they could better capture a feeling of togetherness by making omgkirby a collaborative entity. That’s why they don’t want to share identifying details: “As we build a DAO and a community and those holders themselves begin to embody omgkirby, it’s important that there isn’t a singular figure representing the project,” the creator tells Billboard over the phone from Los Angeles. “There are people of all ages, genders, and identities that are now a part of this community.”
The first “drop” in mid-March was a batch of 3,000 automatically generated lo-fi songs set to the same BPM and key in the form of NFTs — the omgkirby Genesis collection, inspired by other popular generative visual art NFT collections, except with music. Generative art is common in the realm of profile-picture (PFP) NFTs — collections like Bored Ape Yacht Club or Crypto Punks are created by algorithms that randomly put design traits together for unique avatars — but, the omgkirby founder says, “I hadn’t seen anyone build beautiful tracks using generative technology.”
Buying the NFTs grants membership to the omgkirby DAO, as well as ownership of the recording’s stems and master and publishing rights. The collection sold out in minutes. One buyer, wallyPDF, uploaded two omgkirby tracks to Spotify — without even altering them — and they both ended up on the platform’s popular “lofi beats” playlist; together, they now have more than a million Spotify streams. Venture capitalist firm Castle Island Ventures turned their stems into intro and outro music for their On the Brink crypto-focused podcast. According to omgkirby’s creator, Jaden Smith also purchased an NFT that he’s now Frankensteining to create something new. “We didn’t want to make music that would sound generic,” the creator says. “We wanted to make music that could stand up on its own and be as successful as a song that is fully created by a human being.”
While the Genesis collection showed that omgkirby could reach an audience, the DAO those NFTs helped create would manifest the next stage in the project. The original song “don’t let me down,” released in May, was the first test in this music-by-committee process. The DAO’s core team had the community submit sounds and samples that they wanted to record over a Twitch stream, then the beat was created live with the DAO providing feedback in real time. Next, they sent out an instrumental version of the track and held a songwriting contest, asking community members to come up with verses, choruses, and top lines to that beat. (Singer-songwriter Sad Alex ultimately won.) “Then we made five different versions of that track with different arrangements and instrumentation to make sure we were putting out the best version of it,” omgkirby’s creator says. “For the members who were really engaging with it, we offered them a tokenized version of the song via airdrop.”
The song itself is owned by the DAO, which means that all the streaming and synch royalties of the track — and eventually an album — will go into the treasury to fund its future projects. The goal was to plant a seed for a sort of “community-driven record label,” omgkirby’s creator explains. Ultimately, they plan to create an “artist fund” to support members with dreams of other decentralized artists that could live within omgkirby’s universe: “People will have the opportunity to build proposals and get the DAO to decide if they want to vote for and support those artists.” They plan on giving grants — whether they be for touring, buying equipment, recording music, filming music videos, or what have you — to active members that want to pursue music themselves.
The concept has been compelling enough to drive another sold-out drop earlier this month, this time of 5,000 generative profile-picture NFTs (more like those Apes and Punks) that also grant access to the DAO and offer priority access to new projects. Excitement around this release was enough to push both omgkirby collections to the top of OpenSea’s music sales ranking.
Last Saturday, kicking off NFT.NYC conference going on this week in New York at a party hosted by the Deadheads NFT collection, omgkirby premiered their first live performance with a custom mask similar to Deadmau5‘s. omgkirby is currently working on another generative collection, but this time they’re collaborating with acclaimed genre-bending artist Channel Tres. Those 5,550 songs are scheduled to drop at the end of June or early July and the project’s creator says that despite recent downturns in the crypto market, they don’t feel the need to push back the release. “We need to be more dynamic now with this drop than ever,” they say. “This is the time that people now are looking for real value, so I think projects like us will be celebrated more.”
This time around, omgkirby’s creator says they changed the formula significantly. Not everything will be in the same BPM or key with “new attributes around song structure” that can alter those aspects. “The drum traits are still the same drum traits,” he explains. “They just now exist in a different area of musicality. With this collection, you’re going to be able to buy one track that sounds like upbeat house and another one that sounds like slowed-down hip-hop with a spacey Travis Scott beat.”
Looking ahead, the omgkirby team wants to collaborate with “the biggest musicians in the world — the Billie Eilishs and Justin Biebers,” its creator says, adding that they hope to do so while remaining true to their independent beginnings. Allegedly, labels have reached out with pitches to partner, still to no avail: “We’re blazing our own trail.”
When asked if their team worries at all about the possibility of a dystopian future — one wherein record labels could similarly use machines to churn out prefab songs like they’re hot dogs — omgkirby’s creator seems unconcerned. They don’t fret over an algorithmic approach cheapening the artform and human aspect of music. “I think the day that AI can fully remove any of the human involvement in these tracks, that AI probably has significantly greater implications in terms of the fear of what it can create across other areas,” they say. “So many aspects of the internet and the art that we consume are already a unique blend of human and machine. Advancements in sounds and music production have always been pushed in many ways by different forms of electronic instrumentation and techniques.” They insist they’re committed to finding balance while innovating, even if they upset “some purists” along the way.
omgkirby’s creator also recognizes why many in the mainstream remain wary of the Web3 space they exist within, and claim to have once been skeptical themselves. “I understand why the public asks, ‘What is this? Is this all just vaporware or people trading jpegs?,’” they say. “But Web3 tools have huge implications if engaged the right way… This is not a merchandise cash grab. We’re pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a musical artist, and what it means to create and own music. It’s actually quite disruptive.”