In 1884 the committee in charge of funding the Statue of Liberty ran out of money. Joseph Pulitzer used his newspaper. the New York World, to spread the word. More than 125,000 people heard the call and donated over $100,000. Most gave less than a dollar — a small price to pay for bragging rights every time you spied Lady Liberty lording over the New York harbor — “I built that.”
These days, if you want to make a film, record an album, mount a play, or launch any other sort of art project, you’re going to need money — a lot of money. You have some choices. One is to self-fund — drain the household budget dry and somehow scrape together thousands of dollars to fund your project. Or you can find corporate sponsorship — a business partner who sees some commercial benefit in allying with you and your work. Both of those approaches have their benefits and liabilities. But the liabilities loom large. Going broke or permanently hitching your art to a corporate logo leaves something to be desired. Fortunately, there’s a third alternative — crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding isn’t new. But it was slow to catch on. These days there are dozens of crowdfunding services available with Indiegogo, Kickstarter, and GoFundMe leading the pack. Each of these many services has its own boundaries and permutations. Some focus on the arts, others on medical expenses. But they all have one thing in common — they create an opportunity for community-building in ways that personal or corporate funding do not.
I started my 30-day Kickstarter campaign on March 18. My goal was to raise $6,000 toward the recording, production, and manufacturing of my new CD Two Pines. There were a lot of decisions to make. How much money? You don’t want to set the target too low because it costs about $10,000 to make an album. And you don’t want to set it too high, because with Kickstarter, if you don’t hit your target in the allotted time, you don’t get a dime and the whole thing goes away. We aimed low, hoping to raise at least 60% of the $10,000 we needed. We ended up with $8,833. How long of a campaign? Your first instinct is to let it go a long time, say 90 days, so that there’s ample time to hit your goal. But Kickstarter advises you to choose a 30-day campaign for one simple reason — their research shows that 30-day campaigns successfully fund at a much higher rate than longer campaigns — something about the urgency. So we went with a 30-day campaign. We were fully funded in 20 days.
Then you have to make a video. Since I don’t know anything about making videos I decided on a simple, single camera, direct appeal. I shot three versions of me just talking into the camera, making my pitch on what this project was about, what my goals were, and how you could help. Then I just laid an audio track underneath — the song “Long Way Home” from my last album.
Then I had to decide on the number and amount of reward levels. I looked at a lot of other successful Kickstarter campaigns for ideas, including those by my friends Eve Selis, Grant Langston, and Joe Rathburn. That’s when it occurred to me — crowdfunding is not charity. You’re not just passing the hat and shaking down your friends for cash so you can make your little art project a reality. Turns out it’s nothing like that at all, although that’s certainly the rap it often gets. What really happens is this — you’re giving your fans the rare opportunity to get inside an art project on the ground floor. At the lower dollar levels, $15 and $20, you’re giving them a download or a signed copy of the CD before anyone else gets to hear it. At the $30, $50, $75 and $100 levels you’re offering increasing packages of handwritten, signed and framed lyrics, signed album posters, some or all of the back catalog of Peter Bolland and the Coyote Problem CDs, and the permanent tribute of being listed in the album credits as a contributor.
Then, following the pattern I’d seen on other Kickstarter campaigns, I created a $500 and $1,000 level. At the $500 level you get all previous rewards, plus a solo house concert anywhere within a hundred miles of San Diego as well as the title of associate producer in the album credits. At the $1,000 level you get all that plus a custom song written and recorded just for you and the title of executive producer. And this is where it got amazing. Within two hours after the launch, back on March 18, someone came in at the $500 level. And it wasn’t long before someone came in at the $1,000 level too. In fact, in the final analysis, the seven backers at the $500 and $1,000 level account for 71% of the funding. Another surprise was the 12 backers at the $100 level. When you add the top three tiers together — the $1,000, the $500 and the $100 levels — you get a staggering 85% of the total funding. I did not see that coming.
The real benefit of crowdfunding, besides of course the funding, is the community that forms around your project. Before your album even hits the street there is already broad awareness, piqued interest, and committed support. By creating an opportunity to become a co-creator of a work of art, you are giving people a chance many of them don’t often get. Music is already an inherently communal art form — it exists in the space between performer and audience. It belongs as much to the audience as it does to the artist. It is a profoundly intimate art form. Noises you make with your body — your fingers, hands, mind, soul, heart, and voice — travel through the air as physical vibrations and enter the body of another — their ears, their skin, their mind, their heart. Music is the total immersion of one soul into another. crowdfunding allows you to expand, celebrate and concretize this inherent symbiosis. By binding together exactly the right people — people who vote with their time, treasure, and talent for the completion of a new body of work — the lines between artist, art patron, and art perceiver blur until you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
The experience is profound. I am humbled, enlivened, and grateful beyond words. I take the stage now a little differently than I did in the past. Now when I step on stage I stand there confident, authorized, supported, and absolutely convinced that this work has value. That is a gift my fans gave me, and I will strive to repay that debt with every song I sing. I know that even on those days when I don’t feel like singing, those nights when performance feels a little like a job and not so much like play, even then, with the first downbeat it all washes away and I’m caught again by the conviction that this matters, that the beauty of this music is not my own — it’s ours.
I feel it more strongly now than ever — the music not only belongs to all of us, the music is us. It is our heartbeat, our sorrow, our longing, our wit, our wisdom, and our aliveness. Music is a joining together. It only took 66 people to fund my album. Do you think you could get 66 people to co-create your next project? Are you humble enough to ask for help? Do you believe your work deserves wider support? Are you willing to prove it?
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as the chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics and world mythology. His new album Two Pines will be out soon. Everything you need to know is at www.peterbolland.com