‘How Can Information Be Free but Expensive?’: Holly Herndon on Web 3, Art and the Future of IP

Artists Herndon, Mat Dryhurst and Dan Keller discuss where they see Web 3 taking culture, why weirdos thrive in a Web 3 world, and what makes Berlin a nexus for art and technology.

Mar 7, 2022 at 3:08 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 7, 2022 at 9:59 p.m. UTC
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David Z. Morris is CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, Solana, and small amounts of other crypto assets.

February’s ETHDenver convention was a celebration of a very specific strain of crypto-culture.

Just as much floorspace was devoted to an augmented reality sculpture garden as to sponsor tables. Just as much stage time was given to discussion of public goods funding as cryptography. Ethereum is correctly seen as a culture of weirdos and do-gooders, and ETHDenver was a showcase for the weirdest and do-goodiest of them all.

Few represent that nexus better than Holly Herndon, Mat Dryhurst and Dan Keller. The three traveled to ETHDenver from their shared home base in Berlin, which rarely gets credit for its thriving community at the intersection of crypto, art and politics. Herndon may be best known as a musician – I’ve been a fan since 2015’s “Platform,” an elegant but unnerving slice of drum-and-bass and vocal manipulations released on the legendary 4AD label.

Dryhurst, Herndon’s partner, is both a multimedia artist, a music industry veteran and a lecturer on music at New York University’s Berlin campus. Herndon and Dryhurst co-host “Interdependence,” a podcast about technology and culture. Keller is a longtime fine artist and co-founder of New Models, an online art and philosophy community.

Their creative accomplishments aren’t the main reason I sat down to interview the trio, though. They have also worked for decades pushing forward the technology and business side of creativity, with a particular focus on building infrastructure to support independent artists. Now, they see blockchain and Web 3, particularly DAO-like communities and NFT-gated content, as one of the most promising avenues for indie artists. And they were way, way ahead of the curve: One of the best tracks on “Platform,” an album that’s now seven years old, is titled simply “DAO.”

Read more: What Is a DAO?

Keller is helping develop a non-fungible token-based content platform called Channel. Looking even further ahead, Herndon and Dryhurst are working to develop systems to track the provenance of remixed intellectual property using blockchains. We discussed where they see Web 3 taking culture, why weirdos thrive in a Web 3 world, and what makes Berlin so cool. Their ideas are exciting, radical – and best of all, optimistic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CoinDesk: I’d love to start by just talking about what you’ve done in crypto and blockchain, and what you find promising about the technology.

Holly Herndon: We all have multiple projects spinning at any one time. I’m working on something called Holly Plus, though it’s not out yet. We see machine learning models getting really sophisticated over the next few years. So you’ll be able to make models of my speaking voice, my singing voice, my physical likeness.

Holly Plus is a proof of concept for that. We started out with a rough model of my voice [as a filter] and made it free for anyone to use in any way that they want. They don’t have to ask permission. But a cohort of people made submissions of their creations to our NFT gallery, and we’re auctioning those off to raise funds to do the next season. The idea is eventually to release a naturalistic version of the voice.

Essentially, we’re interested in this concept of IP, not as intellectual property, but as identity play. I think there will be a place where people will want to perform through one another. Fans will want to perform through the bands and musicians that they follow.

And there are interesting ways to do that, to have things registered on-chain and find a way for some of that money to flow back to the creators themselves and the people who are providing the models … You can have approved versions, and say, “I sanction this one.” But if someone wants to do something gnarly with the [Holly Plus] voice and I don’t approve, you can see that I haven’t approved that.

We’re taking a bet that NFTs have changed the way that people deal with IP. This idea that the more something spreads, the more valuable it is – that’s a very different paradigm from Web 2.0. Like with NounsDAO – to open up the IP, even to pay people to create derivative work, makes the original work more valuable.

The narrative in the technology press is focused on the risk around deepfakes and simulation. Can you talk about why you find it interesting artistically to have yourself copied and not approach it with this anxiety of imitation?

Holly: I’m a computer musician first and foremost, and I started using my voice as a way to make the laptop a more embodied performance. I didn’t see myself as a singer – I was like, what if I use my voice as a data input, as a control? What can I do with my voice to make it live in this electronic landscape that I’m creating?

So you had a less precious relationship with your voice from the start.

Holly: I mean it’s still precious, I love it. But my idea of what’s natural or what isn’t may be slightly different. I became obsessed with vocal processing. I was thinking, what are the physical limits of my voice, and how can I use technology to go beyond those physical limitations? I can use freeze functions to never have to breathe. I can use transposers to hit registers I never could physically.

