The DJ-producer made millions selling NFTs and disrupted the music industry.
While studying economics at Washington University in St. Louis, Justin Blau (aka 3LAU) faced a fateful decision between taking a finance job at BlackRock or dropping out to pursue his burgeoning DJ career. As it turns out, his choice to go all-in on music would pay unexpected dividends.
“I met the Winklevoss twins in Mexico on spring break in 2014, who basically helped me to discover Bitcoin,” Blau recalls. “I was just fascinated with this idea of distributed ledger, banking beyond banks, permissionless value transfer—all the concepts behind ledger technology that I thought would add a lot of value to the world.”
Over the next few years, Blau rose through the ranks of the top electronic dance music DJs, playing at marquee festivals like Lollapalooza, Electric Zoo and EDC Las Vegas. Despite a bear market for cryptocurrency, he remained fascinated by blockchain technology’s potential to empower artists.
“We all get excited about these technologies because we view them as amazing alternatives to a less efficient world that we live in,” Blau says. “But when those assumptions are challenged by the market, you definitely start to doubt your own beliefs. I’m lucky I have held on for so long.”
When the cryptocurrency markets rebounded in 2017, Blau saw an opportunity to put some of his ideas in action. He launched Our Music Festival, the first blockchain-powered music festival, in San Francisco the following year with a lineup headlined by Zedd. While the project was ahead of its time, the experience proved formative in giving Blau a glimpse into the future of digital ownership.
“I had a 3LAU loyalty badge collectible that you could get to your festival app wallet if you found me and scanned the QR code I had on my phone,” Blau says. “I only had 50 of them and they were gone in 60 seconds when I was out and about. We’d announced it on Twitter and people were just so excited about owning this exclusive digital asset. So that was kind of my lightbulb moment, where I had this feeling that the whole world was going to value digital collectibles in an extreme way.”
While sidelined from touring last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Blau began to delve deeper into the NFT (nonfungible tokens) space and realized that the technology carried game-changing potential for independent musicians to directly monetize releases. Built largely on the Ethereum blockchain, NFTs enable ownership of unique digital assets in a way that wasn’t previously possible.
Blau teamed up with popular visual artist and past collaborator Slimesunday (real name: Mike Parisella) for a series of music NFTs under the collaborative moniker SSX3LAU, releasing their first drops on platforms like Blockparty and SuperRare.
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“It’s a very collaborative process and we are both heavily involved in the outcome,” explains Parisella. “Our last project was the most time we spent on any SSX3LAU project. It took roughly three months to complete the music video.”
In January, Blau tokenized the first full-length song on leading platform Nifty Gateway and sold $175,000 worth of tokens—a payday that could have required billions of streams in a traditional label deal.
The following month, he announced the historic auction of the first tokenized full-length album, Ultraviolet, through his own website in partnership with Origin Protocol. Comprised of 33 unique NFTs tiered and paired with rewards and physical vinyl records, the auction was gamified to extend the countdown clock by three minutes for any bids placed in the final three minutes. When the dust had settled from a heated bidding war, Blau had sold an unprecedented $11.7 million in total, capped by a record-setting $3.6 million top prize.
“I definitely did not anticipate it at all,” he admits. “We didn’t use a traditional NFT platform, so we basically had to rely on my audience of existing collectors and fans to participate, and I was just absolutely amazed by how far the community came out for me.”
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The music industry is still scrambling to catch up. Despite bigger names like The Weeknd and Snoop Dogg entering the market, Blau’s auction still holds the alltime sales record for music NFTs. Respected as an early adopter by the community, Blau’s close relationships with top NFT collectors like WhaleShark, 888 and Seedphrase have contributed to his success.
“It started with a lot of cryptonative collectors. People who were able to generate a lot of wealth within the crypto space who want to keep it in that ecosystem and support the arts,” Blau says. “But I’m also lucky to have [former T-Mobile CEO] John Legere as a collector of mine. He owns many really beautiful pieces from the legacy art world and is so supportive of this idea of technological art. I think it’s only natural that [traditional] collectors will start to exhibit that behavior.”
As mainstream attention fuels increased adoption, Blau believes that more artists, collectors and fans will warm to the concept of digital provenance through NFTs.
“You can buy the ‘Mona Lisa’ for $53 on Amazon. It’s the same size, and it looks exactly the same as the original. Do you want to own that? Most people would probably say no,” Blau explains. “That’s what makes digital art special. Anyone can view it, or rip it, or put it on a screen, but there is only one owner of this specific piece. There’s a feeling that you get from having that official ownership, the same way you don’t want to buy a fake pair of Yeezys. You want to own the real ones.”
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Looking ahead, Blau plans to create a foundation to support artists and educational efforts to bring wider public awareness to the NFT space. He also has a new project that will allow fans to invest in artists and share in their successes as their careers progress.
“Where I see it going next is actually getting fan ownership in music and letting them participate in the outside success of a song,” he explains. “It has to comply with certain security regulations and existing legal frameworks.”
For the moment, Blau already appears to have secured his legacy as a trailblazer whose belief in the power of music NFTs will change the industry calculus for years to come.
“3LAU will be remembered as a pioneer and community leader,” says Parisella. “He was talking about this technology back in 2018 and most thought he was crazy. In 2021, he flipped the entire music industry on its head.”
Photography by: Top to Bottom: PHOTO BY SHERVIN LAINEZ, PHOTO COURTESY OF 3LAU