The state of music DAOs
tl;dr — More than 30 online music and creator communities now self-identify as decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs). Over the last two months, we interviewed more than 15 leaders from a wide range of music DAOs to gain perspective on possibilities for their respective organizations in this emerging framework, using Web3 tools and strategies unavailable to the traditional music industry. Ultimately, we found the leaders we spoke with viewed the concept of a DAO not as technical infrastructure, but rather as an abstract social signal to mobilize online communities. Their approach and perspective differed — sometimes vastly — from the token-focused or on-chain-dependent ethos common to many protocol-centric DAOs that came before them.
This is Part I 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 DAOs are listed at the bottom of this page, sorted by role. 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.
The music industry’s mental models for what is possible with Web3 are changing rapidly in real-time. Music NFTs continue to gain steam with backing from major celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Steve Aoki, even as the ecosystem suffers from rampant scams and accusations of fraud. But as we covered in our Season 1 report on music/Web3 tools for artists, the major music/Web3 opportunity arguably lies on the scale not of maximizing short-term profitability but of sustaining long-term community and culture.
Several startups are emerging to build more sustainable community experiences around music tokens — whether that takes the form of Web3-native fan/community rewards, royalty co-investment structures or open-source, public-goods approaches to building fundamentally Web3-based music products. The presence of music communities mobilizing around a shared purpose and manifesting it via shared access to Web3-native capital and tooling is the substrate connecting these emerging forms of utility. Not only is this distributed model impossible in the traditional Web2 music industry, but it also wouldn’t appeal to the structures that govern it.
More and more of these Web3-native music communities are now self-identifying as decentralized autonomous organizations, or DAOs for short — pointing to what will likely trigger the next big wave of investment in music/Web3 experiences alongside NFTs.
It’s crucial to note that there’s relatively little agreement among even today’s foremost DAO practitioners about what a “DAO” is — we’ll dive into that later. But in the current landscape, some shared implicit characteristics across self-described DAOs include membership, financing and governance activities that are mediated by tokens and can be viewed transparently on the blockchain by the wider public.
DAOs offer flatter organizational structures, which are a powerful social force for music communities to mobilize against the backdrop of Web2 music-industry concerns around financial transparency, equality and data collection practices. Recent news like Epic Games’ acquisition of Bandcamp has raised fears within independent music communities about ongoing industry consolidation and gatekeeping mechanisms shutting out emerging or marginalized voices. Money flows in recorded music remain complex and opaque, and margins on streaming remain prohibitively low for 99% of artists.
On a more positive note, the equity-through-contribution model, or “proof of work,” that permeates many DAOs has a direct line to the participatory nature of many global fan cultures. In short, anyone can become a meaningful participant or even stakeholder in a DAO by contributing instead of holding a certain amount of capital. The concept of a music DAO feels welcome with open arms, in contrast to how music NFTs continue to polarize audiences globally with an entrenched, negative association with get-rich-quick schemes. This disconnect makes a path toward community and culture-building in music and Web3 relatively unexplored to date, and ripe for experimentation.
According to our ongoing music/Web3 dashboard, over 30 online music and creator communities and collectives self-identify as DAOs. These self-described DAOs take on various forms. For example:
- NoiseDAO and Morii Music are investment DAOs focused on backing Web3-native artists and music NFTs.
- MODA DAO and CreateDAO are industry-facing DAOs looking to improve music data/tooling.
- Holly+ and The Song That Owns Itself are co-ownership or co-stewardship DAOs around an artist’s IP.
At this critical juncture in the music industry’s relationship with Web3, now is the perfect time to investigate the rapid rise of music DAOs. By focusing on how artist and label communities are looking to use DAO infrastructure to reinvent their approach to community engagement, financing and decision-making, we can speculate on the sources of momentum in the music DAO landscape at large, and mitigate any hindrances along the way.
Over two months, we interviewed over 15 different music DAO leaders for perspective on what they can accomplish in their respective organizations’ Web3 frameworks. This distillation aims to unpack the prohibitive facets of the Web2 music industry, and uncover significant pain points that remain on these DAO leaders’ paths toward executing their visions.
METHODOLOGY + DISCLAIMERS:
As with most of our research, the inspiration for this project started with a message in the Water & Music Discord server in late December 2021 — in this case, from W&M founder Cherie Hu:
At the time, we found that several of our community members were building out artist/label DAOs. However, they were hard-pressed to find concrete, accessible resources for understanding how exactly other DAOs were building out their operations, especially along the axes of community management, governance and tokenomics. So, we set out to create such a resource ourselves in response.
