Josh Katz had his next big idea and all the pieces in place to launch it.
The capital. The team. Technology. Even impatient customers.
A longtime player in the space where music and technology collide, Katz previously founded, built and sold El Media Group, a Manhattan-based company that provides next-generation Muzak music to 5,000 luxury hotels, restaurants, casinos and retail brands. His Hospitality Audio has equipped NOBU, Four Seasons Hotels, Hilton, Marriott and Tao Group with the audio and video systems to bring their area to life.
And when 2020 arrived, Katz was ready with YellowHeart, which would bring public blockchain technology to the event ticketing industry. Finally, artists and their teams could identify, market and sell directly to their fans under a set of rules that determined how tickets were sold and resold – and who shared the profits. Performers could ensure tickets went to their true fans and also choose to earn a share of scalping profits. And the whole thing would be transparent for everyone.
“It’s just a better system all around,” says Katz, who started in the business right out of New York University as a young assistant at Arista Records, fetching chicken-salad sandwiches for Clive. Davis. “And the time had finally come.”
Then in March, Covid exploded. All live events were abruptly canceled. And with nothing on the schedule for who knew how long, no one needed tickets, blockchain or whatever. “It was an incredibly painful time for us,” says Katz, who had to lay off his technicians and marketing staff and put the brakes on everything. “I didn’t know what we were going to do.”
Well, that’s where Jerry Garcia and NFT art come in.
NFT artworks were bursting from the crypto gallery scene at that time, unique digital assets, individually identified on a blockchain called non-fungible tokens, and rapidly carrying stratospheric price tags. Daily: first 5,000 days hadn’t grossed $69 million yet, but things were already headed in that direction. So Katz and his tech team started looking for their own footing in this world, a way to put their state-of-the-art but dormant ticketing technology into another musical realm.
“Jerry has been doing art all his life,” Katz says. In 1992, three years before the Grateful Dead guitarist and music icon died at the age of 53, “he bought an Apple computer and started doing digital art.”
The Grateful Dead came out on tour in June 1995 and Jerry checked in at the Betty Ford Clinic. He was drinking again. It was supposed to be there for a month, but it checked out after two weeks. He went home and he didn’t tell anyone. On August 6 and 7, he created two stunning designs and was working on a third. On the afternoon of August 8, he left his home and checked himself into Serenity Knolls, a rehabilitation center outside San Francisco. He fell asleep that night and never woke up.
It was Garcia’s longtime friend and road manager, Steve Parish, who helped locate the drawings on the computer after the musician’s death. “These are native digital files,” Katz explains. “In the NFT world, that’s the most important thing. They’re meant to be displayed digitally.
It took back and forth with Garcia’s family and Garcia’s estate attorneys, but they were all pretty open to the idea, Katz says.
“My dad was a big fan of computers and gadgets,” says the late musician’s daughter, Trixie Garcia. “Something like blockchain would have really intrigued him. Jerry would appreciate the potential for freedom artists have.
“Everyone wanted to find a way to share their art with the world,” says Katz. Ticketing technology has therefore adapted quickly.
On August 5, 20 of his drawings will be exhibited at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame under the banner “An Odd Little Place: The Works of Jerry Garcia (1992-1995)”. Trixie and other family members will be there.
Seventeen limited-edition drawings from the last three years of his life cost between US$400 and US$500 “so fans can afford them,” says Katz. The final three works – “the last 48 hours”, as packaged – will be auctioned individually. “They are one of a kind, literally the last art Jerry Garcia ever created,” says Katz. He expects bids in the high six figures. “I think a million.”
And now that Covid has subsided — for now, anyway — and live events are returning, Katz says he’s excited to continue with his original blockchain ticketing platform. But he now sees the commercial potential in a broader way, as a platform for music, artwork and who knows what else.
“Ultimately,” says Katz, “it’s about creating a seamless symbiotic relationship between the artist and the fans — and the rest of us to walk away.”
Ellis Henican is a New York-based author and former newspaper columnist.