For digital artists and musicians, the advent of NFTs represents an opportunity to earn money on their own terms – just ask Nelson photographer Kaleb Johnston.
If you’ve spent any time on Twitter or Instagram recently, you’ve probably seen Kaleb Johnston’s photos. My favourite is this one of May’s Super Flower Blood Moon, a detail of which is shown above. But he’s done so much more. Like this Stranger Things-esque shot of an enormous moon clipping pine trees and power lines. Or this image of the Cape Reinga lighthouse set against a neapolitan sky.
Johnston’s work has attracted an immense social media following. The Super Flower Blood Moon got 154,000 likes on Twitter alone. His success is also partly due to his earnestness: a 20-year old who lives on the outskirts of Nelson, Johnston habitually responds to hundreds of the comments he receives. He often feels compelled to post images of his camera set-up to convince internet trolls that his photos are real.
Sitting here alone staring at the stars, you feel isolated in your own world. A world stress free, with only the vast depth of space on your mind. Stargazing II is now available on @withFND ✨https://t.co/So46fQtdpf pic.twitter.com/Mwteka42Qs
— Kaleb (@KalebJohnstonNZ) July 12, 2021
At a technical level, however, that social media success is only possible because sharing content is costless. That has always been the tension for internet artists. The ease of sharing content online makes it possible for their work to go viral; that same ease makes it incredibly difficult for them to make money.
Until now. Johnston is part of a wave of online artists using a new technology called NFTs to finally monetise their virality.
Most NFT enthusiasts’ explanations are incomprehensible, so it’s fair if you’re not quite sure what they are. Basically, internet content has historically been interchangeable. If you had on your computer the original ‘Disaster Girl’ meme and a copy of that meme, they would be largely identical. NFTs – non-fungible tokens – allow you to use blockchain technology (the same system that powers Bitcoin) to attach an unalterable data tag to that original meme, or anything else.
There’s more to it than that (if you’re interested, check out this great Spinoff explainer), but basically the NFT data tag allows you to make internet content unique and claim ownership over it – creating scarcity, and a sellable product.
In fact, that’s what the actual ‘Disaster Girl’ did. Zoë Roth, now 21, made the original photo into an NFT and sold it for USD$473,000. Roth is one of multiple memes finally cashing in on their virality, alongside Bad Luck Brian, Overly Attached Girlfriend and Scumbag Steve.
But NFTs’ biggest impact has been on the art world. Earlier this year, the internet artist Beeple sold an NFT at Christie’s Auction House for $69 million (the joke seems too obvious not to be purposeful) – making it the third most-expensive work ever sold by a living artist. Thousands of other artists have followed suit, including a handful of New Zealanders – the most prominent of whom is Kaleb Johnston.
Johnston’s father is a share-trader and his brother is a cryptocurrency enthusiast. Inspired by them, he decided in late 2020 to invest in cryptocurrency and quickly profited. That success left him comfortable enough with crypto-discourse that when NFTs came along, he dove straight in. “A couple months after I got into crypto, the phrase ‘NFT’ started to pop up all over Twitter. I started asking some friends who were in the space some questions and how I’d get involved. Shortly after I minted my first piece on Foundation.”
Foundation is one of the biggest NFT marketplaces; upon listing that first piece, Johnston began an extraordinary run. He has already made approximately $20,000 worth of cryptocurrency from his work. It’s an extraordinary haul – especially for someone whose only formal photography training was NCEA Media Studies at Waimea College, Johnston’s local high school.
Despite that sparse background, his social media following and NFT sales have allowed him to do photography full-time. Johnston is understandably excited. “So far it’s been super successful. I’m a full-time photographer and finding consistent work within that scene is super hard. Having a side hustle within the NFT market is really awesome.”
Johnston’s not the only New Zealander to get involved in NFTs. Tristan Roake – part of the dubstep duo Truth – has also jumped in, releasing an audiovisual NFT to coincide with the release of their new album Acceptance. Roake, however, takes a more cynical view. He describes NFTs as a “bubble” going through a “meteoric rise”. “There’s a lot of speculation going on,” he says. “That is always going to crash down at some point.”
He may be right. While those who hold NFTs can claim ownership, that doesn’t stop anyone from sharing the NFT-tagged content. The “scarcity” is largely artificial. Those willing to spend thousands or millions to buy NFTs do so because they believe in that scarcity nevertheless. If they stopped, the whole scheme would collapse.
But that’s the same as pretty much anything on the internet. For now, NFTs could be about to change the game for online artists. It’s created a financial payoff for hype, as Johnston explains when I ask what advice he’d give to other New Zealand creatives looking to get on the NFT train. “The best advice is to get onto Twitter and engage within the community. It’s really important to be involved with all the other artists and collectors within the NFT scene. You may have awesome work, but if no one knows you exist your chances of selling work are obviously much lower.”
For now, Johnston still has high expectations for NFTs. He describes that viral image of May’s Super Flower Blood Moon as his “crown jewel”. The NFT is available right now. His asking price? $40,733.60. I won’t be surprised if he gets it.
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