Crowdfunding could change the way music gets made
Photo by D.L. Anderson
This tour van fueled by money. Logo by Skillet Gilmore (Disclosure: Gilmore is married to Caitlin Cary and plays drums in The Small Ponds.) When the violinist and vocalist Caitlin Cary needed to buy a new van for her current pop band, The Small Ponds, she used one of the most traditional methods. Cary went to the bank, applied for a loan and paid about $3,000 for Evangeline, a two-tone 1993 Ford 15-passenger that's pushing 200,000 miles. With her previous bands, the alt-country darlings Whiskeytown and the mesmerizing Tres Chicas, record labels and managers had helped to handle such exigencies. But The Small Ponds—a new band without a large label, a manager or a big operating budget—needed to find a way to make its first 1,400-mile trek to the world's biggest music conference, South by Southwest, later this month in Texas. Cary had to do it herself. But when Frontier Ruckus, a Pontiac, Mich., quintet whose rustic mien owes no small debt to Cary's work in Whiskeytown, decided it needed a new van, the band asked its fans to help pay. On their website, Frontier Ruckus posted seven options for potential benefactors. For a $10 contribution, you'd receive a set of previously unreleased demos. For $20, you'd hear the demos and two live recordings. A pledge of $40 earned you concert tickets, while a pledge of $150 warranted a personalized song. Pony up $1,000, and Frontier Ruckus would come perform in your house. Two people donated a grand to Frontier Ruckus. In fact, the band raised more than $5,000, money that they've since put in the bank for the day that Dessie—their 1999 Ford Club Wagon XLT, which boasts 200,000 miles and top speeds of 30 miles per hour on mountainsides—finally dies.
"We're not completely destitute. We would've gotten a new van one way or the other," says frontman Matthew Milia. "But we could use a new van, so we wanted to get our fans involved with it. I saw it as an opportunity to have a garage sale to make these off-kilter artifacts accessible. And if they'd like some of these things, it goes in a useful direction for us." Milia and Frontier Ruckus are part of a growing movement called crowdfunding. With crowdfunding, people interested in seeing a certain endeavor completed can contribute money in tiered amounts in exchange for gratitude or goods. Kickstarter, crowdfunding's household name, has driven more than 5,000 projects, like movies, tours, books, software and albums, since its launch less than two years ago. Some bands who've used Kickstarter think it might forever change the music industry—and, arguably, all art and culture—by allowing listeners to put their funds where their fandom is. But it's not that simple, some say. Such systems take advantage of old fans by having them invest in a project that's not yet complete, critics say, and create illusions of demand. Those concerns haven't curbed the interest in crowdfunding, though; more than 2,500 projects are currently being funded by Kickstarter alone, and for each of the last eight weeks, more than a million dollars has passed through the network. "For the past 60 years of recorded music, it's been prescribed, the way you record music and share it with people. There's no reason why that still has to be the case," says Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler. "The reason it still is the case is that, if you go to a record label and they give you money to make a record, they expect a record out of it. They expect a predictable piece of work. But as this grows, you're not beholden to that." "I'm a really good candidate for the old system. I'm totally willing to work as hard as I need to, but I sort of need to be told what to do," says Cary of the regimen of managers and labels and booking agents she had with her previous bands. That old system, she's found, generally doesn't work. Otherwise, she might not have needed that auto loan for Evangeline. "Eventually, I think we may want to try Kickstarter." Indeed, the crowdfunding phenomenon now extends far beyond the arts and Kickstarter. More than a dozen websites offer such services; authors Kevin Lawton and Dan Marom went so far as to title their 2010 book The Crowdfunding Revolution. The Florida-based Microgiving.com gathers funds for individual philanthropy projects, while Michigan's Crowdrise gives charities and volunteer organizations access to a worldwide network of would-be contributors. A California news organization, spot.us, uses such techniques to fund journalism; if a potential story is important enough to enough people, it gets funded, reported and written. "Crowdfunding links funding with the social dynamics and affinity groups which naturally surround efforts that resonate with our many motivations," reads The Crowdfunding Revolution. "That alone is enough to cause a monumental shift in the way business and organizations operate." For Rob Berliner, who plays mandolin and sings in the Philadelphia band Hoots & Hellmouth, crowdfunding fundamentally alters the way people can support what they value. It turns artistic commerce into a public radio pledge drive. To wit, his band raised more than $20,000 to record an EP and an LP via Kickstarter. "We live in this world where the consumer can go see a movie in a theater, or you can find an illegal way to watch it at home," says Berliner. "That's where a lot of things are going now—you can take whatever you want from the Internet, and you can spend exactly what you want on things, and nothing more." "Michael sold his car. It was an old BMW—nothing new, nothing fancy, a box model from the '80s," remembers Mark Holland, one of two twin brothers who founded the idiosyncratic Chapel Hill band
