QSC Aspiring Interview: Rae Isla on releasing music via blockchain

Having written an original song for the Robert De Niro-starring Ezra last year, Rae Isla turned her efforts to creating a video game built around the release of her latest single, Miles and Miles. A trailblazing singer-songwriter and Americana artist from Washington State, she identifies as a ‘travelling bard’, and rightly so, having also been based in New York City, Mexico City, and now Los Angeles. Her worldliness is perhaps a contributing factor to the manner in which she has built her career as an independent musician on her own terms, which has seen her utilise blockchain technology to sell her music and keep her going at a time when she had considered putting music on pause to go into full-time work.

Isla originally studied classical cello as a youngster, but her desire to be a musician in a more liberated sense led her to the piano and eventually to songwriting. She studied voice and business on a scholarship at the highly prestigious Berklee College of Music (where she recently returned to give a talk), before relocating from Boston to New York City. There, she worked on her first EP, while establishing herself in the city’s indie live music scene.

A natural place to start is with Ezra, the film starring Robert De Niro which Isla recently wrote the end credits song for. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.

“I met a girl through Twitter spaces, who is a writer, and we became friends,” Isla says via Zoom in Los Angeles. It’s 8.30am for her and she’s having a coffee. “She'd been working with this film producer for a long time, and she sent him my music. He ended up being in Miami at the same time as me during Art Basel. We met for coffee one morning around 8am. I’d been up until 5am at a party the night before. 

"So I was just bleary-eyed, wondering ‘What is life? I'm in Miami meeting this film producer.’ But we connected and I could tell that he genuinely loves music. It must have been four or five months later that I got a call while I was on tour.

“He explained that they were due to finish editing this movie in about two weeks, and they were trying to licence a song for the end credits, but they wanted too much money, and the song didn’t work for the film. He said, ‘Why don't you do a custom song? It's kind of a crapshoot, it probably won't happen, I have to convince a lot of people, but give it a try!’ 

"I essentially had 24 hours in between tour stops, coming in from Canada, and about to fly to Nashville. I stayed up all night in Seattle with my music director, and he set up some mics in my apartment. I had put this whistle into the song, which I was a bit of a joke and as a space filler, and that ended up being the part they loved the most. It was just this surreal thing, I felt like I was in a movie myself.”

I wasn’t going to quit music, per se, but I was going to get a job. I was looking at the numbers, and the math was not mathin’!

Twitter spaces make for a fantastic segway into another defining aspect of Isla’s fully independent music career; her use of web3 and blockchain in selling her music and ensuring she is remunerated fairly for her brilliant music. She is one of a tiny handful of musicians pioneering the sale of music in this manner, leading the way as one of the highest-grossing independent musicians in the space, attracting the likes of SXSW and the European Union to ask her to give talks on the subject.

She is a legitimate pioneer in doing so, as one of the highest-grossing independent artists in the space. Her greatest success so far is the release of Rae Isla’s Rocks, in which she sold 1,000 digital editions of her songs while earning a 10% royalty each time one is sold on the web3 secondary market. Besides indie artists like Isla, it’s a scene that has attracted the likes of Snoop Dogg, Grimes and Avenged Sevenfold to release music using blockchain technology.

“After I put out the first album (2021’s Another Life), I was crazy enough to go right into recording my second album,” Isla says. “I reached this point where I was so stressed about what I was going to do next. I wasn’t going to quit music, per se, but I was going to get a job and put a pause on this thing; I was looking at the numbers, and the math was not mathin’! I stumbled on this job for a music company that had blockchain in the description. I didn’t get that job, but the word blockchain was then stuck in my head.”

Isla was offered another blockchain job. “I turned down the job,” she says. “I went down the rabbit hole of building a web3 community and selling my music in this new space. It's not all about money, but for any artist reading this thinking about taking a risk and not going the safe route: I ended up making quite a bit more in quite a bit less time than that job would have paid me in a year.”

We put together this little team of four queer women, and we built a video game. That's not usually who you picture sitting in the boardroom!

Isla has just released Miles and Miles, perhaps her most personally meaningful song yet. An anthemic piano-led ballad, it’s a song she wrote straight after traveling home with her brother from New York City back to Washington State as the pandemic began to hit the US. It’s a 42-hour cross-country drive that takes you through some of North America’s most beautiful scenery in the Dakotas and Minnesota. Despite the fear gripping the country in the face of COVID, the song was inspired by all the kindness and camaraderie she witnessed on her epic road trip.

“The world was supposedly ending and people were really suffering. And yet, every person at a gas station would smile and wave. There were signs through all the small towns, encouraging social distancing and all these hopeful messages. I got home to Seattle after this cathartic trip, feeling so many emotions: leaving New York, and I’d just gone through a separation. And the first thing I did when I got home was I sat down at my childhood piano and immediately wrote Miles and Miles

"It's so palpable to me now, this feeling, that I could still feel the momentum of the highway as I wrote it. I recorded it in Mexico City, it was mixed in Los Angeles, mastered in New York, and now I’ve performed it all over the country and in London.”

It should be pretty clear at this point that Isla is someone who has a penchant for coming up with innovative and unusual ways to promote her music. The release of Miles and Miles was not an exception to this, as she decided to have a game, featuring her as the protagonist character, built around it, with the song playing on a loop as the soundtrack. 

"It’s a platform game in which the Rae Isla avatar is on horseback and must jump over incoming sharp cactuses and cowboy hat-wearing cats, and ducking under approaching rainbows. It’s an addictive fare, and having the superb song playing in the background makes it tempting to eschew the to-do list and carry on playing.

“When I was a kid, me and my brother were always either out in nature or playing video games,” Isla says. “The idea for the Miles and Miles game was to make something that is just me as a child, my most pure self. I’ve learned a lot from being in these online communities, about what people value and how to deepen our digital experience. 

"We do live in a digital world, and accepting that means trying to find a way to exist digitally on a deeper level. Not just scrolling on social media. We asked: how can we build something that's meaningful? – because people are going to be online anyway and the song is going to be online. So we put together this little team of four queer women, and we built a video game. That's not usually who you picture sitting in the boardroom!”

And, finally, what does the question Play Out Loud mean to Isla? She says “A few things came to mind when I heard that question. But the first thing that I think rings the most true is, no matter the conditions of where you're playing, just play as loudly and as truly as you possibly can, and represent who you are, even if there's no amplification.”

Miles and Miles is out everywhere to listen and stream now, and its accompanying game is still on Isla’s official website. The last two years have been massive in both the traditional music industry and the emerging music tech scene for Isla, and all the signs show that 2024 will be her biggest yet.

I went down the rabbit hole of building a web3 community and selling my music in this new space.