HitPiece, an NFT startup, pissed off hundreds of artists in a single day. Here’s what the artists did about it.
Over the past year or so, the mania for NFTs has reached such a fevered state that it can feel like every celebrity, digital artist, and musician has gone in on the crypto-based trend. Except sometimes it turns out that no one even asked them first.
On Tuesday, a cascade of musical artists logged on to the internet to discover that their songs had been “minted” as nonfungible tokens by a platform they’d never heard of called HitPiece. Among the first was a Seattle-based electronic artist named Jeremy Blake, who goes by the stage name Red Means Recording. “A member of my Discord community linked to ‘my page’” on HitPiece’s website, Blake told us over email. On that profile, 21 songs of Blake’s were listed for sale as tokens, with his track “Pataphysical” listed as the “Top NFT on Sale” from the artist. “I did not mint these,” he would later tweet. “I would never mint my work as an NFT, and this was done without my permission.”
What was HitPiece trying to do here? The basic pitch was that of a virtual marketplace where users could buy NFTs of songs. The site encouraged people to make “Hitlists” of their favorite songs and said that owning one of its NFTs could get you exclusive “access and experiences” with the artists. Its marketplace was, according to executives, built on Spotify’s publicly available API, giving it the ability to pull metadata from the streaming service’s database of artists and tracks. As technologist Andy Baio noted on Twitter, all the artists’ and albums’ names and images and descriptors on HitPiece’s site appeared exactly as they were formatted on Spotify.
The mastermind behind HitPiece appears to be a record label owner and tech entrepreneur named Rory Felton. In a January interview with a podcast called Business Builders, Felton says that he began pitching the idea of digital song collectibles to venture capitalists and labels around 2014. He eventually partnered with early Spotify investor Jeff Burningham in 2020 to found HitPiece and raised $5 million in a seed funding round. “It’s the mission of the company to help artists create $1 billion, and I think we can get there within a few years,” Felton said on the podcast. Music executive Michael Berrin, who used to perform as a rapper under the name MC Serch in the 1990s, also joined the project. (On Sunday, Berrin tweeted at rapper Meek Mill to “come to HitPiece.”) A beta version of the marketplace first went live in early December, around the same time that the company held a pool party for its launch at Art Basel in Miami Beach. According to LinkedIn, the company is based in Provo, Utah. (HitPiece and Felton did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Bidders on HitPiece didn’t need to own any cryptocurrency; a credit or debit card would do. Transactions occurred on a “sidechain” called HitChain, which is basically a smaller network that is compatible with and runs parallel to the larger Ethereum blockchain, where most NFTs exist. (Sidechains allow developers to adjust the mechanics of the ledger and avoid the traffic they might otherwise encounter on a bigger blockchain.) According to Felton’s Business Builders interview, the artists and rights holders are supposed to get royalties from the initial auction and subsequent transfers through their own HitPiece accounts, though it’s unclear how these musicians were supposed to have accounts if they weren’t even notified that their songs and likenesses were up for sale.
There are artists who’ve willingly worked with HitPiece. The music group JAGMAC did a virtual NFT drop event with HitPiece in late December, and still has a HitPiece link in its Twitter bio. The National Parks, a band from Utah, released exclusive NFTs on HitPiece earlier this month. Rappers like Busta Rhymes, Styles P, and Noreaga appeared at the Art Basel party. However, it doesn’t appear as though the vast majority of artists with NFTs on HitPiece actually approved them, based on denials from both the affected artists and their companies. Disney told the New York Post that “it has no relationship with HitPiece,” for one thing.
Like Blake, musician Tre Watson was surprised to find their songs on the HitPiece website. Watson, who specializes in covers of songs from video games and anime, heard about the site from a couple of friends and decided to check it out. Once Watson found the page with their music, they tagged HitPiece on Twitter accusing the company of stealing artists’ work. HitPiece asked to take the conversation into the DMs.
DM us. We are afraid you may have the wrong information.
— HitPiece – Music NFTs (@joinhitpiece)
Watson sent a message, but never got a response. Even if HitPiece had asked for Watson’s permission beforehand, they say they likely wouldn’t have wanted to be part of such a marketplace. “My personal stance on NFTs is that they honestly cheapen the value of art,” they said. “Adding a middle man kind of just ruins the idea of art being an intimate experience between the artist and the observer.” Watson estimates that they’ve heard from more than 70 contacts in the music industry who’ve had similar experiences with HitPiece.
Nat Puff, the indie-pop artist who performs as Left at London, was actually able to contact the people behind HitPiece. She first found out that her music was on the site when two of her fans notified her. Puff initially thought that she was being trolled, because she had spent the previous weeks criticizing NFTs on social media. “There is 0 percent chance that NFTs for artists do anything but get artists involved in crypto, which is meant to legitimize crypto,” she said. As more musicians began posting about their own headaches with HitPiece, she realized she wasn’t alone. After Puff proceeded to call out Berrin, also known as MC Serch, on Twitter and threatened to get lawyers involved, he privately messaged her to say that her music was being taken down.
The artists we spoke to were skeptical that NFTs could actually change the industry for the better, even if a blockchain company did its due diligence in getting consent from musicians beforehand. “NFTs are not the best way to support artists,” Jeremy Blake wrote. “NFTs exist to enrich cryptocurrency speculators. If you want to support artists, buy their music directly from a website like Bandcamp.” Left at London agreed, referring to the entire concept of crypto as a “scam.” “Because there’s less regulation in the market, there’s more room for bullshit like this to happen,” she told us. “I get the temptation to want to move into a different market so you can make a little more money, but this is not the fucking way to do it.”
This content was originally published here.