By Shanti Escalante-De Mattei
The whining cords of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” echoed across the dim, velvet-lined main stage of Radio City as attendees of the third-ever NFT.NYC conference filtered in to take their seats, before fading into the next track, Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything.” It was a strange soundtrack that would end up being totally appropriate for the awkward friction and manic messaging that permeates this kind of convention.
This year’s conference, perhaps the largest in the ever growing circuit of NFT events that have popped up across the globe, comes at a difficult time. Since topping out in January 2022, the cryptocurrency market has been rapidly declining during what some experts have described as a crash. Yet the community has put on a brave face, remaining optimistic as naysayers say “I told you so.” More than 15,000 attendees have registered for the conference, up from the 5,000 or so attendees who attended last year, when the market was in a much different place.
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For a market that is built off community excitement and a willingness to take risks and weather slumps, the survival of the scene is dependent on events like these, where people can promise each other that that something enormous is coming soon.
‘New York Is the Place for NFTs’
“Many have said to me, ‘Why don’t you go to Austin or Vegas?’ And I say, ‘New York is the place for NFTs, New York has the billboards in Times Square, New York has the money markets, New York has the arts and culture, but most importantly, New York has the people,’ and that’s you guys,” said Jodee Rich, one of the founders of NFT.NYC during the opening panel.
That panel also included the other two founders of NFT.NYC, Cameron Bale, a former employee of Rich’s, and Devin Finzer, the CEO and founder of OpenSea, the world’s largest NFT marketplace. Rich, Bale, and Finzer have been working together on NFT.NYC since 2018, when they first came up with the idea for it over bowls of spaghetti at Bar Pitti, and their ambitions have grown ever since.
“Our event has always been about community, and that’s why we have 1,500 speakers,” Rich continued. “When we’re asked about putting celebrities on stage, you are the celebrities. We actually say no to real celebrities more than we say yes because we really want this to be an event about people who are passionate about NFTs.”
It’s clear in remarks like these that, at this point in the NFT market, the line between consumer and producer is nearly nonexistent.
This strong start quickly derailed as Rich put on a bit of a strange show, which involved offering audience members NFT.NYC embroidered polo shirts, (“Oh, you,” he exclaimed into his microphone when he tossed a man his shirt, “Yes, hello…”) and then spent half of the 30-minute panel clicking through tweets about NFT.NYC that he thought were funny or inspiring. Occasionally, he paused to explain the joke behind whatever meme was being beamed above his head.
David Pakman, a VC with CoinFund, came on next, ready to assure that the audience that the market was still in a strong position.
“You hear about the crash, the crypto crisis, that it was all fraud, that this was just a Ponzi scheme. Of course, none of those statements are true, though yes, there are bad actors in every new ecosystem,” Pakman said. “But crypto and NFTs in particular show a decisive amount of activity despite the fall in asset prices in the past six months. We haven’t hit zero yet—it’s not over.”
Pakman showed the audience the top NFT collections and the many billions of dollars worth of crypto that have been invested in them. He also displayed some graphs that communicated an interesting bit of information: the average NFT consumer would spend around $900 on an NFT.
“Let’s put this in perspective. Netflix users on average, over the course of a year, spend about $180, Spotify is under $60, so as a consumer product we look at NFTs and we’re very excited,” said Pakman. “We’re super bullish, and we know you are too, or 15,000 of you wouldn’t have trekked to NYC to carry the torch.”
Those Who Lose and Those Who Win
“It’s all these VCs who are panicking because they’re not making a million dollars in three minutes,” said Louie C Rhymes, a self-described NFT rapper, at a lunch at Bond 45. “They like, ‘Time to build,’ but no matter what time it is, it’s time to build.”
Cipher founder Ezra Lezinger, better known as EZinCrypto, who was wearing a hat that read “This is not financial advice,” agreed, saying, “It’s time to built, to regroup, to focus.”
On the generally optimistic vibe at the conference, Lezinger said, “The people who are coming here are passionate about their projects and their community, they’re not letting markets stop them.”
The only losers in this equation, Rhymes and Lezinger pointed out, were those who had bought in at the top and speculated.
Also at Bond54 was Matt Cheung, an entrepreneur who works with Benyamin Ahmed, the 13-year-old NFT millionaire behind the collection Weird Whales. (Ahmed, wearing sunglasses in the underground level of the restaurant, was shepherded from the table by his father, who said Benyamin had to prepare for his talk.)
Cheung has a more staid view of things.
“I’m optimistic, and everyone I’ve been talking to is too,” said Cheung. “I’ve been working in traditional financial markets since ’99—I’ve been through market crashes before.” Of course, Cheung acknowledged, investing in crypto and NFTs is riskier than getting into traditional markets, but he said he had been careful and strategic about his involvement.
The founder of a financial mentoring program called Work in Fintech, Cheung said that he encourages young people to steer clear of working with banks and seek out sectors that are growing quickly. For his part, Cheung got into crypto six years ago, when his daughter was born.
“I thought to myself: What is the world going to look like in 2035? I guessed: It’s gonna be all blockchain, automation, and VR,” said Cheung. But these sectors aren’t forever either—they’re only good for as long as they’re in their early, exponential stages. “In 10 years, this conference’ll be in Las Vegas, and we’ll all be on to the next thing.”
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