To get started, we coordinated a follow-up research project on artist/label DAO tech stacks in our Discord server, building from the research we did in Season 1 regarding music/Web3 tools for artists. After consulting the community, we concluded that a weekly interview series would be more valuable in capturing the state of music DAOs than a single long-form report in our two-month timeframe, given how quickly the DAO landscape changes. (This format aligns with an idea we seeded in our Season 1 recap post: Embracing a more iterative publishing cadence for the sake of raising more awareness of our research.)
Initially, we assumed our research on music DAOs would be tech-centered (like the broader DAO landscape), focusing on tasks like mapping the tooling market for music DAOs and tracking these DAOs’ token prices and treasury sizes. However, what ultimately resulted was a much more qualitative than quantitative study of music DAOs. This shift was in line with the primarily cultural rather than technical or financial nature in which our interviewees presented themselves and understood the role of DAOs in the music industry.
It’s noteworthy that our community-driven methodology may have impacted this qualitative output. To prepare for the interviews, we brainstormed an extensive list of initial questions in collaboration with our members, covering various topics including community design, governance strategy and treasury management.
Ultimately, 13 interviewers in our community paired up to interview and profiled eleven artist/label DAOs over eight weeks. Contributors would also run through interview summaries on member-exclusive calls in our Discord server every Wednesday evening, often bringing in the DAO leaders themselves to give additional context on our findings. Over the last two months, these calls became a core learning/synthesis “ritual” in our research community.
Each week from January 19, 2022, we published summaries of our interviews exclusively for Water & Music members, in the following order:
- Dreams Never Die
- Sone (spinoff of Topshelf Records)
- Mudd DAO
- GENRE (spinoff of Leaving Records)
- Good Karma Records
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of music-related DAOs. Still, we think it is representative of a wide range of motivations for artists and music organizations to consider starting DAOs — from Web2-native record labels looking to move into Web3 to fully Web3-native experiments in generative, on-chain art, to curious music collectives falling somewhere in between. In selecting participants, we prioritized projects that center artist/label communities (as opposed to, say, blockchain protocols) and actively self-identify as DAOs (as opposed to, say, an artist with a social token but who does not see their community as a “DAO”). Ultimately, having an active token was not a hard prerequisite for inclusion in this series, as we sought to capture the full spectrum of decision-making about when and why to start a DAO and how quickly to move.
The chart below shows how the artist/label DAOs we interviewed differ across several variables including, legal status, source(s) of funding, established governance models, community familiarity with Web3 and more. (A more detailed table, with more context on tech stacks, pain points and lessons learned, is available here.)
Disclaimer: Contributors’ affiliations with DAOs
Many of the contributors to this research project are active contributors or token holders in multiple DAOs — including a few that we interviewed like Sone, SongADAO, Leaving Records/GENRE and Songcamp, plus other tokenized communities like Friends With Benefits, LNRZ and Daniel Allan & Friends.
Water & Music takes the position that embedded affiliation within a community should not prohibit one from writing about it. In contrast, we believe that being embedded in a community allows for individuals to develop a more nuanced understanding of how that community thinks and behaves, which arguably leads to better writing and critique.
That said, as a matter of W&M policy, we require that all community contributors proactively disclose any affiliations that they may have with organizations we study. We confirmed that none of our community interviewers were directly employed or affiliated with the specific platforms they were assigned to cover. Our proactive disclosure policy aims to ensure that we are as transparent as possible with our audience and that our researchers maintain an appropriate degree of separation from the subjects in our research.
I. WHAT IS A “MUSIC DAO,” ANYWAY?
One of the most significant takeaways from across our music DAO interviews was the lack of shared fundamentals on what a DAO is in the first place. This ambiguity is not unique to the music industry. Instead, it is endemic to the broader DAO landscape as a whole, which itself is not even a decade old.
A brief history: In 2014, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin first presented a definition of a DAO that reflected the highly protocol-centric nature of the Web3 ecosystem at the time — “automation at the center, humans at the edges.” The vision was that while a DAO certainly still needs humans to perform and oversee specific tasks where computers fall short, the protocols by which contributors are incentivized and rewarded for coordination are “specified in code, and enforced on the blockchain,” in Buterin’s words.
