Sonny Q, who would prefer I not use his last name, was telling me about the exorcism he had received as a younger man in Boston, in which he lay in a bathtub while a priest covered him with eggs. “I had a weird spirit on me,” he said. “I was struggling, doing bad things and having constant failures. Bad things happening in my life over and over and over again.” Stoutly built and bearded, he shook his head somberly as he recalled the demon possession that had nearly ruined him.
It was early spring, we were on the crowded deck of a private club in Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard, and he was sharing this story by way of illustrating why he particularly valued a passage from the Gospel of Mark—the one in which Jesus casts the demons out of a man into a herd of pigs, which proceeds to rush off a cliff and drown. Sonny lit a joint; the DJ started spinning B.T. Express’s “Do It (’Til You’re Satisfied).” “I like to think that happened to me,” Sonny said. Now, his demons are long gone, and with them his propensity for failure. He is born again, in a manner of speaking. “I have a personal brand,” he said. “I want to, like, fuck bitches and live a player life.”
A timeless story of redemption, sure, but the mechanism by which he planned to make it was new: Like everyone else at the party (except, I suppose, myself), Sonny was the proud owner of a ludicrously expensive cartoon portrait of a monkey. It wasn’t the first time I’d been the brokest person in a room, but it had to be the most ridiculous—any given three attendees, one owner pointed out to me, were collectively worth at least a million dollars, most of them much more than that. This was an invite-only gathering of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, namely those savvy enough to have gotten in early and held onto an avatar from arguably the most well-known NFT collection to date, which bills itself as part social club, part streetwear brand, and part collaborative art project. Besides receiving a headshot of one’s ape, this was the thing owners really got: access to members–only meetups, merch drops, and Discord rooms. The value of that membership—the initial price of an ape was around $200, but the price floor was by now over $300,000—is a function of the collection’s exclusivity (there are just 10,000). The Yacht Club, though, was in the process of transforming into something else, and I had come to better understand why and how. What were they plotting, and why was the collection so interesting to so many people? To me, the apes looked unremarkable, like pure assembly-line kitsch—but the owners were desperate to show them off. “Put my ape in GQ,” Sonny demanded, before a bartender came over to confiscate his joint. He looked down at the primate on his phone and smiled like a doting father.
Nearby, Jeremiah Allen Welch stood out for his rainbow-colored hair, thick gold chain, and sequined black cardigan, which shimmered when he moved his arms. He had been raised in California’s Central Valley by a family of evangelical Christian ministers who were also professional clowns. He’d long since relocated to San Francisco, where he made a living as an artist—he’d toured as a DJ and his art had been laser-engraved on at least one satellite currently orbiting the Earth. One of the most respected of the O.G.s in attendance, Welch had jumped on the bandwagon the first week the apes became available in spring 2021. “Everyone knows my ape,” he told me. “People say I sound like my ape,” he added, confusingly.
He was eager to insist that he didn’t care about his apes for their price point alone—it was about the culture, the ecosystem that had organically sprouted up around them. “The new people are the rich people,” he said, meaning Paris Hilton, Justin Bieber, Eminem, and the many other celebrities who had perplexed their fans in recent months by announcing their purchase of a Bored Ape. “They’re not active in the community. They bought it as an asset. They had somebody help them buy it, or maybe a company bought it for them.” Still, Welch was content to see celebrities buy in if only because it meant someone poorer had likely flipped them an ape for a life-changing sum. “In January a bunch of people around me sold,” he said. “Now they have a lot more money than me, so it’s like, Why am I holding my apes still? Everyone says I should sell, but I’ve gotten so used to seeing the price go up.”
I stood off to the side for a while with Zi Wang, one of the party’s hosts and formerly a global creative director at Google, who told me the Bored Ape team “was extremely generous to the point of naivete, to give away all that I.P.” I asked what he meant. “Would you have given away 99 percent of your value?” This was, he explained, the Yacht Club’s true innovation: Unlike comparable previous projects, which maintained some degree of control over an NFT even after it was purchased, the Yacht Club permitted buyers to fully own their apes and do whatever they wanted with them, ranging from the obvious (using them as profile pictures online) to the unprecedented (licensing them for any number of commercial ventures). Owners could put them on skateboard decks or weed strains or coffee brands, animate them in TV shows or video games or for musical projects—such as Kingship, a band of Bored Apes recently assembled and signed to Universal Music Group.
