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From protocols to people: A study of music NFT platforms’ onboarding strategies

March 8, 2022

tl;dr — In this article, we aim to encapsulate the various strategies that music NFT platforms use to attract, onboard and retain their fans, collectors and artists in an increasingly competitive marketplace. To do so, we conducted interviews with 12 different music NFT platforms to examine what has and hasn’t worked with their onboarding practices on a systems level, and what strategies they are exploring in response. We found several common approaches across platforms — from direct outreach and one-on-one support for onboarding artists and their communities, to better front-end tooling for search and discovery as well as multifaceted backend protocols on top of which Web3 developers can build their own experiences.

This is Part II of a five-part, collaborative research report that the Water & Music community has put together over the last two months on the state of music and Web3, as a follow-up to our Season 1 report in December. Contributors to this research thread on music NFT platform onboarding strategies are listed at the bottom of this page, sorted by role. Part I of our report focused on the state of music DAOs. You can view the current state of our report rollout and a full list of our member-contributors by visiting stream.waterandmusic.com.

To support our work on-chain, you can purchase an NFT cover of this study, which will grant you lifetime membership access to Water & Music.


Awareness of NFTs has been on the rise since 2021, with a few boom and bust cycles paralleling the overall crypto market on the way. Over the first four months of 2021 alone, overall NFT trading volume exceeded $2 billion — ten times the trading volume for all of 2020 combined. While the initial boom of activity around NFTs peaked in late March 2021, the overall NFT market still reached $22 billion in trading volume by the end of the year, a mammoth increase compared to the $100m in trading volume in 2020. 

Now, some of the world’s biggest celebrity artists are minting and collecting NFTs, and the narrative around NFTs as a possible remedy for the long deemed broken music industry has catalyzed mainstream media coverage. Many articles have explored the benefits and backlash around NFTs for artists, fans and platform builders. This influx of attention triggered immense growth in the release of music NFT projects and platforms, all hoping to capitalize on growing widespread interest in the technology. According to Water & Music’s music/Web3 dashboard, 90+ music NFT startups have launched since we first started tracking the ecosystem in fall 2020. New platforms are still launching to this day, servicing both the platform and protocol levels (more on this later).   

Music NFT platforms are now investing heavily in onboarding new users, in an attempt to capture an early, healthy share of a rapidly expanding market. These platforms have courted users via various onboarding techniques, from supporting one-on-one onboarding services and knowledge-sharing with interested users to providing robust usability tooling and platform features that enhance overall user experiences.

As a direct follow-up to our fan onboarding research from Season 1, this research project intends to unveil the various onboarding practices across music NFT platforms and provide music communities — including artists, fans and collectors — with the knowledge to navigate the emerging music NFT ecosystem.

In this article, we aim to encapsulate the various strategies that music NFT platforms use to attract, onboard and retain their fans, collectors and artists. To do so, we examine what has and hasn’t worked with historical music NFT platform onboarding practices on a systems level, and what strategies platforms and artists are exploring in response.

Although the intended audience for this research is broad, we hope that it will be particularly beneficial for artists and fans just entering the world of NFTs, and builders seeking to create innovative NFT platforms and protocols. 

METHODS

This study is the product of a series of open research calls within the W&M Discord server, wherein community members first developed questions then collectively determined a methodology best suited for understanding platform onboarding strategies.

We chose to undertake an extensive series of interviews with the core teams of existing music NFT platforms. We crowdsourced a list of potential platforms to interview via community members, and then narrowed it down to meet the scope and timeline of the project. In order to produce a representative overview of the state of platform onboarding strategies, the final platform selection process considered a range of factors including, but not limited to:

  • Project stage
  • Size of platform
  • Market momentum
  • Operating blockchain of choice
  • Whether a platform was open or curated
  • Type(s) of NFT offerings (e.g. 1-of-1s versus limited-edition packs)

Ultimately, we conducted interviews with 12 music NFT platforms total, including Async, Catalog, Glass, Mint Songs, Nina, OneOf, RCRDSHP, Royal, Sound, SoundMint, Sturdy Exchange and Zora. We collectively developed a standardized set of interview questions and a pre-interview survey to distribute to platform interviewees, which allowed for the asynchronous collection of the more metric-oriented questions. Interviews were undertaken in pairs by 18 interviewers, all drawn from the W&M member community.

A second methodological approach, which developed midway through the research project, involved conducting interviews with artists who had onboarded to our core list of NFT platforms. Similar to the platform interviews, this process began with the community development of interview questions for artists related to their music NFT platform onboarding experience. We scheduled artist interviews via platform referral, and direct outreach to artists who minted NFT projects via these platforms. Ultimately, we conducted two artist interviews, with cellist Kaitlyn Raitz and singer-songwriter Violetta Zironi. These conversations allowed for triangulation and more substantial assessment of the information collected from our platform interviews, providing additional depth to the overall data.

Throughout the research period, community members presented the results of each interview during weekly research calls in the W&M Discord server. This process advanced data sharing among the entire network, and helped align the group before deeper data analysis. Further, we categorized narrative throughlines that appeared during the interview process (similar to our synthesis process for our music DAO research), and later used them to inform our final research analysis and draw conclusions.

