Having wrapped up a North American tour earlier this year, singer-songwriter Rae Isla is pioneering a new approach to sharing music. She speaks with Clovis McEvoy about tokenised touring, what makes good memorabilia, and the importance of an artist’s community.
“I gave up everything that wasn't web3 for over a year, working seven days a week without stopping — this tour was the culmination of all that effort.” I’m speaking with web3 musician Rae Isla, as she decompresses from a ground-breaking 50-event tokenised tour.
Taking her from Vancouver, Canada, through the United States, and down to Mexico City, Rae’s eight-stop trek through North America is not only a remarkable achievement for an entirely independent artist, but serves as a (literal) roadmap for how performers can revitalise live music using web3 infrastructure.
Playing a dreamy mix of indie, americana, and alternative country, the Washington-born singer-songwriter has joined a growing number of independent artists thriving beyond the confines of the mainstream music industry. “I feel like I've been conditioned for web3 for a while now,” she laughs. “I've always been scrappy and just made stuff work, which is what this place is all about.”
Her debut web3 release, Rae Isla's Rocks, draws deeply on her own experience as an avid collector of terrestrial mementos. One hundred and eleven rocks from Rae’s extensive personal collection have been photographed and overlaid with hand-drawn artwork by her brother. In turn, each image is paired with one of three songs from her forthcoming album; it’s a beautifully-produced package developed in collaboration with web3 accelerator, Nifty Music.
“The rocks were collected in the places that inspired the songs,” she says. “So, they are intrinsically infused within this narrative of a girl on the road, of love and heartbreak, coming and going, losing people and finding people.”
That same narrative can be seen in her recent tour: each stop along the way was accompanied by a unique NFT depicting Rae running from venue to venue. There was even an interactive world map tracking her real-time location as she traversed the continent.
“Artists should know that if they want to do it this way, they can.”
— Rae Isla
The inspiration to tokenise the tour came from Rae’s own approach to supporting fellow artists. “I buy tickets to my friend’s shows even if I can’t go, even if I’m too far away,” she says. “I’d buy concert tickets almost every week and give them to people who were close enough to go.”
Setting out to promote a similar ethos in the blockchain ecosystem, Rae says it was essential to make the collecting experience personal, interactive, and accessible. Priced at the equivalent of $20, each tour stop was available to mint only during the time that Rae was physically present in a given location. Unlike the recent experiments of metal band Avenged Sevenfold, these NFTs did not offer admission, but Rae nonetheless ensured that they were more than mementos. Collectors gained access to her written tour diary, pre-release access to future launches, and free airdrops of demo songs.
“Sometimes we think too small when it comes to memorabilia,” she suggests. “Taking a picture of a sweatshirt and minting it as an NFT isn’t memorabilia. It has to be a token of memory; something that helps you recall a moment in time. To do that, you need to add as much narrative and value to it as possible.”
In a marked difference from traditional music tours, Rae’s schedule included not only live performances, but conferences, panels, and meetups. The approach, she says, let her stay in each location for a week or more before moving on — something many live performers could only dream of. “If you’re travelling to a different place every day, you miss out on meeting people and connecting with your community,” she points out. “I think artists should know that if they want to do it this way, they can.”
The tour’s success is especially notable given the current state of live music. A number of high-profile artists, like Arlo Parks and Disclosure, have cancelled live tours over the last year, citing the mental health impact of punishing tour schedules. Meanwhile, economic factors have left many artists unable to tour without losing money, prompting some to take their music into virtual reality.
Indeed, during the worst of the pandemic, Rae was also doubting the viability of a career in music. “It was brutal,” she recalls. “It was already hard to be a musician, and suddenly there was this notion that maybe our industry was simply done for.”
Resolving to throw her time and financial resources into recording her debut full-length album, Another Life, Rae says she simultaneously began to make her peace with the possibility that the record could be her swan song. “I decided I was going to make this album and give it the energy it deserved, but I also started applying for other jobs in the music industry — I was even looking at law school.”
In a moment of cosmic irony, Rae says she received a job offer just as she was becoming aware of web3 in 2021. “It was a very tangible crossroads: pursue web3 and see what happens, or take the job. Thank God I said no to the job.”
“You just gather your people, ask some favours, use the blockchain, and get out on the road.”
— Rae Isla
With the release of a new duet featuring fellow web3 songwriter, Sammy Arriaga, and her next album tentatively coming later this year, Rae still has plenty on her plate. However, as she winds down from weeks on the road, her short-term plan is firmly centred on the community that made it all possible: “Right now, I’m focusing on utility and delivering rewards and experiences that I've been working on for my community.”
Don’t expect her to stay still for too long, though. “I've been developing a live show with a full band, the best band I’ve ever put together,” she says with bubbling excitement. “The way you bring value to your community is not just by being on Twitter; it's by going out into the world and creating new experiences. Touring is definitely going to ramp up.”
There is plenty of innovation left to be found in the world of live music, and Rae has proven that independent touring is not beyond reach. Really, she says, it’s all quite simple. “It’s not rocket science, and there’s no secret recipe: you just gather your people, ask some favours, use the blockchain, and get out on the road. When it all comes together, that’s where the magic is.”
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