Kickstarter: A New DIY Paradigm

When Fort Worth pop-rockers Green River Ordinance decided to exit their Capitol Records contract to make an album on their own terms, they turned to, a site designed to help creatives raise funds for projects. The band hoped to raise $15,000 for recording costs. They wound up collecting $41,016 – 273 percent of their goal – from 381 backers.

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Filmmaker Michael Gramaglia, co-director and co-producer of End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones, turned to Kickstarter to help fund Don’t Ask Me Questions: A Film About Graham Parker. He raised $50,005, 108 percent of his $45,000 goal – $20,000 of it from just 12 donors. Miles Zuniga, of Fastball fame, was shocked at how quickly he reached and exceeded his $20,000 goal; the Austin singer-songwriter raised $27,355 in 30 days to fund his solo debut, These Ghosts Have Bones. And L.A.-based popster Bleu landed an astonishing 495 percent of his $8,000 request, drawing $39,645 for his solo album, Four.

“It blew my mind,” said Bleu, who was recently awarded “Best Music Project” at the 2010 Kickstarter Awards. “I didn’t want to do the Kickstarter campaign at first because I was really nervous that we wouldn’t make our $8,000 goal in 45 days. We made $10,000 in the first 12 hours. We made $20,000 in the first 24 hours. It changed my whole outlook on my career.”

“I knew people were into my music and I had this sort of culty status,” says Bleu (nee William James McAuley III), whose songwriting and producing credits include stints with The Jonas Brothers, Hanson, Selena Gomez, Jill Sobule, and Alpha Rev. “But that vote of confidence was overwhelming.”

Whether they give a little or a lot, fans are coming out of the woodwork – or more accurately, the cloud – to support musicians and other creative types via Kickstarter. In return, they get a piece of the product, from finished CDs to exclusive outtakes, limited-edition T-shirts and posters, even house concerts and producer credits. Instead of maxing out credit cards, as Gramaglia did for the Ramones film, Kickstarter’s so-called “crowdsourcing” or “crowdfunding” model is providing a new paradigm for indie projects – a patronage paradigm that’s actually as old as the days of court musicians and Paris art salons.

Started in 2009 by Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler, the New York-based operation has already raised more than $20 million for projects and expects to hit the $50 million mark this year. Kickstarter takes 5 percent of successfully funded projects, and payment processor charges another 3 to 5 percent. Pledges are collected only if a project reaches its funding goal. The model is similar to public radio or television pledge drives; premiums grow with the size of the pledge. Artists seeking funds create video pitches, list their pledge levels, then alert potential donors via e-mail lists, Facebook and Twitter pages, at performances and via old-fashioned networking; Nick Lowe, who’s in the Parker film, helped spread the word, as did Dave Robinson, co-founder of Parker’s old label, Stiff Records.

“In a way, it’s just your fans saying ‘Yeah, I like you as an artist and I’ll pay for your record in advance. And I trust that you’re gonna do good work,’” says Zuniga. “It’s kind of like a commission.”

Adds Green River Ordinance lead singer Josh Jenkins: “You allow the fans, the people who have supported you, to buy into what you’re doing more than just buying your record.” By offering creative premiums that provide unique opportunities, such as co-writing a song or singing on the record, Jenkins says, they’re giving fans a sense of belonging that helps bridge the gap between fan and artist (or, as GRO likes to call it, “fartist”) and ensures a long-term career. Artists such as Sara Hickman have used the incentive model on their own, but Kickstarter provides a system and instant audience.

Not every pitch is successful. Those that are make compelling cases via humor, humanitarian appeal or product strength (in the case of inventions). Bleu’s clever video didn’t cost a dime, but it’s expertly conceived and edited. He followed a scriptwriter friend’s five-step recommendation: “Remind people why they like you, tell them your story briefly, ask them for money, tell ‘em what they’re gonna get, and then say thank you.”

You want to convey need, but not desperation, says Jenkins. And Zuniga reminds you can’t sit back and wait for the money to roll in; you have to be willing to hustle. But Bleu sees Kickstarter’s potential to have the kind of impact Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want move had for In Rainbows. If a major act leaves a label, goes on Kickstarter and raises millions, labels will “realize that a lot of what they do is not helpful to the artist,” he says. “Then the power structure is gonna change.”


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