It was fitting that we were in Hollywood, because the entertainment industry had clearly smelled a lucrative opportunity in these humble JPEGs of monkeys and were beginning to circle the community, vulture-like. Certain apes were already represented by agents from top-tier talent agencies CAA and WME, and the Yacht Club’s parent company, Yuga Labs, was being managed by Guy Oseary, whose other clients include U2, Madonna, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yuga had also recently helped set up a cryptocurrency, ApeCoin, which was to be the primary medium of exchange in its largest project to date, a metaverse launched in April that it calls Otherside—a mysterious three-dimensional expansion of the BAYC world that could soon be selling virtual real estate (and which would be, in the words of the company, “a metaverse that makes all other metaverses obsolete”). It was a gold rush, or anyway an increasingly monolithic, at least notionally legal I.P. laboratory that would either demonstrate the radical possibilities of Web3 or the reverse, marking a retrenchment into the very institutions and intermediaries (Hollywood, talent agents) that NFTs were designed to supplant.
For now, though, all of that remained to be seen, and the ape owners could still circle their party unconcerned and triumphant, drinking free negronis and imagining that they represented the cutting edge of something or other.
“What an ugly beast the ape,” wrote Cicero, “and how like us.”
Reality having become increasingly preposterous and unbearable, it was only a matter of time before we sought to escape it entirely. It was only recently, however, that we began hearing rumors of the augmented–reality metaverse as a more comprehensive retreat. What if we’d gotten it all wrong, the metaverse thesis seemed to suggest, and movies like The Matrix weren’t dystopian but actually, more or less, in a way, sort of utopian? Haven’t we had enough of the existing outside world, with its fluctuating temperatures and endless social entanglements and, you know, wars—don’t we deserve a new world, in the form of a prelapsarian virtual fantasy free of pain or boredom? Like Second Life or Fortnite before it—or the online gaming platform Roblox, which has shockingly claimed a user base of two-thirds of American children between 9 and 12—Otherside and other corners of the metaverse hold out the promise of self-abnegation as self-expression. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: “Let the unutterable be conveyed unutterably.”
I was reminded of that last quote when I encountered it in an interview with the founders of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, two creative-writing MFA veterans who had met in a Florida dive bar and were now going by the pseudonyms Gordon Goner and Gargamel. “We’re not technical guys,” they conceded to a journalist from the website CoinDesk, going on to cite horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and famed literary editor Gordon Lish in their attempts to explain how and why they had come to start the project—they weren’t engineers, they stressed, they were storytellers. The idea in the early days was straightforward: a swamp bar in the Everglades populated by listless monkeys with different combinations of algorithmically generated traits—a sailor hat, 3D glasses, cheetah-print fur, a halo. This was, apparently, what amounts these days to a multibillion-dollar idea, and one Yuga Labs now hopes will entice us into the digital realm for good.
In the future, sorting through the wreckage of society hoping to understand how things went wrong, historians might happen upon a clip of Paris Hilton’s January 24 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. The interview went viral on account of its sheer strangeness; Newsweek called it “awkward,” The Atlantic, a “match made in hell,” and Gothamist, a “nightmare.” Fallon and Hilton, presumably to the confusion of their audience, discussed their recent Bored Ape purchases, as the host held up portraits for our admiration—here was the host of one of the most mainstream shows in America pitching the audience on the merits of his investment. It was a cultural inflection point, a bizarre but significant mainstreaming of the NFT. Curious about his involvement, I asked Fallon what interested him about the apes, and he replied, “Probably the adventure. Like—where is this thing gonna go? Where is it gonna take me?” He added, “It’s attracting interesting people, and who wouldn’t want to be around interesting people?” Asked his thoughts on the metaverse, Fallon said, “I think it’s definitely a thing. If I had a nickel for everyone who says, ‘It’s the Wild Wild West,’ I’d have another ape.”