Disclaimer: Contributors’ affiliations with music NFT platforms

Many of the contributors to this research project are themselves active contributors in the world of music and Web3. Some are working for music NFT platforms and are actively releasing their own music NFTs on the platforms included in this study. It is W&M policy that all community contributors are required to proactively disclose any affiliations that they may have with the subject(s) being studied. We ensured that none of our community interviewers on this project were directly employed or affiliated with the specific platforms they were assigned to cover.

W&M’s position is that simply because a person is embedded in a given community does not mean that they should be prohibited from writing about it. We believe that being embedded in a community can deepen understanding and nuance. The goal of our proactive disclosure policy is to ensure that we are always as transparent as possible with our audience, while ensuring that our researchers maintain an appropriate degree of separation from the subjects of our research.

DEFINITIONS

WEB3: Web3 refers to a digital ecosystem of decentralized infrastructure that utilizes blockchain technology. The ethos of this movement is to move away from centralized authority towards more personal control and responsibility of one’s assets and, therefore, more direct relationships between transacting parties.

ONBOARDING: In the context of this article, “onboarding” is considered to be the process of bringing any user, artist, fan or collector onto a music NFT platform. A clear onboarding strategy consists of at least two core components: 1) identifying who is being onboarded, and 2) defining where or what they are being onboarded to.

ARTISTS: In this article, an “artist” refers to any person who has produced a sound recording of a musical composition with the intent to offer that composition for sale.

USERS / FANS / COLLECTORS: In the context of music and Web3, the distinction between a platform’s “users,” “fans” and “collectors” is challenging to parse. At large, “user” tends to refer to anyone who interacts with a platform, “fan” suggests some affective or aesthetic affinity for a given artist and their work and “collector” indicates a state where individuals may be considering a wide range of emotional, aesthetic and financial concerns. In reality, the boundaries of each of these categories are fluid with significant overlap between. For the sake of clarity, we use the term “user” to broadly refer to all users of music NFT platforms that are potential buyers of an artist’s offerings, including artists themselves. Throughout this study we sometimes use the terms “collector” and “fans” as synonymous with “user” when interviewees used that specific language.


CONTEXT: A HISTORICAL, BIRD’S-EYE VIEW OF NEW MUSIC/TECH ADOPTION

The 12 music NFT platforms we selected for study take a wide range of approaches to the types of Web3-related products they offer, as well as many other operational characteristics, as is made clear from our platform comparison table below: 

Our sample includes several platforms that primarily offer the most common forms of NFTs: “1-of-1s” and “editions” (Catalog, Mint Songs, Sound, OneOf). We oversampled this category of platforms as they represent the first type of NFTs to emerge and dominate the overall marketplace. However, we also included several platforms offering alternative forms of NFTs as their primary products, whose onboarding strategies reflect this distinctiveness. Some key examples:

Ultimately, our platform sample is widely representative of the current state of the music NFT ecosystem while acknowledging new innovative NFT types, uses and platforms coming down the pipe. (Given how quickly the music/Web3 landscape is moving, these platforms don’t fall neatly into discrete categories, and many support multiple NFT types.)

Web2 vs. Web3 go-to-market strategies: A community-first mindset

When we look at the nascent, sprawling music NFT landscape, it’s tempting to see a space filled with chaos when compared to the relatively mature streaming DSP market. However, to some extent, we’ve been here before.

The graphic below is a reminder of how the music streaming marketplace looked at its dawn in the mid-2000s (created in 2006 by Jadam Kahn):

Comparing today’s music NFT platforms with the early streaming giants reveals a stark contrast in onboarding strategies. Eric Johnson, senior director of artist strategy at Mint Songs, who previously worked in artist and label services at Spotify (2015–2018), explained: “Some artists were skeptical of the economics of streaming in the early days, but digital service providers (DSPs) signed deals with distributors and labels, so most artists were onboarded into the format whether they liked it or not.” This “onboarding through coercion” method was very successful for some companies, leading to the rise of streaming and its ultimate consolidation into market giants such as Spotify and Apple Music.

Tactically, the incumbent model is notably different from the music NFT platforms of today taking tremendous care and effort to attract — and in some cases curate — both the artists on the supply side of the marketplace and the users who provide the demand for their offerings. 

The specific go-to-market strategies used by Web2 versus Web3 companies are summarized well by analyst Maggie Hsu, who compares the two approaches in an article for a16z’s Future. She noted that Web2 companies “largely must start with a product that will attract customers (‘come for the tools, stay for the network’), [while] web3 companies approach go-to-market through the dual lenses of purpose and community.” Venture capital investor Fred Wilson further breaks down the Web3 go-to-market approach: “Come for the assets, stay for the experience”. 

As discussed below, this approach of relying on competitive assets (great music and user tools, for example) while building a community “experience” to attract users is a staple for music NFT platforms. In this context, communities themselves are significant features, relying on the artists entering the community to expand.

Similarly, music and Web3 platforms tend to spend excessive time carrying out one-on-one and group onboarding sessions — which doesn’t scale well, but supports the essential activity of defining and growing community. As discussed below, programs such as the Latashá-led Zoratopia community onboarding sessions and IRL event series go a long way to building a community around a given platform.

This Web3-native approach to go-to-market strategies flips the traditional customer acquisition model on its head. Rather than “acquiring” customers — the very notion of which might drive away Web3 enthusiasts — Web3 organizations relabel and onboard customers as community members and sometimes even as owners. Bootstrapping new platforms in Web3, then, requires an entirely different, bottom-up approach. For example, our research showed that music NFT platforms are leaning into onboarding via community development activities rather than spending their limited resources on traditional marketing and ad spending. On the whole, the focus for Web3 platforms has shifted away from customer acquisition towards building community ecosystems where different stakeholders (developers, fans, investors) can thrive.