For me, a machine learning model of my voice is an extension of that. That model never has to breathe. It has perfect pitch. It can sing in Hindi with a perfect accent. I can’t do that. So for me, it’s still my one-of-one voice. But I’ve always seen technology as something that lets me do something beyond my immediate physical limitations.

Mat Dryhurst: And beyond that, you know, we’ve devoted ourselves to this. Holly wrote her dissertation on intellectual property and machine learning voice models. So [blockchain] wasn’t a matter of fitting a square peg in a round hole. It just happens that establishing provenance, letting people permissionlessly interact with media but have some protections there for the artist – these tools are really useful, genuinely useful for this “deepfake problem.” It’s like, no, this is kind of an opportunity.

That lines up with a really notable thing about ETHDenver this year: The actual applications for this technology are starting to come into focus.

Mat: Totally. We’re quite close to the grind: In crypto, we know the developers working on these protocols. In the machine learning space, we’re very close to machine learning engineers. So when we’re making decisions about this stuff, we can tell you with some certainty, this is coming now. Because we’ve seen the research-level stuff, and it’s coming.

I don’t know when it’s happening, but it’s happening, and everyone’s going to have to deal with it. So why not approach it as an opportunity? We know that people will probably really enjoy using [this technology], because it’s really remarkable. So how do you make it not suck?

Holly: Because it could go in a direction that would really suck for the creators, and we’re trying to mitigate that.

Mat: We came up with the term “spawning” as opposed to sampling. You can sample a David Bowie line and you can pitch it up or you can pitch it down. That’s not the same thing as you being able to sing anything you want as David Bowie.

Holly: It’s like, if a sample is dead, a spawn is a reanimated corpse or something.

Mat: A sample is like “Weekend at Bernie’s” – you can position it to look alive. But spawns have a life of their own. We premiered tech at Sonar last year where I sang as Holly, and it’s very convincing. In five years it will be incredibly convincing.

Holly: I want to go to karaoke and I want to sing as Beyoncé. And I want to be able to do a Beyoncé-Michael Jackson hybrid. Or a duet. It’s just going to get weird.

Mat: And as fun as it is going to be, there will also be business opportunities there. The amazing thing about crypto, which we tried to figure out for a long time, is how can you make something free for everyone to use, but also have value exchanged?

Holly: How can information be free, but also expensive?

We have a shared background in punk culture, experimental noise music, and DIY art and performance spaces. And now we’re part of this extremely weird tech that is becoming suddenly mainstream. What’s the connection between fringe culture and this (until recently) fringe technology?

Mat: We talk about this a lot. From maybe 2014 to 2016, in scenes we were familiar with, there were factions that were splitting off to think about cultural infrastructure. And that happened to dovetail really heavily with the conversation that was happening in Ethereum.

I think Vitalik [Buterin, creator of the Ethereum blockchain] spoke in New York in 2015 or so, and for people in our scene, Ethereum became a discussion point. That’s when we started making art with DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) in mind. What if you could have transnational co-ops that everyone had ownership in? It became a very progressive set of ideas.

And since then, people like Jesse Walden, who comes from a music management background, he’s a big crypto VC now. The Friends with Benefits founding crew are almost exclusively from music subcultures. Trevor [McFredries] used to DJ [including for Katy Perry – ed.]. Alex Zhang at FWB comes from a strange DIY space background.

When I look at the mainstage here at ETHDenver, it’s about half people who are really deep in Ethereum, and there’s a significant share of people coming to prominence from this [art] community. People who were our friends from art circles, are up on the main stage discussing governance and DAOs, and thinking about public goods.

Holly: And they started thinking about governance outside of crypto, in artist’s collectives, at monasteries in Italy.

Dan Keller: This is the first year or two where I feel like wordcels and shape rotators can actually work together. If we were at this conference a couple of years ago, we would be talking about transactions per second, and we’re actually at a point where people are actually building stuff with it. It’s very exciting.

You’re all based in Berlin, along with a lot of other people at that intersection of art and blockchain. What is it about Berlin that creates that crossover?

Holly: I think every city has its own crypto scene and vibe, and the Berlin vibe is definitely the art and crypto intersection. Thoughtful crypto, you might call it. I think one of the backgrounds is Germany’s really big focus on privacy. Cryptography, in its original sense, is a really big thing there. (Edward) Snowden is a hero. You have a lot of privacy journalists, activists. And so a lot of the interest we had was coming from that direction.

