There’s been a sudden, widespread proliferation of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) in the music industry in February and March of 2021, so here’s a short guide to explain how they work.

NFTs are a way to sell a unique piece of music (or a painting, photo, graphic, collage, video, piece of writing, or anything else, it seems), exclusively to one person, or one small set of people, via a non-fungible token –  which is intrinsically linked to the original work. In essence, the buyer is purchases ownership of a data file that contains the music (or other work of art) in a unique transaction. The back end is controlled by blockchain technology – a kind of digital ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently, verifiably, and permanently.

The only way to buy NFTs now is with a cryptocurrency called Ethereum. Once the artist approves the sale, the Ethereum token is deposited in their digital “wallet,” and can then be transferred into their bank account, and withdrawn as actual money. The combination of blockchain technology and cryptocurrency makes buying an NFT very secure. Once the buyer, or small group of buyers (usually fans of the artist), has purchased the item, the only way for anybody else to obtain it is if a buyer re-sells.

There’s usually still a “middleperson” with NFTs, as the artist sells to the fan through a company, which usually takes a percentage for facilitating the transaction, and a fee for the energy required to create the token. But there can also be less need in the transaction for other typical music industry professionals; record companies, streaming services, digital service providers, agents, managers, publicists, promoters, venues, and so on, might all be left out.

There’s a lot of money to be made with NFTs. Often, the sale is done by auction, which drives up the price for in-demand recording artists. One globally popular Canadian musician auctioned off a video-art piece with a song demo for about $490,000 CAD. Kings of Leon made more than $2.5 million CAD in NFT sales of various exclusive versions of, spin-offs from, and merch for, their current album When You See Yourself. It’s not unlike crowd-funding or Patreon perks, with different products offered by artists to their fans at different prices, or levels of funding; but with NFTs, the sale is only to one fan, or very small, exclusive groups of fans, either once, or in very limited-edition numbers.

And the money can be made multiple times. Because the artists set the terms of the sale, they can dictate the percentage they receive of all future sales of the product, no matter how many times it’s re-sold. So, for example. If whoever bought that Canadian musician’s video-art piece for $490,000 CAD re-sells it for, say, $800,000 CAD, and the musician has established, say, a 20 percent share of future sales, they’ll receive another $160,000 CAD when it’s re-sold. And it might be re-sold many times.

But, according to the eternal laws of supply and demand, in order to drive up the price of the NFTs via auction, or set a high initial price for them, the demand already has to be there. So if a musician draws hundreds of fans rather than hundreds of thousands, or casual listeners rather than hardcore fanatics, they might not make more money from NFTs than from crowd-funding or Patreon offers.

The major, current  drawback to NFTs is that the energy used – referred to as “mining” – for Ethereum is bad for the climate. From Time magazine, March 18, 2021: “Critics say the mining that makes NFTs possible is perhaps humanity’s most direct way of making money by polluting the planet – Ethereum mining consumes about 26.5 terawatt-hours of electricity a year, nearly as much as the entire country of Ireland and its almost five million residents.” But that may improve over time with new advances in technology, so the problem might eventually be solved.

Currently, the buzz around NFTs seems driven more by their money-making potential than their intrinsic musical value. Some say they’re the future of the music industry, some say they’re a fad. Only time will tell for sure.

Just recently turned 18, and in his final year of high school in Mississauga, Ontario, Johnny Orlando is being tipped by many industry observers as the next Canadian pop singer-songwriter to break big internationally – following in the footsteps of his early hero, Justin Bieber, and Shawn Mendes.

He’s already well on the way, given major social media popularity that includes more than 500,000 Spotify and 9 million TikTok followers, and streams of his tracks numbering above 880 million. In both 2019 and 2020, Orlando took home an MTV Europe Music Award for Best Canadian Act, though he modestly tells us that “it’s a fan-voted award, with no academy involved. I’ve never really been one for awards, but the EMA meant so much, as it was the accomplishment of the fans, not me.”

Following a 2019 JUNO Award nomination for Breakthrough Artist of the Year, Orlando is in the JUNO running again this year, in the Pop Album of the Year category, for last year’s hit release, It’s Never Really Over.

His breakout smash, 2020’s “Everybody Wants You,” notched North of five million global streams, and Orlando is currently back in the charts with the single “I Don’t” – a collaboration with noted Toronto EDM producers DVBBS.

“We had the one demo of that track from a couple of years ago, and the only vocal I ever recorded for the song was back then,” says Orlando. “The idea of getting DVBBS on the track only happened late last year. There were concerns that it may be too different for me, but ultimately I think it’s good to show variety in the material you put out. I’m so in love with the track.”

“The more songs you write, the closer you get to the one you absolutely love”

“I Don’t” was primarily written by L.A.-based Australian songwriter Louis Schoorl, but the confessional lyrics resonated with Orlando. “I need to fully believe in a song and that one is all about being apprehensive about telling the truth,” he says. “It’s hard to have those kinds of conversations, especially with someone you’ve been involved with for awhile. That was happening at the time I recorded ‘I Don’t,’ and still is, to be honest.”