I had hoped to speak to the Yacht Club founders about their vision, but they’ve been press averse since a Buzzfeed News investigation in February revealed their real names—an apparently unpardonable breach of decorum in the world of crypto. (Yuga Labs wouldn’t even speak to the extent of their involvement with the company, though the founders continue to promote the brand on Twitter.) Yuga now has a CEO, Nicole Muniz, who formerly worked in brand development for Google, and who told me, “We think of Otherside as a digital Disney World.” The difference being, of course, “the platform is designed to allow anyone to build their own ‘rides’ or ‘attractions’ in this metaverse and own the value of those for the community.” A virtual amusement park in which users bring their own amusements, and pay for the privilege in ApeCoin.
This preoccupation with ownership—with users building their own experience, owning their own data and I.P.—is the defining feature of the discourse surrounding NFTs and Web3. Not long ago, I asked Finn Brunton, a technology historian and scholar of all things crypto, to explain why anyone would care about this stuff, what the phenomenon represented. “It is actually rather rare and special to feel that you own something digital these days,” he replied. “You may own your computer or phone, but it is rare to own anything on it: Your music and movies are streamed, and come and go; your digital life and social life and much of the content we consume and produce is all on other people’s platforms and making money for someone else.” Everything we do online is already financialized, in other words, but the benefits accrue to other people—large tech companies, generally. Proponents envision a transition from this renter’s economy to an ownership economy, in which our data belongs to us, a primary resource that we’re finally free to control. “There is something weird and melancholy,” Brunton said, “about how little there is to NFTs beyond the act of ownership itself.” The Yacht Club and its owners hoped to take the idea one step further, bringing their data to life and putting it to work.
“Everyone’s in a metaverse of their own making,” Neil Strauss told me excitedly one afternoon over lunch on the plaza of the Los Angeles Convention Center. The author of The Game, which popularized pickup artistry for the masses, and celebrity ghostwriter to the stars (or, at least, to Marilyn Manson and Jenna Jameson), Strauss had been tapped by the team behind a Bored Ape named Jenkins the Valet to “ghostwrite” the ape’s life story, complete with stories of other apes he’d encountered at the Yacht Club. Rail thin and prone to laughing easily in a mischievous sort of way, Strauss had left pickup artistry behind years ago and seemed genuinely excited by crypto’s possibilities. (One wonders about the Venn diagram between the two communities.) It reminded him, he said, of pitching stories on hip-hop to skeptical editors decades ago. “People were literally saying this is just a trend that’s not going to last. Whenever people say something is a trend that’s not going to last, that means it’s a trend that’s going to last.”
I asked him how he described Bored Ape to his friends who knew nothing about NFTs and must be puzzled by his decision to cowrite a book with a cartoon monkey. “How would you describe Spider-Man to somebody?” he responded. “Right? He’s just an illustrated character with, like, a red-and-blue outfit. What makes Spider-Man live in people’s imagination is the storytelling around it. So the Bored Apes are just characters, but because people have the I.P. and take such pride in the community, those characters can start to breathe and come to life.” The team behind Jenkins the Valet had sold a set of “writers room” NFTs allowing other ape owners to cast their own avatars in the book. Most owners wrote their own backstories, and they held improv sessions in character on Discord. Strauss also planned to make an appearance, in character, as the ghostwriter, and to combine all of this material into a collaborative work that CoinDesk speculated might be “the first true novel of Web3.”
“It’s a great solution for lazy writers, because in a sense you outsource the decision–making process,” Strauss told me. He doesn’t own an ape himself—“I’m really risk averse,” he said—and would be taking his paycheck in U.S. dollars rather than, say, Ethereum. He added that “the biggest danger of this world is there’s so much money being fucking thrown around. And so much opportunity and opportunism.” He hoped to finish the novel by the end of April but seemed unsure about even the most basic aspects of its structure, or about its potential appeal to those outside the community itself. And anyway, book writing was a form fundamentally alien to the high-velocity, highly distractible world of crypto; short of exquisite corpse–style avant-gardism, the fiction–writing process can only be made so decentralized. “It takes a while to write an amazing book,” Strauss admitted. “And the space moves so fast. You spend a lot of time trying to make the perfect project, and sometimes the space can move on without you, and now you’re a dinosaur.”
