Future Tense

What the Manic Market for Trading Technicolor Blockchain Cats May Tell Us About the Future of Art

The “cryptocollectibles” frenzy may be coming for fine art, music, film, and more.

A purple-and-orange striped CrytoKitty.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by CyptoKitties.

Late last year, a new game called CryptoKitties debuted on the Ethereum blockchain. Its premise was straightforward: Players could buy, sell, and breed digital cats to create new ones. This new generation of cats gets a novel combination of characteristics based on the genetic algorithms of its parents. Certain traits—such as how quickly they can breed, how cute their stripes are—make certain cats rarer or more desirable. The cats also, thanks to blockchain technology, have a clear, traceable record of ownership. But perhaps most importantly, the cats are “nonfungible.” That is to say, that unlike, say, gold bars or dollar bills, each CryptoKitty is unique and noninterchangeable. Prices are set at auction by the community, and Axiom Zen takes a percentage of each trade.

Despite the technological complexity underlying them, CryptoKitties themselves are so simple that it feels like a stretch to even call them a game. They’re more akin tocollectibles, like digital Beanie Babies, their most obvious and oft-cited physical analogue. This simplicity was intentional: Axiom Zen envisioned CryptoKitties as a kind of edutainment tool, a charming, gamified way to introduce the public to concepts that underlie blockchain. The company’s white paper—ahem, “White Pa-purr”—explains that the creators envisioned CryptoKitties as a corrective to the headline-grabbing stories about cryptocurrency’s volatile valuations and shady initial coin offerings.

But CryptoKitties came out in November of last year, just as the wave of cryptomania was cresting, a period that began when the price of bitcoin passed $10,000 and ended when Real Housewives started Instagramming about it. Instead of making blockchain seem more accessible, the digital cats got swept up in the manic speculative bubble. In less than a week, players had spent more than $3 million on CryptoKitties and individual cats were selling for more than $100,000. The game spread quickly and, at one point, was taking up 11 percent of all traffic on the Ethereum blockchain. As of writing, users have spent more than $23 million. One man, going by the pseudonym “Todd,” told the Verge that he’d made more money buying up CryptoKitties than he had from his individual retirement account. An early investor in both Ethereum and bitcoin, Todd said he thought of the cats as another alt-coin, albeit, he admitted, even riskier.

We might interpret CryptoKitties’ meteoric rise from technicolor collectible to speculative asset as just another manifestation of the investor insanity we’ve seen with the recent cryptocurrency bubble, akin to stocks that shot up merely because execs put “blockchain” in their company names. But I would argue that something more profound and fundamental is at work here. CryptoKitties show us how art built on the blockchain could become a store of value—a radically different way of obtaining and consuming digital content than many of us are used to. At the risk of mimicking the messianic tone of blockchain true believers, CryptoKitties might be the first hint of a coming revolution in how we value and view art on the internet, one that transforms pop culture products into financial instruments.

In explaining CryptoKitties to my friends and family, I got a lot of bewildered, blank looks. They’d all ask essentially the same question: Why? Why would anyone spend money on this? Couldn’t someone just take a screenshot? Who cares about owning something that’s digital?

It’s a question that gets at the heart of how most of us consume content online. Digital goods today are largely fungible, meaning that one good can be seamlessly replaced with another. A distributor can reproduce a digital song, image, or movie file millions of times at little marginal cost, and every one is identical, no matter how many people view it, stream it, or copy it. The idea of an “original” work of digital art in this environment becomes meaningless, and access trumps ownership.

This ease of distribution means artists can spread their work more rapidly than ever before. But it also comes at a cost. We end up with a glut of content (for example, the many millions of unplayed songs on Spotify) and a dearth of compensation (for example, the billions in alleged unpaid royalties for some of the songs that users have played on Spotify). Artists often have to go through layers of middlemen, who each take a cut, and often get paid per view, per stream, or per download—if they get paid at all. This model, on the whole, is hollowing out the artistic middle class, creating a world where bands can play Radio City but still not afford health insurance.

CryptoKitties hint at the ways blockchain, on its face, has the potential to change that. Artists and entrepreneurs are still experimenting with using it as a new form of distribution, but, so far, three main trends seem to be emerging. First, blockchain has the potential to facilitate the creation of true digital scarcity, as we saw with CryptoKitties and can see in the booming business of cryptocollectible CryptoPuppies, CryptoBunnies, CryptoPunks, CryptoBots, CryptoFighters, CryptoTulips (irony not lost), and more. Institutions can release limited quantities of a good and, with the help of blockchain, certify that said good is authentic. In this model, art on the internet adheres to the same rules of authenticity and rarity that it does offline, in which owning an original Van Gogh, for example, is more valuable both artistically—the brushstrokes! the colors!—and financially—the auction bidding wars! the status marking!—than a copy. (Though, of course, the question of what meaningful aesthetic difference—let alone monetary value—there is in owning an “original” digital artwork over its digtital copy remains.)

