Welcome to Slate’s new column Not Gonna Make It, in which an actor/famous guy and a journalist/broke guy dissect the culture and economy of crypto.
There’s a lot of dough to be had in our attention-driven economy—if you’re appropriately famous and shameless. With the advent of cryptocurrency, there are whole new terrains of one’s life that can be monetized for potentially worthless digital tokens. But look beneath the froth—past the $500,000 Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs and the metaverse parties (supposedly a thing!)—and it gets grim quickly. Every influencer and celebrity (except, maybe, the co-author of this column) seems intent on getting their little piece of the crypto boom.
Somewhere down there, near the unclaimed airdrops and rug-pulled shitcoins, lies the nadir of celebrity crypto ventures. With some regret, we report that this sad position may be occupied by legendary recording artist and global music sensation Yanni. Yup, the guy who sold out the Acropolis. Like anyone with a Q Score above zero, Yanni is now shilling NFTs. Or more precisely, he’s selling lifetime memberships at $40 a pop to a club, Fantázomai (“I Imagine”), that comes with an NFT membership key, which, below Yanni’s romance-novel-cover-handsome face, proclaims the holder a VIP owner of a unique digital object. Having acquired this key, one now has the right to purchase another Yanni NFT based on the artist’s photography for $150. Since its November opening, at least 347 Yanni diehards have purchased memberships to Fantázomai. Some of them have contributed earnest videos to the website’s community section, in which they offer sincere reminiscences about emotional encounters with the composer at concerts spanning everywhere from Yerevan to Grand Rapids. “Be strong,” Yanni told one tearful young fan.
The peculiar thing about Yanni’s NFT collection is that it scratches and tugs at the question of what NFTs are. Are they bad kitsch? Potential collectors’ items? Passes to an online fan club? Another way to let desperate fans think they have relationships with their famous idols? Or just worthless digital junk? In the case of Yanni’s Fantázomai, it may be all of the above.
Poking through Fantázomai and asking questions of its creators—a small, Pennsylvania-based tech firm named Entre.One that has somehow secured Yanni as a client—we began to wonder if, more than any screed against NFTs, this strange website revealed the essential hollowness of the trend. Perhaps, through Yanni, the troubling monetize-everything ethos of Web3, and its empty promises of community, would become obvious. Or perhaps it was just another low-effort celebrity grift.
It starts with asking what an NFT is. Put simply, in the world of artificial scarcity promoted by crypto and Web3, nonfungible tokens are supposed to be unique certificates of ownership for digital assets (in this case, images of Yanni, beloved global music icon). While some NFTs are now stored “on-chain” (meaning stored on the blockchain itself), most NFTs are little more than database entries, on a blockchain, that refer to an image or video stored elsewhere. You can see where the problems might develop from there. Who actually owns what? Is the marmoset JPG mine, or do I own a database entry that says I have a claim to a certain marmoset JPG? And why is any of it worth anything at all? It gets weird fast.
But for now, at least, NFTs can be worth big money. Traded on marketplaces like OpenSea, they have become wildly popular speculative assets for connected insiders and influencers able to peddle their images into huge viral gains. They have become status objects for celebrities, vehicles for wash trading and money laundering for financial outlaws, and easy targets for hackers. Some regular people, too, have made real money, spinning algorithmically produced ape NFTs into crypto gold. But the instability of the market—scams are endemic—raises doubts about its long-term viability.
That means it’s time to move fast and break things. Act quickly. Throw whatever cutting-room-floor footage or B-sides or road trip diaries you have onto the internet and see what content-starved fans will pay—before the next tech-driven fad takes hold. In this context comes Fantázomai, Yanni’s personally curated vault of digital collectibles, which promises to include 17 unpublished Yanni photos-turned-video NFTs that are collectively, and somewhat melodramatically, dubbed the 17.
Bearing motel room aesthetics laid over simple website design, Fantázomai has the feel of a cash grab, but at $40 for entry, it lacks the stakes and the guile of a true scam. It’s hard to be angry at anyone here. Still, Yanni’s NFTs come with a glaring problem: They’re not what most people think of as NFTs. The membership keys have token IDs and serial numbers, but we had to contact Entre.One to find out which blockchain they were stored on. In order to buy them, customers use dollars via PayPal, not crypto. You can’t take these NFTs to another marketplace and sell them. They’re basically inert digital objects, easily right-clicked (then again, so are those coveted ape JPGs).
According to a representative of Entre.One, Yanni’s NFTs are minted and stored on a Hyperledger Fabric blockchain from the software company Oracle. Based on open-source software, Hyperledger Fabric blockchains are essentially private blockchains for enterprise use, lacking some of the most prized features of public blockchains like Ethereum, on which many NFT projects are built. Hyperledger Fabric blockchains are centralized databases, run by a single owner, tapping into crypto buzz by borrowing some of their tech and jargon but lacking the core functionality.