Jennyanykind in 1991. "We've all done that before, we've all run down to the music store with that $1,500 Telecaster that we didn't really need. We've all been there when we want to finance a dream." In 1993, the dream for Jennyanykind was putting out a debut 7-inch single. The songs were "Windchimes" and "Long," and like so many upstart bands during that particular indie rock boom, they had to find a way to pay for it themselves. They did, and the trio's career steadily progressed. They signed to a small label and then to Elektra Records, a major whose roster extended from Tom Waits and The Eagles to Anthrax and Missy Elliott. Holland remembers it as a time when bands were coddled, "put into the studio for weeks ... where you don't have to care about anything." But Jennyanykind didn't turn their major-label gig into millions of dollars, and, eight years after the release of the last Jennyanykind album, the Holland brothers are just hobbyist musicians with kids and jobs and lives. They have their own bands and projects now; until last May, they hadn't played together as Jennyanykind in nearly a decade. They decided to give Jennyanykind another chance, starting again with a 7inch single split with snarly Chapel Hill rock duo The Moaners. Instead of selling the family car, though, they decided to procure the $2,000 they'd need for the single through Kickstarter. The Moaners and Jennyanykind will release the record with a celebratory concert in May. "I was really skeptical at first," admits Holland. "We haven't really done anything in a long time. The question was, 'Who is going to care?'" The question of who is going to care used to be pretty simple: If you cared enough, you could maybe find a way to pay for it yourself. Maybe a company with enough money cared, too, and then they would pay. Afterward, maybe you could start finding regular folks who cared—fans, that is. Putting out a record essentially worked only a handful of ways. As with Jennyanykind, an upstart band could hustle and pawn its way into enough capital to afford equipment and studio time to record the music and, eventually, to press the music onto sellable pieces of vinyl or plastic. Given a little success, a record label might get involved, hoping to turn a profit by paying for those costs up front—studio time, manufacturing, marketing materials, perhaps a small sum of money to get the band on tour—and then taking a cut of proceeds after the band sold enough CDs to repay those costs. That model continues to get endlessly complicated, with percentages for record producers, licensing deals and scenarios where labels now take a cut of a band's onstage profits. At root, though, it's simple and sensible: The organization that pays to jump-start a band profits when the band profits. But Kickstarter reroutes that formula, meaning that, if a sufficient amount of fans care enough about your music to give you money before you can even sell them a CD, you don't need to pawn guitars or heirlooms. You don't even need a record label. You just need money from those fans in order to do the things that record labels used to do to make fans—and, of course, a profit. "In its simplest form, you need the same thing you've needed for 100 years—you need a great song. You need something that's going to resonate with people," says Biff Kennedy, the Philadelphia-based manager for Hoots & Hellmouth. A former employee at Columbia Records, he says most bands and fans simply don't need large organizations to make or hear good music anymore. "That's a simplistic approach, but that is where it all starts. A group of professionals in publicity, promotions and marketing knows how to spread that word. Having money helps hire those people. But it all comes back to, 'Make me feel something.'" James Jackson Toth has recorded music for the last decade as Wooden Wand—solo, with his old band Wooden Wand & the Vanishing Voice and with innumerable collaborators. Toth's popularity peaked about