Finishing his lunch, Strauss hurried into the convention center—the home, that week, of the conference NFT/LA—where he’d shortly be cohosting a panel with Steve Aoki, the DJ, record producer, and Benihana heir, who himself owns a handful of apes. The day before, I’d dipped into a talk by another ape owner, Mark Cuban, who brought out Charlie Sheen and the creator of Entourage as special guests. (Sheen seemed confused by his own presence, admitting he knew “practically nothing” about NFTs.) That night I’d followed a person wearing a white goat’s head mask into the arena and found Quavo from Migos rapping to a depressingly sparse room save for the small but crowded VIP zone near the stage, a cordoned-off sector filled mostly with sullen men in hoodies, vaping and nodding while women on stilts wandered around them ribbon dancing. The message seemed clear: Why bother coming to a place like this at all, unless you come as a VIP?
If I was still vaguely puzzled by the idea of a novel cowritten by apes, I had no point of reference at all for the Yacht Club’s music-industry endeavors. Snoop Dogg, one of the most active and prominent of the celebrity ape owners, had purchased his alma mater, Death Row Records, and claimed that all new releases on the label would be minted on the blockchain—telling Billboard it was to become “the first major label to be an NFT label.” (One assumes Suge Knight would respect this dedication to the ownership economy.) Futurist rap producer and occasional bodybuilder Timbaland had started his own company called Ape-In Productions, which would host a roster of Bored Ape musical projects. (Its first was a hip-hop group called TheZoo, whose debut single, “ApeSh!t,” Timbaland produced himself.) And then there was Universal Music Group, which had launched a Web3 label that promised to populate the metaverse with a whole slew of NFT bands and artists, starting with Kingship, which are something like Gorillaz, perhaps, but starting from the cartoon avatars rather than any demonstrable musical value or audience. As a fan of musicians who are not cartoons, the appeal to me seemed elusive.
I spoke with Celine Joshua, the Universal exec in charge of the blockchain-based label and the mind behind Kingship, over Zoom one afternoon, where she was appearing from her office in Santa Monica. Behind her was a TV screen featuring the members of the Bored Ape band, who had been licensed from the prominent NFT collector Jimmy McNelis. Unlike most of her peers in the industry, Joshua had started out in the I.T. department of another label, which made her quicker to discern the possibilities that the blockchain and Web3 might hold for music. “When I saw what Yuga created and that they provided the I.P.,” she said, “I looked at it as a decentralized Disney,” curiously echoing the framing that Yuga’s CEO had offered me. The Yacht Club impressed her immediately: “It’s a project that launched 10,000 units, that created billions in valuation, and a fandom that will rival some of the biggest recording artists in the world.” Like the best NFT projects, she said, she thought the team behind Bored Ape was “no different from an artist that goes inside the recording booth and gives it all they’ve got through their passion and their pen.”
Not wanting to argue the point, I asked her about her own project, Kingship. How does one—or why would one—put a band together from digital apes? What would they sound like? “Kingship is an access token,” she said. “It’s going to provide value and utility—to have the best of every part of the supply chain, physical and digital.” I must have looked puzzled, because she continued trying to explain. What it came down to, she went on, was “delivering experiences, utility, value, and access to our holders.” But what about the music itself, I asked. “The emotion that music will bring into the entire project will be the heart,” she said. “But there has to be an infrastructure, an architecture, that is truly blockchain native. There has to be a token.”
“I think the important thing here,” she went on, “is that if you’re a holder of a Kingship NFT, I hope that you fall in love with the music too, but there’s also going to be value built in, in case you don’t.” For whatever reason, I persisted in asking her what the band would actually sound like. “It sounds great,” she replied. “Hmm. What do they sound like? The hard part of that question is that I’d really just like to put the music out and let the audience decide. It’s incredibly difficult to—I wouldn’t dare to even start to think anything other than what the fans want to think, as it relates to the music itself.”
