The Beatles on the Blockchain: How Music History and NFTs Intersect in the Digital Universe
On February 7, six non-fungible tokens (NFTs) minted from various pieces in Julian Lennon’s personal Beatles Memorabilia collection sold for a combined $158,720. The NFTs were auctioned through Julien’s Auctions and their NFT partner YellowHeart. The collection included (among other items) Paul McCartney’s handwritten notes for “Hey Jude,” John Lennon’s Afghan Coat from the Magical Mystery Tour, and a 1959 Gibson guitar. While the physical pieces will remain in Julian’s possession, buyers will get an accompanying audio clip sharing a personal memory from Julian, and “share in the exclusivity of Lennon history as the sole owner of the NFT.” This high-profile project came less than three months after the release of the three-part Beatles documentary series on Disney+ and adds to the contemporary spell of Beatle Mania and the link between music legacy and the digital world.
But as real-life mementos are digitized and pop culture is memorialized through buying assets on a blockchain, our perception of value and ownership continues to change. When art can be sold without its physical counterpart, the control people have to leverage their assets is heightened, especially when fans are willing to pay.
In 2021, NFT sales reached nearly $25 billion, compared to merely $340 million in 2020. The staggering jump highlights the volatility of online markets, and the exploding popularity surrounding digital pairing on the now 379 NFT platforms where users can sell digital goods. Digital pairing takes a physical good and creates a digital twin of it that has provable authenticity by the owner. NFTs continue to be a polarizing topic across the internet, and some have come to equate their value to that of a jpeg, while others praise their scarcity and uniqueness.
The Lennon NFTs were sold through YellowHeart, an NFT marketplace and blockchain collectibles network that uses Ethereum and Polygon integrations to store NFTs. Compared to the Ethereum proof-of-work algorithm that is incredibly energy hungry, Polygon employs a proof-of-stake consensus algorithm to validate its transactions with less environmental side effects. A portion of the proceeds of the sale are also being donated to Julian’s White Feather Foundation, which is active in issues relating to education and environment, to offset carbon through using the blockchain based marketplace Nori, which works with “farmers across the United States to adapt regenerative practices that increase carbon removal and sequestration.”
While the future sustainability of NFTs is a contested topic, the digital art and collectibles market value is nearing that of the global art trade, which was valued at 50 billion US dollars in 2020. The NFT and crypto frenzy has permeated this industry and tokenized pieces of art traditionally bought and sold in galleries or physical auctions. In discussing his choice to enter the digital market, Julian explained how he “actually felt very bad about keeping all that stuff locked away, and I just felt that this was a unique way to continue dad’s legacy and to show people the collections I have, and with the videos and narration, to give people a little more than they would normally get and hear some stories that they haven’t heard before in a new art form and a different medium.” He says they will tie into his projects rolling out later in the year, including a new album.
While the precedents for music memorabilia are rapidly changing, it has typically been considered controversial when celebrities or popular franchises enter the market, especially when outside companies use them to memorialize and profit off artists. When the toy company Funko released card packs and a painting by the renowned late painter Bob Ross, fans were quick to point out the blatant capitalization of his legacy, and disregard for his love of the environment in using Ethereum.
Even though the arcane realms of digital currency are expanding, the tolerance for profiting off others is not. Compared to physical art auctions, companies are able to hold on to memorabilia and sell a digitized version of it, while profiting off of consumers caught in the craze of online ownership and authentication. The value of these goods is purely dependent on how much someone wants to own this online version. The pride that comes from financing an artist and claiming a relationship with their creation has driven the sale of NFTs and the migration of more fervent artists to join the space.
Jonathan Zittrain, a law and Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, explains how the NFT craze makes us question “why we treasure things beyond any tangible worth to us—and the leap of faith we indulge, wisely or otherwise, when we buy something not because of any innate worth to us but because we expect others to value it later.” Julian Lennon's collection may indeed hold sentimental value to a devoted fan, or be handed off to another buyer in the future.
But as we move into the future evolution of the internet, the value of NFTs will continue to fluctuate as users determine their want and/or need for a digital good. While the NFT and crypto bubble grows through the herd behavior propagated by social media and pop culture influences, the real-life use for these items remains questioned. Their longevity and survival are dependent on users adapting to this new technology and believing in the practicality of online collectibles. The Lennon NFT collection illuminates how the memorialization of pop culture, sustainability, and increase in digital art embody the current wave of NFTs, and the creation of a ‘metaverse’ where a virtual Beatles museum may soon become the norm.