five years ago, when the rising tide of young, hip musicians interested in folk music like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom sent the moneybags at major labels to Wooden Wand shows. Toth actually inked a deal with Nonesuch, an imprint of the Warner Music Group empire, but he soon moved to Ryko. His sole record for Ryko, Waiting in Vain, was a compelling distillation of country and soul loaded with special guests like Wilco's Nels Cline. It flopped, selling only 453 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That's less than nearly all of the records he'd done for tiny independent labels. An arrest, a divorce and the hunt for a new label followed for Toth, who's released four records on four different independent labels since the Ryko disaster. Even for Toth, navigating the labyrinth of those labels initially felt more appealing than something like Kickstarter. It felt like a compromise of rock 'n' roll's rebelliousness. Says Toth, "Honestly, Kickstarter sounded like groveling to me. I wondered if we had to promise blowjobs to sell records now. I wasn't going to do it." But then he thought of his favorite bands. Given the option, he'd generally order the most limited-edition, extras-included version of their records available and wait impatiently by the mailbox. When he decided to record and release his next record himself, then, Kickstarter became not only a way to give his fans that chance but also to see if he even had those allegiant fans. "I've been doing this for 12 years, and ultimately my life hasn't changed at all," says Toth, his sigh cut with laughter. "I can't go to the grocery store and say, 'I'm going on tour with Sonic Youth. Think you can hook me up with this milk?'" Kickstarter and many more crowdfunding sites are structured around deadlines. When someone launches a project, it's open to funding for a set number of weeks. If people don't pledge enough money to meet your funding goal during that window, the project fails. Any money pledged goes back into the pledger's pocket. Convinced that he would never meet any goal, Toth turned his Kickstarter test into his New Year's resolution: "If it failed, it would be a totally public failure. It would be a pretty good barometer that I need to stop." Toth's project didn't fail. Rather, he flew past his goal of $5,500 in a matter of weeks, and with a week left in his project, Toth inched toward $8,000. That number not only validates his career so far but also reinvigorates his commitment to it. Toth represents a sort of crowdfunding sweet spot for musicians. He's enjoyed some success, sure, but the dividends he's earned are slim compared to the decade of dues he's paid. Kickstarter seems to be the most effective when a band has previously done the groundwork—putting out a record on their own, touring, working for press—but isn't overwhelmingly popular. If you're too obscure, who will care enough to contribute? Get too famous, though, and the sense of ownership and investment that crowdfunding affords donors gets lost. Such thresholds become apparent when considering niche markets or projects based around a small but rather loyal fan base. Most any pop, country, rock or hip-hop group has the potential to sell thousands—or, really, hundreds of thousands—of records, should the right song land upon the right ears at the right time. Consider The Arcade Fire, a Canadian band who, just seven years ago, played its bombastic, hooky indie rock in the tiniest, dingiest clubs for mostly no one. Last month, though, their album The Suburbs, released by indie Durham label Merge Records, took the top honors at the Grammy Awards, upsetting superstars like Eminem and Lady Gaga. The tunes propelled the once anonymous, still independent band in the vicinity of the mainstream. Traditional, rags-to-riches success remains a possibility.
But all independent bands or labels aren't offering the sort of music that could make them famous or give them the sort of profit margin it takes to make and market a record like The Suburbs. For instance, another North Carolina label, Three Lobed Recordings, has been about as successful as any label focused on experimental music—spectral folk songs, psychedelic escapades, solo guitar meditations—could hope to be. The High Point-based imprint has released about 80 albums, and nearly all of them have sold out, meaning that some Three Lobed pieces now fetch high prices on sites like eBay or record-trading message boards. Despite those sales, though, Three Lobed owner Cory Rayborn says his operating budget never exceeds $6,000. When he started considering plans to commemorate the label's 10th anniversary, then, he knew he'd have to find an alternate source of funding. The project—four LPs featuring unreleased music by label friends Sonic Youth, Comets on Fire, Bardo Pond, Wooden Wand and four others—would cost more than $30,000. Previously, Rayborn has driven projects with such high overheads by pre-sales. That is, he puts out notice to regular customers about a special new release, gives them a price and eventually delivers a product. For a label whose stock always sells out, it's a convenient way for fans to reserve something that will inevitably be unavailable. He'd seen the success that Toth, a friend and longtime label artist, had with his own Kickstarter campaign, so he decided to try it. Rayborn gathered things to give away to donors. A donation of $5 would get you a handshake and selfsatisfaction, while $65 would buy a copy of the box set. Offer $850, and you'd get one copy of everything Three Lobed ever released. A lawyer in High Point, Rayborn set what he considered to be a pragmatic goal of $5,500. That