Of all the questions one could ask Madonna, her thoughts on the NFT artwork BAYC #3756 is not the first that springs to mind. But that is exactly what Variety magazine did during an interview with the American pop star in July. Madonna is the latest celebrity to jump on the NFT bandwagon. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are unique digital images that are recorded in a blockchain, which certifies ownership. These virtual drawings usually belong to collections with a common aesthetic, like trading cards. And they are very, very expensive. An image from the Bored Apes Yacht Club (BAYC), one of the most popular NFT collections, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are so exclusive that even Madonna missed out on buying BAYC #3756.
“I was so pissed off that I didn’t get the one I wanted,” she told Variety. “Once I get my mind around something, then that’s what I’m going to have. But I learned quickly that wanting 32 musicians on stage in a small theater is not the same as wanting an ape with a leather motorcycle cap and multicolored teeth.”
For some time now, celebrities have been working hard to promote their NFTs. This can involve discussing the digital artwork in interviews, using the image as their profile picture on social media or even - in the case of Snoop Dogg and Eminem’s recent collaboration - featuring them in music videos. In the video for their song From The D 2 The LBC, the rappers appear as the two BAYC characters they had bought. They even performed at the 2022 MTV Awards as the digital avatars.
Such acts all come down to money, according to Andrés Guadamuz, an NFT expert from Sussex University. “The goal is to generate FOMO [fear of missing out] and incidentally raise the price of NFTs,” he explains via email. The price of NFTs is highly variable and depends largely on how popular the image in question is. So when celebrities show off their NFTs, they can be increasing the value of the specific image they own, as well as the entire collection it belongs to: in other words, it’s product placement.
At the end of 2021, the crypto asset market (which includes NFTs and cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin) was at its peak. But it was not yet mainstream - everyday people were not buying NFTs. That’s when actor Matt Damon started promoting the crypto market for the digital investment platform Crypto.com. Dozens of other celebrities started to drop mentions of NFTs and cryptocurrency into interviews. The idea was to normalize it and encourage fans to invest.
Last January, Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow changed her profile picture to her BAYC avatar. A month later, she changed it to an NFT from the FlowerGirls collection. And 30 days later, she replaced it with another from the WoWGalaxy collection. Meanwhile, singer Jason Derulo not only changed his profile picture to an NFT from the CryptoPunks collection, he also gives talks on how to invest in the market on the crypto website Discord. Other musicians such as John Legend, Steve Aoki and the band Kings of Leon have even decided to release their own NFT collections.
But perhaps the worst example of shameless advertising was an interview between host Jimmy Fallon and heiress Paris Hilton on The Tonight Show. During the interview, Fallon and Hilton showed images of the BAYC artworks they had bought and discussed the digital apes at length. “I love the red heart sunglasses. I love the captain hat,” Hilton said of Fallon’s NFT. “They look like they could be friends,” Fallon added, while holding up images of the NFTs side by side. While the awkwardness of the moment was papered over with canned laughter, the interview was attacked by the media the following day. “Why were these celebrities talking about crypto on late-night TV?” asked the magazine Polygon.
“The answer is money” says Guadamuz. “There are a number of venture capital funds that have been investing heavily in NFTs.” Of all these funds, one stands out: Horowitz. This Silicon Valley venture capital firm played a leading role in the early days of the internet. And now it’s the world’s largest crypto investor.
“Horowitz has connections with several Hollywood talent agencies, and they have apparently been buying the NFTs for clients as part of their promotional packages,” says Guadamuz. “Yuga Labs [the company that created the BAYC] are among those that have received the most money from these funds,” he adds. That would explain why Justin Bieber, Jimmy Fallon, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Neymar, Paris Hilton, Timbaland, Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Aoki have an NFT of a monkey. And why don’t they stop talking about it.