Below, we elaborate more on the different ways that Web3 platforms are taking their path to market, with the community as an anchor.

KEY ONBOARDING THEMES

Each of the platforms we studied took a wide variety of approaches to onboarding. We present the main themes of our analysis below, in order of most to least prominent. The key onboarding themes that we encountered in our research include:

  • The crucial role of artists as drivers of user onboarding
  • The importance of “doing things that don’t scale”
  • The value of platform tooling 
  • The differences between protocol- and platform-level approaches 
  • The onboarding differences across curated and open platforms
  • The use of data to support onboarding

1. Artists as the primary vector for onboarding

The most consistent theme we observed across the onboarding strategies of music NFT platforms was a heavy focus on onboarding artists. In a Web3-native music industry, power, capital and influence arguably begin to concentrate around artists and fan bases, rather than at the platform level — a dynamic often encapsulated in the mantra “artists are the platform.” In this environment, music NFT platforms are working hard not only to onboard artists one-on-one, but also to establish vibrant artistic communities with strong personalities and ambassadors.

We spoke with Violetta Zironi, a 26-year-old singer-songwriter living in Berlin who recently released her first NFT project, “Handmade Songs.” Zironi echoes the importance of the artist as the platform, stating: “The music is the utility behind the NFT; the platform doesn’t matter. It’s the artist that matters.” That said, Violetta still believes that she must remain consistent with which platform she releases music on if the releases are part of the same collection. In this case, she will continue to release music on OpenSea as long as the song belongs to her “Handmade Songs” collection.

A less apparent reason for focusing on onboarding artists that came up repeatedly in our interviews is that artists are the curators in this emerging ecosystem, serving simultaneously as artist, fan and collector, and bringing value to platforms by supplying a singular curatorial vision, culture and branding. For instance, Achilleas Sarantaris, Product Manager at Async, explained that their team views each artist onboarding as “onboarding both collector and fan and artist at the same time … some of the biggest collectors are artists.” As Latashá, a hip-hop artist and head of community programming at Zora, put it, “Artists are fans! Some fans even became artists. They look at me and think if she could do it, I could do it. It’s an artist-supporting-artist ecosystem.” 

This revelation of artist, fan and collector identities melding is central in the evolution of Zora’s onboarding journey. Initially, onboarding was very much a one-on-one, time consuming process. As things scaled, Latashá developed Zoratopia, which was onboarding via a group Zoom format that doubled as community building. As that process became less efficient given massive inbound interest, Latashá formed group DMs where artists were encouraged to onboard each other, in essence creating a “train the trainer” system that helps Zora continue to scale onboarding into the future. Certain users took initiative to help shoulder some of the load in these communities, such as SassyBlack and Iman Europe. As a result, these artist-driven initiatives have become essential for learning about music NFTs, and it is nice to see more platforms formally working with artists and rewarding them for the essential labor that they perform as onboarders-in-chief. Moreover, many Zora users have started calling themselves “Zoratopians” off the back of these Latashá-led rooms. 

Perhaps no platform spells this artist-first philosophy out more clearly than Sound, with their referral policy. Via this policy, artists are onboarded to the platform quite literally through other artists. Each artist who has released on Sound was given the ability to bring one other artist onto the platform — positioning artists as both vectors and curators for onboarding from the platform’s perspective.

Even with the emphasis on artists as catalysts for onboarding, one of the most counterintuitive statistics we gathered was Mint Songs artist:collector ratio. Mint Songs defines an artist as someone who has minted an NFT and a collector as someone who has purchased an NFT. (Note: their collector category does not include those who have only collected one of Mint Songs’ free “poster” NFTs.) Roughly 500 artists have minted NFTs on Mint Songs, and approximately 1,500 unique collectors have purchased NFTs. Since Mint Songs is an open platform with an onboarding strategy heavily skewed towards artists, it would be easy to conceive this ratio flipping. Another more significant takeaway here is that there are only 2,000 active users on the platform, a statistic that draws attention to the fact that the world of music NFTs is still microscopic compared to the overall music creator ecosystem.

2. Do things that don’t scale

Much of the discourse around NFTs focuses on the need for vital education and support for individuals entering the ecosystem for the first time. The fan survey results we collected as part of our S1 research identify a general lack of education around crypto and associated products as the second most commonly cited barrier to onboarding into Web3 and NFTs. Unsurprisingly, then, providing educational elements around day-to-day Web3 activities such as setting up a crypto wallet, purchasing an NFT and sharing an NFT on social media has become a crucial calling card for almost all music NFT platforms.

All the platforms we spoke with have an active social media presence and sense of community. In addition to providing detailed FAQ sections on their websites, most music NFT platforms run a complementary Discord server with a “support” or “new user” channel and a responsive community manager to answer any questions.

Twitter Spaces also play an outsized role for music NFT platforms, which use the feature to provide the dual function of educating and onboarding new users on the one hand and promoting artists and upcoming drops on the other hand. For example, Sound holds a Twitter Space for 30 minutes before each drop, where the featured artist speaks on their story and art. Listeners are encouraged to watch the countdown clock; when the clock hits 0, the song plays over the air, and the minting button does not go live until the song is complete. They hope the experience makes Sound feel not like an NFT platform but more “like a music site.” 

