Ryan Tedder on Making the NFT Space Safe for Pop Music, and Why It’s the Ultimate Collectors’ Medium

"I've tried to write a hit that only a handful of people will get to experience," says Tedder, whose combined music-and-art piece is going up for auction as an NFT. And he's just getting started.

singer songwriter songland nft auction art onerepublic
Dennis Leupold

If you’ve ever been to Ryan Tedder’s studio, you know immediately he’s a collector nonpareil in the pop world: Framed documents signed by Gandhi or Napoleon stand nearly side-by-side with a Warhol. But does a love of physical collecting translate into the world of NFTs (non fungible tokens)? For the OneRepublic frontman, it very much does, which might seem like a much shorter stretch if you’re aware that he’s spent the last four years being fairly obsessed with cryptocurrency as something that will transform the world’s future.

Tuesday night, he’s putting his own first official collectibles on the market. He’s collaborated with a street artist, BustArt, on an NFT that combines a new song he’s written with an animation he commissioned. On his website, ryantedder.com, at 7:30 p.m. PT, he’s dropping three “open edition” tokens that will be on sale for just a half-hour. But the real action will begin at 8:15, when an auction will open for limited edition NFTs.

There are four different tiers that will be the subject of bids. At the top level, the auction’s winner will get an NFT that includes the complete digital song and animation, as well as some physical elements like an original canvas and a Zoom chat with Tedder to work on songs or just shoot the Bitcoin breeze. At the lowest tier of the auction, no Zoom, and no complete song, but there is digital video content distinct from what you’d get at the higher levels.

If you’re wondering why we should care about any of this… Tedder is the great explainer, and just as he can create a multi-platinum pop song for himself or other artists, and then explain why it was mass-appeal, so is he able to evangelize for these new forms of money and art, and almost make it make sense to the crypto-layman.

VARIETY: What is the appeal of doing a NFT for you? And you say you wrote a song for this that is somehow themed around the whole idea… how do you write a song about NFTs, anyway?

TEDDER: When the NFT thing took off, I was like, “Oh, this is literally the culmination of everything I love: scarcity, art, beauty and interacting with the world.”

For this, I wrote an original song, and the idea that only a handful of people will have access to it is kind of mind-blowing to me, because that’s the opposite of everything I’m trained to do. This is the antithesis of getting into writing songs to write hits. I’ve tried to write a hit that only a handful of people will get to experience.

My job, seven days a week since probably 2003, is that I have to write songs that appeal en masse globally. When I really have success is if a song reaches global cultural ubiquity, and that means billions of people want to hear this three-minute piece of music over and over and over and don’t get burned out on it. So that’s how my brain is hardwired. At least I aim for those. Writing the perfect pop song is infinitely harder than writing some esoteric, alternative, left-of-center record. I love that shit, too. That’s the stuff I listen to, but it’s not the stuff I write.

I have created a song that under any normal circumstance I would jockey and do all the things that songwriters do to get it recorded (by) the biggest artists possible and make it a single that gets released to the world. And if you have a global smash, it can make tens of millions of dollars. I’m doing the opposite. I have no idea how it’s going to end up, by the way. Whatever value it inherently has to collectors is what it will inherently have. With this auction, all of it combined could be $5,000. All of it combined could be $5 million. There’s no way to predict it. Frankly for me, not to sound flippant or cliche, but  whatever it nets is so beside the point for me personally. This is about the experience. I’ve had a blast doing it.

What’s the name of the song? And will it really be only the handful of people who possess it who get to hear it?

No, here’s the thing. Whoever ends up with the full song, it’s theirs. They own it. If they want to stream it, upload it to YouTube, they can, but they own the original copy of it. So whatever they want to do with it, they can do with it. Whenever it trades hands, too, I’m aware of it. So if somebody sells it and then somebody else wants the original, it can go up in price. The value increases and we will know every single time one of these things has transacted, in perpetuity.

