The music industry is designed to take beautiful, ineffable art and nail it to an extremely affable content delivery system for exploitation and monetization. Hitpiece took that remit to a logical, immoral, and criminal extreme using the latest hip technology.
The site, reportedly run by crypto entrepreneur Rory Felton and hip hop producer and businessman MC Serch, offered a vast catalog of music NFTs, available for auction. Everyone from K-pop band BTS to Brian Eno was represented.
Unfortunately, none of this music was licensed. Horrified artists like rock act Eve6 navigated to Hitpiece on Tuesday evening to see their music being sold without their permission, and apparently without royalties. Hip hop noise band clipping summed up the reaction succinctly: “F*** this scam s**t.”
Artists, labels, and phalanxes of lawyers quickly deluged the site with legal threats, and it almost immediately went down. Hitpiece did not immediately reply to a request for comment, but they posted a response of sorts on their Twitter account, saying that they had “struck a nerve” and insisting (contrary to all the available evidence) that “artists get paid when digital goods are sold on Hitpiece.” They also promised to listen to “user feedback,” which presumably means that they are busy reading all the letters from lawyers explaining to them that their business model is illegal.
— HitPiece – Music NFTs (@joinhitpiece) February 2, 2022
The fury from artists is understandable; no one wants to get ripped off. More than that, though, many artists feel, with justice, that they are getting ripped off all the time. The music industry is extremely exploitive and has been at least since record labels systematically undercounted artist royalties in the early and mid 20th century.
Some artists have singled out NFTs as a scam in general. “NFTs’ are fraud,” as Eve6 succinctly put it. Or, in the more considered language of NFT law expert, Moish E. Peltz speaking to the LA Times, “Anyone thinking of buying an NFT should keep in mind that this is a new and speculative market with many unknown risks–including the risk of a 100 percent loss.”
In particular, NFTs have been a locus for visual copyright infringement, as speculators and entrepreneurs mint images without much regard for whether someone else owns the rights.
Jordan Reyes, a musician, and owner of the wonderful American Dreams Records had many of his label’s releases pilfered by Hitpiece. But he doesn’t think NFTs themselves are the problem. He collects some NBA NFTs himself, and he pointed out that monetized piracy like this precedes the NFT boom.
“It was just hijacking work for profit,” he told me. “Which isn’t new to artists, and even this permutation has happened before on sites like Bandcamp where a ‘net label’ will download someone’s work and reupload it elsewhere with different artwork and titles to profit off of it.” Reyes said he even knew of an instance in which a label had put out a tape by a band, only to discover that the group had simply downloaded the music from someone else.
Hitpiece is different from schemes like this not so much in kind as in scale. It appears to have scraped entire online music catalogs like Spotify and turned each song into an expensive luxury biddable token.
It’s especially galling to see music files priced for tens or hundreds of dollars with no payment to artists because the streaming services that Hitpiece appears to have robbed take their legal, above-board licenses, and pay artists in pennies.
Or, less than pennies. Musicians get somewhere between .003 to a halfpenny per stream typically. Musicians rights groups have been fighting tooth and nail to get Spotify to increase rates to a full penny per stream. Thanks to the focus on curated lists and algorithmic recommendations which favor the most popular artists, musicians need hundreds of millions of streams to make a reasonable income.
During the pandemic, as live music opportunities and income dried up, many artists looked at their royalty statements—and bare refrigerator shelves—with despair. Meanwhile, Spotify has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on podcasts. That includes $100 million to podcasterJoe Rogan, who has spread covid disinformation, prompting artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to pull their music from the platform in protest.
Platforms like Bandcamp provide much more income for artists (though they don’t pay songwriting royalties on their live streaming samples.) But Bandcamp doesn’t have the size and pull that Spotify does; the platform is vital for building audiences and getting listeners. Spotify has a lot of power, which is why it’s able to pay artists so little.
“The relationship between art and commerce is a tense and tricky one and our economic system just isn’t set up to compensate certain kinds of labor,” Austin singer-songwriter Mobley (whose music was on Hitpiece) told me. “Care work, child-rearing, emotional labor, artistic production (that isn’t purely commercial); all of this work is ultimately vital to society’s function and massively profitable for the capital owners who depend on it.” We want artists to make art. But instead of paying them to do it, our society funnels money to the already wealthy.
Hitpiece’s model is not legal. Spotify’s is. Both cash in on the value of artists while paying them little or nothing. It’s good that Hitpiece is gone, hopefully for good. But even without this particular scam, artists will continue to struggle to get paid for their labor.
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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.