Fast-forward eight years, and the DAO landscape has changed quite dramatically.
Sure, the largest-scale DAOs (as measured by treasury size, number of governance token holders and number of proposals) are still built around highly technical blockchain/DeFi protocols and applications, including ENS DAO, Aave, Uniswap, Compound and Olympus. Further,most definitions of DAOs put forth by these organizations remain similarly technical:
- The definition of a DAO on Ethereum’s official website mentions a fully public, on-chain record of organizational activity, as well as a governance system that requires member input to implement changes and executes on those changes automatically without the involvement of any external intermediary.
- DAOstar, a collective developing a shared metadata standard for DAOs, has structured their standard according to three variables: Membership (i.e., a set of wallet addresses), behavior (i.e. a group of possible smart-contract actions) and proposals (i.e., objects that members interact with that, if and when executed, become behaviors).
- Multi-chain smart contract protocol Juno defines DAOs as “programmable organizations with easily inspectable states.”
But in recent months, art, culture and entertainment have led to mainstream awareness of DAOs. PleasrDAO, a DAO founded by visual artist pplpleasr focused on collecting valuable digital artworks, made national headlines in October 2021 when they became the owner of the single copy of the Wu-Tang Clan’s album Once Upon A Time in Shaolin. Then in November 2021, ConstitutionDAO raised $47 million in an attempt to win a Sotheby’s auction for one of the original copies of the US Constitution. Even though they ultimately lost the auction, the feat introduced many people to the concept of a DAO for the first time, and successfully mobilized over 15,000 Internet strangers around a shared vision. In March of 2022, The New York Times profiled the culture DAO Friends With Benefits, billing the org as an exclusive “crypto social club.”
These and many culture DAOs follow roughly the same journey: A community of digital natives coalesces in a Discord server, Discourse forum, or Telegram group around a strong, shared set of purposes, values and interests, without necessarily having a clear roadmap for how they will manifest that purpose. While this emergent approach to organizational development may be perfect for adapting to the speed at which culture moves, it has also created an environment where many communities are spinning up and calling themselves a “DAO” without a token or a decentralized governance structure. Embracing a decentralized mindset without proper infrastructure can be frustrating to many practitioners with more technical grounding in Web3.
At the heart of this tension is a fundamental clash among the social, technical and financial definitions of DAOs. At large, it’s important to remember that people, not computers, start DAOs — and, therefore, that DAO beginnings and descriptions are subject to the exact boundaries of prior knowledge, influence and bias as their founders.
In stark contrast to the largest protocol DAOs, most of the music DAOs we interviewed emphasized their organizations’ social and financial sides, but not the technical side. They saw the word “DAO” as more of a social signal, with outward messaging emphasizing the value-add of DAOs from the vantage points of community-building and shared financing, without a focus on tokens or the blockchain. Some highlights:
The only technical-leaning definitions we heard in our interviews came from music DAOs that inherently focus more on access to technology as a critical value-add for DAO members. Unsurprisingly, these DAOs also tend to be founded by individuals with a more profound technical knowledge of Web3. A few examples:
- Julian Mudd — founder of Mudd DAO, which is looking to build open infrastructure for musicians to create their own generative artworks on-chain — defines a DAO as “a structure and means where decision-making is in the hands of more than one person and facilitated by technology.”
- Mat Dryhurst — creative technologist and partner to Holly Herndon and one of the main contributors to the Holly+ DAO — defines a DAO as “shared governance of a treasury or asset using cryptographic identities.”
The music DAO landscape is still so early that to try to impose a rigid definition of a DAO onto these emerging communities may be disingenuously putting the cart before the horse. However, standardized frameworks are arguably necessary to make DAOs accessible to a broader audience (especially in search, discoverability and tooling). A parallel discussion is currently happening in the world of music NFTs, where music/Web3 founders are pushing for metadata standardization as a prerequisite for building smoother discovery and collaboration experiences around NFTs. And while the social signaling definition of a DAO tends to highlight what a group of people will want to do, the technical definition is still crucial in defining exactly how a group of people can act, and on what.
However the artist/label DAOs in our study define themselves, it’s clear that nearly all of them prioritize culture and community-building in the short term, as a hopeful path to profit and sustainability in the long term. In addition, they see consistent community engagement and concrete cultural output (e.g., signing/releasing new work by emerging artists or building public goods for music communities) as more critical to sustaining their DAOs than fluency with the underlying blockchain technology.
