Kits Wants Artists to Own Their Sonic Identity

The onchain sample marketplace is resetting music production where it really matters.

Text Duncan Cooper
Published 08 Mar 2023

Calling it a music NFT might be a stretch, but BEEP was the first digital asset “backed by sound,” as its creator Theo Goodman described it in a Bitcoin Forum post dated August 8, 2014. BEEP is a collection of 100 Counterparty tokens, each of which can be redeemed—through an extremely convoluted process involving transferring the token, decoding a resulting string and saving it as an image file, and loading that into a software emulator of a vintage Russian synthesizer—for a one-of-a-kind, one-second-long sound: a beep. I tried to follow the steps, recently. I couldn't get it to work.

Nevertheless, BEEP foreshadowed much of the next near-decade of music in crypto. There’s the overengineered proof-of-concept. Access tokens. Generative art. Demonstrable scarcity, albeit for sounds only heard by a few. If you fast-forwarded from BEEP to today, would you really miss much? Speaking as a former artist, manager, and music journalist, I’m well aware of the music industry’s problems—the endless extortion and imbalance that the decentralized web was supposed to help solve. That’s why it bothers me that so many of Web3’s most hopeful experiments have amounted to little more than shining a dim light on problems that everyone knows exist.

A new music platform by Arpeggi Labs, an a16z-backed startup with advisors including Steve Aoki and Wyclef Jean, has my attention precisely because it is so practical. Kits is a marketplace for music samples, like snare drum hits or piano loops. The general idea will be familiar to any producer because it’s not too different from the Web2 leader in the space, Splice. On Splice, monthly subscribers download samples—some created by big-name artists—that come with non-exclusive, royalty-free commercial license agreements. Anything on Splice is fair game for any of its millions of subscribers. But do you really want to use the same sounds as everyone else? On Kits, sample packs are bought and sold as NFTs. Enter the rare sample.

“When you're looking to establish your sonic identity,” said Arpeggi co-founder Evan Dhillon, “having access to samples that no one else can use is a pretty powerful thing.”

Whether someone mints an edition of a Kits pack or buys it on the secondary market, owning the NFT lets them log on to the site and download that pack’s sounds. The number of NFTs will vary, based on the artist’s preference—so far, they’ve all been open editions that close after a day or so. If there ends up being, say, 50 NFTs of a particular pack, then 50 people (at most) can record with those samples at any given time; if there are 15, then only 15 can. That scarcity aspect is new and interesting, but the most exciting part might actually be the fine print, in the way each NFT functions as a tokenized music license.

The license agreement on Kits is time-based, applying to whatever a holder creates with the samples while the NFT is in their wallet. For Kits, license holders are very easy to track onchain—and just as easily, the concept scales. Change a few words on the website, and their marketplace could offer exclusive beat licenses for rappers, the rights for a few DJs to remix a song, or instruments, plug-ins, and effects. Granted, these things already exist on Web2, but that’s part of the appeal: Kits is easy to grok, with a clear added benefit. I don’t know how many people were begging to sell 10 copies of a single as a 100 dollar NFT. But I can think of a lot of artists and managers who’d love not to have to wade through the miasma that is tracking random rights agreements.

This straightforward proposition is all the more compelling when compared to Arpeggi Labs’s earlier endeavor, Arpeggi Studio. Released in the fall of 2021, Arpeggi Studio is a DAW—or digital audio workstation, akin to Ableton Live or FL Studio—that lets users compose music in their web browser, then mint samples, stems, and completed songs as CC0-licensed NFTs on Polygon.

Arpeggi Studio was inspired by a generative beat-maker that Kyle Dhillon, Evan’s older brother and cofounder, started while working as a software engineer at Google. (Middle brother Austin, the professional musician of the family, works as Arpeggi’s head of user experience research; their childhood friend, James Pastan, is another co-founder.) The goal, according to Kyle, was to create an ecosystem that encouraged remixing and reuse while tracking attribution onchain. Before long, though, he said, they realized something: “Artists don't want to switch to a new DAW.”

Technical docs for Arpeggi Studio mention the potential for incorporating automated royalty splits—a big part of the traditional music industry, these are proportional payouts to different people based on their varying contributions to a song. Kits is currently royalty-free (though sample creators would collect a percentage from any secondary NFT sales), but Evan said the company intends to continue exploring this complex territory. “If you just have a public ledger of who owns this license and you automate when that song is published to make sure everyone is getting what they deserve,” he said, “an artist wouldn’t have to worry about getting the right splits and credit.”

Versions of this lofty idea have been bouncing around for a while now, and the whole thing can feel a bit like Web3 music’s white whale. But that’s why I like Kits so much, as it already is. You don’t need to onboard every singer, songwriter, and session player for it to work. It’s far more reasonable to ask a producer, who is probably used to a similar thing, to set up a wallet and buy a pack of samples for around the same price they pay already. It might not be earth-shaking. It’s not the first. But maybe it’s better, just enough, to make a lasting difference.

Mint a special ZINE x Kits NFT:

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