would be enough to get the project started, anyway, and he'd fund it piecemeal until it was complete. "I finished the Kickstarter website on a Saturday night when I had some dead time at home. Those are the wee, nether hours of the Internet, when I put it up at 9 o' clock on a Saturday night," he says. "But by the time I went to bed the next night, we were just a couple hundred dollars shy of that goal—really cool, really encouraging." Within a few days, Rayborn had doubled that number. And with almost five weeks left until his project ends on Kickstarter, 139 people have combined to pledge nearly $13,000 collectively. Together, their interest funded a project that, otherwise, the label might never have afforded. "Whenever someone backs the project, you get an e-mail. And for the better part of that first week, every time I looked at my computer screen, it was, 'So-and-so is a maniac, and they have given you $350,'" Rayborn says, laughing. "Creatively, it gives you some sort of validation that the idea you had is worthwhile." Thomas Costello counts himself as a fan of Three Lobed Recordings. Most everything in Rayborn's catalog, he says, appeals to his tastes, and he praises their approach—big, heavy vinyl records in bold packaging. But he didn't contribute to the label's Kickstarter campaign, in large part, because he feels that the system of fans fronting money for projects not yet finished is a faulty one. First, if the demand for such a box set really exists, it should pay for itself, either through a business loan or the sell of old inventory. Kickstarter projects, he says, create a mirage of demand. A clerk at one of the Triangle's few remaining music stores, CD Alley, and a promotions assistant at Cat's Cradle, Costello says he's happy to buy the music when it's available for purchase, even if it was recorded with money raised via Kickstarter. But as a fan of a band or a label, he doesn't feel like it's his job to pay directly for a product up front.
"It's almost like the cool kid asking the dorks to front him some lunch money. It's like, 'C'mon, you like me. I represent something you care about, so why don't you give me a little cash so I don't have to bartend a few nights a week?'" Costello says, admitting that his analogy is reductive but accurate to an extent. "Just because the Internet makes it available, that doesn't mean you should take advantage of that fan relationship." Matthew Milia, the Frontier Ruckus frontman who helped raise money for his band's new van with crowdfunding, shares that concern, too. Frontier Ruckus worked to alleviate the groveling aspect of such campaigns with a quixotic name—"Dessie's Retirement FUNRaiser," they called it—and by using it as a chance to interact with their fans. A $40 pledge to Frontier Ruckus meant that the next time the band's new tour van rolled through your town, they would have dinner with you. "Yeah, there's that racketeering, exploitive side of it," says Milia. "But everyone sells merchandise on their website to people who want that merchandise due to their celebrity. It's just giving that merchandise an express purpose." "It's all bullshit, man. The old way is just so obviously over," says James Jackson Toth, his voice crackling through cell phone static as his trio approaches the Canadian border for a show in Vancouver. "I tell people who are in bands to just play music. Stop reading rock books. Stop reading about Springsteen and Neil Young. That's like reading Plato's Republic or about the Knights of the Round Table. It doesn't exist. It's an illusion, and it fucks with you." The old system of which Toth speaks comprises industry middlemen who plan everything for their bands— where you'll tour, when you'll tour, how you'll record, how you'll live. Those safeguards (barriers, some might call them) have fallen with the radical drop in profits during the last decade, both from the recession and from online music piracy. It leaves more bands in control of their money and career, though the money and the career might have slimmed. For instance, Caitlin Cary remembers that during her time as a solo artist with a manager and a significant label at her back, the band would stay in hotels that were too nice for an act that wasn't filling clubs every night and wasn't blazing through the Billboard charts. She knew that the ends didn't meet, but she wasn't in control of the purse strings. That's the sort of situation that, only a decade ago, Django Haskins might have encountered with his sophisticated pop band, The Old Ceremony. Hooky and handsome, they would've been perfect major-label bait before the music industry slumped. But Haskins and his band turned to Kickstarter last month to help fund their first tour through Europe this summer. They've nearly doubled their funding goal because people —and not a major label—want what they have to offer. "The monolithic structures have mostly gone away. All the Borders are closing in Chapel Hill. If you want a book, you can order online or at a specialty bookstore," Haskins says. "Now we're down to a granular level of support, and it's happening all over the place."