IDYLLWILD, Calif. — The crypto world has had a rough summer. Prices of bitcoin and etherium have plunged in recent months. NFT mania has cooled after the market became flooded with low-quality projects and scams. And regulators have begun cracking down on a slew of crypto companies that have allegedly engaged in dubious behavior and potential fraud.
Despite this dim outlook, over 500 people recently took over the campus of Idyllwild Arts Academy, a private arts boarding school in Idyllwild, Calif., for a weekend festival that local media deemed to be the “crypto Woodstock.”
The event was called FWB Fest, and the artists, writers, musicians, software engineers, start-up founders and creatives who gathered were all united through their membership in Friends With Benefits, a crypto-based online social club that you must purchase a token to join.
At FWB Fest, crypto’s downturn was welcomed. “I don’t think this festival would have worked six months ago,” said Alex Zhang, 26, one of Friends With Benefits’s leaders and an event organizer.
The people at FWB Fest weren’t the typical crypto conference attendees who jet between Miami and San Francisco. Many were working artists or creative professionals. They were there because they believe that the blockchain, crypto’s underlying technology, can be used to build a better world through community and decentralization.
“The thing that’s happening on a bigger level,” Yancey Strickler, the former co-founder and CEO of Kickstarter told a room of fellow attendees during a session titled “Beyond Crypto,” “is that we’ve had many decades of extreme and increasing individualism as the primary value, where each of us are expected to stand on our own … but now we’re recognizing the hollowness of that, and the loneliness of that and the grind.”
“I think we’re all getting our sea legs after decades of neoliberal market brain individualism,” said Austin Robey, a Friends With Benefits member and co-founder, along with Strickler, of Metalabel, a platform that offers tools for online collectives.
While the crypto world’s public image has been largely defined by a brand of hyper-capitalist libertarian individualism, attendees at FWB sought to leverage the crash to usher in a different, more inclusive techno utopia centered on community and creativity.
“Crypto is obviously divisive, and there’s a lot of language and tools that we are comfortable using that don’t translate to the mainstream,” an attendee said. “But how we’re going to have a greater positive impact on more people’s material lives is by building tools on public ledgers that aren’t hyper-financialized.”
A $100 million group chat
In 2020, entrepreneur and artist Trevor McFedries began exploring how to bring a more mainstream audience to crypto. He’d long been at the forefront of art and technology, having built a company that created the first virtual influencer, but after the pandemic hit he began delving into the world of Web3, the broad and somewhat fluid term that serves as shorthand for a new type of internet that’s built on decentralized blockchains. While Web 2.0, the current iteration of the web, is defined by a handful of big tech companies that own and control user content and data, advocates of Web3 see its decentralized systems as leading to more egalitarian ownership.
In a single weekend, McFedries created a specialized cryptocurrency token and sent it around to his friends in the music, art, design, and tech worlds as well as to a few Twitter followers.
The “FWB” token granted them access to a Discord community called Friends With Benefits. The community functions as a DAO, or “decentralized autonomous organization,” which is basically a blockchain-based co-op where each token holder owns a stake in the organization.
In the two years since, Friends With Benefits has taken off. Buoyed by the crypto boom, the group chat grew into a full-fledged online social club, generating media attention and attracting thousands of high-profile members including celebrities and music artists like Erykah Badu and Azealia Banks.
As the organization scaled, the price to purchase a token to gain membership also grew, at one point reaching $175 for a single token. Last year, Friends With Benefits raised $10 million from investors including the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz in a funding round that valued it at $100 million.
The group used the funding, in part, to expand offline. It hosted events and parties in Los Angeles, Miami and New York, growing its cultural footprint. At one point the group discussed a futuristic dream of one day taking over a defunct liberal arts college and hosting a festival. When it was discovered that a friend of a friend worked in admissions at the arts academy, after some negotiation with the school and local town officials, FWB organizers landed the venue, and FWB Fest was born.
Crypto utopia in the woods
Throughout the weekend, Idyllwild Arts Academy was transformed into a utopian summer camp where discussion groups and talks during the day on topics like “Social justice and web3” and “Where do NFTs go from here?” gave way to evening performances by musicians including Nadezhda Tolokonnikova from the anarchist feminist group Pussy Riot, experimental electronic music producer Oneohtrix Point Never, and rapper JPEGMAFIA. James Blake played a piano set.
There was a natural wine garden, ambient sound baths where attendees could sip mushroom tea, late-night stargazing and a pool party. Andrea Hernandez, founder of the newsletter Snaxshot, who has become an oracle in the food and beverage world for her ability to spot up-and-coming products before they make it to grocery store shelves, curated a custom snack booth, and NFT marketplace OpenSea collaborated on a gallery of digital art.
Throughout the weekend, directors Adam Faze and Ari Cagan chased down attendees for interviews for an upcoming reality show backed by Mad Realities, a web3-oriented production company, based on the festival.
Outside of the talks, however, the topic of crypto seemed secondary, if it was mentioned at all.
Greg Bresnitz, the cities and events programming lead for FWB, said that was intentional. FWB, he said, was really about “using Web3 as a coordination mechanism for culture.” “For the last two years [crypto] has been at the forefront,” he added, “and now with the crash it folds into the background.”
Other attendees agreed. “There are a lot of people here who are relative novices to web3, but are really into culture and that’s their entry point into FWB,” said Cherie Hu, founder and publisher of Water & Music, an independent newsletter and research DAO focused on music and technology. “I haven’t even heard many buzzwords or people talking about crypto in the corner,” said Patrick McDermott, an artist in Los Angeles.
Because of the serendipitous nature of its founding, Friends With Benefits never started with a mission statement or business plan. “It started as a scene” said Zhang. “Most people who are part of a scene can’t recite the mission statement of a scene.” During one session, on the second day of the festival, members brainstormed on how to expand FWB into new endeavors, whether it was product launches or another festival.
Everything about FWB Fest was organized in conjunction with FWB Discord members. “The community is full of people who work in varied industries, so when we put on events we try to hire from within the community,” said McFedries.
Zhang said he thinks of Friends With Benefits as a city. “New York City, for instance, throws festivals,” he said. “There are also restaurants, museums, parks, etc. FWB feels less like a company and at this stage, and more like a small town that’s got a vibe.”
Despite the recent contraction in the crypto market, everyone at FWB Fest remained steadfast in their dedication to using the blockchain, crypto’s underlying technology, and said they hope that FWB’s success will usher in a new era of web3, built around community and inclusivity.
“We’re trying to build while we can before big awful corporations come and ruin it for everybody,” said Joshua Eustis, a music artist known as Telefon Tel Aviv. “Capitalism is superimposed on our way of life and our financial system and the fact that web3 is currently wildly inadequate to correct for that, is not enough of a reason for us to abdicate our responsibility to shape it in its early condition.”
“If we don’t,” he said, “some a--hole will later and we’ll have to use it.”