I called the song “Nakamoto.” I named it after Satoshi Nakamoto. That’s the nom de plume of the person that invented Bitcoin and the blockchain, the technology — probably the most brilliant programmer of all time. Nobody really knows who the guy is. There’s rumors that it’s a guy from Palo Alto, rumors that it’s an Australian bitcoin miner. I just called the song “Nakamoto,” because it’s the entire theme of this record.  The song is about the NFT space. Not to nerd out, it’s quite a nerdy thing to say, but that is what it’s about — disguised as this sublimely summertime, feel-good pop record. It’s like the Beach Boys meets the Goriillaz. Thematically, I’m writing about the overall space. The lyrics in the chorus are like, “This ain’t no wave, it’s an ocean.” That’s the hook. That’s my analogy to the future of NFTs and the future of crypto: It’s not a wave, it’s an ocean.

So it is a pop song you could imagine being a hit under another circumstance.

For better or worse — some people say for worse — the melodies that I do, I’m trying to write the type of stuff that appeals to the broadest audience humanly possible. And that’s something that I think makes my NFT drops distinct, because a lot of the other stuff is very trance-y, deep house, electronic music. I’m trying to write straight-up pop songs. A lot of the NFT drops in the last 90 days have been by electronic musicians, DJs, electronic artists. They always tend to be at the tip of culture anyway, so it’s not surprising. The distinction with my drop, that ties back to the whole notion of doing the opposite of what you’re trained to do… Everything that I’ve heard thus far if you look at some of these NFTs is very house, electronic, dark, pulsating.

And a lot of the artwork is very cyberpunk. Some of these pieces of art, it’s like a bunch of robots hanging out in the matrix, just interacting with each other and like floating. So to the average consumer, I get why this is such a weird space and seems daunting. But guess what? The reason that a lot of the digital artwork in NFTs has such a familiar theme is because the people that got into it the quickest and started creating this art happen to live in a very technologically advanced world. I’m trying to bring it to the masses. My whole objective here is to intentionally zag when everybody else is zigging.

The music that I’m doing is nostalgic; has a Beach Boys element to it. I’m just trying to give people like a dopamine high. And the artwork I chose is super-nostalgic, throwback, Saturday morning cartoons, whimsical, feel-good. Like, that’s my street art. I’m in my studio right now and sitting a foot away from me is a sculpture of a Smurf made by the artist BustArt, who’s the guy in Switzerland that I partnered with for this drop. He’s got a Smurf that’s like melting into my keyboard. It’s very, very Saturday morning cartoons whimsical. And that’s my aesthetic. I want people to feel happy and like dopamine and nostalgic. And so the music that I wrote represents that.

This aligns with your collector mentality going way back.

I’ve been collecting one-of-one stuff since the moment I made any money. When I was a kid, it was sports cards and I’d get the rarest card when I was 8, 9, 10. I still buy sports cards, and obviously in the last year that has exploded tremendously. The first nickel I made from music back in 2007, when I first made what I would call it disposable income level of money, I bought a Norman Rockwell painting. When I grew up, for years I wanted to be a Disney animator. and I would get copies of the Saturday Evening Post and draw the Norman Rockwell paintings. Clearly now I know that, yes, he’s important, but there are other very well-known artists, but I loved what he did. So that’s the first piece of art I ever bought, and they’re incredibly difficult to get because Steven Spielberg and George Lucas own the majority of them. And that’s when I first learned about scarcity when it comes to art. If I was not a musician or songwriter, a dream job for me would have been to be a street artist, and if I couldn’t be a successful street artist like Keith Haring, then being a gallerist or a curator and being able to be surrounded by art five days a week would be my other dream job.

Then I started collecting one-of-ones. I have handwritten letters from George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Gandhi. I have ledgers, like the original transactions from the Medicis from the 1400s. And then in my studio, I have Keith Harings and Warhols.

Not everyone will get how this is the same thing, as you know.

To break it down to the average person, like, what’s this NFT craze? Look, it’s art, right? If you go into a hotel or somebody’s house and they have a piece of art hanging on their wall or a sports card that they collected that brings them joy, that is what digital art is. People making $69 million or whatever the number was… there was a big ramp up into that space. That digital art, you can take with you everywhere. It lives on your phone. It lives in your laptop. If you choose to print it, you can print it, print it. People go, “How could something be worth millions of dollars, or tens of millions, if you could just screenshot it and print it and put it on your wall?” Well, guess what? You could walk into my studio or my house or any of my friends that have art and the Keith Haring that I have, and you could easily just buy a screen print of it.

