September 8, 2023 marked a novel intersection of music and technology as Justin Holmes’ debut bluegrass album, Vowel Sounds, was decrypted using Threshold Access Control (TACo) after Holmes’ fans contributed 10eth ($16,398 USD at press time) to a smart contract built for this purpose. The record’s reveal was entirely on-chain and permissionless, with no action from Holmes or the studio required after it was submitted.
The record itself is likely to be one of the most notable bluegrass albums of the year. Alongside Holmes, who provides guitar, vocals, tin whistle, wood flute, melodica, and overtone singing, Vowel Sounds features an award-winning ensemble of the surging East Nashville bluegrass movement. Producer Jake Stargel (whom fellow blockchain geeks might recognize as the acoustic guitar virtuoso in the bluegrass video game music cover band The Hitpoints) plays upright bass, alongside East Nash Grass banjo phenom Cory Walker, fiddler and frequent Billy Strings collaborator Christian Ward (who co-wrote Strings’ smash hit Red Daisy), mandolinsta Harry Clark of the Dan Tyminski band, and Wooks dobroist Allen Cooke. Jakub Vysoky, a prominent figure from the Ethereum Foundation in devops and a standout in Czech folk music, is also featured in the record. A consistent pillar in Holmes' live events, Vysoky supports Clark on the mandolin and contributes backing vocals, distinguishing himself as a notable non-Nashville talent.
The extensive use of tin whistle, wood flute, and overtone singing, as well as the inclusion of a jig-time piece, represent the inclusion of traditions adjacent to bluegrass but outside its core. However, Vowel Sounds has still won the favor of some traditional bluegrass stars. Vickie Vaughn, bassist of the all-female international bluegrass sensation Della Mae, says, “Holmes has proven he’s a master of fitting woodwind instruments onto a traditional Bluegrass canvas with his use of tin whistle, melodica and flute which impressively turns each instrument into an Appalachian adjacent voice.”
Bluegrass and Blockchain — Separated at Birth, but Reunited in the Bear Market
“People want music to be free,” contends Holmes. “And they’re willing to pay for it.”
To release Vowel Sounds, Holmes and a group of passionate friends, fans, and fellow bluegrass musicians developed Revealer, a technology they say is more in keeping with the traditional public domain model of Appalachian music, and used the record as the first trial of the technology on Threshold’s “lynx” testnet, which is available for public use now. Two of the core contributors to Revealer - Holmes and fellow Americana aficionado Kieran Prasch, are also long-time contributors to Threshold.
“When Ma Rainey and Doc Watson left their rural environs and brought their traditional music to urban centers, it was in search of the novel technological innovation of their time—AM radio,” says Holmes. “We’re carrying on that same practice into the blockchain era.”
Revealer — The Tool That Gets Artists Paid to Put Their Content in the Public Domain
To release media using Revealer, the creator first encrypts the content - in this case, separate ciphertexts of FLAC files for each track, as well as a PNG file for the cover art—using a symmetric key and vanilla AES256. The key itself is then encrypted using TACo. In order to initiate the contract, the creator must commit a hash of the symmetric key, as well as the ciphertext, to the contract, which allows fans to begin contributing eth. Once the threshold (in this case, 10eth) is reached, TACo nodes perform their typical multi-party computation to decrypt the symmetric key, which is then committed to the contract, allowing web3 apps to seamlessly decrypt and stream the music.
“From the moment I saw foundational threshold primitives like Shamir’s Secret Sharing, I saw public funding of the arts,” says Holmes. But he says it took a long conversation on the topic at DevconVI in Bogotá, Colombia with internet pioneer and renowned digital librarian Brewster Kahle, who was the keynote speaker of the event, to bring the project into focus.
"Finding a path for musicians to get paid directly by publishing on the net has been a dream of the Internet Archive and the vision of the Decentralized Web community—and now Justin has gone ahead and done it," says Kahle, who is also the founder of archive.org, which hosts and curates several of the largest repositories of traditional music on the internet. "This is exciting,” he added; “glad we could help in a small way."
