The memes spread far and fast. “No way NFT.London charged ￡600 entry for this to be the art gallery,” the November 5 tweet read over a photograph showing what appeared to be a drab office corridor doing its best impersonation of an art gallery. A smattering of small monitors displaying NFT artwork by XCOPY, Alyssa Stevens, and others populated the transitory space in seemingly random arrangement.
Overall, the scenario screamed laziness, incompetence, or some combination of the two. Surely, a massive Web3 IRL activation would put more care into how it displayed community artwork, people mused. In the following minutes and hours, the NFT community fired off some excellently pointed memes based on the image, a collective visual manifestation of the adage “If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.”
But this is a symptom of something deeper: NFT events are facing an identity crisis. While they’re often lauded as excellent IRL opportunities for Web3 enthusiasts to network, view art installations, and listen to panel talks by leading community figures, many have come to question the efficacy of the events and the intentions of those who organize them. Community members now wonder if they truly bring the value to the community that their organizers claim they do. Some have even gone so far as to say that large-scale NFT events are merely a predatory echo of Web2 in Web3 clothing, little more than a way to fleece the community that built the space as we now know it. But just how valid are such critiques?
No event in the space is more well-known than NFT.NYC. The annual conference features everything that an NFT lover might hope for, including panel talks, performances, art displays, and satellite events. It also attracts some of the biggest celebrities, CEOs, and NFT collectors out there. But, as the event has grown in size, stature, and pricing over the last three years, many in the NFT community now feel it has become a bloated cash grab.
Cameron Bale and Jodee Rich co-founded NFT.NYC — the company that organized this year’s inaugural NFT.London — in 2018, after the two recognized a need to host an event for an initially nascent but rapidly growing NFT community. Rich and Bale also serve as CEO and Director of Marketing and Product Development, respectively, for NFT.Kred, a Web3 firm that helps brands create NFT experiences and engagements for their audiences.
“Speaking about NFTs in early 2018 fell on mostly deaf ears, as most people at blockchain and crypto events were focused on ICOs,” said Bale of the event’s history while speaking to nft now. “NFT.NYC was born out of that need to give the community a place to connect.”
The event has been an undeniable success in bringing people together. In 2019, the pair organized the first ever NFT.NYC. 460 people attended. Fast forward to 2022, and NFT.NYC hosted more than 15,000 attendees, according to figures supplied by the company.
Those are impressive numbers, especially given the fact that tickets for the three-day festival ranged from $500 to $2,000. That price range has been the source of much contention in the Web3 space, with one scheduled speaker for this year’s NFT.NYC even calling for the boycotting of the event, citing poor organization and exploitative practices toward both its panel guests and its attendees.
Responding to criticisms that NFT.NYC and NFT.London’s ticket pricing is beyond the range of the average NFT enthusiast, especially in a bear market, Bale emphasized that they try to make the event as accessible as possible while maintaining some ticket revenue to help fund the festival alongside the support of their sponsors.
“At NFT.London, more than 1,000 tickets, almost half, were given away for free to speakers, artists, and the community members who simply couldn’t afford it,” Bale said. “We will continue to provide different ways that people can participate in NFT.NYC events, no matter their budget.”
Bale also added that much of the criticism that NFT.London received originated from people who did not attend the event, further saying that they received “overwhelmingly positive feedback” from those who did attend. The critiques, he said, including the viral tweets showing haphazardly thrown-together art displays and empty theater spaces during panel talks, are taken out of context and don’t represent the reality on the ground.
While there is credence to that idea, it’s also somewhat debatable. A portion of NFT.London attendees maintain that some, if not many, of the event’s talks were indeed sparsely populated and underwhelming. That claim has been challenged by some of the event’s speakers and attendees who say that panels may have been underpopulated due to scheduling conflicts or crowds being amassed elsewhere at the venue. Overall, they say, turnout was respectable. It’s a difficult metric to calibrate. With the event featuring dozens upon dozens of talks hosted by several hundred speakers over the festival’s two-day run, it was inevitable that some talks would be more well-attended than others.
Beyond NFT event pricing
Pricing is not the only issue that critics of large-scale NFT events cite, however. Singer-songwriter and Web3 advocate Rae Isla has experience on both sides of the NFT event fence, having organized the music programming for 2022’s NFT Seattle in addition to an unaffiliated music satellite event at NFT.NYC this year, called the Web3 Singer/Songwriter Showcase. She believes that NFT events are less plagued by pricing issues and more by logistical ones.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the pricing,” Isla said while speaking to nft now. “I think the issue is that the people who throw these events are trying to do too many things, not acknowledging the fact that there are specialists right in front of them who can curate various passion verticals, and may even do so on a volunteer basis.”
