A Q&A with Steve Aoki

The DJ and producer shared his thoughts on NFTs in music, the art of curation, throwing cakes, and our cyborg future.
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Desiree Guerra

· 9 min read

It’s been a busy few weeks for Steve Aoki, the DJ and producer with nearly 10 billion lifetime streams. He recently played at July’s Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park, and a few days later released Dominion X, an animated project with Seth Green’s Stoopid Buddy Stoodios.

The series, in which the studio made the sets and avatar by hand in stop-motion animation, stars Character X, an avatar that made its blockchain debut in Dream Catcher, Aoki’s first NFT drop.

The mini-series, now live on the Ethereum blockchain, was auctioned on NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway. 499 packs sold for $199 apiece in under 30 seconds.The 1-of-1, meanwhile, sold for $26,000.

Emerging Tech Brew sat down with Aoki to discuss the “Wild West” of NFTs, his feelings on performing live again, how we’ll all be cyborgs soon, and why he’s an expert cake-thrower.

The interview was edited for clarity and length.

What drew you into the NFT space?

If I wasn’t a DJ and you transported me back in time, I’ve always said I’d be an explorer. As a DJ, I love traveling and playing in cities where nobody has ever played. Agents have hit me up and said, like, ‘Hey, nobody has ever played in the middle of Sinaloa.’ I said: ‘Book me. Let’s go.’ 20,000 people in the stadium and we sold out.

NFTs are just an open canvas. What's so exciting is that we’re literally architecting a roadmap as we move forward. It’s really just exploring the places where people haven’t gone. When I first got into the space back in February with Dream Catcher, that collection took us six months to develop. My run up to the NFT space was summer 2020. I felt like I was early but I wasn’t early enough. When you love being early, there’s always someone before you.

The space still feels like that now, no?

Just like now. People say: ‘Oh, you’re too late.” But you're not. There’s so many firsts happening in this space. That was the idea behind Dominion X. We had incredible IP that we first created with Dreamcatcher and Character X.

We asked: How do we expand on it, while still capturing peoples’ demand and desire? The best way to innovate in this space is to create something that already exists in other mediums. Everyone loves TV and media series. We all watch them. So, we decided to bring that into the NFT space.

It seems like a lot of the traditional NFTs are jpegs or 3D renderings, but this is an entire stop motion production, right? Why take all the extra steps?

We knew that to do it right, we couldn’t just make something with our own team. That’s not what we do. We decided to make Dominion X with a production house that knows traditional media.

I’ve worked with Seth Green and Stoopid Buddies. They’re awesome, they understand me, and they also wanted to jump into the NFT space.

Not every studio would take the risk of diving into blockchain. Building out these sets requires a lot of money, manpower, and time. So I have to commend them for jumping in with me then putting their whole team on this. We had to build out a very exceptional show, the same way they created Robot Chicken.

How’d it go?

Our auctions did well. We sold out our blind packs in 30 seconds, so there’s obviously demand on that level. And I think that Matt Kalish [cofounder of DraftKings] got the 1-of-1 as a steal. I talked with him recently and he’s really happy with it.

If this thing really does blow up, imagine the value of not just owning the first short—episode 0. We’re gonna make more of these shows, but this is the first. He’s sitting on something priceless, because our intention is to grow the brand and IP.

I’ve heard NFTs described as something that could enable fans and/or collectors to share in the upside of an artist.

Yeah. On the legal side of things, guardrails are being set for what’s fair game and what’s too far. It’s still the Wild Wild West. Take CryptoPunks. You’re spending all of this money on one. You want to wear a shirt with your punk, sell that shirt, and advertise that it’s your character.

Right now, you don’t know if you can make merch based off of the characters. You can with the apes, but you don’t know for CryptoPunks. Your only option is just to do it and see what happens—and maybe get in trouble. No one knows. It’s a gray area.

You’re the second person in the last couple of weeks to use the Wild West analogy with me. There are still lots of unknowns.

It’s fun, though. There’s a lot that we can’t do—You can’t make money on the series, because of securities issues. If I make music for an NFT, people can’t own my publishing. There are certain things you can’t change.

Seems to me like DJs and EDM artists are quicker to get in the trenches with crypto, NFTs, and other new technologies. Do you agree, and if so, why?

Yeah. Once you say that, I do see a lot more DJs experimenting in this space. DJs have a special aptitude. It’s why a lot of them have their own labels—we have to find and discover songs that will connect with crowds. We curate our sets. With artists and musicians, they’re playing their own music. Their craft is making great songs.