Dan: Before crypto was a thing, Berlin was a center of the post-internet art scene. So there were just a lot of people thinking about these things.

Mat: Also, a lot of people don’t know that the Ethereum genesis block was published in Kreutzberg (a district in Berlin). Berlin should know that – the city of Berlin should really do more. “Web 3” was coined in Berlin by Gavin Wood (one of Ethereum’s founders). Gnosis was founded in Berlin by Martin Koppelmann. There was a phenomenon in 2017 of crypto raves, the first one was in Berlin.

As people who are on both sides, doing the creative thing and engaged in the technology and business of art, how do you balance those?

Holly: Those things have always been intertwined. There’s this idealized 20th-century myth of the artist somehow being removed from the economy. And either they were wealthy enough to pay people to be these intermediaries, or they just weren’t highlighting that side of the story. That’s how you’re a self-sustaining, successful artist. You figure out the business side as well.

The difference with crypto is that it’s all very public, so the, I don’t know, romance around a lot of that stuff is gone. It’s a bit more honest. I think that’s jarring for people to see how much money someone is making, the money flow, but I think that has always been part of the story.

Mat: I can only speak for us, but it comes from a very progressive place, having an interest in this – giving people agency over the networks they use. Given it’s decentralized, you can’t take responsibility for decisions other people [working in crypto] are making. I don’t personally care about 95% of music, and it’s kind of the same with this.

Tell me about Channel.

Dan: We think of it as Web 3 Patreon for squads, by squads. Three communities – “Interdependence,” New Models and Joshua Citarella at [art publisher] Do Not Research – we all squadded up and created a single NFT that provides token-enabled access across all three.

That’s the minimum viable product, but the goal is to build a new institution. We thought there should be new systems where we’re not competing with our peers for the same audience. We’re going to build features for ourselves that we need for our own communities, generalize those into a product and eventually build it into a hyper-structured permissionless protocol. That’s the goal.

Holly: If you think about the Web 2 paradigm, it’s like, everyone can be a creator, everyone can do anything. And a lot of interesting stuff came out of that. But everyone became this individual little company that was competing with everyone else. We’re really interested in crewing up, creating channels, creating a la carte magazines.

On the consumer side, you don’t have 20 subscriptions you’re dealing with, it’s all in this one channel. And on the creator side, you can really crew up and support each other, collaborate on editorial and not cover the same stuff.

Mat: The reason we called the podcast “Interdependence” is that was the observation going back to our involvement in independent music. I worked in sort of “late” independent music infrastructure [as a staffer for London label Southern in the early 2000s], the last record labels that had the warehouses and sold directly to customers.

And Web 2 absorbed a lot of the independence narrative and all of the romance of independence culture that I associated with a previous time. It was all kind of reduced down to this idea of individuated actors outside of any institution, outside of a label. This was the promise of Spotify – you don’t need anyone anymore. That’s cool, but what we find out over time is that things collect at the top. The very top, who generally tend to be pretty in bed with older institutions.

Absolutely. It’s blockbuster-driven, it’s lowest-common-denominator driven. I guess one thing we’re discovering is that when there’s no friction, everything tends to concentrate toward one point. When there’s a little bit of friction – you have to make a choice, make a commitment, spend some money, get involved – then you get a lot more diversity, it feels like.

Mat: Totally. And that’s the opportunity now – experimenting with re-valuing culture in some way. We release records on 4AD, a very venerated independent institution. And you need those institutions, you need them to represent that. Otherwise, it’s cool that everyone can go on TikTok and try to make a jingle, but …

You need some curation. I’ve had to write so often about this deluge of PFP (profile picture) NFTs, you know, that’s not art. That’s not how art works. There’s a system, and it’s there for a reason. It’s not just about elitism.

Dan: And calling it art or not isn’t a value judgment, it’s just a comment about what system it’s participating in. Thinking about the social mechanism is interesting, even if it’s not visually interesting to me.

I mean, I intend it as a value judgment. My wife’s a painter near the beginning of her career, and she’s seen other people her age who sort of blew up very quickly. And in each case, I had to go, no, that’s a commercial artist. That’s different than what you’re doing, and the timescales are different.

Mat: And even for these things to be debated, I’m really concerned about canon disappearing, about discourse disappearing. You need that debate. Well-funded writers debating whether a PFP is art. In our career spans, that has eroded significantly in the music world and in the art world. And it has ended up relenting to more populist dynamics where it’s just, okay, let’s just be a commentary on the fashion system, or the influencer network, just slowly relenting to poptimism.

