Crowdfunding, to give a dusty and prosaic definition, is where a project (artistic, journalistic, political etc.) is funded through the collective donations from individual backers. It seems that everyone is at it these days on varying platforms such as Pledgemusic, IndieGoGo, and Kickstarter, the latter of which is probably the most prominent. While crowdfunding has become a lot more popular and efficient with the advent of the internet, the idea has actually been around since the 17th century. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a crowdfunding scheme set up by Joseph Pulitzer then the Statue of Liberty may not have seen the light of day. When the committee in charge of the statue’s construction came up dangerously short on the funds necessary to complete the project, the american public raised $100,000 (the equivalent of $2.3 million today) over a period of six months, ensuring the statue’s completion. Although that’s probably quite a dated example, it’s a pretty good indication of what crowdfunding can achieve and that it can be a positive means of saving worthy projects from the scrap heap. Hercules Moments contributor and Dæmons man David Officer successfully funded his Fram EP through Kickstarter recently and said “Crowdfunding platforms are a very empowering way for small artists and creatives to do big projects when money is thin on the ground”.
However, crowdfunding has become the subject of some controversy recently, such as Amanda Palmer allegedly misusing funds raised on Kickstarter or Zach Braff acquiring studio backing for his crowdfunded independent film. I’m not going to waste time by explaining the Amanda Palmer controversy as it has been written about by pretty much everyone and their dog in great detail, but I think it is a prime example of the negativity surrounding crowdfunding platforms and the backlash that can occur when communications break down where money is concerned (If you wish to find out more I suggest looking here and here). Most of the controversy stemming from these issues comes down to backers feeling deceived or that their money has been misused. So how reliable is crowdfunding, and is there more to it than the optimistic “Art of Asking”?
There are quite a few immediately apparent positives to crowdfunding. For one thing, it allows the artist greater creative freedom than they may otherwise have if a label or a studio is involved. For instance, in deals with some industry moguls the artist may be beholden to their wishes, such as altering the project to suit the investors at the expense of the artist’s vision. Matthew Young of Song, By Toad points out that “If an artist wants to release what they want and when they want, then they need to either make sure that their label is flexible and understanding (which many are) or fund it themselves, and this is a good way to do it”. Through crowdfunding artists are able to set their own agenda and the input offered by backers is usually welcome as part of a prior understanding between artist and supporter. And at the end of the day, for any artist with a modicum of integrity, the people who support them will always be the ones they ultimately have to answer to.
Crowdfunding platforms also allow artists to reach out to a larger body of possible investors and get creative projects completed which may not have been funded otherwise. For example, Tim Courtney, another Hercules Moments contributor and member of Katerwaul, who recently successfully funded a film through Kickstarter, explains that acquiring funding from bodies such as Creative Scotland is not always easy: “I’ve seen a lot of my talented friends and peers not get work on these development shorts like Digicult etc. due to a ‘lack of experience’. I know my own career is faltering as a director because I’ve not shown I can handle a bigger budget, but how do you get those bigger budgets if the one means our country has of giving it to you won’t take the risk on you?”. Against such catch-22 situations, crowdfunding projects can help level the playing field by giving artists that chance. Furthermore, this also puts some control in the hands of the supporter as well, where the only projects you back are the ones YOU choose, rather than your taxes being funnelled into a project you have no interest or say in, as happens with some funding committees. So essentially it’s a win-win situation, where your money goes directly to the artistic projects you feel deserve it rather than the umpteenth season of a high-rating show, while the artist is able to pursue a project that may not attract funding elsewhere. Not to mention the increased interaction and cooperation between artist and supporter that crowdfunding fosters, as Lloyd of Olive Grove Records notes: “Knowing you did your bit to help a band that you love genuinely means a lot, especially at the end of the day when you’re sitting with a tangible product in your hand”.
So what’s the big deal, why all the fuss? Well, the snag with this approach is that the backer’s money is not always insured and delivery of the final product is not always guaranteed. In some cases projects fail for a number of reasons (ranging from bad luck to poor choices), leaving backers a long way down the line unable to get their money back and without the products or incentives promised to them. Out of interest, I backed the Pixies visual history book on Kickstarter to get a feel for how much the backer actually knows about what they’re getting into. Straight away a disclaimer came up stating: “Kickstarter does not guarantee projects or investigate a creator’s ability to complete their project. It is the responsibility of the project creator to complete their project as promised, and the claims of this project are theirs alone. If this project is successfully funded, your card will be charged on Thursday Jun 6, 11:59 PM EDT, along with all the other backers of this project”. Whether these disclaimers and failsafe features are a recent addition or have been in place all along, I am not sure, but from my experience it was instantly clear to me what the score was.
