Roll has been part of the Ann Arbor music scene since the 1990s, as a performer, songwriter, and, more recently, a producer and songwriting instructor. And now, his pandemic-born hobby of art photography has blossomed into a new career, which he is marketing via cryptocurrency and NFTs—unique digital files which are attached to images, documents, or other items. Buying an NFT stakes out the rights to that item within the blockchain, a shared ledger of cryptocurrency transactions.

Roll started making droll videos during walks with his dog. That eventually morphed into shooting on film, then stirring various acids such as hot sauce and wine into the developer to create random effects. Photo by Mark Bialek

“I’m super-late to it,” Roll muses of his move into the visual arts. He started making droll videos for social media friends during walks with his dog, then began shooting still photos. Eventually they morphed from digital shots to film then multiple exposures and finally what he calls “film soup,” stirring various acids such as hot sauce and wine into the developer to create random effects. He then adds a unique digital token and sells the resulting digital image online for one of two cryptocurrencies—Solana and Tezos. 

“It was a very sideways approach, but there’s something about the composition of still photos that really engaged my mind. It came very instinctively to me.”  Roll says. 

He’s sold about fifty NFTs so far, and now wants to grow it into a career. 

Roll manages Willis Sound, a studio built in a converted church south of Ypsilanti that is a favorite spot for Ann Arbor musicians. He’s quick to draw music genre analogies in describing his visual art.

“I’m not a punk rocker, but I’m kind of a garage folker: not always perfectly in pitch, more about expression. Film brought in that element of roughness and chaos but also spontaneity, because you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

Roll’s work is part of a fairly small landscape of NFT efforts based in and around Ann Arbor. On campus, the University of Michigan is planning to officially endorse NFTs featuring some star football players, and a local entrepreneur painted and then captured via an NFT a mural on a stadium-area building that was later razed. But there doesn’t seem to be a large-scale adoption of NFTs among the city’s working artists yet. 

For a newcomer like Roll, it’s been a great platform, from the social interaction and support on Twitter Spaces to the direct sales to buyers via crypto.  “It’s liberating to have the middleman completely eliminated and have a transaction for the full amount between you and the purchaser of art,” he says. “The patronage is very direct now—you’re in [virtual] rooms talking to buyers directly.”

While press coverage of NFTs tends to focus on celebrities spending ridiculous amounts of money on things like Bored Ape profile avatars, Roll says, “In the world I’m in, people are creating really beautiful pieces of art and trading them, often very inexpensively.”

Going deeper into photography “is my dream. For any creative person the dream of creating and having a direct market is hard to beat,” Roll says. “But of course there are the risks.” Solana and Tezos lost about a third of their value in the recent crypto meltdown, cutting the value of his most successful sale to about $1,000. 

“Will crypto go to zero?” Roll wonders. “Will NFTs go to zero? I’m fifty-six—will I go to zero? 

“It’s scary to try to invest yourself, but I’m a musician—I’m used to it.”