NFTs swept the world in 2021, with much of the content looking deeply bogus. Duncan Greive meets a group trying to build something very different.
When I speak to Tim Harper, CEO of Glorious, a creative NFT studio and marketplace, he confesses something which would ordinarily disqualify him from running any other business in any other sector. “A year ago, I didn’t even know what an NFT was.”
I interviewed him on March 17, so I think he’s speaking generally, rather than literally, because it was March 12, 2021 when Christie’s sold a compile of digital artist Beeple’s ‘Everydays’ series for a nice US$69m, and catapulted the term NFT from the fringes of the crypto discourse to a level of interest and scrutiny that saw it named Collins dictionary’s word of the year for 2021. Trading volumes on OpenSea, an NFT marketplace, reached US$14bn for the year, up from just over $21m in 2020. In January alone, they breached $5bn, despite parts of the market starting to crater.
Acolytes have a messianic fervour about them, viewing NFTs as not just as digital art but a new form of community. Their detractors are equally passionate, viewing the whole sector as a vast pyramid scheme. As a result, NFTs have become a Rorschach test onto which we project our fears, furies and dreams, arousing passions and absolutist declarations which make it very difficult to hold any kind of centre. Yet that open space in the normie middle is where Glorious is building out its business.
NFT stands for non-fungible token, essentially a proof of ownership written onto a blockchain which defines ownership and ownership rights according to the terms of a smart contract written into its code. The Beeple sale can be viewed as a starting gun which set off a race into the area, with other key moments including the rise of the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC, a combination of new luxury brand and virtual country club) and NBA Top Shot (digital trading cards) also playing key roles in mainstreaming the movement.
Beneath the surface, though, was a seemingly endless surge of janky schemes known colloquially as “rug pulls”, which looked to recreate the astounding success of BAYC but only served to make the whole field seem entirely doomed. This was particularly acute given the sector’s tight association with crypto, which already had spent a decade acquiring a reputation for volatility, speculation, hacks, utopian dreams and environmental nightmares.
Glorious launched right in the middle of all that chaos.
Start with the elites
I first heard about Glorious in August of last year, just prior to the delta lockdown. A former music industry colleague had started there as head of marketing, and forwarded me a pre-launch deck which promised “a collaboration with the world’s finest artists, musicians, athletes and rights holders to present authentic, digital masterpieces through our curated NFT marketplace, bringing creators and fans closer together”.
The founders, read a certain way, could look like just another group keen to cash in on this bubble. They included Ex-All Black and serial entrepreneur Dan Carter, Sky TV co-founder Craig Heatley and former solicitor general Mike Heron. A group without many obvious ties, in the middle of a global get-rich-quick frenzy.
Yet the luxurious design and deliberately slow pace of rollout seemed to steer away from this impression. Their first works were released last month, and avoided the prevailing winds of NFT culture. The stereotypical NFT project features 10,000 variations on fairly basic cartoonish images with a vague yet messianic white paper published alongside promising to own the metaverse, on terms highly favourable to those who created it, TBD for everyone else. Harper doesn’t see that continuing. “This sort of junky speculative nonsense that sort of pervades the marketplace, they’ll just all die and disappear.”
Glorious instead went to the estate of the painter Rita Angus and collaborated with it on a digital version of her masterpiece Cass, creating a new digital edition of 12. They worked with her jazz composer great-nephew Quentin Angus to create a score for the NFT. It sold out in seconds to those who had purchased Glorious founding memberships – priced at over $3,000, just to get the chance to spend more – and will be followed by a similar treatment for Gordon Walters’ Maho in early April.
An edition of nine. One of our most famous paintings. A member’s club. A new jazz standard. Elitist much? “We’re starting off in that place,” Harper told me when he joined me on my podcast The Fold. This is a deliberate decision that serves multiple functions, including helping to strongly differentiate Glorious from the wild west of much of the OpenSea market.
Regardless of what drives the positioning of Glorious at the toppiest of the top of the market, some will find it distasteful to create new luxury products out of binary code and serve it only to the very wealthy. Yet vast swathes of what people of means do with their money looks vulgar according to that test – and there is a long game behind these early releases. By collaborating with known and iconic artists and paintings, Glorious is helping reassure the market that they’re here for the long haul. And it says to other future collaborators that they will take their work seriously, on the basis that if it’s good enough for Rita Angus, it’s probably good enough for you.
Get the artists on board
It helps, in some respects, that Angus is long dead and thus has a very finite quantity of work in the world. The family is incentivised to find new revenue streams which maintain her legacy (and the value of their inherited IP), while the buyer can rest easy that this can only happen once, controlling supply. It also allows Glorious to prove its fine art credentials at the very top, opening the door to acclaimed living artists. And it’s that group for whom Harper and Glorious see the most powerful use case for their vision for NFTs.
