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Plastician’s guide to Web3, and re-writing the rule book for artists online

Upstart tech like blockchain has been dominating discourse around the music industry's next steps and has become one of the most divisive trends of the past 12 months. Declan McGlynn speaks to Plastician about why he believes it's the future for independent labels, promoters and artists 

Plastician is a name synonymous with grime, dubstep and bass pressure in all its forms. He built his sound and rep as a host on the early days of Rinse, and went on to be a regular at iconic club night FWD>>, becoming one of a selection of DJs and producers who pioneered the dubstep sound, as it emerged from UK garage. 

As an artist, he’s worked with Skepta, Skream and Benga, and started his own label, Terrorhythm, now in its 20th year. During the pandemic, he took to Twitch, not to DJ but to host beat reactions, quizzes around genres, and to engage the audience and community. “I want to engage a bit more with my viewers,” he told Pitchfork at the time, “and people who use Twitch are used to being in the chat.” Earlier this year, he crowdfunded a vinyl release of his 2008 album 'Beg to Differ', reaching the $5,925 needed in just two hours. Never one to take himself too seriously, he also spent part of the pandemic writing a book of Dad Jokes, samples of which litter his Twitter feed, to collective groans and laughing emojis in equal measure. 

Building and incubating community, then, has been a trend of Plastician's career across his time as a host at Rinse, resident at FWD>>, streamer on Twitch and boss at Terrorhythm. It's that same drive for connection that's led him to explore the tech behind one of the most talked-about — and divisive — trends of the past 12 months: NFTs. 

Rather than hyping a collection of cartoon apes, Plastician — real name Chris Reed — has been exploring how artists, labels and the wider electronic music community can benefit from the upstart tech, be it for artist royalties, event tickets, label splits or building community. If you’re not up to speed on the blockchain, NFTs, Web3 and its various implications, read our piece ‘What are NFTs and why should electronic music care?’ from March 2021. 

Reed’s experiments saw him team up with Friends with Benefits — a creative community based on Web3 principles, owned by its members and self-styled as ‘when crypto meets culture’. The members-only community (you have to own a certain number of $FWB tokens and apply to join) was profiled by Resident Advisor last year. With Plastician co-chairing the London arm of Friends with Benefits, we thought it was a good time to speak to someone with two decades of experience in electronic music about how the blockchain can really benefit artists. Looking beyond the NFT hype, we ask: how does he see the Web3 fanfare playing out? 

"Artists could get paid instantly and in real-time for plays"

You’re not new to this whole space, right? When did you first get interested in the blockchain?  
“I came into the crypto space around 2016. I got interested in reading about Bitcoin as most people probably were around that time, and I dipped my toes in, buying a bit of Bitcoin and Ethereum and followed the tech side of things. I was reading up on what these tokens were, why they existed beyond just being a currency. Once I figured that out, I was thinking: ‘What do they support, what’s being built, what kind of businesses are in this space?’

“My first introduction to NFTs was around the end of 2017. A friend of mine told me about this project called CryptoKitties where you could mate little characters and they mint a baby one, and you could sell that. People were collecting them and trying to breed them to get a rare one. It was kind of like a game you could make money from if you could flip any of the things you minted. I found that interesting but I didn’t have much success with it. 

“Then we had the big crash in 2017 and it scared a lot of people off crypto. Web3 concepts started popping back up for me around the end of 2019 — I started looking into decentralised finance. I really started to dig deep and learned about all the different protocols and got back in touch with a lot of people I was speaking to in 2017 when I was trying to build a blockchain music distribution service. But with the crash, that scared a lot of people off, so a lot of the wheels that were in motion ground to a halt.

“I’ve been active in the community again, really, since the beginning of 2020, and recently it’s become a part of my day-to-day work getting involved with the Friends with Benefits DAO.” 