Second, artists and distributors are looking to blockchain technology to streamline payments and better track rights holders. As a distributed ledger, blockchain can store information and form the basis of a transparent system to track the rights holders of creations like music tracks. Using smart contracts, which can store information and enforce terms and transactions using code rather than middlemen, it can also automate royalties, seamlessly transferring payments from art consumer to artist. Considering that—in addition to paying artists an average of a mere $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream—Spotify recently settled a multimillion-dollar suit in which execs claimed the company had failed to pay rights holders for songs because it didn’t know whom to pay, it’s unsurprising that some artists might consider hopping onto the blockchain train. Already, companies like the music rights database Muse are setting up blockchain-powered streaming services that store copyright and licensing information and automate royalty payments to artists, record labels, and publishers. The company claims that artists who register their music with a Muse smart contract will be instantly paid for streams on the forthcoming platform, Peertracks, via Muse dollars (the company’s internal cryptocurrency), which can then be redeemed for U.S. dollars.

Third, some are also looking into creating coins with value tied to a specific artist or work. We’ll see one strategy of this in action with Muse, which, in addition to providing licensing and streaming services, will also allow artists to issue limited-edition tokens that allow listeners to “invest” in new artists and for those artists, in turn, to raise funds. Fans can then trade those tokens for higher prices as the artist becomes more popular, a process that has been likened to buying up the baseball cards for a promising rookie. Similarly, in the fine-art world, the online selling platform Artlery plans to allow artists to issue initial public offerings for new works via an art-backed currency on the blockchain, allowing patrons to essentially buy a stake in a piece of artwork, which can then accumulate interest or be sold for a profit if the work takes off.

Boosters like Imogen Heap and others argue that these blockchain ecosystems will alter art and its distribution for the better, fostering fan connection and community. But the primary reasoning for adopting these technologies is not to bolster community. It’s to make money. For artists distributing art on the blockchain, there’s incentive for them to make art that’s nonfungible (though, again, how that works with digital art has yet to be determined), compatible with blockchain platforms, and IPO-friendly, since these qualities can make it more profitable on blockchain platforms.

As someone who has had, at times, made my living of art, I believe that artists should be compensated fairly and transparently for their labors. But I also think that we should be careful what we wish for. Just as technological changes in the past have shaped art in profound ways, blockchain, too, has the potential to create some distorted economic and creative incentives. Think of iTunes’ contribution to the decline of the album, or Spotify’s to the rise of the playlist. Or think of the difference between how networks structure shows for cable television versus how streaming platforms build and release them online. In the former, corporations make money by dishing up content in acts to compel viewers to stay through the commercials. In the latter, the platforms unload premium content to binge and curated suggestions to keep you hooked in a way that justifies your subscription price. The narrative differences between the two are stark enough to make the latter feel like a new artform. Form shapes content.

It’s not hard to imagine a blockchain-based model transforming fandom into a futures markets or, more cynically, a pyramid scheme. Right now, loving a track from a new band or an under-the-radar show usually doesn’t get you anything beyond, maybe, some cool points with your friends. But if you were to profit from that love, even in some small way, the way you engage would likely change. Perhaps it would change for the better—feeling slightly more invested in an artist because you literally might be, for example, or knowing that your favorite band is getting paid directly and better for that 37th stream of your track today. But one can also extrapolate a future in which human users or bots try to game the system, pumping and dumping pop culture like a penny stock, hustling to be microinfluencers, or mining our tastes for monetary gain. 

This potential future is still a long way off. Peertracks and Artlery aren’t set to launch until later this year, and we don’t know whether they or products like them will even take off. I’ll admit that, at the present, it feels difficult to presume that anyone would buy into a kind of futures market for bands, that people might value an “original” digital work over a copy. But it also seemed inconceivable that anyone would pay $100,000 to “experience ownership” of a digital cat. As with CryptoKitties, it’s possible that artistic work distributed on the blockchain will also become more valuable because of the bettors willing to buy in the hopes of reselling it at a profit—and that will become its primary value.

It’s a future we’ve already seen a glimpse of with fine art outside of the digital world, which has come to be seen as an asset class rather than a cultural artifact or a thing of beauty. It’s led to, among other perverse developments, the rise of “free ports”: special tax-exempt warehouses where ultra-wealthy investors stash rare and one-of-a-kind masterpieces, unseen by the eyes of even their owners, simply to accrue worth and delay taxation. Art becomes prized, above all, as a store of value, to the point that it is better to store it than to show it at all.

All of which brings us back to CryptoKitties. As the game expanded, so too did rumors that the governments might regulate the digital felines as a security. As of now, the cats have been spared. They are simply a collectible, safe from Chinese bans on cryptotrading or the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s oversight. But the fact that they were even close to being considered a security, the fact that it wasn’t totally absurd that they might be, is itself significant. It exposes the paradox at the core of blockchain’s entry into culture: that in an effort to monetize art, we might only value it as another alt-coin.