“Projects like archive.org and the EFF have traditional music deep in their DNA,” contends Holmes. “The EFF, for example, began as a side project of Grateful Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow together with a huge and highly-focused cohort of deadheads on The WELL. I view these happenings as immediate precursors to Revealer, and as a result the final track on this record is dedicated to John Perry—in fact, and I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this, it’s my favorite track.”
A Musical Extension of Threshold Tech Talks and Hackathon Victories
Both blockchain engineer and multi-instrumentalist, Holmes’ live act has developed a small but hardcore following at crypto events around the world, as the show has morphed from musical-interlude-laden Q&A’s and demos of threshold encryption technology into a psychedelic blend of traditional music and hard-hitting discussions of the future of cryptography. Holmes has retained the Q&A format in his shows, often passing a microphone into the audience during jams. He says he intends to re-introduce the live demos in tandem with the upcoming mainnet staking deployment of Threshold Access Control (TACo), to which he is a long-time contributor. The availability of mainnet staking for TACo was announced today on the Threshold Discord.
Revealer was first deployed to the Goerli testnet at the EthBarcelona hackathon earlier this year, where the project won a prize for the novel ERC-721 sorting on Gnosis Chain that has become the ‘Artifact’ feature. The team responsible for that victory included Holmes and Prasch, along with two web3 newcomers, for whom the event was a first blockchain hackathon: Czech fiddler Kuba Hejhal, who plays fiddle in some of Holmes' live ensembles, and R.J. Partington III, a school teacher from New York. "I had never written a line of code in my life before this, let alone imagined winning a hackathon," said Partington, "but the implications of empowerment of a new generation of artists is plain to see."
Empowering Artists and Pioneering Change: My Journey with Justin Holmes
The groundbreaking nature of "Vowel Sounds" extends beyond its masterful blend of musical genres. As someone who has had the honor to participate in this pioneering project, I can attest to its potential for redefining how artists are compensated for their work. The traditional framework has too often seen middlemen reaping the bulk of royalties, leaving the creators with a fraction of what they deserve. This endeavor, led by Justin Holmes and supported by passionate contributors like myself, aims to dismantle that flawed system. By utilizing Revealer and Threshold Access Control, we're able to ensure a more equitable distribution of revenue directly to the artists, shaking the very foundations of the conventional music industry.
What captivated me initially about Justin's work was his uncanny ability to meld traditional bluegrass with thought-provoking discussions on technology and inclusivity. As a longtime aficionado of Nashville country and Texas country music, I found his incorporation of bluegrass elements to be an enlightening experience. But it's the album's commitment to challenging industry norms and advocating for artistic freedom that has imbued my involvement with an even deeper sense of purpose. In joining this trailblazing initiative, I am thrilled to contribute to a cause that stands for freedom, technological advancement, and a more equitable world. Let us all join Justin Holmes and the Threshold Network in ushering in this new era of truly free, and fairly compensated, creative content.
If you're as captivated by the prospects of this project as I am, I urge you to get involved. Together, we can be a part of a transformative movement that enriches both the art form and the artists who bring it to life.
Justin and Threshold Network invite you to be a part of this groundbreaking initiative that hopes to make a positive impact for artists in the music industry and beyond. If you’re interested in contributing directly to Revealer and to blockchain bluegrass, visit Justin Holmes' Discord Channel. For more details on the album and upcoming projects, check out Justin Holmes' Official Website or watch one of his live performances on YouTube. Now that the record has been revealed to TACo and is free for anyone to listen to or remix, it is also available on legacy centralized platforms like Spotify and Bandcamp.
Of course, you can usually find Justin and the rest of the Threshold engineering enterprise on discord.gg/threshold. To learn more about Threshold’sTACo technology, join the TACo Town Hall on September 28 at 10:30am ET (4:30pm CET) on Discord.
By embracing the transformative potential of blockchain in creative arts, Vowel Sounds and Revealer are not just pushing boundaries; they are defining a new frontier for a more equitable and transparent future for creators of truly free content.
We look forward to seeing y'all at the TACo Townhall (see date and time above)!