NFTs are disrupting the music industry. But fans aren’t buying it.

In K-pop fandoms, it’s not uncommon to spend money on pieces of paper. These photocards — collectible cards that come packaged with albums or sold alone by companies or at events — can be resold for hundreds of dollars. Every day, fans take to Discord servers, private Facebook groups, and Twitter DMs to try and complete their collections. 

Of course, K-pop fans aren’t the only devotees who can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year on merchandise. Just ask the football fanatics who also drop hundreds of dollars on their favorite NFL team. But the pandemic has undoubtedly reshaped the way that fans engage with their fandom. For music fans, that meant paying for virtual concerts and leveling up their collecting game.

And these sales have never been more important to artists and their companies, who’ve turned to creating merchandise and streaming concerts to recoup their losses. In turn, fans showed up to spend money. 

With entertainment companies and celebrities around the world fully aware of how much their fans are willing to spend to represent their fandoms and support the media they love, it’s no surprise they’re now turning to NFTs as a new form of fandom merchandise. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are a piece of data stored on a digital ledger called the blockchain. This data can be anything from a video of a celebrity or a digital rendering of a cartoon lion to a snippet of audio. 

It’s basically an expensive receipt, a glorified proof of purchase.

NFTs, as with all forms of cryptocurrency, remain under fire because of the immense environmental impact they have due to the energy that each sale uses. Despite this, NFTs are being marketed by a wide range of celebrities, corporations, and companies as a way for fans to add to their collections. 

These digital artifacts are supposed to provide an exclusive experience of solo ownership, something that doesn’t exist in fandom spaces where thousands or even millions of people can have the same album, jersey, or saved photos on their phones. But here’s the thing: The digital asset you purchase isn’t actually unique on its own. Rather, the data stored on the blockchain tells the world that you own it, even if someone else has the same asset on a different part of the blockchain. It’s basically an expensive receipt, a glorified proof of purchase.

NFTs are also positioned as profitable to collectors, despite evidence that suggests that the boom itself is just a bubble.

Prior to the major push from celebrities and companies to bring their fandoms into NFTs, most of the notable coverage of NFTs has revolved around high-profile sales of digital art, not the average consumer buying digital merchandise.

“It certainly is interesting to see the proliferation of NFTs as consumer products,” Andy Fischer Wright, the author of the academic journal “Art Imitates Life, NFT Verifies Art, tells Mashable. 

In March 2021, digital artist Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple, sold an NFT of his work for roughly $69 million. “These sales in the style of high art created a public image of NFTs as investment commodities that could only appreciate, like a Picasso authenticated by a bunch of math instead of a museum curator,” Wright says. “In contrast to this image, there is also a huge and growing market of NFTs marketed at ‘regular’ folks.”

Beyond that, popular music stars are also getting into the cryptocurrency trend. Lil Nas X announced an NFT collaboration with TikTok before it was reportedly scrapped, and Megan Thee Stallion continues to promote cryptocurrency to her fanbase. Quentin Tarantino previously promised to sell off seven Pulp Fiction scenes, alongside bonus content like scripts and audio commentary, as NFTs before Miramax threatened a litigation to stop him, and even young adult authors like Adam Silvera and Nicola Yoon have expressed interest in creating a collective around NFTs. Their swiftly shelved Realms of Ruin project turned them into the main characters of the day on Book Twitter

Now, with Logan Paul, Naomi Osaka, Grimes, and other celebrities getting into the NFT game, people are starting to look at how NFTs are being positioned to impact fandom spaces. That especially applies to the always-innovative K-pop industry, where South Korea’s biggest entertainment companies — HYBE, SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment — have announced plans to move steadfastly into the NFT space. 

It makes sense. Fans are willing to shell out big bucks for exclusive merch and experiences, like the incredibly expensive Star Wars hotel that’s already sold out for four months even though it doesn’t open until 2022. So of course fandoms are seen as viable markets for NFTs. 

“There are two ways that I have seen companies marketing these products to fan consumers: as a purchasable authentic connection, and as a way of accruing capital (both cultural and financial),” Wright says. He points to one of the longest-running blockchain-based collectible objects: NBA Top Shots. “Each Top Shot Moment is at its base level a highlight clip from a basketball game, which is in turn licensed to a company that sells a set number of copies that are each uniquely verified via the computational horsepower of the blockchain.” 

“Owning a Moment that features your favorite player or your favorite team is marketed as a form of fandom,” he adds. “By buying a Moment, a consumer connects to a historic moment for their team or the sport they love, raises their prestige in the fan community, and purchases a product that can be resold or traded on the Top Shot Marketplace.

Earlier in November, HYBE, home to global superstars BTS and Tomorrow X Together, announced that they would be connecting with fintech company Dunamu to produce “irreplaceable digital assets” during a recent briefing. “I believe that the fandom culture and industry itself are maturing to the level where HYBE’s artist IP-based content and products are now at a sufficient stage to be transformed into digital assets through these technologies,” Dunamu chairman Song Chi Hyung told the audience.

Those “IP-based content and products” Song is referring to are digital versions of things that HYBE artists already create, such as photocards and behind-the-scenes content. 

Dunamu chairman Song Chi Hyung explains the advantages of NFTs for fans during HYBE’s briefing with the community.
Credit: YouTube/HYBE LABELS

It’s no surprise that the announcement was met with a mix of confusion and frustration from fans. Not only are the environmental concerns surrounding NFTs troubling, especially following BTS’s climate crisis speech at the United Nations in September, but the introduction of NFTs as merch radically impacts the fandom’s existing collector culture. For fans, the question now becomes: What will happen to the physical merchandise we already buy, make, and share?