“Lisa Reihana was one of the first people we went and saw,” he says, “and is probably the best example I can give.” Reihana often works in video, a form harder to sell than the more easily displayed and commoditised paintings on canvas or smaller scale sculpture, and harder to authenticate. “If Lisa’s trying to sell a work to us, she has to sell the hard drive to get installed in your home, plugged into a TV and we just have to assume that there are only a certain number.”
Glorious’s vision is to have her works authenticated on the blockchain, with the “original” easily distinguished from visually identical copies which might exist. This gets around the varying financial rewards for forms of modern digital art, allowing those who create in less physically tangible mediums to potentially get similar returns to those working in more traditional forms.“For [Reihana], it’s a very easy notion and really it’s what she’s been waiting for in many ways,” says Harper. Reihana has come in thanks to gallerist James Blackie’s involvement in Glorious, and headlines an array of noted fine artists including Reuben Patterson, John Walsh and Heather Straka.
Along with Blackie’s involvement, what makes NFTs attractive to some artists is related to the secondary market. For as long as there have been auction houses, artists have looked askance at the prices their work fetches when on-sold by those who bought it cheaply in the early years. Smart contracts allow the artist to claim a specific amount of every future transaction.
“I know that for most of the artists it is a real bone of contention… Not only do they make a whole lot more of the first sale than they would if they were selling through a gallery, but on… every single sale for the rest of its life, 7% goes to the artist,” says Harper. “It’s just a game changer.” If it catches on, this could address some of the frustrations felt by content creators of all stripes in digital and physical realms, who have long seen the value of what they create largely captured by platforms or intermediaries.
The environmental side-effects
All that sounds nice for the artists, but one of the biggest knocks on NFTs, aside from the rampant scams, has been its close knit relationship with crypto, which means an unavoidable link to some highly carbon-intensive technology. Bitcoin mining uses more energy than Norway, and Ethereum, which is linked to Glorious through its technology partner Sylo and its underlying blockchain, uses a country-load too – though is at least trying to move to the far more environmentally sound proof-of-stake verification methodology.
Harper says its NFTs “live on the CENNZnet blockchain which… is a carbon-neutral Ethereum side chain that is optimised for NFTs and Metaverse applications.” Additionally, CENNZ has carbon-offsetting to create what it says is a carbon negative / climate positive outcome, a situation aided by the tiny numbers minted.
This will not be enough to prevent it from attracting critics. There are many who find the very idea of NFTs inherently confronting, the antithesis of the “culture wants to be free” philosophy of the early internet. Others see the creation of seemingly infinite new asset classes making a new world in which everyone is a multi-level marketer, looking to claim ownership of and ultimately on-sell that which used to be created for free and for fun. There is also that undeniable elitism of the early Glorious projects.
These are all perfectly valid positions, yet there are equally valid ripostes. “Culture wants to be free” worked out very well for platform owners who facilitated that free distribution, like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, yet very poorly for most of those who created that content, particularly artists and other culture creators. Everyone pushing culture they own does sound like hell – but allowing fans to invest in people and projects they love could democratise investing and allow it to spread to communities excluded from traditional markets.
The elitism tag is the shoe which currently fits best for Glorious. Harper acknowledges this, while also imagining something for the many, not just the few. “Ultimately, I want to make these as accessible to people as possible. What’s the $1,000 price point? What does an edition of 100 look like?”
He adds: “Will an artist will come along, and say ‘I actually want to do an edition of 100,000 of this and I want to give it away for free. Will you do that?’ And I’ll say ‘that fills my heart with joy. Absolutely we’ll do that’.” Which is to say that where Glorious has started is not, Harper says, where they will end up.
There are other clues about where they’re headed. Heron’s presence is adroit: all of this is unimagined by regulatory frameworks anywhere at this point – having a connected QC around helps that side get good advocacy when the laws do eventually get written. The presence of Carter as a founder is a nod to how relevant sports – as mass market a cultural form as they come – is to Glorious’s future. Harper talks about selling a try at Twickenham or a passing shot at Wimbledon, connections Carter would find easier to open up than anyone else on their roster.
More than all that, though, the best place to look for validation about their mass market intent is in Harper’s past. Along with Murray Thom, he co-created The Great New Zealand Songbook, a combination of hardcover book and double CD set which led to a series of projects in a similar vein. Within the music industry at the time it caused bemusement. What was this thing, at a fancy price-point, dressing up some over-familiar songs in new clothes and selling them to a new market? Yet it worked, selling phenomenal numbers and eventually spreading to food (the Great New Zealand Cookbook) and becoming an exportable format (the Great Australian Songbook – sense a theme?).
To many that project probably still seems over-elaborate and entirely unnecessary. To others it’s a treasured totem, prominent on a shelf. NFTs are likely to contain multitudes, and run the gamut from basic scams, to comical failures like New Zealand’s very own Pixelmon, to the sleek and pricey “authentic digital masterpieces” of Glorious. And while the whole category might appear strange or tainted to some, the growth in funds, in talent and in interest will ensure that when the smoke clears some real and very large businesses are left standing. Glorious is betting, thanks to their very specific approach, that it will be one of them.