Professionals in the music industry, not people who only have experience creating corporate events, Isla offered as an example, should be the ones responsible for organizing and executing music-related events and performances at NFT events. Nor should non-artists be curating galleries at these festivals, she emphasized. One of the reasons behind NFT Seattle’s success, she said, is that the event organizers trusted her to execute its programming in an organic and community-driven way.
“I think what’s missing [in these events] is involving the community as experts to come in and actually work on the events,” Isla offered as a potential area of improvement. “The response to that might be [the organizers] saying they need more money to pay people. Well, then find more money. Maybe the real push needs to be to tell companies that have funding that if they don’t invest real dollars into the culture of the Web3 space, then it won’t happen. So, they need to contribute more fiscally if they want these events to be impactful.”
Isla advocates making NFT events modular so attendees can pick and choose which days, talks, and performances they actually want to attend. Diversifying access avenues to these festivals, she said, could be a way to lower the barrier of entry for the community while ensuring scheduled talks and performances don’t suffer from over- or under-attendance.
“If you want to see Billy Eilish or Kendrick Lamar or the Foo Fighters [at a music festival], you end up buying a weekend pass because you don’t want to miss that one performance,” Isla explained. “That’s a strategic way to get people to buy those passes. But people shouldn’t be forced to sit through a bunch of things they’re not interested in. I think that the way to make [NFT] events worth the ticket price and more meaningful for those involved is to trust curators, tastemakers, and people who have earned their stripes in various passion verticals to take ownership over certain aspects of the conference.”
When asked about the type of collaboration that Isla advocates for in event-building, Bale underlined that NFT.NYC is more than happy to collaborate with community members. “We’re technologists, not a trade show,” Bale said. “[We] are deeply committed to working with the community.”
IRL events do good, even when they don’t
Speaking to the ambient success that events like NFT.NYC create, Bale noted that the annual festival has grown to have its own kind of gravity. That gravity attracts the NFT community to the city, fostering community, creating opportunities for brands and project creators, and boosting the local economy in the process.
It’s hard to deny those effects. Any community that exists primarily in the digital sphere needs these kinds of events if it wants to grow and enrich itself. Regardless of these events’ failings, they are almost always going to be a net positive for the community due to this fact alone. Bale clearly recognizes this.
“The greatest memory for me personally was the feeling of togetherness we were able to create in 2021 after so many people had been isolated for so long,” he said of the post-pandemic nature of that year’s event. “It was a kind of family reunion for the community, many of which were meeting friends IRL for the first time!”
Event organizers can do better
We should celebrate moments of togetherness and community, no matter the circumstances. But that does not mean there’s no room for improvement. NFT events can and should do better by their communities, which means learning to read the dynamic room of morale and morality throughout the entire Web3 space.
But that’s not easy, because ethos is tricky. The founding principles of Web3, like the founding principles of any great community, are not immutable — they require defending. In recent months, NFT enthusiasts have had to come together to push back against practices (both proposed and implemented) that disenfranchise the very people who built the space. Web3’s biggest proponents only have a right to deal in the rhetoric of decentralization and level-playing fields if they’re going to tangibly back that up with action and inhabit those principles.
Inclusion must be one of them. Community members who look at an NFT space that at times feels like it’s quickly outpacing the range of their wallets, never to return, are right to call out events meant to foster community yet by their nature prevent the majority of that community from taking part in them. It’s for this reason that we at nft now are proud to have made The Gateway, our five-day event in Miami during Art Basel in December 2022, which was free and open to all.
Future large-scale events like 2023’s NFT. NYC and NFT.London will serve as a barometer on how the community decides it wants to interact with IRL activations and how much it’s willing to pay for them. So far, NFT.NYC 2023 is on track to be another large-scale showcase. With tickets going from $500 to $1,500 and featuring a 25,000-square-foot rooftop pavilion, gaming arena, and plenty more, Bale and company are showing no signs of slowing down. Time will tell if such continued grandiosity will serve it well.
After the 2021 bull run came to an end and the latest crypto winter began in earnest, Web3’s proponents realized just how much unnecessary heft it had accumulated. The NFT and crypto space is now much thinner than it was last year, but it has gained the mobility and dexterity it needs to help it ride out and far surpass the shadows of the bear market. NFT event organizers should take note. The better part of wisdom may be to streamline IRL events before they shake themselves apart with expense and spectacle.