To be a producer is different—I need the crowd to be with me. Yes, I will play Steve Aoki music. But I’m also going to play other records that will bring the crowd in. It’s like a f***ing stadium moment, where we just scored a touchdown. I need to get that feeling.

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I've been running my label for 25 years now. Labels are basically meant for introducing a sound and blowing it up. We find an incredible artist. Nobody has heard about him or her. Let’s blow ‘em up. People that also rely on prediction-level thinking—forward, and in the future tense—those are the people that will succeed in the NFT space.

When I’m in the studio, I need to make music that will be popular a year later, when I drop it. These things take time. I have to be a very good predictor. If I’m a shitty predictor, I’m a shitty future thinker. Then, I’ll be left in the dust.

What makes me excited are things I haven’t heard, clothing I haven’t seen before, and collectibles that are very rare and low-population. There’s cultural desirability.

How do you feel about NFTs today?

There’s a lot of speculation. Yes, of course it’s speculation. But I follow science and data. It’s clear, when you see the statistics, that we are absolutely going digital. It’s inevitable. We will all be cyborgs at one point. Maybe not our generation, but a future one. Hopefully our generation.

Early contender for my favorite quote. Do you think there’s a sizable overlap between your fan base and the NFT community? For the non-overlapping parts, do you think your projects could onboard some fans to NFTs? Or vice-versa, maybe converting OG MetaMask and OpenSea users to diehard Steve Aoki fans?

Absolutely, there’s a big conversion rate. For anyone who goes into this space, they need to understand it. They need to see that their money isn’t being thrown into a black hole. This is all digital, so you need to see that what Steve said is actually happening is real. Once you see that, you can be convinced to put your foot in the water. For fans who are following me, I want them to win, too. Especially the people who are early.

How can you communicate that?

Aokiverse is a Discord meant for open communication between myself, my team, and all of our collectors. We have a tiered structure: The more NFTs you buy, the more functionality and access you get. That can bridge over to real life. We gave Lollapalooza tickets to all Aoki NFT holders. Those activations are the best way to engage and introduce the NFT culture to my fans and the music heads.

That’s great you mentioned that utility. I see a strong case for that IRL functionality being baked into NFTs, especially in music and live entertainment. How much farther do you think you go, building IRL benefits into your NFTs?

We’re just scratching the surface. I think there will be much more IRL activation. Right now, the best way to bring people into the digital space is by combining both worlds. The best thing that I can offer to people is my live shows. That’s my greatest service. I do it enough where I can share that, especially here in Vegas.

At Lolla, getting the festival to clear all of those NFT holders, that was a big deal. I can control an Aoki show but not Lollapalooza. It was hours and hours of negotiation. We fought long and hard for that, but it was important to me. For all my NFT holders, I just want them to know how much I care about giving them experience overall, both physically and digitally.

Because it’s such a new space, there isn’t clarity about everything. As you’ve hinted at, it’s not clear how all of this fits in with Web 2.0 or traditional copyright laws, etc etc. Securities laws. Traditional power brokers in the music industry.

I think that fractionalizing a large piece of art is a brilliant idea. It just allows people to be part of something culturally significant, or something larger. I’ve already seen that in sports cards. People want to own the iconic Mickey Mantle rookie—they want to have a piece of history. They can now.

In the digital space, it’s clear that the whales can get the big stuff. Fractionalization offers scalability, for everyone else to get a piece of what the whales are getting. We were excited when we heard about Jenny DAO getting the song. That’s exactly what we wanted.

Specifically, that was the song collab with 3LAU and a DAO [decentralized autonomous organization] ended up buying. We’ve also spoken with him about NFTs. What was it like working with him?

Justin is a pioneer. He’s been kinda my jedi in this world—and my big brother in this space—getting me into NFTs in early 2020. When we worked on the record, it made sense for us to work together. What a perfect opportunity for us.

This is technically the first full club record in existence in the NFT space. Traditionally, my NFTs have been shorter clips.

That reminds me—do you have a different mentality when you’re making something as an NFT, vs. a traditional song?

It’s different. For NFTs, it’s like I’m making music for a scene in a movie. It’s also emotional. A lot of it is how I’m personally feeling inside. I want to make sure the mood is correct. Neon Future is more moody, and darker. Dream Catcher is more dreamy, visceral, and ethereal. It’s more of a soundscape.

Dominion X is fun and happy. It’s Yo Gabba Gabba! and very eight bit. Video-gamey. I want it to be playful. I have feelings of gratitude now for being able to play shows again. It’s my favorite music I’ve made for all these NFT projects.

Last question: How’d you get so good at throwing cakes?

Well, at this point I've caked like over 20,000 people's faces. I’m a professional cake thrower. You can definitely call me that.

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