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.”
Blake tried to get his music removed from HitPiece, which led him down a rabbit hole as he tried to understand if the platform was as brazen as it seemed . “My first thought was to file a DMCA” take-down request, he told us on Wednesday. “But Hitpiece offered no way to do that and didn’t even have a contact email.” So Blake tweeted a request at HitPiece to take down his page, and saw that other musicians across Twitter were decrying the website for the same reason. “Literally, every musician I know personally was affected by this, and tons more came out and spoke up when they learned about the platform,” Blake wrote. “Everyone from BTS to Disney to John Lennon was on there.”
At first, small and lower-profile indie artists tweeted their displeasure. But it didn’t take long for more prominent voices to join the angry chorus, like Left at London, Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, Amber Coffman, and YouTube personality Luke Westaway, who all alleged that HitPiece was profiteering off their work by making digital, blockchain-based copies of their work. The rap group clppng tweeted a screenshot of a HitPiece NFT made from their song “Summertime,” which had a bid of more than $21,474,836.47 from a user. Left at London told us that when she first looked at HitPiece, all the NFTs on offer were priced at $100, but on Tuesday a bidder with the username “nftsarescams” placed multiple bids at the same price of $21,474,836.47, suggesting that the HitPiece market and its prices were easy for any lay user to manipulate, suggesting the prices may not actually have reflected what people were actually willing to pay.
HitPiece described itself as a place to let “fans collect NFTs of [their] favorite songs.” It didn’t appear as though users could listen to the actual songs on HitPiece’s beta, although in its FAQ HitPiece claimed that users could stream music on its site by logging with their Spotify accounts. (The FAQ also stated that “Each time an artist’s NFT is purchased or sold, a royalty from each transaction is accounted to the rights holders account.”) Instead, each of these NFTs appeared to be a collectible image corresponding to a song (and perhap conferring bragging rights for whoever bids the most for each). Artists had a different take on the jargon. “It’s recommodifying the metadata (art, song and album titles, etc.) to make money without permission,” guitarist Alex Rudenshiold told Rolling Stone.
HitPiece began responding to musicians on Twitter who were bombarding the site with take-down requests, informing them their music was “not for sale” or “streaming,” and that it was “likely [their] music distributor” that had put their work on HitPiece (a statement some artists said was false). On Tuesday night, HitPiece put out a statement and deleted its original website, which had had the URL hitpiece.com. That site was later restored with everything scrubbed except for one message: “We Started the Conversation and We’re Listening.” By Wednesday, a new domain, gethitpiece.com, was live, but as of now there’s no content on the website except for a basic template.
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.
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.”
HitPiece isn’t the only music NFT space earning the ire of creators: On Tuesday, Lil Yachty sued the Singapore-based company Opulous for allegedly using his name and likeness without permission during its launch. Identity appropriation is an issue in other crypto spaces, as well: YouTubers, artists, and influencers have had their likenesses used to mint NFTs yet see none of the profit. Visual artists have seen their work stolen or been impersonated by other traders in various marketplaces. NFT owners have seen their wallets get hacked and their prized assets wiped away. (One art dealer’s tweet about his portfolio getting hacked was subsequently—you guessed it—turned into an NFT.) As the music industry ties itself closer to crypto and NFTs, through catalog deals and fan treats and live concert tickets, more scams and sketchy ventures are likely to proliferate, impacting musicians who might not even realize they’ve become involved in the first place.