The world’s largest music company has created a band of four virtual apes.
If that sentence makes you question your sanity, or the state of Western civilization, you’re not alone. Universal Music Group NV combines two hot digital concepts you’ve probably read about in the past year: non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the metaverse. Thanks to the appreciation of cryptocurrencies and some very famous boosters, like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, they have gone from esoteric to ubiquitous in just a few months.
And while the NFT boom has often felt like it involved a bunch of people who made too much money buying cryptocurrency, big corporations are trying to figure out how to leverage both NFTs and the metaverse to their advantage. Facebook, which has changed its name to Meta Platforms Inc., is the most prominent example, embracing the concept of an interconnected virtual world.
Universal Music, home to top-selling musicians like Drake and Taylor Swift, is working with collector Jimmy McNelis to turn four of his NFTs into a band called Kingship. Kingship consists of four digital characters, three bored apes and one mutant ape, all part of an NFT collection known as the Bored Ape Yacht Club. The club is one of the most successful NFT stories of the past year; he gave anyone who bought one of the apes full commercial rights to use the image.
10:22PM, one of Universal’s labels, has hired a team of crypto artists and animators to turn two-dimensional apes into three-dimensional beings. The company will record music for Kingship which it releases on streaming services. The “band” will perform and participate in video games, virtual reality applications, and the entire constellation of digital experiences known as the metaverse. “You can call it an NFT band, or think of them as characters,” Celine Joshua, director of 10:22, said in an interview this week. “The characters will come to life. The apes will come to life.”
Joshua and his team are going to create the stories for these characters from scratch. They will put together a marketing campaign to introduce the apes to potential fans, explain how they met, and describe who they are. “It’s like the way we introduce new artists to the world,” he said.
Joshua is the type of executive who tries to get ahead of the next big financial opportunity. For the past few years, that has been social media (or Web 2.0 in tech jargon). He has tried to turn social media personalities Lele Pons and Chantel Jeffries into musicians and oversees much of the label’s relationship with social platforms like YouTube.
As technophiles rally around the idea of Web 3.0, a decentralized internet, Joshua jumped into the world of NFTs. This is how he met McNelis, one of the main collectors. McNelis acquired hundreds of ape NFTs from Yuga Labs LLC, the creator of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, and has a collection that he estimates is worth more than $100 million. He was one of the first buyers of Ethereum, a cryptocurrency.
Joshua pitched him the idea of creating a new group and he chose four characters that he thought would work as a band. That includes a golden ape, another of which just sold at Sotheby’s for $3.4 million. Kingship’s golden ape is valued at around $190,000 at current prices, according to bid data from OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace.
“We’re still trying to figure out exactly what it is,” McNelis said. “I’d like to see Kingship be one of the main ways the mainstream introduces itself to NFTs in the metaverse.”
While Joshua has a novel idea, an NFT gang, a virtual gang is unprecedented. In 1998, musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett created a virtual quartet called the Gorillaz. Albarn did the music, and Hewlett designed four animated characters that appeared in music videos and occasional interviews or live performances. Albarn also gave interviews on behalf of the group and performed alongside musical collaborators.
What is different this time is how Kingship will earn money and interact with fans. Joshua plans to sell Kingship’s NFTs, giving buyers access to exclusive music experiences and real-world events. Think of it like a virtual world fan club.
Fans have always been willing to shell out big bucks for items related to their favorite bands, whether it’s a T-shirt, a ticket, or an old guitar. What’s different now is that people are paying more and more for those collectibles, whether it’s trading cards, shoes, or NFTs.
Many of the big NFT sales have felt like empty cash grabs: opportunists seizing the moment to sell a virtual good that isn’t all that special. “There are going to be a lot of tourists in space who drop out,” said Joe Conyers III, a former music executive who now works on NFT at Crypto.com.
True believers say that NFTs offer buyers something real: a bit of ownership in the artists they like or access to special experiences. NFTs also speak to the blurred lines between our tangible and virtual worlds. Facebook’s name change to Meta could be just another corporate rebranding like Google becoming Alphabet Inc. But the company is right that people are living more online and have embraced virtual experiences like concerts in video games and virtual goods like avatars. .
The challenge for Kingship will be the same as all gangs face: the art has to be good.