What happens when you ask people to pay for music before a single track is even laid down? The rise of crowdsourced funding sites - like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, where users commit money in advance to planned ventures like recordings, books and statues of RoboCop - has caused many artists to think about whether such sites could replace the world of music distributors and record labels.
Sometimes, the results are golden - or at least green.
"Kickstarter is the new middleman, and he's nice," says Eef Barzelay, who records under the nom du rock Clem Snide. Barzelay and Chicago micro-indie label Foreign Leisure used a campaign on Kickstarter to fund the pressing of a vinyl EP of Journey covers. The idea was sparked by a cover of "Don't Stop Believin' " that appeared on the Web site of the culture guide AV Club.
The Clem Snide campaign needed $5,000 to cover the costs of pressing 500 copies of the EP; as of May 26, the campaign had raised $18,904, with five people donating $1,500 each so they could get a host of goodies that included an acoustic solo show at each pledger's house. (Barzelay says he'll, "keep the kids fed and the lights on" with the extra money he's raised.)
Foreign Leisure is run by A.V. Club editor Josh Modell, who first used Kickstarter to fund a small vinyl pressing of an EP by the band Crooked Fingers. "I remember being aware of it very early in its existence," Modell says of Kickstarter. "I do remember thinking immediately that it was a great idea - a nice, low-pressure bridge between fans and artists."
But what happens when an artist is just starting out? Clem Snide, it should be noted, is a band that's been around for years and has had a fair amount of notoriety (its song "Moment In The Sun" was the theme of Ed during the NBC sitcom's second season); likewise, A.V. Club is one of the higher-profile culture sites out there. Is it wise for a newer band's initial marketing to involve asking for money before a note has been put to tape (or hard drive)?
"I don't think you could do a music project of much size without a solid number of diehards already in place," says Modell. "I could see it working better for something like an indie film, because you can pitch your idea for a movie to people - and people know how costly it is to make a movie. With music, it's essentially a pre-order, and if there's no interest, you just don't manufacture it."
Kickstarter has had quite a few music-related projects fail to reach their goals by their appointed deadlines. Many of them were maiden recording voyages by artists who were trying to fund their passion projects in a creative way; others seemed more sunk by their ambition.
"I think every situation is unique," says Bryan Winchester, a Portland-based hip-hop artist who goes by the name Braille. Winchester used IndieGoGo to raise money for production costs stemming from his album Native Lungs, which he planned to record in five days in Denver. "It's hard to imagine an artist with no pre-existing network being able to raise a significant amount of money without some sort of musical history or proven track record. I don't think it's as simple as someone saying, 'I want to make a record, I'll just put up a campaign and it'll be fine.' "
IndieGoGo is an appealing option for some artists who are starting out because its constraints are a bit different than Kickstarter's; people in search of funding don't need to reach a financial goal in order to get the money pledged by fans. "We have learned over time that campaign owners are creative in accomplishing their goals no matter how much they raise, and that funders get upset if the money is returned to them," says Erica Labovitz, senior vice president of funding for IndieGoGo.
Getting the money is just one aspect of music-making that has little to do with music itself - but has fallen into artists' laps in the post-record-store world. Moreover, the nature of the process by which word gets out about a record has been time-shifted; marketing the funding of an album can turn into marketing for the album itself.
This is tricky to navigate in an era of heightened promotional cycles, hundreds of teaser MP3s dropping via thousands of blogs, and a ton of music available for people to pay attention to in a passing way, let alone spend money on. Then there's the matter of squeezing in time to tour throughout all of this - because the idea that bands need to go on the road to make money still holds true in some quarters.
Some artists have essentially used the crowdsourcing systems as a way of preselling albums, with bells and whistles - like Barzelay's private concerts - thrown into the packages should people feel compelled to pay more than the cost of the CD or record itself. "Kickstarter is a double-edged sword," notes Lucas Jensen of the Athens, Ga., chamber-indie outfit Venice is Sinking, "because you are often hyping music people haven't heard yet. Which is a good raison d'être for self-promotion - but also, by the time the thing shows up, it's old news. I felt like our album was already over in a lot of people's minds because they'd been hearing about it forever."
And using social media to get the word out about a ticking campaign can be a double-edged sword. The sheer volume of information people consume daily means that bands who seek funding - particularly as they approach their deadlines - need to send out reminders to keep themselves at the top of their friends' and colleagues' timelines. Jensen's campaign, which helped his band release a vinyl copy of an album recorded at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, hit a snag about midway through its fund-raising, and tensions ran high during the campaign's promotion.
"I remember this one guy - a friend on Facebook - who made a point of commenting every single, freaking time I asked for money: 'Dude, nobody has any money' or 'Will you give it a rest?'," recalls Jensen. "And I feel like for every guy like that, there have to be 20 lurkers who feel the same way. Near the end of the process I felt spent. It was like running a PR campaign, and we hadn't even run the actual PR campaign for the album yet."
Having a plan in place before kicking off crowdsourcing campaigns for musical endeavors is crucial; having a fan base, or at least some sort of seed money, can only add to the riches being brought in.
"I would suggest artists starting out get as far as they can with their own resources [before resorting to crowdsourcing funding]," says Winchester. "Show people the progress they made, and then build a campaign when they truly feel it would be mutually beneficial for the artist and the fans of the artist. If you can create a scenario where everyone wins in the end, [if] there is a goal that everyone reaches together and everyone benefits from [it] in some way, I think it makes the incentive to support more tangible."