The Internet provides an ocean of resources for independent artists; however, the market saturation of do-it-yourself (DIY) musicians makes it quite difficult for even the most talented acts to rise to the top. Other than musical ability, many other factors can contribute to or deter from an artist’s success. Luck (or fate, depending how you look at it), work ethic, and money are just as important, if not more important than the quality of the music itself.
My peers in San Diego music community, talented as they are, recognize this. They are using every possible technological resource available to them to propel their careers. Some are learning how to produce their music effectively via in-home studios, some are using their Internet savvy to transform themselves into full-fledged event promoters and booking agents, and most are taking advantage of social media platforms to connect with fans and raise funds for upcoming projects.
On the plus side, the DIY musician has the benefit of manifesting their own destiny without answering to or butting heads with labels or management. But without that corporate support structure, the musician becomes responsible for ponying up the funds to sustain their art. For this endeavor, technology is once again the DIY artist’s lifeline.
Enter Kickstarter. Perhaps the most popular online fundraising platform, this third party company allows the DIY musician (or visual artist, or filmmaker) to set and attain financial goals to fund specific projects such as touring or recording a new album.
What it is/How it works
Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects. Everything from films, games, and music to art, design, and technology. Kickstarter is full of ambitious, innovative, and imaginative projects that are brought to life through the direct support of others.
Since our launch on April 28, 2009, over $450 million has been pledged by more than three million people, funding more than 35,000 creative projects. Every project creator sets their project’s funding goal and deadline. If people like the project, they can pledge money to make it happen. If the project succeeds in reaching its funding goal, all backers’ credit cards are charged when time expires. If the project falls short, no one is charged. Funding on Kickstarter is all-or-nothing.
— from Kickstarter.com
Who uses Kickstarter?
While Kickstarter is not just for music, I chose to interview select local musicians who were successful in their fundraising efforts for the purposes of this article:
1. Josh Damigo: $13,000 raised over two campaigns
2. Sister Speak (primary members Sherri Anne and Lisa Viegas collaborated on their interview responses): $8,000 raised over one campaign
3. Jeffrey Joe Morin: $5,000 raised over one campaign
The up side
First and foremost, Kickstarter is user-friendly. It’s easy for the artist to set up a profile and plug in all the necessary information for their project. “The staff gives you all the tools you need to succeed, including quirky instructional videos to help the funder reach his or her full potential,” says Damigo. While every artist’s project is unique in information, the look and feel of each campaign’s web page is identical, which helps create ease and familiarity for potential contributors. “The page layout is simple,” says Sister Speak, “and the transaction process fairly straight forward, and the site itself has become well-recognized.” All of this, along with functional social media integration allow for a fluid online conversation between the musician and fan.
Kickstarter also acts as a virtual backstage pass, connecting the current and potential fans to the artist in a special way. A tiered rewards system allows fans to receive personalized gifts from the artist in exchange for their donations. With bigger donations come rewards that are more valuable and/or more personalized. Some examples of creative rewards include car washes and custom songs (Damigo), iron-on patches and house concerts (Morin), and yoga or cajon instruction (Sister Speak). Sister Speak even offered a “Sister So Smooth” option, where band members agreed to shave their heads in exchange for a $10,000 donation. They recall, “It was supposed to be a joke as it’s the highest increment offered by Kickstarter, so thank goodness that option wasn’t backed!”
Giving fans an opportunity to be a part of the project is a mutually beneficial concept that is worth much more than a specific dollar amount. When asked if he would use Kickstarter to fund a future musical project, Damigo answered, “Yes. Because fans want to be a part of my musical journey, and this gives them that chance.” Sister Speak echoed this sentiment: “It’s a creative way to fundraise for an album and a great way for fans to be part of the journey toward making a debut album.”
In addition to developing closer relationships among artists and their fans, a successful Kickstarter campaign can also act as a much-needed confidence boost for the ever-vulnerable artist. Morin explains, “It’s given me a faith and trust in myself and my music that’s changed everything.”