II. HORIZONTAL, MULTIMODAL MEMBERSHIP DESIGN
As we’ll discuss further below, music DAOs are behind compared to the rest of the DAO ecosystem when it comes to certain variables for measuring a DAO’s “maturity,” such as on-chain governance activity, treasury size and custom Web3 tooling.
But where music DAOs are arguably far ahead — and where other DAOs outside the music industry could draw inspiration — lies in novel and thoughtful approaches to community-building. In particular, many of the music DAOs we interviewed had strong visions for blurring the lines among artists, fans and contributors, painting a picture of a future where communication and decision-making structures are more horizontal rather than vertical. In addition, with a critical eye on potentially over-financialized social tokens alone, several DAOs we interviewed are exploring more fluid, multi-token (or even hybrid Web2/Web3) approaches to DAO membership. These methods tend to incorporate a combination of social/governance tokens, NFTs and fiat payments.
Participatory artist/fan cultures in Web3
To be sure, the notion of fan culture as participatory culture is nothing new. Since the advent of the Internet (or, in the context of this article, “Web1”) at the turn of the 21st century, music fans have consistently been early adopters of new technologies and business models for creative expression and community-building, from online forums to crowdfunding and paid memberships. Today, there are entire businesses and even industries built upon horizontal, participatory creative communities, not just in music (e.g., K-pop fan armies) but also in literature (e.g., Wattpad) and film (e.g., anime cosplay).
Many of the DAOs we interviewed for this project hope to carry on this participatory legacy into Web3 — using tokens as a means to narrow the gap between artists and fans not just culturally in terms of access and collaboration but also financially in terms of more widely distributed profits.
- In their official launch post on Mirror, Good Karma Records declares that “it’s time for a convergence between fans and the artists they supported … Web3 is where artists thrive and fans are a real part of their growth.”
- Songcamp’s team is intentionally designing their community as one where “fans become friends,” combatting the direction they’ve seen mainstream music culture travel where “people have not been taught to participate, but more to consume,” in the words of Will Juergens.
- Artist RAC is designing the community around his $RAC token to facilitate multidirectional interactions among his fans in his Discord server in the short term and to ensure his community can sustain itself long-term in a platform-agnostic, technically decentralized way.
One core difference you might expect to see between Web2- vs. Web3-native participatory fan cultures is that “contributors” in the former are typically driven more by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations. In other words, tokens don’t usually exist as a financial reward for contributing to these communities; instead, members are motivated by more abstract benefits such as the opportunity to interact directly with a given creator or to bond with Internet strangers over shared interests.
From the DAO member’s perspective, the highly emergent nature of what a “music DAO” isin the first place means that potential contributors to music DAOs are often roped into a community by more intrinsic incentives first and foremost — because no alternative motivating factors exist.
Houndtrack, an artist in the W&M community who is a member of several budding music DAOs, including hedsDAO and LNRZ, tells us that he “didn’t know what a DAO was other than it being a group of people, and the technicality of what a DAO was didn’t really matter” to him at the time that he joined these communities. Instead, his primary motivating factor was to learn directly from fellow musicians exploring Web3; to date, most of this learning has taken place in Discord, without any formal governance structure wrapping around it.
“Neither DAO has a very formal structure,” says Houndtrack, who describes his day-to-day interactions in these DAOs as “mostly chat[ting] about shared interests like music production, music technology, music recommendations, new NFT projects and our own personal NFT sales.” Namely, similar to a Web2 membership model, access rather than financial return becomes the ultimate utility of joining the community.
Fluid, multimodal membership tiers
With all this said, the few music DAOs on our interview list who have drawn clear connections between intrinsic and extrinsic incentives for contributors are pioneering more fluid, multimodal membership models for Web3. By combining NFTs and social tokens, and in some cases Web2 and Web3 infrastructure at large, these DAOs early frameworks could serve as templates for other DAOs outside the music industry.
For instance, Jonathan Mann’s SongADAO has multiple membership levels in their overarching community, with a clear delineation between passive financial supporters and active DAO contributors (see chart below). Any owners of the genesis Song A Day NFTs can access the DAO’s private Discord server and participate in non-binding Snapshot votes but need to verify their identity with Bright ID to gain on-chain voting power concerning directing treasury funds. Another way to become a core contributor to the DAO is to participate as a “builder” and help grow the value of the SongADAO (e.g., by facilitating a movie or TV placement for a song from the Song A Day archive or covering or remixing a piece). These builders are compensated in ETH rather than NFTs or social tokens to avoid a future imbalance of governance power.