(As a side note, this approach — of trying to have users engage with platforms for the “music” rather than for the “NFT” or underlying technological aspects — is reflected in how several of the platforms we studied shied away from the use of the words “non-fungible token” and term “NFT” entirely in their public messaging. For instance, if you visit the website for Royal, you might find mention of “tokens,” but nowhere does NFT appear. On Nina, users can collect “digital editions,” and on RCRDSHP we see “packs,” “tracks” and “collectibles.”)

Startup communities often consider providing one-on-one direct onboarding services an extension of “doing things that don’t scale.” Paul Graham, co-founder of the startup incubator Y Combinator, first elaborated on this technique for supporting early startup growth. Our Season 1 report on Web3 fan onboarding strategies emphasizes the method. The underlying thesis is that doing the work of individually recruiting and onboarding users to a platform, albeit resource-heavy in the short term, will ultimately pay off in the long term. Far from simply interacting with users, this method recommends taking “extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy.” The principle is that happy and engaged users are much more likely to stick around than users who stumbled onto a platform with little context or education around the product.

This onboarding method via a personal-touch service was used by several of the platforms surveyed across our study. As Latashá tells us: “Human-to-human onboarding is the way to go. YouTube is boring. People don’t want to read. When you watch YouTube, you’ve got a million questions as you watch.”

Video NFT service Glass also provides personal onboarding to artists and collectors to help define and expand the user communities on their platform and get potential users interested and excited about it. To this point, Glass’ co-founder Dayo Adeosun told us: “We turn investors into collectors. Also, for curators, explaining that when you are a collector you are a curator. That is what we are trying to teach people. How you’re curating and collecting is who you are.” 

Similarly, Mint Songs’ growth team spends hours every day interacting with interested artists and users, teaching them everything from the basics of crypto and NFTs to wallet setup and payment. Their team will often undertake extensive one-on-one strategy sessions with artists, essentially taking on a quasi-management coordination role for some NFT drops. Arguably, this takes the Mint Songs team from simply providing onboarding services into the realm of directly supporting artist strategy. It’s also not uncommon for Mint Songs to send $MATIC, the cryptocurrency used for gas fees on the platform, directly to artists to cover NFT minting costs. Kaitlyn Raitz, a Nashville-based cellist and music NFT artist, told us how the onboarding education provided by Mint Songs ultimately allowed her to become an onboarder for other artists in her community, generating a virtuous circle outwards.

On the flip side, the team at Mint Songs found that cold outreach produced a poor return on effort. With scarce resources available, it was just not worth directing additional effort at outbound marketing, away from more effective strategies and core product development. 

3. “Building tools wins”

Time and time again, we heard from the platforms we interviewed that a critical part of their strategy for attracting new users and differentiating themselves from other platforms is diversifying the features and tooling they have on offer.

Many are looking for a competitive advantage through usability tooling, i.e. tools that make the onboarding process user-friendly and easy to understand, especially for Web2 natives. Fiat on-ramps allow users to purchase NFTs using credit cards and on-platform or user-friendly custodial wallets (Dapper or Argent), as an alternative to self-sovereign wallets like MetaMask, are two of the most potent usability tools we observed.

These tools have allowed music NFT platforms to onboard users without exposing them to complex tasks and concepts like purchasing cryptocurrency on an exchange, understanding wallet security or transferring crypto funds. Dayo Adeosun, a co-founder of Glass (which does not provide a fiat on-ramp or custodial wallet on their platform), highlighted that lack of access to user-friendly onboarding tools can make-or-break many potential users’ experiences. Sometimes, the friction causes them to exit the process altogether: “They drop off during the Coinbase or MetaMask phase. People don’t like to download apps. The second you have to download Coinbase or MetaMask, you have to put money in — it becomes daunting.”

A salient point to take from this is that when it comes to user adoption of an NFT platform, less friction leads to higher adoption rates. We saw this same sentiment in our S1 research when we spoke with artists and platforms about the state of Web3 tooling. We interviewed the NFT platform KLKTN as part of S1, for example, whose team pointed to their use of an easy fiat on-ramp as crucial to getting users on their platform. Ping Lam, who heads up marketing for KLKTN told us that accepting fiat on-site allowed them to attract non-Web3 native users by marketing and listing NFTs “at price points that would be analogous to those of physical merch ($10–$500 each).” OneOf echoes this sentiment, telling us that they’re trying to create a user experience that is reminiscent of the Web2 experience and familiar to users.

Several platforms we interviewed are currently working to establish strong partnerships with providers of such usability tools, especially with the goal of allowing users to buy NFTs without pre-existing wallets. For instance, Mint Songs has partnered with MoonPay to provide a fiat on-ramp to their platform, and with Magic.link (which is also used by Async) to enable easy user login and non-custodial wallet setup. Royal gives users two payment options, including a fiat on-ramp via Stripe that allows users to pay with debit or credit cards, as well as accepting the stablecoin USDC on Polygon blockchain, which tracks the $US dollar and allows users to easily understand the conversion from fiat to cryptocurrency. Likewise, RCRDSHP, which touts that 95% of transactions on the platform are made with USD via credit card, uses an easy fiat on-ramp and an on-platform custodial wallet, with plans to move to the user-friendly Dapper wallet in the near term. Sturdy Exchange, who reports a similarly high 85% of transactions made using a credit card, told us that this feature was so important that they actually invested a significant amount of time and resources to ensure they had a solid fiat solution.

