Milo Lombardi is a pioneering figure in web3 music. Clovis McEvoy sat down with the saxophonist to talk about his journey to NFTs, why he puts so much time into onboarding fellow musicians, and what 2023 might bring for the space.
It is impossible to talk about the early days of web3 music without mentioning Milo Lombardi — better known to the world as Nifty Sax. Before there were any well-trodden paths for web3 musicians to follow, Milo and a small group of fellow visionaries, including Domino and Vérité, were pushing ahead into uncharted territory. His Spheres collection laid a blueprint for the new monetisation models that web3 musicians use by default, and his subsequent work as a community builder and co-founder of the web3 label, Nifty Music, has had a lasting impact on this young industry.
“Now, of course, there's a whole thriving community of creators and collectors,” says Milo. “But there was a time when nobody really wanted to hear about music and NFTs. But little by little, I saw the community start to grow.”
Growing up in central Italy, Milo was noticed for his musical talents early on and was admitted to the Conservatorio Rossini aged eleven, in the town of Pesaro. “Back then they were still accepting kids,” he jokes. Founded by the 19-century Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, who was born in Pesaro in 1792, the institution’s music programme was intensive and wide ranging, covering not only Milo’s chosen instrument, the saxophone, but also piano, singing, composing, arranging, theory, and history. “It’s the old way of learning,” Milo says. “Really, it intended to make you into a ‘complete’ musician.”
Graduating from the conservatoire eight years later, Milo took up a career as a performing jazz musician. “I just started playing in any bar or pub that would have me,” he recalls. “Eventually I was doing corporate events and weddings to make money. On the side, I was doing the things that actually fulfilled me as a musician: writing music and playing jazz clubs.”
As with so many others, the pandemic was a turning point for Milo: the touring economy that he had always relied upon slowed to a standstill, and suddenly he had the time — and incentive — to consider the new career paths taking shape in web3. “I had been following blockchain for a while on the sidelines — I never invested, I never bought any Bitcoin, but I was always interested,” he explains. “When I realised that there were real applications for web3 I thought, ‘okay, maybe I can do this with music.’”
Milo’s genesis collection stands out both for how early it came in the history of web3 music and for its ambition. In March 2021, Milo began releasing an original music NFT every day, for 100 days. Not only that, but each NFT would be accompanied by a unique artwork from a collaborating digital artist, defining a strategy that later musicians like Jburn would come to follow. Of course, being an early adopter is not always easy, and Milo recalls that building interest in the project was a slow process.
“In the first ten or twenty days I don’t think anybody realised it was happening,” he laughs. “It took a while to get going, because nobody knew me and there were pretty much no music NFTs when I started. But it was a very exciting moment: for the first time in my life, I was there at the beginning of something new, something big. And I really wanted to surf that wave.”
By the time that he was ready to drop his second collection, Spheres, people were starting to pay attention. Stylistically, Milo moved his music away from the wild, avant-garde compositions of his genesis release, and towards a relaxed and atmospheric sound, characterised by sparse melodic phrases and long reverb tails.
Beyond making his music more approachable, Milo also began to develop what has now become a signature rarity structure. Starting with the most common editions of ten, Spheres sequentially narrows down to a unique 1/1, with the rarest editions featuring unique visual traits. He was also one of the first musicians to make use of blind minting, to add a gamified element of chance to his auctions.
The collection would go on to sell out within 12 hours, and many, both inside and outside web3, began to take notice of Milo’s work as an example of what the blockchain had made possible for musicians. “I thought, ‘what will the blockchain allow me to do that I couldn’t do before?’” Milo recalls. “If I’m going to do NFTs, then I want to use all of the things that they make available — otherwise I might as well just release stuff on Bandcamp.”
Rather than focusing on an immediate follow up to Spheres, Milo used his success to begin building up the web3 music scene itself for others to follow in his footsteps. He co-founded Nifty Music alongside Robin Spottiswoode, creating a new style of music label that has subsequently helped launch the web3 careers of Violetta Zironi, Fifi Rong, and Josh Savage, amongst others. At the same time, he began running educational Twitter Spaces to help onboard new artists, and designed a training programme for web3 musicians that ultimately became the Nifty Music Academy.
In both endeavours, Milo says his goal has been to empower his contemporaries to gain the skills to thrive within web3 independently. “I wanted to show musicians what was possible with this new technology,” he says. “I wanted to do this because it’s fun, and because I had had some success of my own and wanted to share that. My thinking was, ‘let's go ahead and do it, I’ll help you, and then you can go ahead and do it yourself next time’.”
“For the first time in my life, I was there at the beginning of something new, something big.”
— Nifty Sax
Of course, Milo still finds time to create his own music. In early 2022, he collaborated with Fifi Rong on her Harmony Collection, a deeply meditative collection of short musical works. “We wanted it to be a healing project, so we did it around the chakras. They say that there is a specific frequency for each chakra, so, for each work, I play that frequency as the root note, and then the other notes I play are part of that frequency’s harmonic series. All the notes are resonating with the original chakra.”
He's also gearing up to release his next, as yet untitled, collection. “It’s something completely different from Genesis and Spheres,” he says. “It does include saxophone, but these are songs where I sing and play the piano. It's a big shift for me.”
“I wanted to show musicians what was possible.”
— Nifty Sax
It has been nearly two years since Milo first began his web3 music journey. Over that time, the space has grown from non-existent to a close-knit, dedicated community. “A lot of people who were making music NFTs back at the very start have left, but even more new people have come in,” he reflects. “The community as a whole has grown, there’s more variety, and I think a lot more people now understand the value of digital ownership.“
“This next year is going to be quite interesting,” Milo predicts. “We have proven that there can be a whole ecosystem for music. It's not about selling just one piece — you can sell an entire collection and can build a whole economy around an album.”
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