So then, then why did I pay so much more? I paid so much more because I wanted the original. I know that he touched it. I know that Keith drew this. I have one of Gandhi’s last speeches. I know that Gandhi put pen to paper and that is the actual paper that he wrote it on. That’s his handwriting. It means something to me. It doesn’t have to mean something to everybody else. I’ve got friends that don’t give a rip about art, but they’ve gone super heavy into sports cards, and they have the Tom Brady rookie PSA 10, the Jordan PSA 10. … To me, this is the future of art. This is the future of true peer-to-peer creator-and-fan interaction. And that’s what this is.

Is doing a song for an NFT for the sake of an NFT as inspiring as everyday music?

The other irony of me doing an NFT is, this is what I do all day. I write songs to pictures. Three weeks ago I get a call from the music supervisor of “Space Jam 2.” “Hey, we have this one major scene in the movie. We need a song. We need a major artist attached to it. It’s  last minute. But if I show you the three-minute scene, can you write the song for this scene in ‘Space Jam 2’?” And I said yes, on a Thursday. On a Friday, I partnered with a major huge artist who just won a Grammy — I can’t say who it is yet. We wrote a song, I produced it, and it’s now in the movie and a single. And had I not seen the picture itself, I would not have been able to write the music. So what I’m doing with this NFT is so similar to what I did three weeks ago for “Space Jam 2.”

The difference is with “Space Jam 2” I have a guaranteed “we are paying you this, this is how much you’re going to get paid,” it’s a guarantee, blah, blah, blah, blah. I have none of that with the NFT space. But whatever it makes, I’m donating 5% of the proceeds to International Justice Mission, which is the largest anti-slavery organization and child trafficking organization in the world, and 5% goes to Drop for Drop, which is a non-for-profit out of the UK that builds clean water wells all around the world. It’s not for the sake of feeling self-righteous, but I think we’re entering into a time period where just being a profit monster for the sake of doing it is about the least cool thing in the world you could do. I’ve been very lucky and privileged and done very well in music thus far, so I want to like really intentionally start trying to create things that generate income that can actually go to people beyond myself, and attempt at trying to change lives as best as I can.

Why are you so excited about cryptocurrency?

I’ve been invested in cryptocurrency since early 2017. I came in on the first fund. I believed in 2017 that cryptocurrency, and even more so blockchain, was the future of everything — of commerce, economy, buying, selling, finance, decentralizing how we interact as humans, and creating a transparency in transaction.

We are very, very, very close to a couple different countries announcing that they’re making Bitcoin their federal reserve currency. And when you think about what that means, that’s insane. It’s insane. So it’s not a wave. you know what I mean? This is going to continue happening. When you think about idea of traveling around the world and being able to send and receive moneys and cryptocurrency globally, and being able to carry the artwork that you love with you, all of this, just in my brain, reeks of the future.

For the NFTs themselves, since these are typically auctions and, for somebody who has a famous name, going to presumably go to a pretty high bidder, is there still room for people who are not high on the economic ladder to win these kinds of auctions or just be interested in NFTs generally?

One hundred percent. And not put too fine a point on it, but I should clarify something. The level of notoriety that anyone launching an NFT has has very little to do with how the auction goes. The NFT space has softened a little bit in the last month, since Blau’s release. I’ve become friends with Blau, Justin Blau, who obviously made international news with an $11.8 million NFT auction. I don’t have any expectations financially. But this, the average person has access to it. And these will trade hands a bunch. Just invariably, they will exchange hands. Other people will buy them. Some people will hold onto them; some will trade for other things.

But the barrier to entry is… guess what? I’m starting at zero. For me, I don’t see this as a cash land grab at all. I mean, you could be Jake Paul, you could be Snoop, you could be Elon Musk and drop an NFT and it could do very poorly, or it could do well. But here is the analogy that I use to explain to people who ask, “But why is it valuable? It’s digital. I don’t get it. It’s not on my wall. Why?”