A second tooling dimension that music NFT platforms are focusing on, naturally, are generally innovative platform features and tools. In a saturated marketplace, platforms remain competitive by providing the best overall user experience. In the short term, this means making platforms accessible and user friendly. In the long term, this means providing product features that excite users to onboard, interact and keep coming back to a given platform. As put more succinctly by Nick Merich of Mint Songs, “building tools wins.” 

Given the high value placed on community across Web3, many of the planned tools and features that music NFT platforms mentioned to us are social in nature, and designed to enable users to interact in new ways to form new connections with others. A key social feature mentioned numerous times and being worked on by several platforms is the addition and/or enhancement of user and artist profile pages to allow individuals to curate their personal identity on-platform, display their collections publicly and generally interact within a platform community. Similarly, multiple platforms mentioned building out their search and discovery tools to allow listeners to better explore artists and more easily find music that they might enjoy, purchase or display.

While there is some cross-platform commonality amongst these tools, others are entirely novel products that are unique to certain platforms. For example, Mint Songs developed and launched a free “poster” NFT product, wherein artists are able to mint NFTs of simple visual posters and give them away for free, requiring only that fans enter an email address. This automatically sets them up with a custodial Mint Songs wallet holding their first NFT, a digital poster by the artist they are supporting. Aside from bringing fans on to the platform, this process also serves the purpose of generating email addresses for Mint Songs and the artist, which can then be used to follow up with users and fans and develop longer-term NFT campaign release strategies.

An additional benefit of this poster strategy is that it can be easily integrated into live events and concert activations, with artists providing QR codes at venues that send users to the site to collect their concert poster NFT for free, bringing them onto the Mint Songs platform via one simple action. A recent ‘posters’ activation saw Mint Songs working with the electronic artist Subtronics to onboard fans at a 6,000-capacity live show in Florida. By displaying poster-claim QR codes around the venue, they were able to convert 10% of show attendees (400 to 500 people) into poster NFT collectors, providing both Subtronics and Mint Songs with emails they can use to follow up with each individual fan that they onboarded.  

Other platforms implement elements of “gamification” as key product features to encourage initial onboarding and incentivize long-term platform interaction. Part of the strategy behind adding gamified elements to NFT platforms is to create micro-economies with interactions that must take place directly on-platform, forcing users to continually return to the platform, interact with other users and hopefully, continue to purchase, collect and trade NFTs. 

In our sample, RCRDSHP stands out as the platform that has implemented gamification on its platform wholeheartedly. Loosely modeled after the mechanics of NBA Top Shot, RCRDSHP allows users to collect NFTs as randomized packs, with users not knowing the exact cards that they will receive in any given pack they purchase. This is similar to physical card games such as Pokémon cards or baseball trading cards — where a key part of the experience is discovering which cards are in a purchased pack — and reminiscent of the blind minting model that has seen incredible success in PFPs.

This “collector card” approach allows RCRDSHP to build many complementary features into their platform, such as encouraging swapping and trading among NFT holders, and user challenges that require collecting and holding specific cards to make a full set. For example, a recent challenge around the artist and DJ Solarstone’s RCRDSHP release encouraged users to collect a full Solarstone card set for the chance to win a 1-of-1 mythical card and to act as Solarstone’s tour manager for a show in the Netherlands. As RCRDSHP founder Obie Fernandez wrote in a blog post, the idea is for the platform to not act as “a single monolithic game, but rather a platform for making all sorts of mini, macro, and meta-games possible.” The functionality and intertwining of these games will, ideally, work to keep the game interesting for different types of users or players who onboard to the platform, and provide a sustainable user base over the long-term.  

Music NFT platforms’ heavy focus on product features and tooling is reflected in the make-up of NFT platform teams, where we generally saw a high ratio of developers to marketing staff. This point comes across clearly when we look at Async’s 20-person team, which is made up of nearly 50% developers. Mint Songs team is similarly tech-focused, boasting 13 total employees at the time of our interview, including ten developers and three artist growth personnel. That’s a ratio of approximately 3:1 developers to growth staff, and indicates the heavy importance that platforms are currently placing on building and rolling out new features and tools to animate user onboarding and continue differentiating in the marketplace. 

4. Platforms vs. protocols

Our Season 1 report examining Web3 onboarding methods for artists clarified why an artist would choose to go through the arduous onboarding process for themselves and their fans into Web3 technology, but where fans onboarded was also critical. In this parallel research thread on platform onboarding strategies, this concept of where artists/users ultimately onboard are distinct between emphasis on the front-end platform or the back-end protocol.

We can define a protocol can as a set of rules, procedures and guidelines for communicating data. Regarding protocols utilized by NFT marketplaces, a protocol provides the structure and scope for the functionality of the NFTs deployed on its smart contracts. A road vs. vehicle analogy maps nicely, namely, vehicles (marketplaces) run on roads (protocols). Mike Pollard and Eric Farber from Nina expand the analogy further, explaining that, for Nina, instead of “us driving a car that people can get in, we would rather make the road. Or let people get off at whatever exit they want.”

