Refraction: Please Don't Stop the Music

For Malcolm Levy, Refraction isn’t just a vision for a music festival, but an incubator for worldwide collaboration

Text Zine
Published 25 Jan 2023

“It was the best of times…it was the worst of times…” might sum up the red-hot engagement swirling, commenting, and crowdsourcing through Discord during the darker ages of the pandemic, respectively. Stay-at-home mandates also facilitated record-level use of social media; we were never truly alone. Now that our lives have, in arguable capacities, achieved a closer-to-normal cadence, trudging through the consistent updates, blasts, drops, and announcements can feel cumbersome.

In an Artnet article from December, writer Josie Thaddeus-Johns paints a portrait of participants in Web3 who’ve weathered thick and thin—and they’re tired. “Burned out,” was the term that Malcolm Levy, an artist and founder of RefractionDAO—part music festival, part DAO, part incubation studio—used. Out of the server and onto the polo grounds, musicians—Shawn Mendes, Arlo Parks, and Wet Leg, to name a few—have also become drained, a result of audience and festival promoter fervor post-Covid, which has come to expect performers returning to herculean tours and stages worldwide, making up for the lost years. What does it mean to create, consume, and champion the arts ethically in a way both informative and restorative?

A creator-first mindset is a fantastic stepping stone; so is the potential of DAOs. “Helping to create an artist-run society is incredible,” says Levy, whose RefractionDAO is reinforced by a crack team of partners (MUTEK, Public Records, Nyege Nyege, Rhizome, and more). “Those principles are what guide us; the communities, artists, and conversations.” Refraction’s raison d’être grew out of the disillusionment both underground music communities (see Chicago House, Detroit Techno, Disco etc.) and web/media art pioneers have faced for decades under corporate oligarchies and centralized ownership. The thesis? That the alchemy of multidisciplinary communities, a streamlined ethos of artist advocacy, and live events, working amongst the tendrils of RefractionDAO, has the ability to transform artist burnout into artist fuel.

And they have begun to reap what they have sown. Their genesis NFT drop, Season 0, gave holders seven individual works from digital mavens Claire Silver, Setta Studio, Ellie Pritts, p1xelfool, Yoshi Sodeoka, Cibelle Cavalli Bastos, and Linda Dounia, which unlocked lifetime access to RefractionDAO's events and initiatives. So If last year's Refraction Festival at Miami Art Week was any indication, RefractionDAO is gearing up for a fruitful year of the rabbit. One of their latest undertakings is the REFRACT Pass, which enables holders to have exclusive access to music festivals, art shows, and digital collectibles from artists like Ana María Caballero, Nicolas Sassoon, Sky Goodman, Ikaro Cavalcante, Kazuhiro Aihara, Lorna Mills, Rick Silva, and Saeko Ehara. Instead of artists relying solely on a centralized patronage, REFRACT Pass acts as a collective commitment to sustaining independent artists worldwide.

ZINE’s editor-in-chief caught up with Malcolm Levy to connect on new forms of patronage, the sanctity of royalties, and finding one’s core purpose.

Liam Casey (ZINE): Since germinating in 2020, how did becoming a DAO shape Refraction's practice? Did you find there were any challenges in developing a decentralized organizational structure? Would you have done anything differently in hindsight?

Malcolm Levy: Creating and developing a DAO and figuring out a governance is a huge challenge in itself. You learn a lot along the way. In our case, we consider ourselves as much a DAO as an onchain community, like a decentralized collective organization. We're a collective and we're organized and we're together. We are autonomous as a group, but we're more of a collective in how we work.

We learned that we should constantly evolve. There are always things to change. The great thing about a DAO is that the way it starts is not how it ends: the DAO can evolve, can grow, and learn. A lot of that has to do with its constituents and members. For instance, outside of governance, we’re a network—people being able to hang out together, go to events, check out cool art, and have access to cool art. It's like a club as much as a DAO—a club that's owned by its members.

Helping to create an artist-run society is incredible. Those principles are what guide us; the communities, artists, and conversations. Within Web3, we've moved into this world where we see new movements arise. Every movement is doing things a little differently, every DAO a little different. That’s why it’s such a huge honor to be able to work with ZORA. Others like Water & Music, FWB, Protein DAO, Cabin DAO, and so on—so many of them are doing this incredible work. There's different ways that everyone's seeing things and everyone's learning. We feel like we're right in the middle of the ecosystem to a large extent.

As a DAO we've become as much about partnerships and network as some singular ecosystem as a whole. At the end of last year, we realized that our core purpose is these events that we do all around the world. We have these incredible artists, these incredible musicians, incredible content creators in the editorial community who are contributing in a myriad of ways to making that happen. Different groups doing creative grants, artists doing different drops—all of these things make up the DAO as a whole.

LC: You've had experience collaborating with visual artists and musicians from New Forms Festival amongst others. There's so many great names in the Refraction Showcase at Miami Art Week. Were a lot of the artists you collaborated with new to the NFT space? Did you have to onboard them? What were their general reactions?

ML: We really see ourselves as a space that artists can come into at any point, whether you're familiar with Web3 or not. It's about an artist wanting to be part of a collective experience, to have ownership and growth and be part of a network. We consider that being onchain; being in the group. In a larger sphere, the reason why we believe in this is because we see artists as art, and community as community.

