Dean Wilson and Joel Zimmerman (better known as the artist deadmau5) are established innovators on the fringe of music and technology. Wilson is Zimmerman’s longtime manager and the pair have been pushing, in lock step, the envelope of music production, performance and the relationship between artist and fan. Zimmerman, a native of Canada, is a creative technologist long driven by his love of gaming to explore all facets of technology in search of groundbreaking new music and elevated fan experiences. Even before the term Web3 was common parlance, Wilson and Zimmerman managed their communities with a variety of digital tools.
“We were the first on Minecraft,” says Wilson. “It was way before NFTs and blockchain. The fans love that they can talk to Joel. They can put something in Discord and suggest things.”
They noticed early on how these tools offered fans a means of participating in a community with their favorite artist. In fact, after launching their collectible pin series, Wilson began to see how Web3 was poised to change their business and the music industry at large.
In 2019 during the Cube Tour, they placed physical vending machines near the concert venues and announced the exclusive pin drops through their Discord and Reddit channels. It was a huge success, so much so that Wilson started seeing a secondary market emerge for these physical collectibles. Years before many of us would hear the word NFT, Wilson and Zimmerman were unknowingly experimenting with a physical version of it.
These insights unleashed an insatiable curiosity to understand all facets of Web3 and how they could apply to their work. Wilson and Zimmerman are now involved with multiple companies and projects in the space including DAOs, blockchain music platforms, NFTs and gamified music experiences.
Says Wilson: “With Joel, it was obvious what he wanted to do. He wanted to build an amazing show; he wanted to be a worldwide act and a brand; but he also wanted to be the first … especially with technology and production. I’ve never met anybody in the music business who is as intelligent when it comes to all things technology.”
With so much happening at a dizzying pace in the Web3 space, many artists are looking to understand how it all works and what it means to them. In an interview with Variety, Wilson shares his experience and insight.
You and Joel seem built for Web3. How did it all unfold for you?
We had a blockchain strategy because Joel’s a technologist. He is a huge gamer and understands coding. He absolutely got it as a tech layer. When we did the Portugal the Man NFT drop, Joel said it is my responsibility where I am in my career to do new risky things to show what the future can be for fans and artists. Our friend Ray Lee, who’s part of Audius, built something called Upfront back in the day. It was basically Only Fans before Only Fans existed. Joel said he wanted to do that. He wanted to pull everything off of everything, and you have a subscription model. Once you are in the door, you have access to everything I’ve ever done. You can download it, you can stream it. Everything behind the deadmau5 world is here now. We didn’t own enough rights then, and it was so early. We were so far ahead of our time and we couldn’t make it work. That started seven years ago. We are going to end up there. All the tools and the tech layer are coming for this to all make sense.
What are some lessons you learned from your first few NFT projects?
It’s not about spinning up an NFT and making a lot of money. That’s not going to help your brand in the long term, because at, some point, people are going to go back and say, “Well, I bought an NFT, but what does it do?” So with the deadmau5 5555 series, we took some risks and it definitely hurt us, but it will help us in the long run. We decided to do it on Polygon. And it’s complicated if you’re not really into the Crypto space, but we wanted our fans not to get hammered on gas. And then we wanted to tell this whole story. We did a deal with Ready Player Me, and you’re going to be able to put your deadmau5 head into these multiple different worlds and have ongoing utility. Well, now you say, not only have I got some value, I love it. Now I can go and use it. That’s fundamentally key for what we are doing with every project that we do. I don’t want to do projects that don’t have future ongoing use. It’s really important. Another example is something like the Mad Dog Jones drop. Natalie & Mike who run our merch business found Mad Dog Jones in Tokyo in a collectible toy store. We loved his art. It was really important for Joel to do these collaborative pieces. To bring in great digital art, bring in his brand and likeness and add some music to it. And then it’s a true collaboration — 50/50 and we’ll manage it. Those have been really successful for us. Planning as far out as we could for the utility and connection with our fans while feeling like we’re giving our community real value in the future. This is our future. This is the strategy. Web3 is everything to us.
How can Web3 help address the music industry’s biggest challenges?
The business model is completely broken for the creator. It has to flip at some point, and it will happen with blockchain, smart contracts and Web3. It is the true way that we can connect directly with our fans and not have somebody telling us what we can and can’t do. You sell a show and you are hot. You sit there and look at the secondary ticket sites and you go, “Wow, This platform is making more money than me, with no risk.” That’s not fair. Transparency? There’s never been any of that, has there? The length of time of accounting makes no sense. Or any clarity on that set of accounting as well. Our strategy is to build what we think the future should be, and then do proof cases to show that this is how the music business should work. We are not trying to rebuild the legacy systems, because that’s not going to happen for years. You’re not going to change the way that multibillion dollar businesses run. It’s too much money, and it’s too complicated. If you own your catalog, there are more and more exciting opportunities of what you’re going to be able to do with your IP in the Web3 space. At some point, we are planning to create a DAO where the fans are truly invested at that point. The DAO owns and controls the IP, and the fans have voting rights within the DAO. Once you get to a certain point in your career with your fanbase, why would you ever not want to do that?
