Grimm times: Why a local artist is banking on the metaverse to break even

In 10 years of career, Diaz Grimm has never benefited from his music. He believes his new album could change that and solving a music industry crisis.

Diaz Grimm has hardware issues. “My car has a dead battery,” he emailed us before our interview. When the entertainer otherwise known as Cameron Clarke sits down in a Kingsland cafe an hour later, it’s always a surprise to see him in person. Grimm, a Cambridge musician with two albums and a handful of cryptocurrency to his name, threatened to run the press for his latest project in non-human form. “All interviews related to this project will be with avatar Diaz in real time or pre-recorded,” a recent press release warned.

Even cyborg rappers have to promote themselves properly. Grimm’s has agreed to an in-person chat to discuss Māui & the Sin, an NZ On Air-funded double album and the third installation in what he hopes will become a series of “seven albums, seven books and seven films” over the course of the next 25 years. It’s a massive James Cameron-sized swing of an artist who’s always finding his way. Grimm’s ability to achieve his goals depends entirely on how the next few months unfold. He’s trying something different and he needs 100 fans to embrace his big plans and help him succeed.

Diaz Grimm is asking 100 fans to invest in his NFT-style music project. (Picture: supplied)

Be patient, because Grimm’s new playbook is a bit complicated. Influenced by his enthusiasm for bitcoin, blockchains, Web3 and NFTs, Grimm is selling the rights to his new music, which means fans can join his own personal community of financial investors. Using the Ethereum blockchain, they can purchase one of 100 Album Ownership Tokens (AOTs) giving them exclusive perks like vinyl records, free entry to shows, and access to the Grimmverse, an ongoing online world of construction.

Potentially, it could also make them money: each token buyer will receive 0.65% of Grimm’s streaming royalties for the next 12 months. If his album takes off and Grimm’s musical stock goes up, the fans who invested early will be there by his side, benefiting too.

To do this, Grimm (Ngāwhā, Ngāpuhi) adopted a new persona online. He is, according to his press release, “the world’s first indigenous CGI avatar rapper”, a claim that is difficult to verify but probably true. The music video for the album’s first single, “WWĀD”, features him stomping on Auckland’s Sky Tower while rapping lines such as, “All these haters didn’t listen / Now they on house wishing / They could taste these NFT royalties I baked in the kitchen. At the end of the song, he implores listeners to “invest now.”

Why is he doing this? Silver. Grimm readily admits that he is struggling financially and is actively looking for work. Despite what appears to be an impressive career book opening slots for Mac Miller, Chance the Rapper and a 10-date Six60 Tour, plus performances at Northern Bass and Rhythm & Vines Grimm says he always struggled to make ends meet as a musician. Agreements with a record company don’t work for someone at his level. “I never made any money. I scraped by surviving for 10 years,” he says. “It’s very difficult.”

Desperation is one of his inspirations, and it’s no surprise. Lately things have gotten tougher for artists like Grimm. Only the top 0.8% of artists make money from Spotify streaming. The rest fight for a pittance while trying to build a fanbase who could buy merchandise or concert tickets. To make matters worse, Covid, which has killed touring revenue and is only now showing signs of recovery. “As a completely independent artist, you probably want a million monthly plays on Spotify to be comfortably sustainable,” says Grimm. “I just hit 4,500.”

IIt wasn’t always like this. Three years ago Grimm was “balling”. Encouraged by a friend, he had moved to Toronto and settled into a sparse studio. Working 20 hours a week at a local restaurant, his salary and tips combined brought him $2,000 a week. Free to focus on his music, Grimm returned to the musical grind, making friends and connections while building a studio and finishing an EP, the follow-up to his 2015 album Osiris and 2016’s 2077.

He even blocked a Canadian tour. “It was a very good life. I had found my team, found my scene,” he says. “Little by little, I was building a life for myself.” When the Covid lockdowns started in March 2020, Grimm was in Aotearoa, having briefly returned to attend his brother’s wedding. With borders closed and stay-at-home orders issued, the wedding was called off, his tour was cut short, and Grimm was stuck. He had $4,000 in his pocket, enough to get him through what he thought was about a month of confinement.

Diaz Grimm
Diaz Grimm’s Avatar performs atop the Sky Tower. (Picture: provided)

But the borders remained closed. In December 2020, Grimm realized, “I think I’m screwed. I think I’m here. I don’t think I will be returning to Canada anytime soon. It was then that he became interested in blockchain. He was an early adopter of Ethereum, considered Bitcoin’s main rival his income was not life changing, but was enough to give him a fair amount of “pocket money”. Like many cryptocurrency investors, he believes this is the future of money. “The traditional monetary system doesn’t work,” he says. “I think it’s going to burn and crumble to the point that we can’t use it anymore.”

While recording his new album, he started thinking about how he could map what he had learned from his cryptocurrency investments to his new music. On Spotify, it needs a million monthly listeners to survive. With his AOTs, Grimm only needs 100 fans to believe in him. So, ahead of Māui & the Sin’s November 28 release, he’s selling his music 100 tokens, along with small $20 investments for fans who can’t afford them. (He’s already donated 18 of his 100 AOTs to album backers, costing him 0.4 ETH (about NZ$1045) each the equivalent of nearly $19,000.)

He thinks it might be the best thing that can happen to artists of his level. “If I sell 100 vinyls, I don’t know where they are. I don’t know who bought them. Spotify doesn’t let me see who my followers are,” he says. Now he can offer fans a slice of his pie. “If someone buys one of my AOTs, I know where they are. It’s a community and I know who’s in it. I know how to contact them. Will it work? Only time will we Matt Miller, the album’s producer, thinks Grimm is onto something.” Diaz is committed to achieving what all artists ultimately want make a living from their art while maintaining autonomy over their storytelling,” he says. “He changes the trajectory.”

Diaz Grimm
Diaz Grimm has entered the metaverse. Picture: provided

Still, its potential industry revolution is a big sell. Grimm knows his ideas come out of left field. Tying his career to an NFT-style project could easily go wrong, especially after the recent drop in value. “It’s not for everyone,” he admits. As for his goal of seven books and movies, he hasn’t written them or found funding. Recently diagnosed with ADHD, Grimm admits he struggles to turn off his brain. But you can’t deny that he put a lot of thought into the project. “I spent a year developing this recipe,” he says. “I feel like it’s a really good recipe to watch.”

His best-case scenario is that he “will never be broke again.” He doesn’t have a plan B yet. “I’ve spent my whole life doing this,” he says. “What am I going to do?” Most of his friends have kids and mortgages, and Grimm dreams of doing the same. “I’m still at a point where if a friend throws a birthday dinner at a nice restaurant, sometimes I have to say no.”

But someone has to try to make it work, because the alternative a music industry that has no place for artists like Grimm is unthinkable. “Someone has to test the waters. Someone has to take the bullets,” he says as we walk back to his car. He also admits, “Someone has to fail.”

Māui & the Sin is out November 28.