Similarly, Sone envisions a multitiered membership model for their DAO, encompassing fungible and non-fungible tokens. Drawing inspiration from the Harberger tax model, they plan on implementing NFT-gated memberships that can be traded at any time using Radicle Drips. This feature allows any Ethereum wallet owner to stream funds periodically to any other Ethereum wallet. Moreover, NFT ownership will be a prerequisite for contributing to the Sone DAO in the first place, which in turn gets rewarded through the DAO’s governance token. This case demonstrates a clear, on-chain distinction among passive supporters, active contributors and core decision-makers in a community — highlighting the unique opportunity for DAOs to develop highly-customized hierarchical structures tailored toward specific community use-cases.
III. LACK OF TECHNOLOGY
From a technical standpoint, an initial hypothesis was that DAO tech stacks, and especially Web3 tools that provide trustless coordination benefits, would act as enablers of DAO growth, giving structure and a means of overcoming coordination and scaling issues.
However, what we found with the music DAOs we studied was undoubtedly not as clear-cut a result as expected. While many of these DAOs embrace some operational tooling in their tech stacks and even in-house tools in some cases, none of the DAOs have, to date, used out-of-the-box tools to help determine the structures and rules that make up their formal governance and organizational regimes. In fact, some DAOs in our sample, including Dreams Never Die and Ampled, have intentionally avoided a public focus on Web3 technology out of fear of shutting out community members financially or hindering the general onboarding experience.
Third-party, task-based tools
Many of the DAOs we studied use technology to manage many operational aspects of their organizations. However, most of these tools are no different than what you might find in a traditional company. For all the narrative around the technological advancements made possible by blockchain technology, many music DAOs are not utilizing them yet. The large majority of DAOs we studied, for instance, still use Discord to manage overall member communication and facilitate easy day-to-day interactions. Most also use the Google suite of tools to collaborate on documents, alongside services like Notion and Figma for specific tasks like project management and prototyping.
On the flip side, only a few of the music DAOs we studied have incorporated the use of Web3-native tools to enable better coordination. In contrast such tools might be table stakes for more protocol-centric DAOs. When asked about treasury management tools, only a small handful of our respondents mentioned using Gnosis Safe multisig wallets, which allow DAOs to support treasury security by requiring multiple signers for treasury transactions and are common amongst investment DAOs. Only two DAOs in our study have used Snapshot to carry out community votes efficiently (many others have expressed an intent to use this tool). Additionally, a few DAOs like GENRE / Leaving Records use tools like Collab.Land to token-gate certain parts of their Discord communities.
The tools used widely across artist and label DAOs are modularized and enable the efficient management and completion of singular, basic tasks that every DAO requires (financial management, treasury security, voting, project management, etc.). We call them task-based tools.
The extent to which these tools communicate with each other automatically depends on the integration capabilities of the tools themselves and the stage of a given music DAO development. For instance, some DAOs in our sample do not yet have tokens and, therefore, cannot use Snapshot or Collab.Land. The Good Karma Records team also pointed out that ideally, an automated system should combine Web3-native token distribution and governance from a given treasury. In reality, due to fragmented tooling, governance and fund distribution are treated as two separate steps.
A small contingent of DAOs in our sample have developed or are currently developing their in-house tools: A public-goods music streaming protocol (Sone), a machine learning-based musical instrument (Holly+), a Discord music bot (Songcamp), a generative music tool (Mudd DAO) and even an entire website and complete toolset for an NFT mint (SongADAO). These tools mainly fall into the category of tools as outward-facing products, rather than internal operational tools described above, helping to onboard new users to communities and as products to promote community goals and generate revenues.
Mudd DAO is the one outlier in our sample that indicated its intention to develop its in-house tools for operations, including building an on-chain voting tool à la Snapshot. Founder Julian Mudd referred to Gmail’s origin as an in-house tool for Google as inspiration for his own DAO’s product roadmap. Notably, the foundational tech that enables Mudd DAO members to combine stems and create together is also a product of the DAO that is licensable through NFT ownership. When asked why an emerging DAO might feel it is essential to spend limited resources building its own tooling that may be similar to existing off-the-shelf products, Julian brought up the concept of “technical debt,” or “the coding you must do tomorrow because you took a shortcut in order to deliver the software today.” Building in-house gives the DAO more control over infrastructure, therefore protecting it from exposure to outside failure or massive costs to re-tool if and when existing tools change or cease to exist.