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for HYBE said, “Just as online concerts work to complement offline ones and enhance each respective experience, through our NFT business we plan to gradually expand digitized products and services while maintaining our existing offline products and services. By utilizing both mediums, we aim to provide fans with more immersive and diverse experiences.”

However, that only addresses a relatively minor concern about this joint venture. One of the biggest worries that people have with NFTs involves their immense environmental impact. Right now, the sale of just one NFT can consume as much energy as a single household uses in a year. The most-used cryptocurrency blockchain, Ethereum, relies on an “energy-intensive” process called mining that requires special computers, or miners, to solve cryptographic puzzles in order to confirm the transaction. There are thousands of NFT sales projected every single day, the majority using Ethereum for payment. 

As a result, BTS’s massive, global fanbase has been trending hashtags to show their displeasure with the venture.

“Dunamu, our partner, has been actively pursuing solutions to engage in an eco-friendly operation of the NFT business,” HYBE said. “Dunamu has committed itself to seeking out and reviewing a wide range of technical methods and policies to uphold a high standard of eco-friendly practices.”

One eco-friendly alternative that Dunamu and other fandom-focused NFT projects may be looking at? Solana, a blockchain platform that claims to be more “environmentally friendly” than others. Yet, more environmentally friendly doesn’t mean zero emissions when you consider how much energy it takes to process a single transaction. 

What problem are they trying to solve by introducing their customers to the world of cryptocurrency and NFTs? As far as I can tell there exists no such problem to warrant this.

And that still doesn’t address the biggest issue: companies aren’t valuing fans, but are exploiting them as walking wallets. It feels, to some fans, as if fandom spaces are being further commodified, with a focus on getting fans to spend money on building their collections or paying for experiences at the risk of committing detrimental environmental harm and being scammed.

“What problem are they trying to solve by introducing their customers to the world of cryptocurrency and NFTs? As far as I can tell there exists no such problem to warrant this,” K, a BTS fan artist who uses a pseudonym to protect their anonymity, tells Mashable. “The answer is purely revenue raising… I’m sure getting into the NFT and cryptocurrency game will make them more money from fans than they will ever need.” 

“What I want to ask is: Are they willing to take a hit to their credibility as a result?” K adds. 

BTS fan outside of Seoul pop-up shop

A fan looks at a brochure of merchandise while standing in line outside a BTS pop-up store in Seoul in October 2019.
Credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

For HYBE, a company that has proudly positioned itself as an authentic alternative to the music industry machine, one that values its artists and the issues they care about, says K — it’s a question they’ll need to answer. 

K isn’t alone in their frustration. With many of these NFT announcements, what almost instantly follows is a quick and loud rejection from fans. After Japanese rockstar Miyavi — known for his devotion to social justice issues and a recent campaign for Gucci’s sustainable collection “Off The Grid — announced his upcoming NFT line, fans on social media have been pleading for the artist to rethink his decision. When Steve Aoki recently announced that he’d be teaming up with fantasy series The Untamed to release official NFT products, the backlash was swift.

While it may seem hard to believe, fandoms have power. Fans have used their influence and their wallets to create conversations around important issues like antiblackness and to donate to mental health initiatives for queer youth. They’ve also been influential enough to urge Hollywood recastings for more effective representation.

Fans are now utilizing that power to speak out against NFTs — something that may threaten the future of fandom (and the planet) as they see it. 

“It’s difficult to imagine an entirely sustainable fandom that relies upon modern networked technologies to communicate, or that buys mass-produced plastic figurines, or whose members fly to conventions,” Wright notes. “Does minting an NFT require more consumption of finite natural resources than editing and uploading a fanvid? Right now, usually yes and sometimes by several orders of magnitude. Will it always be this way? I am not entirely certain, but new forms of capitalism are not known for prioritizing the environment.”

So what could a sustainable fandom look like? According to Wright, “A sustainable fandom is a well-informed fandom.”  

A sustainable fandom is a well-informed fandom.

A sustainable fandom could be one where fans educate themselves and others about the best possible ways to have their experiences and memorabilia, while also being aware of its environmental impact. Fans can use their voices to speak out against NFT projects and platforms — the way that Discord users recently got the company to back down on adding NFTs and cryptocurrency wallets to the platform. 

“The potential of fandom lies in fans being critical prosumers,” says Dr. Areum Jeong, an assistant   professor of humanities at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute. “Even now, while digital media and technology facilitates collective experiences, the power of technology shifts to the fandom, as fandom’s fervor and mobilization motivate digital media and technology to develop more cutting-edge resources and services. NFTs or not, fandom has the potential to constantly re-evaluate their activities and modify them for their own happiness and the larger community.”

A sustainable fandom should be one that uses its buying power as leverage to get companies and celebrities to do more — more research, more active work on sustainable merchandise, more ethical production, and more education on what the world will look like as this climate crisis continues. 

Fandom can do a lot to show companies and artists what really matters to them: having a real future where we can engage in fandom together. Right now, that’s only possible if we address the ongoing climate crisis, rather than taking part in a form of digital activity that threatens to make things significantly worse for the environment. 

Just ask yourself: How much will your collection be worth then?

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