Most artists are not making money off NFTs and here are some graphs to prove it

Number of Sales Per NFT. Each different colour represents a different number of times an NFT was sold. Size represents what % of total NFTs in our sample set had that many sales.
Number of Primary Sales at a Given Price (Adjusted for historical price). The taller the bar, the more NFTs were sold at that price (primary sales only). Prices lumped into $100 increments.
Number of Primary Sales at a Given Price (Adjusted for historical price) — see it in circle form!
Median OpenSea Primary Sale Price by Collection. A small number of collections have very high median prices, but most collections on OpenSea average much lower
Same chart — but on a log scale!

Getting ahead of some objections:

If you’re thinking “sure, I knew this, OpenSea doesn’t curate its artists so there isn’t much money to be made from a flooded market” 1) this data does include some sales cross-listed from curated sites like Superrare and Nifty Gateway, and 2) ask yourself whether you still believe exclusive NFT marketplaces are the great democratizing, decentralized force you were told they would be. Perhaps instead they are reproducing all the worst aspects of the traditional fine art market: galleries charge fees, established artists can make huge amounts of money and struggling artists who need it most can’t get in because they have no connections. Except that instead of selling art these sites are selling receipts, and the art is liable to disappear.

This Wasn’t a Surprise

Truly the most shocking thing about these numbers is that they look ordinary. They look just like every other market. Everything about this is run-of-the-mill, banal, predictable capitalism. That is exactly the point. Despite the promises of revolution, equality, and “lifting artists up” this technology has changed nothing: the few people at the top continue to have the greatest amount of wealth.

So Why the Promise of Riches?

Why was there ever a narrative of NFTs being an incredible new way for artists to make money?

People invest in the hope of profit. This means that more money has to come into the system — new people have to join the scheme. This is obvious to everyone “investing” — they have to recruit… Old investors are paid with money from new investors — the key characteristic of a Ponzi scheme. Functionally, this is a pyramid scheme — even as it has no specific operator.

Ponzi schemes typically have someone at the top as a “mastermind” but Ethereum does not, which is why a “headless Ponzi scheme” is the most accurate way to characterize it, or as Preston Byrne calls it a “Nakamoto Scheme,” named after the pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto:

If you peel back the slick marketing and technical obscurantism you’re confronted with a simple inescapable cashflow question. Where will all the money come from to pay out all these new paper bitcoin millionaires? The answer is simple: they need it to come from you.

Artists are in many ways the perfect marks: chronically underpaid, tired from trying to shine in an increasingly over-saturated attention economy on social media platforms that have already trained us to produce endless rapidly-consumed content. There are however, bright lights in this darkness. More studios are shifting to worker-owned models and unions, like Soft Not Weak, Wild Blue Studios, The Glory Society, KO-OP and the Floyd County Productions Guild. The Art Babbitt Appreciation Society helps artists learn about unionizing and helped major animation house Titmouse recently with their union process. The Canadian government is right now considering implementing universal basic income (UBI).

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Notes

Github Project

Click here to see the code and process used to generate these charts.

Price and Currency Conversion

OpenSea returns total sale price in cryptocurrency units, along with information about the type of payment token used. Unfortunately this does not include the exchange rate from payment token to US dollars at the time the transaction took place. To calculate the approximate sale price in USD we bucketed transaction time by hour, and used the USD conversion rate for that hour returned by the CoinGecko API.

A Note on Nifty Gateway

Nifty Gateway is an exception to the other Ethereum-based CryptoArt sites in that it operates using Ethereum but allows purchases of NFTs with credit cards instead of having to buy Ether. Like other sites, Nifty Gateway makes its money by taking a percentage of all sales. Nifty Gateway claims that percentage goes merely toward maintaining the site, but even if that is true it is worth noting Nifty Gateway and its crypto exchange company Gemini are owned by The Winklevoss Twins, early investors in Bitcoin, who absolutely are profiting off any increased speculative value of cryptocurrency.

A Note on Proof of Stake

Have I heard of hic et nunc? Yes.

*Fee Calculations

For a full explanation of these fee calculations, including gas fees, see this article.

Superrare

  • Gas fee to mint
  • Primary Sale: -15%

Rarible

  • Gas fee* to mint
  • One-time “wallet approval” fee*
    This fee allows Rarible to connect with your wallet
  • No “List for Sale” fee for auction items
  • “List for Sale” fee* for fixed price items
  • Gas fees* are charged to the buyer on purchase of fixed price items
  • Gas fees* are charged to the artist when an item is sold at auction
    For example, a piece sold for $5 may require $40-$80 in gas fees
  • All Sales -2.5%

OpenSea

  • One-time account setup fees
    Initialize account fee: -$60*
    Wallet access fee: -$10*
  • Gas fees are charged when the piece is sold
    For example, a piece sold for $5 may require $40-$80 in gas fees
    The artist pays if they accept a bid before the auction is over
    **unless the piece is sold for 1 ETH or more, then OpenSea covers the artist’s gas fees (at the time of writing, 1 ETH = $2018 USD)
    The buyer pays if the buyer wins the auction
  • Primary Sales -2.5%

Makersplace

  • Gas fee* to mint
  • Primary Sales: -15%

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