If two guys walk up to you on the street and you’re really hungry, and they both offer you a meal, and one of them happens to be a celebrity — Matt Damon, I dunno… Matt Damon walks up to you and goes, “You’re hungry. Let me make you dinner. I’m going to charge you 150 bucks to make you dinner.” You say, “Oh, he’s very famous, Matt Damon! Okay.” Whether you are or are not a fan of Matt Damon, that’s cool. Then Thomas Keller walks up, or someone like David Chang, one of your favorite chefs. He goes, “I’m going to make you dinner. I’m going to charge you $500 — four or five times what this other guy’s offering.” Well, nine out of 10 people, if you know anything about food, you’re going to pay five times more for a meal made by Thomas Keller than you are made by some other fellow celebrity. Why? Because one person inherently cares about food. They’ve been in the game. They understand it; you know that they care about it. They put so much time and attention into what they’re doing that it has inherent, intrinsic value. And getting food made for you by Thomas Keller, in and of itself, is scarcity.

The point of the analogy I’m making is, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have. Blau even said to me, “The people that are dropping (other NFTs) have 50 times the followers I have on Instagram, but they’re netting out one-tenth of what my auction did.” It doesn’t have to do with how famous you are or how notable you are when you sell these things. It has to do with: Do you care? Have you done your research? Do you know what you’re doing? Are you approaching it with the same level of value and care that you approach your own art with?

You’re planning on making more songs like this? Will they all be with different artists, or might you do more with this one?

Will I do another one with BustArt? I’d say the possibilities is high that I would do another one with him. But I’ve already been talking with a couple other artists that are global, fairly well-known street artists about doing other NFTs. What I can guarantee you that I won’t be doing the same song ever again, and I will not be even trying to replicate it… Could I do a set that feels almost like an album — like it all has the same sound? Potentially, yes. But then I would pivot. I don’t want to replicate this because the one thing I don’t want to do is devalue this NFT drop to the potential future owners. I don’t want to create something  that they’re like, “Well, wait a minute, this is kind of similar.” So I will intentionally shift off of it, onto some other expression.

I’m going to be using the release schedule that a handful of my favorite street artists use. There’s a pace that you need to operate at. If you’re dropping stuff every 30 days — I’m not going to name names, but like some people are doing now… For me, I just go, well, once you’ve released too much of anything, you’ve devalued it, period. So I don’t plan on doing a drop every 30 days. Could I do one a quarter? Yeah. That seems more reasonable. Look, I’ve bought every drop that Brian Connolly has made in the last three years, I’ve collected all of them. So I’m very much doing something that I’ve already actively participated in for years. This is just a natural progression for me.

And I want to be clear about this. This is not a Ryan Tedder solo single. This is not a OneRepublic song. This song is the  actual voice of the character, of the animated piece of art that is in the NFT. This is how I imagine his voice would sound, and everything about this is representative of the art itself. I would not have written this song were it not for the art. And in fact, I made sure that the art was made first. I directed what I wanted artistically and visually, and then I wrote the music to support that.

There are different tiers of the release with different song lengths. What are the differences?

You’re not getting the full song in the bottom tier. And each one has different experiences. The top tier, like the one-of-one, I’m going to Zoom with them, and if they happen to be a musician, I’m going to work on a song and critique a song with them and break it down, kind of do what I do on “Songland,” the TV show. I’ll functionally be doing the same thing for the top two tiers. One of them is obviously the full song; one is half the song. You’ve got 30 seconds tranches. But each one has a different visual, so it’s not like we took the same visual and just chopped it up. Each level has a completely different visual. So even if you only get 15 seconds  or 30 seconds of the song, you’re getting a unique visual, unique cartoon, unique space, to the people that are in tier one.

Compared to any other art, it’s very similar. I have two Warhols that I believe are one of 15, so there’s 15 in existence in the world, period, forever. That assigns them a certain monetary value. If they were one-of-one, they would be worth 10 times what I paid for my one-of-15.

So that is exactly what we’re doing. What we’re doing in the NFT space is mirrored exactly by the actual modern art space each year. The further down the chain you get, there’s still a limited amount, but one tier might have a maximum of 10 in the world. One will have a maximum of seven, four, two, one. You get where it goes from there.