IV. SLOW GOVERNANCE
Suppose the assumed allure and narrative of DAOs revolve around contribution as a path to ownership, ultimately leading to a group of people with a set of aligned values who end up in a seat of control through work as opposed to previously accrued capital. In that case, a central question to our research was finding out how exactly a decentralized approach to decision-making manifests in the specific operations of an artist/label DAO.
Our most notable discovery on the topic was that governance models for Web3 music culture are still largely unestablished. The DAOs in our sample have experimented with one-off token-weighted votes on apps like Snapshot and emoji-react votes on apps like Discord. Still, they have yet to formalize governance systems covering all aspects of their respective operations. (Ironically, perhaps the organization with the most fleshed-out decision-making structure in our sample set, Ampled, is a cooperative that has decided not to become a DAO due to cultural/onboarding reasons.)
There are a few potential reasons for this slow socialization to formalizing governance processes and tools. First, governance is difficult for any community, and moving fast to implement well-defined organizational structures is generally not a good idea. The governance dilemma is especially true in the world of DAOs, where trust, shared values and strong relationships form the substrate that binds communities. DAOs need to consult with and understand their community needs and how these might evolve before imposing complex structures when building for community ownership.
We saw evidence of these processes of early community value development across several of the DAOs we examined, especially for DAOs with non-technical founders:
- Dreams Never Die doesn’t have a clear roadmap for rolling out their governance token, but does have a well-established onboarding and Web3-education flow in their Discord server and several community-oriented initiatives ongoing such as a songwriting camp.
- Zach Miller, one of the lead contributors to Sone, advises that “you can’t just throw governance on people and say go,” highlighting the hazards of a token and launching it without first having formed a strong community that believes in the values underlying the organization.
- Phlote’s policy of hard-limiting decentralized decision-making to curation — using “is the song good or not?” as the single question the community needs to answer — is an example of introducing ideas of decentralized governance to cultural communities over time in smaller increments.
In general, slow governance seems to be part and parcel of the Web3 music culture we’ve explored — perhaps a vital feature of a focus on empowering niche communities and cultures instead of merely scaling up as more protocol-centric DAOs might do.
The challenge of decentralizing creativity
The notion of applying DAO-maximalist levels of decentralization to creative decision-making has been taboo in artist and celebrity circles for decades. As David Bowie put it: “Never play to the gallery … I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations.”
The sample of DAOs we covered embraced a similar ethos regarding decentralizing creativity: The emphasis of decentralized power across music DAOs leans towards higher-level decisions around treasury allocation and artist support but rarely touches creative choices.
In their interview, Dreams Never Die founders Chad Hillard and Cole Ryan walked us through the logic of the majority governance setup we saw. The main takeaway: If you decide an artist or team is talented and inspiring, you should empower them to make their art — and don’t take control away. This focus on empowerment differs both from the traditional label model of top-down commercialization in creative processes (e.g. writing songs “fit” for Spotify playlists) and from the trustless governance models with protocol-centric DAOs, where decisions are put entirely in the hands of token holders. In the spirit of the Web3 ecosystem, artists themselves become a platform and locus around which all other operations and decisions coalesce. Although a community-driven team mobilizes to uplift an artist in this model, the structure is hardly decentralized.
Of all the music DAOs we covered, only SongADAO and GENRE intend to put any creative decisions to a community vote. SongADAO will do this through “non-binding Snapshot polls to provide creative input for the project.” Similarly, GENRE’s founder Matthew McQueen “feels it is important to pilot decision-making systems with art-driven projects first before finalizing the governance system with respect to the treasury.” Still, in either case, the voting processes do not finalize creative decisions immutably.
There is also the open question about the role of a visionary cultural founder in an organization as it becomes progressively more decentralized. Any new organization, cultural or otherwise, tends to benefit from the drive and energy of that first crazy person with an idea (the founder-dictator), rather than from the decentralized, self-organizing identity that a DAO would have. Should any creative DAO assume that the visionary founder will eventually have to step away and relinquish creative control to the broader community?
