As someone who clears out his checking account every month to pay rent, I’ve been a passive observer of the whole NFT phenomenon rather than a participant. When you can’t afford one anyway, it’s much more tempting to see the technology as a gimmick, the scene’s adoptions of language like “democratization” as half-hearted cosplay for assets available mainly to the very rich, and the whole enterprise as a scam by people too rich to get in trouble for scamming, especially when NFTs mostly look like shit. They look like the kind of thing that in the past might have earned you a modest following on DeviantArt — but these things are getting sold at Sotheby’s.
A few weeks ago, though, erstwhile countercultural bible Rolling Stone collaborated on a “zine” with the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs, saying that they had “built an immersive, fantastical world” and advertised one of their creators comparing themselves to “the Beastie Boys on tour with Madonna.” Steph Curry had one. Another sold for $2.7 million. As of this writing, the cheapest one you can buy is for sale at around 50 Ethereum, about $200,000 dollars.
I got into a frenzy and skimmed a New Yorker article. It taught me that when you buy or “mint” one of 10,000 available NFTs, an algorithm sorts a bunch of random attributes to create a cartoon of a monkey (the “Bored Ape”) that, while an instantly recognizable variation on the theme, is unique. One is shooting laser beams from its eyes; the next has 3D glasses. One frowns in front of a cyan background; the next grimaces over a mauve background. By virtue of that uniqueness, it becomes an asset, and membership among the owners (the “Yacht Club”) makes it valuable.
But the article didn’t explain their value. What was so meaningful in the apes’ aesthetic, which reminded me of Neopets? What was so compelling about the members of the de facto club that had formed among the owners of the exorbitantly priced avatars? But just when it seemed like I was doomed to my confusion, I found out parties were a part of this whole thing.
More specifically, a “warehouse party,” held at Brooklyn Steel, which is not so much a warehouse, as it is a mid-size concert venue created and owned by the same people who run Coachella (and who just renamed the Staples Center to the Crypto.com Arena). That’s like saying you went to a supper club at Applebee’s. But I like parties, so I figured if I was ever going to find out what the deal with this NFT stuff was, as a nightlife journalist, “NFT NYC” week was my time. A Twitter employee had posted a picture the previous night of a defeated-looking James Murphy at a BAYC party.
I went to Princeton on a scholarship, so a lot of my college friends went to high school with James Murphy. So it was uncanny to see their hometown hero, a veritable titan of New York nightlife, DJing for… whatever this was.
But my proximity to that kind of privilege made me think someone I knew might have a Bored Ape. You needed one to get in, and the blockchain is purportedly so impregnable that people are using it to unlock their apartment doors. But I’d been guested into country clubs before, and this seemed like something similar. Even in college, I always got a voyeuristic thrill from watching how the wealthy behave when they let loose and enjoyed mooching off their open bars.
My first move was to ask a friend who has posted Instagram Stories of her crypto-trading brother-in-law staring into multiple screens at a standing desk. “Don’t have one, friends sold as well,” the brother-in-law replied to her curtly. “Depreciating asset.” I tweeted, I ‘grammed, I texted college friends who had gone into the tech industry — nothing doing. Mostly, people just wondered what I was even talking about.
Then I heard back from H, a former philosophy major who now works for a blockchain company. He thought his boss might have one — why? I explained the situation sweatily.
“I don’t think he’d transfer it to me,” H said, and I felt like I looked silly — like I was betraying how little I knew about expensive financial assets and web 3.0 technologies that will define our society’s future. I had caveated multiple times with “I know this is super weird” and “no worries if not,” but H suddenly announced that his boss could verify his ownership online and text him a screenshot of a QR code. The boss teleworked in from Puerto Rico anyway. He said H could go in his place, and I could tag along as his plus-one. What the fuck? Holy shit. Fuck yes. Let’s fucking go.
At 6PM, I took the B43 bus to Brooklyn Steel as I had many times before. Just as I was stepping off the bus, though, H called me. He had wisely gone to the security to ask about the protocol for admission and had been told that they would be checking not for NFT ownership but yellow wristbands that had been given out at a prior event. What? But what about the NFT, the thing that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars? Nope, she was just checking for yellow wristbands. That might be a problem, but H and I met up at around 7 and joined the line that curled around the block.
In line, I learned my first lessons about the NFT scene. It’s not even made primarily up of people who work in tech. A guy wearing a custom blue tracksuit with his ape printed all over it said he didn’t even get the blockchain stuff and needed H to explain it to him. He was just an investor, he said. Rather than the software engineer types I was imagining, the Bored Ape crowd was full of young, eager-eyed bros, happy to strike up conversation about their own pet NFT projects. It was more like a real-life version of those Twitter spam bots that promise that a certain cryptocurrency is “going to the moon” because NFTs are fundamentally about hype. Hype drives value. It was the reason any of us were standing in line.
It also means the actual aesthetics are shamelessly derivative. The Bored Apes themselves are a shoddy appropriation of the Japanese streetwear brand A Bathing Ape. But in line, the Yacht Club members talked up their own, non-Ape zoo-animal-themed limited avatars.
Everyone else, however, had yellow wristbands, and sure enough, another security guard advised us to step out of the line when we neared the front. “But we have the NFT,” we said pathetically, brandishing our QR code screenshot. She had no idea what the fuck we were talking about. I could not believe that, having gotten (by proxy) this one-in-10-thousand cartoon monkey worth half a million dollars, that we were not going to get let in because of, like, resort rules. But we accepted the judgment, went to the nearby bar Tom and Joan’s, and drank for an hour, talking about love.