Many NFT marketplaces can create their frontend interface and experience around NFT purchases. Still, if they all run on the same protocol, they will experience the same limitations of the smart contracts governing the transactions around an NFT on these frontends. In the same way, when an artist decides to spin up a custom smart contract for minting an NFT project, they create the protocol level or backend for their NFT release, with the accompanying mint website acting as the frontend or platform.

One of the most popular backend protocols for music NFT platforms and experiences is Zora, which powers Catalog, Glass and Artiva and other popular Web3-native platforms like Mirror. The latest Zora V3 protocol touts “instant and cross-platform on-chain royalties,” a “finder’s fee” to incentivize curation and non-custodial NFT listings as a few of its benefits. Notably, the Zora protocol is open or free to copy and transact on.

A familiar argument favoring music NFTs is that the more popular and ubiquitous a song is, the more valuable and scarce digital asset representation will be. Similar logic applies at the protocol level: The more marketplaces that use a protocol and the more value these marketplaces add to the overall ecosystem, the more valuable that protocol is — even if the protocol is used as an open public good, benefiting the community freely. One could imagine Zora releasing a token where the protocol becomes community-owned, following the steps of other protocols and exchanges like Uniswap. This foundational structure is distinctly different from platforms like Catalog or Glass, where the goal is to drive users to the platform by providing a robust user experience and curation.

Requiring an external developer ecosystem to create value drives the onboarding strategies of protocols like Zora and Nina. Zora’s  marketplace, for example, is essentially an onboarding tool itself to the Zora protocol. As a result, while they put effort into onboarding users to their marketplace, the Zora team also spend a lot of their time promoting the Zora protocol and encouraging others to use and build on its many functionalities. 

Core Nina team members Mike Pollard and Eric Farber similarly told us that they’re investing a large portion of their time and effort to encourage building on top of the protocol to allow for “emergent activity to produce the shape on top of Nina.” They are so focused on “getting people to ‘spin up their own instances’ and have Nina power their websites” that they pay little attention to user metrics for their front-end marketplace. For Nina, the goal is for value to accrue to the broad music community through building functionality that will be useful to the people. To this end, the Nina team spends a lot of time doing hands-on onboarding (i.e., direct contact) with labels and individuals who have shown interest in building on top of the protocol. This strategy differs from targeting and reaching out to day-to-day users to understand better their needs and where Nina should go next.

5. Curated vs. open platforms

An additional key area of variance among the platforms we studied was their onboarding process’s exclusivity.

In our sample, four NFT platforms (Glass, Mint Songs, Nina, Zora) used open artist onboarding in our sample. Any artist can sign up, usually through an on-site registration process or submitting a simple form to start minting and selling NFTs immediately. In contrast, eight platforms we studied (Async, Catalog, OneOf, RCRDSHP, Royal, Sound, SountMint, Sturdy Exchange) take a more curated approach. The platforms prefer to hand-select artists, or, in the case of Sound’s referral program, look to their growing communities to help curate artists.

The specific reasons for selecting either method for artist onboarding vary from platform to platform. However, we heard multiple times from the platforms that engage in tighter, more hands-on curation that this approach was a way to test out the market and control both quality and supply.

Sound co-founder David Greenstein describes the thought process behind keeping their platform curated as stemming from market unknowns. “We thought about it from like, ‘Hey, we’re a new project, we don’t know if there’s demand for this, let’s keep it small and curated to start so that we can work out the kinks in the product before we try and scale those,” he tells us. This focused selection allowed Sound to test the market with its initial drops and ensure that they  released quality music and maximized their resources for release marketing. Sound carried out its initial “pre-season” of 20 artist drops based entirely on platform curation of artists. Rather than expanding to an  open process for S1, they opted to use their initial pre-season artist community as a means of quality control for onboarding additional artists to the platform. They allowed each pre-season artist to invite another artist in to take part in Sound’s Season 1 releases, while continuing to reach out to and curate artists themselves. “It’s basically like a joint effort between us and our artist community to help us onboard the next group,” explains Greenstein, before noting that Sound is “eventually going to be open for everybody, or that is the goal. It’s more about how do we get there and work out the kinks in the product so that we don’t grow too quickly.”

Sound’s approach is an example of where limited, early curation in the short term — if handled thoughtfully — can potentially lead to a more robust, fully open platform in the long term. OneOf and SoundMint are both following a similar trajectory as Sound. While they’ve kept their platforms closed initially, they ultimately plan to open their platforms to allow the benefits of NFTs to accrue to a broader community of emerging artists.

Other platforms see curation as core to their long-term offerings, with no plans to change moving forward. Obie Fernandez, the founder of RCRDSHP, told us their team is a big believer in closed curation. “New creators will need to be backed by community groups,” says Fernandez, noting that curation is key for a few reasons including overall artist quality control, ease of copyright administration, focused marketing resources and engagement and more platform control over aggregate supply and demand for products. “[Curation] creates demand for RCRDSHP as a unique platform,” and this is key, in Obie’s mind, for the long-term sustainability of the platform.

Catalog follows a similar path to RCRDSHP, noting that curation allows them to better understand and control market dynamics around releases. Their team wants to ensure “that most, if not all of the releases sell out” and allows more control to “be sure every artist is likely to do well with their audience.” This artist-centric thinking around employing closed curation relates to our earlier point regarding the importance of artists as critical vectors for fan onboarding. Launching a music NFT platform as curation-only, at least to begin with, allows platforms to hone in on and work with artists who are well-positioned to support platform growth and then to use these artists as a means of bootstrapping fan engagement, based on an artist’s existing fanbase. Ultimately, curated artist onboarding is a strategy used in a complementary way by music NFT platforms to catalyze user onboarding. 