It seemed we had reached an impasse, so I asked her about Guy Oseary, the elite music-industry veteran who manages Yuga Labs and seemed to be a point of connection between many of the celebrities who had all decided at around the same time that what they really needed was a Bored Ape. “Guy is an incredible example of someone who has been in the entertainment industry for a long time and understands the potential of this space right now,” she said. “What a great person to usher in other musicians, other entertainers. You’re seeing him do it. He’s great, I love him.” It was Oseary, she said, who had introduced her to McNelis and the apes in Kingship. Fallon had been enthusiastic about Oseary’s involvement as well, telling me, “We’ve been friends for a while,” and that Yuga “were smart to ask him for help.” Strauss, too, was connected to Oseary, who as an A&R man had helped secure a deal for Marilyn Manson (the coauthor and subject of Strauss’s first ghostwritten book). In an article on his Substack titled “Mapping the Celebrity NFT Complex,” journalist Max Read had asked, “Where does a person like Paris Hilton or Eminem even hear about ‘bored apes’? Who is recommending that they buy one?”—and had drawn a convoluted web connecting many of the major figures, including Oseary (who did not respond to my emails).
Donning the tinfoil hat, I began to wonder just what sort of possible psy-op I was dealing with here, exactly. What would happen when the O.G.s like Jeremiah and Sonny were forced to sell, and the new owners were the already rich—and the only ones in the metaverse with access to the limited number of ape avatars. Would there be a sort of virtual caste system, with cartoon monkeys at the top of the pile? I thought of the apocalyptic ending of Planet of the Apes: What sort of future were we signing up for here?
For her part, Joshua was clear-sighted and optimistic. “In the near future,” she concluded, “when an artist launches an album, it will look and feel like a video game.” As to what it will sound like, that’s apparently a question for another day.
In mid-April, Coinbase, one of the largest crypto exchanges in the world, announced its plan to produce “an interactive three-part film” starring members of the Bored Ape Yacht Club. As with Strauss’s book, owners could audition their apes for a kind of casting process and agree to have their avatars appear in the work. In doing so, whether it realized it or not, Coinbase was relatively late to the race to contribute to an extended Bored Ape cinematic universe.
Early in the NFT/LA conference, I met up for pizza with the team behind Meta Ape Studios, a project launched by MouseBelt, a so-called blockchain and Web3 accelerator, which had recently announced an open “Ape casting call” for a forthcoming animated TV series. “I think the number one movie in the world should be about crypto and the number one TV show in the world should be about crypto,” Patrick McLain, one of the founders, told me. “Here’s a bunch of these still images, they don’t have a backstory—and if you look at the profile of the people who own them, they’re a bunch of people who got lucky, they’re not media savvy. They have zero idea how to license I.P. or make some kind of media deal.”
“I know I’m living in a bubble, in an echo chamber,” he went on. “Are these going to be hit characters, are they going to be Mickey Mouse? We don’t know yet. But the new Rolex is an Apple Watch with a Bored Ape on it, if you want to impress a girl at a bar.”
“You’re more likely to impress a guy,” his coworker, Travis Scalice, interjected.
Their casting call had so far netted them nearly 500 applications. As with the book, the ape owners were then asked to submit biographies. They’ve since whittled down the cast to 10 main characters, whose owners live all over the world, and the aim is a show loosely inspired by the format of 30 Rock. The apes—in a plot that embodies the plight of the NFT fans who purchased them—orbit around a talent agency hoping to find work. “Most of these owners, this is their most valuable asset,” McLain said. “They don’t make much money; their wife is probably begging them to sell. I’m sure people have gotten divorced over this. If they aren’t selling, they’ll want passive income, so they’re going to want to put their apes to work.”
I asked McLain if he thought people outside of the NFT bubble would be remotely interested in a show about Bored Apes. “Even the most talented people in Hollywood make shows that flop,” he said after some consideration. “But that is still the question: Will anyone give a shit?”
Will Stephenson is a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue with the title “Bored Ape Goes Hollywood”.
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