Art, gender and blockchain: How the permissionless technology is leveling the playing field

Art, gender and blockchain: How the permissionless technology is leveling the playing field
Design by Ifeoluwa Awowoye, exclusively for Mariblcok. Pictures from Freepik.
While both men and women contribute to art, opportunities remain unequal for the latter. Thanks to its permissionless nature, blockchain can potentially drive inclusiveness in the creative industry.

In 2014, a young woman in Southern Nigeria was invited by her music director and introduced to the blockchain world. He had found an innovation he thought his music protégées should not miss, and of all the people invited to the party, only this young woman accepted the invitation. She grew curious and began to research what the term was all about and, initially, how she could use the technology to further her music career. Her discoveries over the years have proved that blockchain can be the permissionless technology that levels the playing field for all genders in the creative world.

Having loved music from early on in her life, music artiste and founder in the blockchain ecosystem Karla Obakpolor was seeking ways to publish her music and earn from it without needing the oft-courted connections at the top of the music industry or permission from anybody. At the time, she was just a curious young student looking for ways to monetize her talents. Now the founder of blockchain companies CryptoSmart and QLIP NFTs, Obakpolor’s journey into the blockchain world started with uploading lyrics to her music on Steemit and earning from it.

“I felt like I could share my art with a lot of people, and they can get to know me [and my art] even though [the platform] is text-based. I would post majorly about my lyrics and short stories. Then I saw that ... if [users on the platform] upvoted me, I could have more SBDs [Steem blockchain dollars], and that was the first time I ever [earned or] traded cryptocurrency ... I liked Steemit because, as an artist, I [got] to express myself, post my lyrics and get people to flow.”

Steemit is a decentralized social media and blogging application built on the Steem blockchain. It allows users to publish written art (articles, music lyrics, poems, rhymes, etc.) and get paid for it. There are no intermediaries; all anybody needs to do is post whatever form of art they make. Users of the platform determine payout by voting and commenting on posts. If a post is upvoted, the publisher is paid in SBD, Steemit’s native digital token. Users can also publish their content anonymously, revealing or hiding their identity as they deem fit.

But what’s the big deal about blockchain and the creative industry?

Women and the creative industry

“Art is for everyone,” said the famous American artist Keith Haring, whose short life and career were dedicated to all people — male and female alike. However, women artists have received the short end of the stick, having been continually left out of significant benefits and the industry’s best work conditions.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in its publication, “Gender and Creativity: Progress on the Precipice,” explored the existing and, at times, widening gender gaps in the field of arts. The publication revealed that female artists and creators continue to face numerous barriers, including unequal access to decent work, fair remuneration and leadership positions. What’s more, women face obstacles in accessing digital tools for artistic creation and distribution, such as digital music platforms, online tutorials and sound mixing software.

In addition, copyright laws that grant regulatory access to works of art are largely considered “gender blind.” For example, a recent study of the South African creative industry shows that copyright laws do not consider the effects of these regulatory frameworks on men and women in a way that reflects their unique experiences. The rules are primarily focused on the economic and legal aspects of copyright usage. Gender-neutral language creates a loophole that collective management organizations (CMOs), which handle copyright processes, exploit sometimes. This has sparked controversy several times in South Africa and is still an ongoing debate.

Women are still treated as minority stakeholders in several sub-industries in the creative sector, including media and entertainment. Statistics have shown that females represent less than one-third of all performers in popular music, 12.5% of songwriters and 2.6% of producers. Yet, women remain one of the largest audiences and consumers of popular music. This may also be attributed to an unspoken bias that women creatives are not as good as their male counterparts, with no data or obvious facts backing the truth of this biased mindset.

Out on a mission to improve her chances of success given, Obakpolor started exploring the interception of blockchain and music. This led her to the discovery of the blockchain music streaming platform, Emanate. She said:

“With Emanate, I could upload my music ... and share my music [permissionlessly] with other people.”

Built on the EOSIO blockchain protocol, Emanate allows artistes to upload their songs and have fans stream the song on the platform. In addition, they can sell these songs as music non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and earn from streams and the resale of their NFTs.

Sound is another, perhaps better known, project seeking to provide musicians a permissionless platform to kick start their careers without growing through traditional gatekeepers such as record labels, some of whom have been accused of exploiting artistes.

It is, however, a long shot to expect platforms like Emanate and Sound to replace record labels. They probably never will. For instance, Obakpolor did mention that she hadn’t earned a dime from her music posted on Emanate as of her interview with Mariblock.

The thing is, labels have been successful because they provide a platform, distribution networks and financial backing to artistes. That will continue to be valuable. At best, and for a few reasons, including crypto’s user experience shortcomings, Web3 solutions like Emanate present a place for entertainers to start publishing their work and building an audience.

That’s the case with Obakpolor, who Web3 solutions have given ways to share her work in places that are without inbuilt gender biases.

She is now looking to help more African creatives gain permissionless access through her NFT marketplace, “Qlip.”

“I started Qlip in 2021 because I had used Steemit and Emanate, and I thought, ‘How can I fuse blockchain and music?’ It was then that I began to understand what NFTs are. I found out that NFTs can ... help artists to raise funds.”

Messages on Qlip’s Telegram group, however, suggest that Obakpolor and her team are struggling to raise capital to finance the project for over two years. It’s unclear what the future of Qlip is considering the backdrop of the ongoing global startup funding crunch driven by the global economic slowdown.

Still, the potential of Web3 technologies to drive inclusion remains high.

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are unique digital pieces that cannot be substituted, copied, or pirated. The owner themselves can transfer the ownership of any single NFT without needing a third party. With NFTs, creatives can sell their work while retaining the copyright.

Also, NFTs place copyright in the hands of the creator themselves without the need for collective management organizations (CMOs) or any other copyright management go-betweens. This decentralized intellectual copyright is an alternative to established forms of safeguarding copyright controlled by state institutions and intermediaries in the respective art industries.

In a world where women have mostly waited to be handed things, blockchain is providing an alternate reality where anybody can be their best creative self without any gender-driven limitation — access, pay, etc.