By around 10PM, we were ready to head home. “Do you want to just go back and try one more time?” H asked. Yeah, fuck it. We decided that maybe if we persisted, we could annoy people long enough that they’d call someone who knew the value of our QR code screenshot. As we stepped into the crowd between the food trucks and the entrance, though, security waved us in without asking us to pull up our sleeves.
The irony was not lost on me that actually getting the non-fungible token had no bearing whatsoever on us being denied entry at first or later when we got in. But honestly, I’ll be chasing the high I felt when we illicitly crossed that threshold for the rest of my life.
Brooklyn Steel was covered in tropical camouflage; over the bar, opposite the stage, a fluorescent “BAYC” logo was glowing, and blown-up Bored Ape portraits tile walls.
The decorators had done a good job, but even when I was in the Yacht Club for the night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Bored Apes didn’t seem much more impressive than the art in a typical Newgrounds flash game. I figured I must be wrong, though. Art and commerce’s mingling isn’t some new scandal, anyway. I thought, maybe the next great patron of the arts is here tonight. A hundred years from now, scholarship kids at an art school will claw each other’s eyes out to take classes in a building with his name on it; tonight, he’s doing a backflip in the photo booth, picking up his Stella Artois Cidre, and heading back to the dance floor to try to grind on his coworker to “Reptilia.”
The Strokes were there, by the way. We missed seeing Beck get introduced by Aziz Ansari but got in in time to see Chris Rock try to riff on NFTs for 90 seconds and then introduce what must have been one of the first Strokes shows since their fundraisers for Bernie Sanders. “This is kind of about art, right?” Julian Casablancas pleaded from the stage. “NFTs? I don’t know, what the hell. All I know is... a lot of dudes here tonight.” The other members of The Strokes wore stony expressions and gripped their instruments like nervous high schoolers at a talent show.
Casablancas was right about the gender breakdown; I joined the longest line to a mens’ room I’ve ever seen. It was a jumble because while the organizers had booked multi-million dollar comedians to introduce multi-million dollar indie rockers, they had neglected to actually hire anyone to manage the crowd inside the venue; the Yacht Club was being run by a skeleton crew. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I had to notice the failure of the party to live up to any of the futurist promises that drive the value of NFTs. It turns out you actually can’t use the blockchain to work a door or keep a bathroom clean. You can only really do that with labor.
The relentless peer-to-peer advertising I noticed in the line continued inside as well. It’s one of the more memorable lessons I learned: though I was expecting software engineers getting loose, while the NFT crowd wasn’t cool per se, creating value in a public marketplace requires more social engineering than other tech phenomena. If you can make your ape, giraffe, or pizza popular, it could mean getting rich. So, more stickers were left in the bathroom, and more people are smoking indoors than I’ve seen at any punk show. (Weed, mostly.) And the crowd in this millionaires’ party was noticeably less white than I expected, reminiscent of the Supreme store line crowd of nerds, hypebeasts, and hustlers — diverse but without very many Black people.
And if there’s something that the makers of BAYC did right, it’s encouraging all their attendees to buy merch (that’s where you got the wristband that we don’t have, a merch pop-up). The crowd was full of black-and-white Bored Ape Yacht Club hoodies and T-shirts, which have the look of mid-2010s streetwear, just north of minimal, and the Yacht Club members wore them like frat letters. The energy was very collegiate, sloppy. The partiers didn’t seem to care much about cleaning up their messes. The ground was sticky before long, and the spilled beer smell began rising from it.
Drinks were free in the Yacht Club, and thank God, because I had already broken my pledge not to spend any more than my $5.50 in bus fare tonight by insisting drinks were on me at the bar. But we had gotten in late enough that the open bar was starting to run out. I got a Stella Artois Cidre of my own, and The Strokes had gone by then, and a DJ was playing a pretty good hip-hop set by the soundboard. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a crowd of literal millionaires go up to Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga.” The DJ ended up being Questlove, and blessedly, he knows to play the censored version in this crowd.
Lil Baby, the night’s headliner, finally took the stage at around 1AM. Most people had left by then. I was drinking my last vodka of the night and zoning out to “Life Goes On,” though, and a small group of attendees bounced near the front of the stage, and there was something inspirational about Lil Baby’s utter lack of concern with how small the audience had grown and how utterly dry the vibe in Brooklyn Steel was. He had none of Julian Casablancas’ cool kid embarrassment or Chris Rock’s self-consciousness. He was simply getting to the bag. “Brooklyn, if you’re making more money this year than last year, make some noise!” his hype man screamed to the crowd’s delight.
I’m a taker and not a maker, so because unemployment ran out, I don’t think that’ll be quite the case for me. I think he’s got the right idea, though. On the walk back to the bus stop, I found myself a little shook by the diversity of the new class of oligarchs, their expensive sneakers, and their knowledge of Lil Baby lyrics. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as a scholarship kid myself is that after spending enough time in the borderlands between rich and poor, you could still end up dying as poor as you were born, no matter how many times you party with the rich. However strained the atmosphere of people trying very hard to make a party cool because their ROI depends on it may have been, I thought I might finally be learning to emulate the money moves of the Casablancases and the James Murphies, rather than their subversive poses. They wised up at some point, whereas I still hadn’t learned. Culture is cheap, and the Bored Apes were right to turn it into a token. If only I’d bought in sooner.