And this is not dissimilar to the way the music business, and indeed any venture that requires financial backing, operates already. Artists mock up a proposition for what their project is and what the costs are likely to be, then present it to potential backers. The only difference here is that the backers can be individuals from all over the world rather than just companies and entrepreneurs. While it is obviously disappointing to not receive the goods promised, that’s ultimately the risk you take in any investment and emphasises that crowdfunding is not a market service where you ‘buy’ incentives. And this is what such disappointments often boil down to: supporters are not used to being investors, so naturally when projects fall through they behave like customers who have not received a paid for product. However, that is not the agreement they entered into when backing, and I feel this is something people will need to come to terms with as time goes on.
In some cases, such as the aforementioned Braff/Palmer projects, backers may not feel their money has been used correctly or worse, that they were deliberately deceived when backing. This is obviously a very serious matter, but it seems to me that it ultimately comes down to the transparency of the individual project. Many projects will be created with this transparency in mind so that the backer is sufficiently informed, as David did with his project: “Because of the nature of the funding, it’s open to a lot of scrutiny and you have to be honest and upfront. You need to do your research and be confident in your figures”. Crowdfunding by and large operates on a ‘buyer beware’ policy, that is, if you are suspicious of where your money is going, then you invest at your own risk. The other main criticism leveled at crowdfunding is that it is essentially a form of begging and that it is unfair to ask fans for financial support. After all, if plenty of other artists have managed to finance themselves and if fans already buy the albums, what right does an artist have to ask for direct financial support from them? “I’ve heard people moaning about the price of a Reward with a CD or Vinyl etc. or that it’s people asking the fans to fund a project that they’re going to have to fork out on again,” Tim says “To this all I can say is its a marketing problem. I don’t think the genuine artists on Kickstarter are ripping people off”. Essentially, there is a stigma attached because people believe it to be the soft option or associate it with laziness. However, this is far from the case. Often the artist will have done the actual creative legwork already (recording, filming, sourcing artwork etc.), and is looking for the funds necessary to see the project through to completion in its final stages. As David aptly asserts, “It’s not a replacement for hard work, saving up or any other business led strategy. This isn’t about creating businesses, but fulfilling creative projects”. Similarly Tim explains, “I never claim to be an expert, but the one piece of advice I can give to people is that you need to REALLY plan and research your project and other successful projects. It took us over a month of planning to put it together before going live with it, and it worked”. Despite negative perceptions, it is clear that going down this route is not merely a case of waiting for a handout (well, in the majority of cases hopefully).
So, is crowdfunding “the future of music”, as Amanda Palmer has touted in her Kickstarter campaign video? Could crowdfunding pose a viable and sustainable alternative model to the label oligarchy which the current music industry is based on? Well, not really. “Labels bring a lot more than just funding to the table,” says Matthew. “They also bring contacts, a network of their own fans, extra bodies to work on the release, a reputation, and experience of releasing music. All of these things are hugely valuable and are not covered by crowd-funding. With a good manager or a couple of experienced, organised people within the band you might be able to make up for a lot of this, but not all”. Crowdfunding is really a tool for helping tip the balance in the artist’s favour, where support can come from the most unexpected places, as Tim found with his Sunsets and Silhouettes campaign: “One of the people who bought an Executive Producer reward lives in New Zealand with no affiliation to the cast or crew, and another from Germany. And the only reason they’ve given us £250 each is because they believe in our talent and the story. And that is overwhelming.” Meanwhile, when David got in touch with the Fram Museum in Oslo about his Polar expedition inspired project, they backed the project for £500. Furthermore, he has been invited over to play in front of the King of Norway and the Prime Minister, as well as collaborate with an Inuit Drum Dancer at the Museum’s Polar Festival: “The success of my Kickstarter means I’ve got a great story and a better chance of selling my vinyl now. More importantly, I got to create a piece of art I really believe in.” Both of their projects are well on the way to production now and may not have been possible, or as successful, without crowdfunding platforms. There may be a few bugs that need ironing out and and there is still some way to go, but crowdfunding is definitely changing the way we create and support art, and that is a very exciting thing.