Your community is pretty Web3 savvy. How do you drive adoption for those new to the space?
Security and usability are the two biggest things that we have to solve. Coinbase was kind of the first step for most people from Web2 to Web3 by stepping into crypto right on your phone. It’s now a publicly traded company with 74 million users. They’re about to launch their NFT platform and we’re helping with that launch. That will be the first kind of NFT project that goes back the other way, where you don’t have to have a digital wallet, and you don’t have to use Ethereum to purchase NFTs. They’ve done a deal with MasterCard where you can actually purchase your NFT with fiat, not just crypto. Here’s the bridge between Web2 and Web3 and that bridge needs to be bigger and stronger. And that is how we slowly create mass adoption. It is trust and usability without big scary tech.
What would be your advice to independent artists looking to explore Web3?
First of all, do some research and ask a lot of questions. Don’t make any moves. Don’t do any deals. If you want to stay independent, use all the tools that are currently out there. Don’t sign any long term contracts. Ultimately, don’t do anything without finding out who’s involved; what it does; where it’s going; who the investors are; what your returns are going to be; and how your IP will be used.
What projects are a good place to start learning and testing?
You can test out certain things on platforms like Audius right now. If you own your IP and you’re completely independent, then open an Audius account and test it out. It’s like the Soundcloud for the blockchain. There will be an economic side built on Audius over the coming months. We’re advisors over there and there’s a lot of exciting stuff that we know is coming. Just be patient and use the tools that are there right now. And don’t box yourself in. With deadmau5, Seven20 or whatever, if someone tries to put the word exclusive into any contract, I will walk away. We’ve never done it. We will never do it.
You are involved in the MODA DAO project that is creating open source tooling for musicians in Web3. What are some important things to consider regarding starting your own DAO?
The thesis is to build the new business using the technology layers and not just change the old. One project we are in the process of launching is a Web3 blockchain fingerprinting technology for music. We do have to be careful about the SEC and some Web3 assets being considered a security. People need to do their legal homework. Don’t just spin up a coin because you think there aren’t any regulations right now. They’re coming. When they come, they’ll start working their way down. And if you start to get some success with your token in any capacity, there’s a chance it could be categorized as a security. Please do your research. We’ve been doing it for months, if not years, otherwise we would have launched our token a long time ago. I won’t do it until we are buttoned up legally 100%. And that’s gonna take a while.
MODA DAO is exploring things like a global decentralized licensing organization. What could licensing and rights management look like in Web3?
We have to build the new, but what does the new mean? Does it completely break all the old norms? Do you even need collection societies? What are they actually collecting in the digital sphere? If you are an IP owner not playing the Top 40 game and you’re not on radio, why do you need the collection societies? If we are doing it in a completely different way than the current business, then why would you need the old model? We’re going to build what we think our vision of how music will be in the future with the connection from the tech layer to the fans. We are heading to a direct connection with the fan base who are involved and owning something. There’s been a complete disconnect there today. You used to be able to buy a piece of vinyl and then you own that piece of vinyl. We did it with CDs, and we did it with digital downloads. Then it disappeared. There’s no connection to anything. It’s just there on Apple or Spotify. deadmau5 is the perfect example of fans craving this connection. Our Discord group, Mau5chord, is growing exponentially every day. Everything we do is linked to the community. Backwards and forwards to the fan and us. We ask them what they want, and we ask them how they want to be involved. Reddit was the first aha moment for me. We had our five superfans as our Reddit moderators. Here are the rules and here is how to act. If anyone acts inappropriately or does anything wrong, they are booted. I thought, why is that not the business model?
There are a few platforms offering fractional ownership in songs to fans. What’s your take on sharing ownership and revenue streams?
I don’t feel comfortable doing that right now. I got really excited in the early stages, and then I thought, why do I want to be on these platforms for them to fractionalize it? They say they have the legal side of it set up, but I’m giving them this and I’m giving them that. It kind of defeats our Web3 thesis. We need to keep building it internally and connect directly with our fans, not again through another platform. I think we’ll end up with our own DAO having this token linked to it where the DAO purchases the IP of mau5trap and deadmau5’s music. And then everybody can get involved and be invested in the IP, whether it be streaming, licensing or sync. Everybody has a chance to vote as well because they’re part of the community. The obvious step to me here is a DAO.
Where do you see the future of Web3 and music going?
It’s so exciting. It really is. Every day, I feel like it’s Christmas. I talk to so many amazing people who are now in this space, and every one of them is this excited. Most of them have been in the music business for 10 to 15 years, and they’re like, “I’m so jaded by what I’ve had to deal with, and being told what I can and can’t do. This is the bright new future. … It will change all of our lives.