“Blockchain-flavored is the best description,” said Stephen Diehl, a computer scientist and Web3 critic. “Basically it’s just a glorified SQL database,” he added, referring to a commonly used language for managing databases.
NFTs minted on a private Hyperledger blockchain, like this one, are essentially stuck there. You can’t keep them in a popular crypto wallet like MetaMask. They won’t be resellable on the open market—a key concern for many NFT owners, who see potential upside in their speculative investments. When asked if Entre.One will provide self-custody wallet options or allow users to sell their NFTs, the company responded: “As stated on the website, once all membership keys have been sold users will have ways to sell their membership keys. Until then the members will receive unique and customized media experiences that no other media ecosystem currently provides. For example, the recently released remastered video of a top song that is now only available to members.” (At the moment, members have access to a 30-second teaser video that seems to be a remastered live rendition of “Santorini,” a Yanni staple that’s widely available on YouTube.)
With fewer than 400 out of 10,000 membership keys sold, members may find themselves waiting a long time for their Yanni NFT marketplace to appear.
An email to Yanni’s press representative was answered by Entre.One, which said it and Yanni’s team “were aligned” on this issue. The response included a statement from Alexandra Allenson, the president of Yanni Inc., who praised the utility of Oracle’s technology. Similarly, the Entre.One representative emphasized their apparent relationship with one of the largest software companies in the world.
According to Scott Bovee, the Entre.One official, the company “is working closely with the executive team at Oracle to build visibility via upcoming articles and blog posts regarding Oracle Permissioned Blockchain based on Hyperledger Fabric.” When asked for comment, Mark Rakhmilevich, senior director of blockchain product management at Oracle, wrote via email, “Yes, Entre.One is working with a team at Oracle on a GTM [go to market] outreach strategy.”
It’s unclear how an unknown Pennsylvania tech company snagged as a client the Greek American pancultural artist who sold millions of live albums, dominated PBS’s playlist for years, and performed in front of Egypt’s pyramids and the Taj Mahal. Entre.One’s only other apparent contribution to blockchain culture is an NFT collection of anthropomorphized towels that root for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The collection, which retails at $75 per towel character, is associated with The Chief, a 2010 film about Arthur Rooney, the first owner of the Steelers. (The Oracle representative confirmed Entre.One had just the two NFT collections using Oracle’s blockchain technology.)
What we’re left with are hyperspecific, microtargeted fan clubs, empowered (sort of) by the latest digital technology, squeezing a few more bucks out of hopelessly committed customers. Essentially another internet walled garden, Fantázomai is a safe space for fans to drop some money on a dubious digital collectible that could one day suffer the NFT equivalent of linkrot. And for Yanni—or whomever collected a percentage advising him on this deal—he can be confident that he’s tapping every possible revenue stream while appearing to be on the digital cutting edge.
The sad part about Fantázomai is not fans being skimmed for another $40 (or more) but rather the illusion of fellowship and access it promises Yanni listeners. Many of the fan videos invoke “community” and the possibility of convening with other fans. Except that’s not possible in Fantázomai. There’s no way for fans to talk with one another or even to do the monetary equivalent: hawking their digital baubles for hopefully more than the $40 they initially doled out. (In Web3, many relationships are exclusively financial.) To find anything approaching genuine community, a Yanni fan might be best served by some obscure message board, or perhaps by YouTube, where most of his catalog already exists in high fidelity, and where fans post elaborate reflections on his music.
Still, for a properly monetized celebrity, the hustle never stops. The descriptions of videos on Yanni’s YouTube channel—where he has more than 2 million subscribers—have been updated to promote one thing: Fantázomai. His fans can choose whether to buy in, but the sales pitch remains obligatory.
For the slightly more famous co-author of this piece, the feelings are complicated. Celebrity fan clubs have existed more or less since there have been celebrities, and serve two main functions: 1) to foster continual engagement between the artist and their fans and 2) to make a little money in doing so. In that sense, Fantázomai as a business is not very innovative. Yanni’s most passionate fans have become “members” of a “club” that exists only on a website and that offers them a chance to express their devotion in the rather limited form of the newest tech curiosity, NFTs, which themselves seem poorly constructed and of minimal long-term value.
As for the future of this supposedly revolutionary advancement in brand monetization and speculation—the celeb NFT—the jury is out. For all their high-tech aspirations, Yanni and crew have thus far separated at least 347 people from $40 of their money, racking up $13,880 of revenue for Yanni Inc. Hopefully for both sides, the transaction was worth it.