(A differing perspective on curation worth considering emerged from a discussion in the W&M community earlier this year, where community members wondered whether curation results in a music and Web3 landscape that is too “cliquey” and exclusive, with commercial and partnership opportunities arising mainly from preexisting relationships and “who you know.” There is some data to support this thesis of exclusivity and wealth concentration, including a 2021 Scientific Reports article that notes 97% of all NFTs and 87% of all transactions pass through just 10% of collectors — a dynamic that suggests the burgeoning community of people participating in NFTs may not be representative of a concentrated group of market movers. We don’t currently have any available data to help explore whether this trend holds within the “music” subset of the overall NFT ecosystem. Still, we recognize its importance as a key narrative within the music NFT community and will continue to explore it moving forward.)

On the opposite end, those platforms that used open curation models emphasized the democratic nature of the experience and the advantages of allowing emerging artists to mint on their platforms. While curation can help define a clear platform audience vis-à-vis the selected artists’ existing followings, open platforms benefit from scale, where a wide diversity of artists from around the world can experiment with NFTs and explore theirpossibilities and limitations.

The tradeoff is  platform depth (curation) vs. breadth (open). Where curation ideally helps onboard dense groups of curated artists’ fans, open platforms benefit from having many  artists carrying out different scales of fan onboarding.

6. The importance of data

Another common theme across all platforms studied is data and metrics to inform platform onboarding strategies. All of the platforms used some form of data to guide their thinking, though there was a broad spectrum of approaches taken. 

Sound, for example, is focused on the number of dollars going to artists on the platform and track supplementary stats like the number of overall collectors (those who purchased an NFT) on the platform. At the time of our interview, Sound had 800 collectors and growing, and explained that this statistic helps them hone in on the number of “unique buyers,” which also acts as a metric to gauge overall community size and evaluate the effectiveness of their onboarding strategies.

The Mint Songs team seemingly goes deeper on numerical data than any others in our sample. Their team tracks users across the entire onboarding funnel, using trailing metrics to understand changes across time, get a better idea of the friction points in their onboarding process and consistently rethink their platform design. Likewise, OneOf used data to better understand its user profile and target onboarding efforts to that audience. Underlying platform data helped the OneOf team establish that the visual art aspect of music NFTs on the platform was driving purchases more than the musical artists and their songs. This insight allowed them to better target collectors’ onboarding efforts as their primary revenue driver.

Platforms also focused on tracking activity in their official Discord servers as a proxy for understanding onboarding success and user sentiment. SoundMint runs a token-gated Discord server and carefully tracks its overall active membership, comparing it against the number of verified collectors also active in the server. This data allowed them to examine a short-term trend that showed their overall Discord membership decreasing. While this metric alone might be worrying, when the team dug into the overall number of active collectors in the server, they saw that the number of verified collectors statistics was actually increasing. This insight allowed them to better target groups exiting the server to keep them engaged. Similarly, RCRDSHP keeps a close eye on their Discord server, tracking the reactions of active members to each of their artist drops and using that quantitative and qualitative data to understand which artists are producing positive fan response, and relatedly which user onboarding strategies being employed in artist campaigns are working.

Still, while recognizing that tracking metrics could be important in the long term, some platforms were more interested in allowing their communities to grow emergently. The team at Nina told us that they had tracked some basic eCommerce metrics since launch but did not use metrics as a focus or to create targets. They are wary of using metrics to measure success because they are unsure of success. Nina currently focuses on bringing artists and users onto their marketplace platform organically and is targeting music lovers broadly, rather than trying to fit users into top-down, data-driven profiles. Mike Pollard and Eric Farber told us that they want to engage people “who are maybe hesitant or have not yet engaged or experienced Web3 to be able to play around,” and focusing too much on the terminology of NFTs can detract from this experience. Nonetheless, the Nina team isn’t anti-data and continues to listen, learn, and explore what “tracking progress” means and whether metrics might be helpful for them during this dynamic growth period.


CONCLUSION

Our primary goal with this piece is to provide a means for artists, fans, collectors, and developers to understand better the various onboarding strategies implemented by platforms in the music NFT ecosystem and use this information to inform and improve their projects.

Our analysis uncovered several thematic approaches to onboarding taken by platforms. With the line among artists, fans, and collectors blurred, artists and their surrounding creative communities are critical linchpins in platform onboarding strategies. Most platforms focused on promoting drops through artist networks and marketing campaigns. We also saw a continuation of the theme of “doing things that don’t scale” from our parallel S1 research on artists’ fan onboarding strategies. Direct outreach and one-on-one support for onboarding famous and emerging artists to platforms and supporting users as they first encounter a platform was the gold standard among our sample. These methods allowed platforms to help users overcome knowledge and technical barriers early on. There is certainly a parallel to our music DAO research discussion on music DAOs’ growth strategies taking a light stance on tech and automated smart contracts but heavy emphasis on community and manual onboarding processes.

Providing strong usability and platform feature tooling further helped platforms to support users’ past common pain points in the onboarding process, such as wallet setup and payment. We also found that understanding the difference between protocols and platforms is crucial to understanding a company’s mission, end game use of data and specific onboarding approaches.