Tell us more about the blockchain music distribution company.
“As a musician and someone who runs a label, the problems that I see with distribution for artists especially; you’re waiting six-to-twelve months for your paycheque [from a label]. I run an independent label and I’m an artist myself, I’m not the greatest when it comes to the accounting side — no one wants to sit working on spreadsheets, you’d rather be DJing or making some music, right? So, we realised we could create a lot of these deals inside a smart contract. [A smart contract is a digital agreement that is minted to the blockchain and automatically executes once certain conditions are met]. 

“For example, if I wanted to release on your label, you’d set up a smart contract that says ‘I take 50%, you take 50%, this is my [crypto] wallet, this the label’s wallet’, any money that comes through goes to the distribution platform and they automatically split the payments, so there’s no need to raise an invoice, the money comes in every month instead of every six months. It cut out a lot of paperwork at the time. 

“A friend of mine suggested we do it on the blockchain because it could mean we could advance the payment every time someone got a single play on Spotify. So artists could get paid instantly and in real-time for plays. It’s a bit more nuanced than that, as labels don’t get paid instantly from streaming companies, but these are things I think the blockchain will alleviate over time. We had fleshed out the idea, and what parts of the industry it might fix, but then the crash happened and no one would come near it. A lot of the people we were talking to lost their jobs, so we just put it on hold.” 

What are the main benefits for artists and labels in adopting blockchain technology, beyond royalties and accounting? If you had to explain it to an independent label that wasn’t particularly interested in crypto trading, how would you sell it? 
“Artist royalties are obviously one that a lot of people are talking about. But for event ticketing, it’s interesting too — I met a guy yesterday who started an app called Kickback. How it works is: people RSVP to an event and you pitch forward say £10 worth of token. If people go, they get the money back. For people that don’t go, the money goes into a pot and gets shared among the people who did turn up. I thought that was a really interesting use case.

“Ticketing generally: touting is a big problem. If an artist like Ed Sheeran sells out Wembley Stadium, you’ve got touts selling them online for six times the face value, but the artist doesn’t see any of the kickback from the extra profit. If you sold tickets as an NFT, you wouldn’t be able to duplicate them because they’d be verifiable on the chain. They can’t be copied, they can’t be faked, and if someone wanted to sell it on, a percentage of that — up to 100% — would go back to the promoter of the artist, if they wanted. It could stop touting altogether ’cause people could only get their money back, they couldn’t profit from the ticket. I think that’s a really obvious use case. 

“Then there’s NFTs — collectable versions of artists’ albums and EPs. People like collecting things, a lot of people buy cassettes of certain releases and they don’t have cassette players, and they’re just on the shelf. People will be showing off their collections on their Facebook profiles — we’re already seeing that on Twitter. Once it’s verifiable and you can’t just put someone else’s NFT in your profile picture, it’s going to become such a normal thing. Labels will be able to sell digital merchandise for the metaverse. People might hang out in the metaverse in the future. And they might want to wear a band or label t-shirt that their character can wear. We’ll be buying digital trainers, digital hoodies, there are so many ways this is going to affect artists and labels in the future.”

"We’re not saying that people will stop doing things the old way, but some people will adapt and it will co-exist"

When you speak to your peers who are artists, what’s the consensus around NFTs and blockchain? Are you seeing a lot of kickback or are artists and labels intrigued? What’s the response? 
“It’s a real mixture — you either get real excitement or enlightenment when you spell out some of the things that might be possible. A lot of them are only seeing these gifs that are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars and it’s just about getting people’s brains ticking on it. We’re all creative people by nature and I think once people realise what’s possible inside an NFT, or by building an app on the blockchain, [they get excited].

“A good way to explain it to people who come from a record background is Discogs. People will catalogue their collections on there, for what? They want to show people what they own. But no one knows they own that stuff for real. They get a kick of having a digitised version of their collection. If you charged £5 for your EP on Bandcamp and also minted 200 NFT versions that get you the same files, looks the same, but you get a digital version that lives in a crypto wallet, some people would rather have that, and might even pay a little extra for it. I’m probably one of those people. We’re not saying that people will stop doing things the old way, but some people will adapt and it will co-exist. There’s no great rush to it, some people will adopt it quicker than others.” 