Aside from creative control, there’s also the issue of decentralizing communication and the pace of operations. Establishing reliable action methods around decision-making in a community depends a lot on who is inside that community — and how easy it is to enter. Are these decision-makers simply people who bought an NFT or social token? Or do they need more context or proof of work to earn governance power? All of those activities can provide a base level of trust to build governance models on — and, on the flipside, the absence of this level of clarity can push an otherwise cohesive creative operation off the rails.
Artist-centric DAOs we analyzed displayed these tensions most fully — namely RAC DAO, SongADAO and Holly+, built around the creative works of RAC, Jonathan Mann and Holly Herndon, respectively. These artist DAOs are moving slowly and cautiously for good reason: An artist’s identity, digital presence, legacy and community are at stake. A thoughtful, communally agreed-upon proof-of-work model for DAO membership helps to ensure that decisions are stewarded only by those who understand (and have meaningfully participated in increasing) the value of a given artist’s work. With that shared baseline of community care — which can take months, if not years, of sustained financial and emotional investment to establish — the artist/founder at the center of a DAO could then peacefully decentralize control of those works.
There are a growing number of options for full-service, out-of-the-box DAO tools that focus on governance solutions (DaoStack, Daohaus, and Colony, among a growing list of many others) and individual tools that enable specific forms of governance (Orca Protocol). The Metagovernance Project provides a helpful, non-exhaustive database of the many online governance tools available. Unlike the more task-centric tools described above, these tools often come packaged with built-in systems for governance, including templates for DAO organizational structures and protocols for carrying out key governance processes such as voting.
Those focused on a more technical definition of a DAO might say that these tools provide an inherently normative framework for how governance in a DAO should look. When choosing a specific DAO governance tool for the tech stack, DAOs are making critical decisions regarding the values and governance processes that will guide their organization into the future. These processes are broad in scope, including power distribution, member voice prioritization and formal voter designations.
At this point, none of the DAOs in our study have adopted any of these higher-level design tools to organize their own internal governance processes, beyond the few who have used Snapshot for one-off token-driven votes. While our sample is relatively small, this overall trend of avoiding available tools for structuring DAO governance suggests that artist/label DAOs are taking their time to establish healthy community relationships and values before imposing any given governance model.
Even if DAOs are able to establish robust and transparent community values and shared goals for governance outputs, it takes an abundance of resources for DAO teams to decide best practices to convert community values into practice. Though a growing canon of research explores where the theoretical and practical aspects of governance meet in DAOs, there still isn’t a reliable resource that provides analysis at the meta-level, exploring the comparative advantages and disadvantages of different governance systems and DAO tooling solutions. As a result, it is particularly difficult for emerging, resource-strapped DAOs to understand the best forms of governance for their communities and implement processes and available tools to support these structures.
The Metagovernance Project, an interdisciplinary research collective dedicated to building the standards and infrastructure for digital self-governance, is poised to become a central resource in this area by developing governance standards and comparative analysis of governance systems. However, the project is still in early development.
V. DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
As discussed above, the way music DAOs conceptualize themselves is decidedly different from that of the more technically-oriented, maximalist crypto community whose early development work got us here.
Instead of emphasizing on-chain organizational and governance activity, the artist/label DAOs we interviewed saw the word “DAO” as more of an abstract social signal that has the power to mobilize music communities and collectives around a shared purpose and vision for culture. While music DAOs might be behind more protocol-centric DAOs when it comes to higher-level governance design and Web3-native tooling, they are arguably helping to set the stage for the rest of the DAO landscape when it comes to reinforcing the importance of thoughtful, multimodal community design. In the process, they are building new playgrounds for creative and financial experimentation by blurring the boundaries among artists, fans and contributors.
Even after several interviews and thousands of words of writing, we believe this report has only scratched the surface of what’s possible with music DAOs. Below are some ideas for future research directions on this topic, based on open questions that emerged from our interviews and the wider Water & Music community:
Decentralized identities in music DAOs
Mat Dryhurst from Holly+ was our only interviewee to mention “cryptographic identities” as a core part of the definition of a DAO. Given that crypto wallets are the vehicle through which users interact with the decentralized web, there is an entire research avenue to explore regarding the role decentralized identities will play in upending traditional music-industry structures, including but not limited to DAO-specific contexts.
