Music curators and community architects Jeremy Grinberg and Bas Grasmeyer of colors DAO joined Forefront to talk about how community infrastructure can enable greater creative freedom.
A music industry veteran of 9 years, Jeremy, who is also on the management team at LA-based web3 agency Route Studio, got bored with the industry’s increasing reliance on content that fed social media algorithms and became energized by the potential of web3 tools to give artists more autonomy, joining the colors team to lead web3 expansion initiatives.
Bas, a product expert and longtime writer and observer of music communities, previously led product initiatives at two niche streaming services focused on the post-soviet and classical markets, respectively: his interest in innovating on the fan-to-fan relation instead of the catalog to listener relation is what led him to the COLORSxCOMMUNITY initiative and, in turn, web3.
What does it mean to truly put creators first? Platforms like Spotify and TikTok have historically adopted the rhetoric of creator-friendliness while using skewed monetization schemes and artistically stifling algorithms to restrict the very artists who make them valuable in the first place. The result is a system that incentivizes work that feeds playlists, instead of allowing room for experimentalism that moves the space forward– and with so few avenues for monetization, artists are often stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to producing work that is authentic to their vision while still being able to pay the bills.
The current model, in pressuring artists to grow mega-fanbases with as many monthly listeners as possible, incentivizes music production for the lowest common denominator of taste. But what if there were tools available that valued creators who created work that was beloved and highly engaged with by a subculture of a few hundred thousand, or even only a few thousand people? What if there were tools that allowed creators to make their own decisions about what they wanted their creative career to look like, instead of creating a zero-sum game that pressures artists to fit into the same mold of constant album production and touring, at times to the point of burnout?
In this Forefront hangout, Jeremy and Bas gave us a glimpse into a different model: one that, above all, gives creators more optionality in choosing how they showed up to their fans and communities, in turn creating a more sustainable and rewarding experience for both artists and fans.
Enabling a multicultural culture industry
The core of COLORS x studio has always been its emphasis on quality curation, which has elevated it into the go-to music platform across cultures. Current music discovery models, such as Spotify’s New Music Fridays, are largely focused on where listeners are currently based, making genuine cross-cultural exploration difficult. But as a result of this careful, global approach to curation, COLORS has been successful in building a community that crosses borders and uplifts artists who would not have gotten the same visibility otherwise. So far in COLORS’ history, this community has engaged by commenting on new shows, buying merchandise, and showing up to in-person shows produced by the studio. However, these forms of engagement only enabled a one-way relationship between the studio and the community; further, artists in the community who didn’t have the means to travel to in-person shows or productions didn’t have the same opportunities to be highlighted. Using web3 tools as a medium for artist and fan engagement– particularly through experimenting with a decentralized community platform– could provide opportunities to highlight and financially support artists in novel ways.
What does “decentralization” look like in practice? For COLORS, it involves creating an organized framework for the various existing segments of the community to generate their own projects, while staying unified under one mission by staying under the colors DAO umbrella. At a high level, the COLORS community organically segmented into overlapping subgroups based on geography, creative discipline, and level of engagement with colors studio itself– from alumni who have previously performed, to irregular collaborators, to highly engaged creatives who want to eventually perform themselves, to a general audience that are fans of the studio. The challenge was creating an overarching architecture that was able to encompass these groups and enable them to initiate their own projects while working towards the core mission of the organization. To this end, early in the process, the core team decided to make centering creatives the focus of the DAO. The goal was not fan engagement: it was engagement directly with creatives and industry leaders who work with creatives. Around this core goal, three pillars were articulated. The first, sustenance, focuses on giving creatives the tools they need to get funding and pursue sustainable careers. Development focuses on helping new creatives find their unique artistic voice and identity– the first step to creating a curated fanbase. Finally, amplification involved creating a positive-sum game where artists uplift and make noise for each other’s new releases and projects, strengthening the ecosystem in the process.