Obviously, major labels and huge artists can afford to fund the experiments that we’ve seen so far. When you’re talking about more independent scenes, labels and artists, what would be some of the utilities they could use to get on board with quickly?
“Here’s a good example: I work in a DAO, which is a decentralised autonomous organisation, called Friends with Benefits. Friends with Benefits started as a token that was minted and given out to a bunch of people who were friends with Trevor [McFreddries] who created it. You could then verify that you had it in your wallet to access a Discord server, which is kind of like a cross between a web forum and a WhatsApp group. Something small artists could do that have a little following or a crew around them is tokenise a Discord channel, let people claim some free tokens, [and] create a community and a vibe about what you’re doing. 

“You could post things like behind the scenes footage of you in the studio, or early access to tickets, or a limited edition version of an EP that’s only available to people in the Discord. You’re cooking new utility in the token, making people invest in what you’re doing. You can give the token away in the beginning, when people realise the value of it, they will pay for it. That’s what happened with Friends with Benefits: enough people spoke about it that people were intrigued, and then it was about keeping the community vibe strong enough. But for artists, everyone's gonna come in with some common ground, be it a genre of music, a record label or an artist. The value is already there, you just gotta find the community.

“If I started a Plastician token, for example, and I made a million of them but held 100,000 for myself... If that token became worth £1 on the market, that’s a hundred grand in my bank that I can use to fund my next album or take a year off and tour. Straight away the community has given me access to funds I didn’t have to raise myself, or get a loan, or sell a bunch of my royalties to a label. This could empower artists, give them their own revenue stream and empower their community and followers too. Because if they got in early enough, and you work hard and do a great job of putting out great music, more and more people are interested in joining your community, the token price goes up, and everyone benefits from that. 

“That’s the beauty of it really, it incentivises supporting musicians, which is something I think the music industry has suffered from a lot since we’ve moved into the streaming era. The value of music has almost disappeared to the point that people feel entitled to it for free — and why would they pay for it if they can get it for free? This way, you’re not technically paying for it, but if you support me as an artist because you like what I do by buying and holding this token, it’s going to allow me more time to do music. The problem with the streaming model, most of us as musicians spend like 5% of our time working on music and the other 95% is engaging with social media, getting content on Instagram, filming promos, writing a blog, promoting an event. If the community rallies around what you’re doing and it allows you to get on with the creative side, everyone’s gonna benefit. It’s similar to Bandcamp — the kind of people who buy your music on Bandcamp [as opposed to other platforms] will happily pitch in and help out, and they want to support you.” 

What advice would you give to someone who’s reading this and wants to get involved or start their own community? 
“I find a lot of my information on YouTube — if you hear of a crypto project that sounds cool, YouTube’s a great place to find out how it works and what it’s all about. The more you understand how things work, what they do, what’s the point of the token, what use does it have, why do people need to buy it, the more you start to wonder: what could I do? What would my token do? How would that look? Do some reading up on some electronic artist's NFT drops and what they did. Start following some of these accounts and subscribing to Disclosure, 3LAU, RAC, Richie Hawtin... these guys have been in the space for quite a long time, they’re doing interesting things, they understand it. Obviously, I’m going to mention Friends with Benefits as well. We have a local tier membership now, where you hold a token to access a community of people who know about these things, so it’s a really good place to go if you’re curious. There are a lot of musicians, developers, investors. Look into what DAOs are and how they work, and if it seems interesting to you then I’d definitely recommend getting involved.”

Want more? Read the first part of our AI Futures series on how artificial intelligence will change music, the second part on how artificial intelligence will shape music production, and the third part on how artificial intelligence is infiltrating the DJ booth