On a technical level, one could study this topic at both the fundamental identity layer (e.g., wallets, data structures) and the contextual, social layer on top of these identities (e.g., cross-protocol dashboards and feeds like Zapper, Context and Backdrop). There could be significant benefits to leveraging these different layers of decentralized identities in the music industry, such as:
- Improving the current problem of identifying rights holders to whom royalty payments are owed (especially for music NFTs, which don’t mesh well with traditional music copyright frameworks)
- Allowing artists and fans to build platform-agnostic communities with actual data ownership and portability — e.g., being able to move playlists and distribute music more easily across platforms, without the need to create separate logins or platform profiles
- Protecting identity and privacy for artist/label DAO members, including but not limited to artists themselves — potentially allowing for more interactive and joyful experiences with fans that they otherwise would stray away from in public, Web2 social spheres
Music token analytics
As displayed in our breakdown chart, the vast majority of DAOs in our sample either do not have an active social/fungible token at all or have an active governance token with no liquidity.
If and when more music DAOs decide to launch liquid tokens in the near future, it would be fascinating to run a more quantitative analysis of music token activity to complement our highly qualitative approach for this project. Interested analysts could spin up custom dashboards or queries using open Web3 data analytics tools like Dune. They could study financial factors like token price, and cultural or community-oriented factors such as the distribution of a DAO’s tokens across all members and overall member retention rate (measured by how quickly DAO members end up selling their tokens).
Beyond fungible tokens, many of the DAOs in our sample also use ownership of liquid NFTs as prerequisites for membership. This structure could warrant a quantitative analysis of precisely how many wallets own these music DAO membership NFTs, how much membership overlaps across different music DAOs and how the floor price of these NFTs change over time as these DAOs evolve and expand.
DAO-to-DAO partnerships in the music industry
Brand partnerships have been an essential driver of revenue and awareness for artists in the broader music industry for decades, especially as the low-margin economics of streaming has compelled artists to look towards alternative funding sources. Where, in many cases, there is an expectation that members will share collectively in a DAO’s financial upside — as opposed to a single creator being the financial beneficiary — how these traditional models of brand partnerships, collaborations and sponsorships map onto Web3 music communities remains to be seen.
Our interviews reveal early examples of what DAO-to-DAO partnerships could look like for the music industry. For instance, to launch SongADAO, Jonathan Mann partnered with the Web3 product/developer DAO Raid Guild, which designed the project’s website and provided Solidity development work around the randomly-generated song NFTs. (The process of hiring Raid is also notably decentralized, driven by an open bidding process that involves staking their $RAID token.) One of the largest holders of the $RAC token is an investment DAO called The LAO, which provides Web3-native funding to Ethereum projects. Mudd DAO actively seeks partnerships with more collective-driven artist DAOs like Songcamp to experiment with Mudd’s generative NFT creation and licensing technology. A potentially fruitful follow-up research project could follow the evolution of these inter-DAO music partnerships over time and compare the marketing reach, revenue models and incentive structures to parallel partnerships in the traditional music business.
We invite any interested researchers or music/Web3 practitioners to join our community and jumpstart discussions on any of these topics. In summation, we hope our findings serve as a launching pad for long-term exploration in leveraging DAO infrastructure to rethink traditional business models and incentive structures in the music industry. This critical area of research denotes an emerging frontier for community-building and collaboration between artists and fans, where focused consideration of the underlying technical structures is delicate, and the outcomes are often immutable.
Cherie Hu (A, B, C)
Yung Spielburg (A, B, C)
Brodie Conley (B, C)
Maarten Walraven (B, C)
Mary Maguire (B, D)
Dave “BlackDave” Curry (B)
Kevin Shaw (B)
Jonah Burlingame (B)
Raul Guerrero (B)
Levi Downey (B)
Aniket Rajgarhia (B)
Oliver Dawson (B)
Alex Webb (C)
Scott Korchinski a.k.a. Houndtrack (C)
Brandon Landowski (D)
Katherine Rodgers (D)
Ana Carolina (E)
Austin Robey (F)
Chad Hillard (F)
Cole Ryan (F)
Kevin Duquette (F)
Zach Miller (F)
Matthew Chaim (F)
Mark Redito (F)
Sarmad Ahmad (F)
Will Juergens (F)
AJ Washington (F)
Jonathan Mann (F)
Mat Dryhurst (F)
Julian Mudd (F)
Matthew McQueen (F)
Grady Lee (F)
Robert St. Thomas (F)
Jack Spallone (F)
(A) Project leads
(B) DAO interviewers + summary writers
(C) Meta-synthesis writers
(D) Meta-synthesis editors