Several of our interviewees also stressed that their platform onboarding and marketing strategies change almost daily as they collect more data and learn how the marketplace reacts to offerings. Referring back to our earlier discussion of the development of the nascent Web2 streaming platform ecosystem in the early 2000s, it’s clear just how fluid and dynamic platform strategies need to be to capture artist and user attention. Looking at the graphic of early Web2 streaming players from earlier and the massive number of platforms competing for market share during the rise of streaming, we can easily see the parallels to the current music NFT ecosystem, featuring over 90 competing platforms.

Whether we’ll see the same consolidation to an ecosystem with a small group of companies (Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music) dominating the majority of the market is a question for the future. In the meantime, it’s clear that decisions music NFT platforms make around strategies for onboarding will influence whether they can grow into sustainable, long-term players in the market, leading to the continued development of complex relationships among platforms, protocols, artists, fans and collectors.

Future research directions

Given how early we are in music/Web3, there are many potential avenues for future research and the expansion of meta-knowledge and resources around onboarding to music/Web3 platforms.

One key area that we felt was missing from the onboarding strategies of the platforms we studied was providing services in multiple languages, which might create latitude for new approaches to emerge. Although several platforms we studied attempt to cater to numerous languages through specific Discord channels (Async, Mint Songs, Nina, Zora), there were no systematic resources to broaden accessibility in the onboarding process to include additional languages. We know that some platforms are aware of the problem. The team from Catalog, for instance, expressed support for efforts in the broad NFT ecosystem “toward translating onboarding materials into other languages to build a global community.” Translating all platform explainers and FAQ sections into various languages is a recommendation that we support and could provide a simple step forward to actively increasing diversity among artists, fans and collectors in the NFT ecosystem, especially for resource-strapped platforms that might be unable to support onboarding staff for one-on-one support in multiple languages.

At W&M, we recognize the importance of diversity and accessibility related to language, have begun to think critically about our internal accessibility policies, and are making language accessibility a key component of our research output. As part of our $STREAM Season 1.5 Report, we will be including an article describing the process that a team of W&M community researchers undertook to translate the $STREAM S1 Report into Spanish, as well as a complete Spanish translation of our S1 Report. This translation project serves the dual purpose of ensuring that W&M’s work can be read and used by the massive global Latin American community while also significantly expanding the audience for our research products. We are also listening closely to our membership at W&M, as they help guide our thinking on these issues and lead us towards building a more open, diverse and accessible organization.

Finally, additional research into artists’ perceptions of their position in the music Web3 ecosystem could help us better understand the dynamics facilitated by platforms looking to artists as catalysts for their onboarding momentum. As platforms continue to embrace the Web3 ethos of openness and platform data becomes publicly available, further detailed data analysis to track and understand NFT sales and user retention across platforms (both on- and off-chain) will allow us to better evaluate the efficacy of the strategies we’ve covered in this study. Moving forward, W&M will continue to track, survey and research the music/Web3 landscape, with an eye to the systems level trends that are driving its evolution.

Editor’s note: A quote from Zora’s community lead Latashá was originally misattributed in this article. We regret the error and have updated the piece to reflect the accurate quote attribution.


Contributors

Brodie Conley (A, B, C, E)
Yung Spielberg (A, B, C, E)
Marcus Martinez (B, C, E)
Andres Botero (B, C, E)
Alex Webbs (B, C, E)
Lindsey Lonadier (B, C, E)
Julie Kwak (B, C, E)
JhennyArt (B, E)
Xhjyl (B, E)
Joshua Glazer (B, E)
Holiday Sidewinder (B, E)
Duff Ferguson (B, E)
Dorothée Parent-Roy (B, E)
Chrissy Greco (B, E)
Maarten Walraven (B, E)
Ryan Abary (B, E)
Cherie Hu (C, E)
Mary Maguire (C, E)
Jacob DeGuzman (C, E) 
Iman Bright (B)
Karma.wav (B)
Brandon Landowski (C)
Christina Calio (C)
Katherine Rodgers (C)
Jack Spallone (C)
Scott Korchinski (C)
Jason Meinzer (C)
Alisha Alvarez (C)
Garrett Frierson (C)
Ana Carolina (D)

Diana Gremore (E)
Jillian Jones (E)
Isaac Vallentin (E)
Lee Martin (E)
Alex Flores (E)
Kevin Duquette (E)
Dave “BlackDave” Curry (E)
Abhijit Nath (E)
Armen Nalbandian (E)
Dani Ballcells (E)
Duncan Lindsay (E)
Andrew Forman (E)
William Gary (E)
Patrick McDermott (E)
Nick Merich (F)
Nikki Bean (F)
Eric Johnson (F)
Obie Fernandez (F)
Mike Pollard (F)
Eric Farber (F)
David Greenstein (F)
Alex Siber (F)
Dayo Adeosun (F)
Andre Benz (F)
Lisandro Tolentino (F)
Connor Moy (F)
Matthew Goulet (F)
Alex Alpert (F)
3LAU (F)
Latashá (F)
Achilleas Sarantaris (F)
Violetta Zironi (F)
Kaitlyn Raitz (F)

(A) Project leads
(B) Music NFT platform interviewers
(C) Meta-synthesis writers & editors
(D) Visualization
(E) Project development & background research
(F) Interviewees

Appendix

Platform onboarding interview questions
Platform onboarding pre-interview survey

W&M lifetime membership NFTs to support our work