Orlando has become increasingly involved in co-writing his material, and he’s embracing that evolution. “I’m really not a purist in terms of song selection,” he says. “If I really love a song and I believe in what it says, then I don’t care who wrote it. However, I do see songwriting as the best kind of challenge, and I can’t really get enough of it. The more songs you write, the closer you get to the one you absolutely love.”

He’s been co-writing with a large number of songwriters from both Toronto and Los Angeles, and candidly admits it can be a trial-and-error process. “At the beginning of an album cycle there are always a couple of sessions that are just write-offs! Nothing good happens, you just can’t find a groove, but you learn something every session. That’s one of the reasons I love doing it.”

Orlando’s compositional collaborators have included Canadians Geoff Warburton (who frequently co-writes with Shawn Mendes), Jeff Hazin, Nathan Ferraro, Matthew Burnett (who’s a constant co-writer and co-producer of Daniel Caesar), Liz Rodrigues (who co-writes songs for Celine Dion), and Mike Wise, while his most frequent co-writer remains his older sister, Darian Orlando. “Ninety percent of the sessions, it will be me, Darian, and one other writer,” he explains.

He’s now diligently writing and recording new material for a full-length album, anticipated for release by the end of 2021, but Orlando admits to desperately missing playing shows. “It’s very hard to describe, but the feeling playing concerts is unlike anything else I’ve ever felt,” he says. “You’re so proud and happy, just riding a wave of happiness for the whole show. I want to tour for the rest of my life!”

The Weather Station might be the perfect name for Tamara Lindeman’s musical entity. She’s had her antennae up, listening intently to what’s going on in the world, and translating big climatic shifts into human terms – through songs about strained personal relationships.

Lindeman’s latest album, Ignorance, has hit a bullseye, receiving widespread and high critical acclaim, from the New York Times saying she evokes thoughts of Joni Mitchell; to The Guardian deeming Ignorance a “heartbroken masterpiece”; to Pitchfork calling the record “stunning” and “unforgettable.” And indeed, it’s musically adventurous, with lyrics that refer to our feelings of shame and obliviousness about the climate crisis, as well as our inability to really communicate with each other.

“I think this record has touched a nerve,” says Lindeman. “It’s powerful when ideas and emotions are out there and we all resonate with the same things. I wasn’t sure at first whether the songs were about personal feelings, or feelings I was soaking up from people around me, or from society as a whole. But as I wrote, I realized that it was often all three, and that it was a positive thing to maintain in the lyrics.”

The album opener, “Robber,” addresses the way environmental devastation becomes almost accepted while we’re not paying attention. “The robber don’t hate you,” she sings, “he had permission by laws, permission of banks.”

“I think it’s true,” she says. “The robbers I was thinking of don’t even consider their actions to be negative. We like to find a villain, but that song asks, what if no one is really bad but bad things are still happening? How do we deal with that? Do we need to find a villain that looks like a villain? Maybe we don’t – maybe we just need to contend with what is occurring.”

Lindeman points out that some of the songs might also reference other political issues, like residential schools, or living through the Trump administration. “In naming the album Ignorance I wanted to be a bit confrontational,” she says. “Colonialism is the same as racism and sexism. It’s all learned, false ignorance, imagining that you know what another human being is, or what a piece of land is for. It was difficult not to feel a connection between [Trumpism] and the way people experienced romantic relationships, women in particular. It laid bare all these dynamics that we’ve been accepting for far too long. And to me, it’s all part of the same cultural narrative of silence and learned helplessness.”

““It’s powerful when ideas and emotions are out there and we all resonate with the same things”

The deceptively upbeat “Separated” reflects the lack of real communication Lindeman noticed on Twitter. “We can’t talk to each other,” she says. “The whole point of communication and understanding is absent from these places where we’re having conversations. So I was thinking of all the things that were separated and wrote a list, and it was a good, hooky rhythmic line, but it’s a description of all the ways that we refuse to understand each other.”

 Ignorance also represents a sea change in Lindeman’s music, from guitar-based folk to a broader palette that references ‘70s soft-rock and pop, and features keyboards, drum machines, and even a beautiful, jazzy sax solo by Brodie West.

“When I started writing on guitar, I felt like I was just going with the same chord changes and falling into old habits, and when I switched to piano it woke up my creative mind in a positive way and I found it really exciting and fun again,” says Lindeman. “Using the drum machine really opened up the idea of an album with aspects of ‘70s and ‘80s pop music.

 I’ve never really understood the point of genres,” she adds. “I sort of sew a crazy quilt out of different pieces that remind me of different genres. And I like pushing things together, for example a drum style that’s almost like dance music, and strings that remind me of chamber pop, and guitars that remind me of rock. Having them all together is a nice way to achieve an esthetic richness.”

Holding it all together is Lindeman’s voice, a soft soprano that puts a gentle spin on even the darker themes. “I really leaned into that,” she says. “I never learned the skill of singing loudly, I find it difficult and uncomfortable. So I’ve always sung quietly, and I love it because I have this expression in my voice that’s kind of my signature. On the last record I was trying to make my voice say a bunch of stuff emotionally, but on this one I felt like I let my voice sit more softly, and had the instruments express things I can’t embody with my voice.”