The down side
Failure, plain and simple. Kickstarter artists who do not reach their fundraising goals do not see one cent of their fan’s donations. Kickstarter’s explanation is matter-of-fact:
All-or-nothing funding is a core part of Kickstarter and it has a number of advantages:
It’s less risk for everyone. If you need $5,000, it’s tough having $1,000 and a bunch of people expecting you to complete a $5,000 project.
It motivates. If people want to see a project come to life, they’re going to spread the word.Â Â
It works. Of the projects that have reached 20% of their funding goal, 82% were successfully funded. Of the projects that have reached 60% of their funding goal, 98% were successfully funded. Projects either make their goal or find little support. There’s little in-between.
To date, an incredible 44% of projects have reached their funding goals. — from www.Kickstarter.com
Given the pressure of the all-or-nothing model, the decision to launch a Kickstarter campaign is a trial in itself. “Asking for help is a thing for me,” states Morin. Damigo adds, “It took a little bit of defeating my pride to admit I needed help raising funds. Thoughts like, ‘The Beatles didn’t use Kickstarter,’ and ‘People won’t be as impressed with you if you ask for help.’”
After mustering up enough courage to start a campaign, next comes an emotional rollercoaster lasting anywhere from 1-60 days, depending on the project timeline. Damigo lists self-doubt as paramount among these emotions: “Worrying whether or not [the projects] were going to be funded; was I promoting too much? Not enough? A lot of it was internal: the waiting to see if it would really happen was the hardest part.”
On the inside, Kickstarter artists encounter a mental circus of ego-swallowing and insecurity-taming. On the outside, they must exude a calm confidence in order to execute their promotional strategies and secure donations within the allotted timeframe. Sister Speak elaborates: “[Kickstarter is] difficult to explain in a Facebook status, also without our fans getting overwhelmed with our daily posts with constant reminders that there’s an all or nothing deadline. The more we posted, the more we learned how to clearly and effectively communicate how it works.”
If (a big, scary if) and when a fundraising goal is met, Kickstarter artists hardly have time to celebrate before making good on their “thank-you” gifts to contributors. This is what I call the Kickstarter hangover. While funded artists are honored and grateful to have completed a successful campaign, carrying out the rewards portion of the project can be challenging. Damigo explains a couple regrets: “I would have charged more for videos/covers. I don’t enjoy them, and people were very particular about them. I would also be sure to define the prizes better. For example, I had a singer/songwriter from another city who tried using my prize of doing covers as a publicity stunt for his band… kinda not fair.” Morin’s post-campaign experience coincided with several personal setbacks, making for difficult follow-through. He affirms, “I’m still trickling out mailings to my patient and wonderful donors.”
Finally, artists must also factor in a 5% fee that Kickstarter skims off the top of any completed campaign. This seems reasonable considering the company’s name-recognition, user-friendly site, and success rate. Credit card transaction fees are expensive, and most online processing companies have standardized the concept of sharing or passing these fees along to their clients.
Should I use Kickstarter?
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable, artistically speaking, is almost always a good plan. The worst thing that can happen is nothing, which is scary indeed, but at least a failed Kickstarter campaign requires little to no financial investment on your end. Here are a few other miscellaneous items to consider before making the leap:
Be Thorough in your Research: Plenty of sites like Kickstarter are available for your fundraising needs, such as RocketHub, GoFundMe, Feed the Muse, Indiegogo, GoGetFunding, Razoo, Quirky, and many more. Each feature subtle differences when compared to Kickstarter, such as an absence of the all-or-nothing model, more flexible project deadlines, etc. While the name recognition of Kickstarter works mostly in the company’s favor, popularity has a way of shooting itself in the foot over time. There may come a time when your fans are sick of hearing the word Kickstarter. It’s best to investigate the many options available to you and make a selection based on what works for your individual goals and objectives.