The point being, all these institutions need funding, all these middle entities. It’s become quite common in crypto to parrot the same kind of liberatory promises of a Web 2, where you’re borrowing again from the romance of the independence economy. It’s like, no, no, no. The opportunity here is to rebuild lots of different competing institutions. I don’t want there to be just one, and I don’t want everyone to be atomized. But we need these scenes and factions to be established again, and that’s absolutely happening.

Holly: I think that’s also why people are skeptical of the [crypto] space. We’ve had this massive techlash in the last two years. Everyone saw how Web 2 started out, with all this liberatory language. And then all the value kind of accumulated at the top, and I think people have been burned by that. It’s like, here we go again. You’re going to save me again.

There’s two sides to that though – there’s the liberatory language that gets used for Super Bowl commercials. But in practice it’s very exclusionary in a way that I think is not necessarily bad. I love to see all the people here at the conference, but I’m sure some of them just had their minds blown and others are just so intimidated that they’re not going to come back.

Holly: I don’t want people to be excluded for financial reasons, and that’s a real problem. There are technical barriers, and we do need more tools for on-boarding. But I do like when people have to spend time with a subject in order to be part of a community. We come from deep scenes, where you don’t just show up and say, “I know everything and I have an opinion on everything.” You learn who the scene elders are, you learn what conversations have happened, and you get up to speed.

And that’s what’s been so shocking about this whole NFT thing. So many of the criticisms that have come out, it’s like, that conversation happened three years ago. Check it out, we’ve been there.

Mat: To me, anything interesting that happens culturally, that’s how it spreads. I vividly remember going to shows and someone being like, ‘You need to get into the Dillinger Escape Plan’ or whatever. And I went to the shows for six months and I didn’t enjoy it. And then eventually I’m like, “I get this now.”

It’s no different going to a weird Web 3 conference, and you’re like, “I don’t know what a smart contract is.” Stuff’s hard. You could make the analogy with participating in a Discord – you see people dedicating immense amounts of time to these communities. Dan refers to it as “The Dark Forest.” There is this other layer of culture that exists now on Discords and the like.

Dan: Well, there’s no masterworks being created there, but it’s an incubator for an interesting new culture that you do not see on the surface.

It’s hard to quantify, but I think a lot of people would agree that the last 10-15 years have been, culturally, a desert. There’s just something missing. And you seem to feel like the main culprit is the collapse of institutions caused by Web 2.

Mat: I feel stalked by the 20th century. We’re very lucky, we get to go to fancy art things, and I go and I feel like I’m 19, because I’ve seen it all before. Sometimes I feel like I’m going insane. It’s the same modernist, weird…

Holly: The same romance over and over again.

Mat: There’s no shortage of interesting things that are being incubated, but we’ve lost all the funding structures. Web 3 is one potential avenue. I would love for some other avenues to appear miraculously out of nowhere. But I’m not holding my breath for, like, state support of experimental art. That’s why we have to be close to the development of the infrastructure, it’s our responsibility.

There was a period in the 20th century where a lot of things were aligned, where there was an economy around writing, art, culture. People were surprised and in awe of a new cultural thing every three years, like clockwork. We’ve lost that.

There’s this very famous studio in Berlin, and we couldn’t afford to record there, but we booked a photo shoot. And I told the guy, “I’m so embarrassed we can’t afford to actually record here.” And he said, “Nobody can afford to record here. We’re booked for photo shoots five days a week.”

Because we live in this zombie cultural existence now, this hangover of the 20th century. We still live under those auspices, but professionals know that it’s barren. There’s no cavalry coming, you know what I mean?

So it’s, like, I have some critiques about Web 3, but this techlash stuff … John Chowning and the people who invented commercial synthesis [leading to mass-market electronic keyboards and drum machines], basically democratized music making, democratized art making, they were techno-optimists too. Do we retroactively take the techlash to them? All of this s**t came from interesting cultural moments when funding was apportioned to new, dynamic cultural ideas. Where’s that happening? Web 3. I don’t see that happening anywhere else. And I lament that. I wish there was more.

Holly: Those are my cultural heroes, people like John Chowning. So when you ask, what’s the connection between experimental art and crypto, I’m running toward, for better or for worse, what is the most interesting new thing that creates genuinely new interactions or art making capability?

That’s what I find exciting.

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David Z. Morris is CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, Solana, and small amounts of other crypto assets.

CoinDesk - Unknown

David Z. Morris is CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, Solana, and small amounts of other crypto assets.

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