The Web3 explanation is an ongoing and evolving process. How do you really invite artists into Web3 in ways that they can understand or value? We have so many artists come to us and say, "Hey, I'm really interested in Web3 or NFTs. I love the Refraction drops. How does this work?" It’s a support network. More and more artists are open to Web3 in different ways. One of the largest issues was the environmental ramifications of Ethereum.

LC: That’s become a moot point with the merge.

ML: Exactly. Then it becomes learning about the future of Web3. This is a DAO that comes from the idea of community ownership. It's an idea that comes from working together onchain, having the ability for things to happen around the world, to be decentralized yet work together to build something new, to have a focus. Refraction is about our events, drops, community, and network. A lot of that network comes through REFRACT Pass, the meetups, and the different initiatives that we created out of that, or these different events that we do all over the world.

In a month we might have an event in Tokyo, in Miami, in New York, in Berlin, or São Paulo. That is the beautiful thing around Refraction: the community is working around the world, together.

LC: To the point of community and a collective consciousness—you spoke at New Art Dealers Alliance in Miami about royalties after OpenSea released a tool for creators to trade on platforms that reject royalties. Could you speak to this? Why didn’t it sit well with people in this space?

ML: We have to make sure there are royalties in Web3. There is a movement in the NFT world of collectors who believe, "I collect this work, I bought this work, I own this work. I don't have to pay royalties on this work.” That's just a traditional art market view. And the collectors are very important to the overall ecosystem. But the collectors don't exist without the artists and vice versa.

On a very high level, Refraction is an artist-led DAO. We are a DAO of creatives, artists, and musicians and we believe that a better world can be created through art and experiences. We’re all artists, that’s why we’re here. So as this royalties discussion arose, we thought it was ridiculous. How could something that had blossomed for artists not offer royalties? As an artist for years and years myself, if my piece is sold and someone else resells it and I don't see any of that profit—that is crazy. It's unethical.

Refraction is a DAO run by folks who support our events, support us through things like the REFRACT Pass, and are collectively part of what we're building. People can try to have a platform with no royalties, but in Web3, there is a trickle effect. OpenSea was trying to negotiate through this. OpenSea has a great team, but they're dealing with billions of dollars in artwork. Bigger collectors influence these decisions. We're in the middle of figuring out how to create a contract that makes sure all of our artists have royalties. In going through the ZORA contract as we got ready for our REFRACT Pass drop, our main developer, Graham Bertie, pointed out that this wasn’t addressed. ZORA made adding royalties a priority. The most magical part of this is everyone coming together around one specific point. It's a moment of growth as a community.

A very good friend of mine at OpenSea said to me, "Hey, you guys were part of reinstating royalties.” We were the ones who figured it out. This is what's so incredible about Web3. We're protecting or working to help protect the rights of thousands and thousands of artists, making sure artists retain millions and millions of dollars that they rightfully deserve. We now finally live in a time where artists actually have autonomy.


LC: And a lot of Web3 artists do have this autonomy, this leverage over the things that they do. On the opposite side of the coin, users of the different protocols or musicians or visual artists, have expressed burnout in general, whether that's in festival circuits or Discord engagement. I'm wondering if there's anything Refraction is doing to contend with that. In other words, how do you keep things fresh?

ML: It is our philosophy, our thesis, that artists and creators around the world should work together to create things. We’re, in a sense, an incubation studio for events worldwide. The quality of folks that have come into the DAO are amazing. You get artists that come in and perform, or do installation, or want to be involved in events. We have the ability to keep things fresh and interesting and moving forward all the time. That's not possible in other projects.

LC: At ZORA, I’ve thought about developing some sort of fully onchain DJ mixes for Zine, but then I remember the ramifications of playing music NFTs, legally or artistically. These licensing and bureaucratic agencies—like ASCAP in America or GEMA in Germany—require royalties to musicians. In a Refraction Festival context, where many musicians have minted music NFTs, what do music festivals look like at large? How does one navigate music licensing onchain?

ML: We are working towards finding new solutions that deal with the onchain reality around events. REFRACT Pass and the Refract token are there to make sure artists are getting paid for performances. It's so important to figure out artist's rights on all levels. There's a very real and good reason why things like GEMA and ASCAP exist. They exist to protect artists' rights. We're moving into a new phase where we're going to have to figure out how that happens onchain. It is going to require ongoing thinking, and it's something we think about all the time.

LC: What is Refraction working on next? Where should we keep our eyes peeled?

ML: REFRACT Pass is starting to launch new initiatives. We're going to start releasing a lot of the artists and incredible art that you get [access to] with the Pass in an ongoing and creative way. There's going to be a bunch of exciting drops from our different artists. For NFT.NYC we’re partnering with Proof of People so look out for that coming up. We have other upcoming collaborations with Water & Music, Magma DAO in Brazil, and Cyber Baat founded by Linda Dounia. What's so special about us is that you're really talking about the world as a whole. It's really about this worldwide proliferation.

Cover artwork by Eric L. Chen

Share article
Link copied!