Within this framework, while the core team still conducts core operations work, community members have the flexibility to self-initiate projects. For example, artist Latasha has spearheaded engagement with the Portuguese-speaking community within colors by holding events in Portugese, translating content produced by the core team into Portuguese, and translating cultural production from Portuguese speakers into English for the rest of the community. One concern, though, was unpaid labor for the sake of community engagement for those who dove in and took on more work. This is where the COLORS token comes in: it serves as a metaphor for a member’s ownership stake in the platform and provides something that can accrue value in reflection of what the community gains from member engagement.
Gatekeeping vs. Curation
Colors’ value as a studio lies in its status as a refined curator. But in a community context where inclusivity and experimentalism rise to the fore, curation can often look like gatekeeping. A tension arises: decentralized organizations want to put out consistently high quality work, but in order to achieve that quality, it’s almost impossible to take everyone’s opinion into account, especially in a larger group.
Colors navigates this by communicating a distinction between the core brand and its new decentralized community platform that is understood among members who choose to participate. This allows for the creation of a collective which optimizes for experimentation and emergence without much hierarchical control, while allowing the core studio to maintain control over its image and remain selective about community partnerships. However, as the community develops, the goal is to develop a collaborative, symbiotic relationship between the DAO and the core studio. The DAO treasury– currently being raised through an upcoming sale of founding member non-fungible tokens – is governed independently of the studio, and is intended to fund projects from subgroups of the organization with their own distinct brand and identity that spin out to form their own, smaller DAOs. If these spinoff ventures are successful, part of their revenue will flow back into the main community, and a partnership with the main COLORS brand could be in scope. Such a partnership would serve as an accelerator for these projects, bringing them to the global audience that the main studio has cultivated. The community can move independently, and the core brand can move independently, but there is a strong incentive for them to align and amplify each other.
Looking Ahead: Centering creators, not tech
There are two main strategies to empower creators: letting operators fall into the shadows while allowing artists maximum room to speak, and full operator empowerment with no hierarchy, where everyone gets a say in creative and production-related decision making. In the relationship between its core studio and community, COLORS has developed both, laying the foundation for a rich ecosystem.
As the community grows, its focus lies in staying flexible to changes both in decentralized tech and in the industry at large, while doubling down on its core ethos amidst it all: cultivating spaces for non-ordinary expression. This narrative is key to keeping the community unified in its mission of putting creators first and foremost– implementing tech for tech’s sake is not the focus, but rather using web3 tools as a means to the end of providing creators with more control in an industry that has historically disempowered them. Spaces for non-ordinary expression are safe spaces with limited distractions where artists can tell their story in its most raw form. In a typical colors show, the background is stripped back– the spotlight is on the artist, who performs a set that allows the audience to see who they truly are, outside of the bells and whistles of video production and industry archetypes: it’s just artists at the fore, doing what they do best. Though the community’s focus is currently the music industry, the core team is looking beyond– to art, writing, dance, speculative design, and more– in envisioning the community’s future.
What excites Jeremy and Bas most about the future is how web3 tools give creators unprecedented opportunity to cultivate worlds without having to conform to a specific platform, algorithm, or formula. Web3 rewards world-building and narrative creation in a way no existing platform does. Consider Berlin-based collective Killing a Friend, one of the artists Jeremy works with. Divvying up their record, The Worthless Album, into 29 second segments– just one second off from the industry cutoff of 30 seconds to be considered a track– their record could not make any money off of streams from Spotify, resulting in a viral marketing campaign with billboards around the city that compared their album’s revenue to those of mega-stars like Olivia Rodrigo, whose records rack up millions of streams. In the conventional music industry, such a clever marketing campaign could be rewarded with recognition but not revenue. Decentralized creator tools could instead monetize the album as a collectible.
Artists who are interested in exploring other disciplines through zines, artwork, and other projects not related to their main discipline could also have more room for such experiments; however, for those who just want to focus on one thing, whether its releasing new music or new digital illustrations, could also do so in a more sustainable way. The key is not to force web3 tools on creators, it’s to give them additional options– and the ability to take back control from a few key industry executives who would otherwise make or break a career.
Interested in learning more about COLORSxCOMMUNITY? Check them out on Twitter here.