Be Prepared to Work: Fundraising at any level requires tenacity, ambition, and resilience. Sister Speak’s Kickstarter campaign “was wonderfully successful due to the amazing support of our fans, and at the same time, Kickstarter kicked our asses. Pretty much every spare moment we had in those 30 days went into the campaign. It was treated like a full time job and took every ounce of energy to make it happen!”
Be Realistic: Sometimes booking agents will post draw requirements on their venue’s websites in order for musicians to avoid barking up the wrong tree. If a promoter expects touring acts to draw 200 people on a week night, and your band can only draw 20, it is unrealistic to assume they will book you, regardless of how amazing your band is. This is a useful lesson to apply when deciding how to go about fundraising. Part of being a great DIY musician means understanding where your time and energy is best spent. If you have a strong feeling your fanbase will support your fundraising goal, go for it and see what happens! If your gut tells you otherwise, perhaps it might be best to take a step back and reevaluate strategies for building a dedicated fanbase. Speaking of fans, remember you are in it together with them. If you decide to move forward with Kickstarter, give careful thought to the dollar amount you establish as your fundraising goal. It might be best to reduce the budget for a 15K project down to 10K if you think that is a more realistic number for your fans to attain.
Be Creative: Marketing and promotion thrives on innovation. If you do select Kickstarter (or something similar), make sure your pitch accurately and uniquely represents your project. Keep your fans in mind when creating your rewards system. What do they like about your music (or you) specifically that can be re-packaged into personalized gift ideas?
Be Genuinely Grateful: No matter what path you decide or what the outcome is, give yourself credit. It’s not easy to be a manager, booking agent, promoter, musician, and accountant all at once. Be genuinely grateful for your gift of expression and your ambition to connect to others through your art. Be genuinely grateful for the people who support you in any way they can, financially or otherwise. Be genuinely grateful for the ability to briefly witness and contribute to an ever-changing world. Regardless of any funds raised, gratitude is the sure-fire way to live as richly as possible.
Note from the Author
As my 30th birthday creeps up on me, I’m beginning to feel more and more like an ancient artifact. My elders (and youngers?) will both likely scoff at this remark, but the shift I have experienced in the last few months is very real, especially when it comes to music. I swear I get a new wrinkle every time I am met with the blank stares of my younger co-workers after referencing any music/pop culture icon pre-dating 1990. Even though I mostly joke about the anguish of aging, I feel a little pang of sadness to think how my generation will probably be the last to understand the thrill of rushing to the record store, tightly clenching two weeks’ allowance in hopes of purchasing a favorite band’s new release before it sold out. However, I have to say I am proud of my generation’s unique respect for vinyl records, cassette tapes, compact discs, and digital players (even if some of that respect is admittedly shrouded in hipster-nostalgia sold at urban outfitters).
I’m interested to see when the scale will finally tip all the way over in favor of digital distribution, especially in terms of independent artists who rely on merchandise sales. It doesn’t seem long now before CDs are completely removed from the lineup. While I will always mourn the loss of the album sold as a body of work, there is something semi-appealing about living in an all-digital music world, financially speaking. CD duplication costs make most independent artists’ heads spin. Most of us take the price-break bait and end up with at least one full box of unopened CDs that we creatively use as part of our living room furniture decor. (Case in point: the two boxes stacked sideways and covered with pretty fabric right next to my couch. Voila! A side table that holds the reading lamp!) Increasingly, we’re starting to see more artists opting for digital download cards and music-filled jump drives. Local legend Steve Poltz even offers a USB bracelet filled with live recordings of each show after every one of his performances. Creative digital transitions like these help artists cut merchandise production costs while still earning money to support their musical journey.
— Lindsay White
For more information on the artists interviewed:
Josh Damigo (http://www.joshdamigo.com)
Sister Speak (www.sisterspeakmusic.com)
Jeffrey Joe (jeffreyjoe.homestead.com/ index.html)
For more information on the writer:
Lindsay White (http://www.lindsaywhitemusic.com)