A kick-start was all it needed

The music flows when bands short on cash use online pledge systems to get donors

Staff writerMarch 13, 2011 

  • Since it began in April 2009, Kickstarter has become one of the most visible brands in "crowdsource fundraising" or grassroots finance.

    15,000+

    Projects that have used Kickstarter to raise money for documentaries to church mission trips and more.

    400,000+

    People who have pledged to Kickstarter projects

    $35 million+

    Amount pledged to Kickstarter projects.

    Some unusual projects have gone through Kickstarter, including a campaign to fund a "Robocop" statue in Detroit (more than $64,000 raised).

    While Kickstarter is the giant of this particular world, it's not the only place to raise money. There's Sellaband.com, which lets musicians post sound clips to "pre-sell" their music before recording it; Threadless.com, a clearinghouse of T-shirt design ideas in which people vote and the winning shirts get printed up and sold; and Kiva.org, which makes small-business loans to women in Third World countries.

Back in the 1990s, Chapel Hill's Jennyanykind recorded for Elektra Records - part of Warner Music Group, one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates on Earth.

Elektra's roster was crowded with million-sellers from Metallica to Jackson Browne, who commanded most of the label's money and attention. But even the comparative pittance Elektra spent on Jenny anykind was a lot by today's standards.

Nowadays, ever-fewer record companies are able - or willing - to pony up money for projects. Jennyanykind made just one album on Elektra before returning to the independent ranks, followed by a long hiatus when band members pursued solo careers. After reuniting, Jennyanykind decided to cut out the middleman to finance its first recording in a decade, a split 7-inch vinyl single with the Moaners. So the band turned directly to fans, soliciting money via Kickstarter ( kickstarter.com).

Kickstarter is an online system that allows artists, nonprofits and anyone else to solicit pledges. They set a fund-raising goal and a deadline, but only get the money pledged if the goal is reached. Kickstarter takes a percentage of the amount raised as payment.

To entice pledges, artists customarily set rewards for different pledge levels. For the Jennyanykind/Moaners project, $25 got donors an autographed record while $500 earned a house concert by both bands.

One fan did pledge $500, while 46 more made smaller donations for a total of $2,205. Well above the $2,000 goal, that covered recording and pressing costs with money left over for mailing out copies of the record to the reward-winners. The two bands will play a single-release show May 6 at Durham's Motorco Music Hall, as well as a house concert this summer in South Carolina for that $500 donor.

Strangers give and give

"I was skeptical, but it's worked out really well," said Jennyanykind co-leader Mark Holland. "We got a lot of pledges right away, over half of it, and then it dried up for a while. But it picked up, and we made it easily. ... It was mostly people we didn't know, and a few friends making large contributions."

Crowd-funding is a natural for music, because hitting up one's audience to pay for recording projects has gained popularity in recent years. Jill Sobule, Lloyd Cole and other former major-label acts have raised significant amounts of money from fans.

"Targeted efforts to use online communities to do things like this go back to about 2000, so it's reached a pretty mature age" said Daren Brabham, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor and crowd-sourcing consultant. "Things like this are intriguing because they allow creative products to get off the ground that normally wouldn't. Kickstarter has also been used for documentaries, paintings, photo exhibits. It's a game-changer. You'll see more and more of this."

One of the early users of Kickstarter is Geoff Edgers. A former News & Observer arts reporter who writes for The Boston Globe, Edgers made a documentary film, "Do It Again," about his efforts to reunite the band The Kinks.

"Do It Again" has been playing the festival circuit to good reviews, and Edgers is trying to sell it to a distributor. Since the summer of 2009, Edgers and his director/partner Robert Patton-Spruill have done three Kickstarter campaigns, raising $14,595 to pay for everything from editing to promotional buttons.

"When I started with Kickstarter, there weren't many people using it," Edgers said. "They treated you special back then. One of the founders even came to a critique session we did with the film. But it's so enormous now, everybody is using it - including people you'd think wouldn't have to. Like Allison Anders, the director. She's using it to finance a low-budget film."

Edgers pronounces himself "shocked" at the generosity of perfect strangers, some of whom made major contributions. One Kickstarter donor gave enough for Edgers to bring "Do It Again" to his home in Los Angeles for a private showing - which turned into a hootenanny when everybody pulled out guitars for a post-show jam.

"It was totally different from what you'd get by seeking out some Mr. Moneybags from an investment firm," Edgers said.

Different from investors

Sometimes the Kickstarter process takes some explanation. Local blues singer Jon Shain is using Kickstarter to pay for two albums he's recording this year. After his e-mail solicitation, one friend wrote back to ask, "How do I recoup my investment?"

"I had to tell him, 'You don't,'" Shain said with a chuckle. "You're patronizing the arts, basically. If you want to make an investment, go somewhere other than the music business. I was talking to another friend who is much more Web-savvy than me and he told me, 'If you're gonna do this, you'd better get going because in another six months nobody will want to be doing any more Kickstarter projects.' His feeling is that it's on the cusp of becoming too popular."

New to Kickstarter

For now, however, the Kickstarter rush is still picking up steam. Another local act, The Old Ceremony, used it to fund an upcoming European tour. The group asked for $4,999, and fans came through with more than double that - $10,336. That will keep The Old Ceremony busy doling out pledge rewards, including house concerts and custom-written songs.

"But that's good because I'm always looking for excuses to get myself writing more," frontman Django Haskins said. "For us, it's kind of symbolic of the way the industry has changed. Those big monolithic institutions where you'd knock on the gold door and hope they usher in the career you want, those don't exist anymore. This is such an amazing way to go in the other direction, from the ground up.

"And as it turns out," he said, "people have been really generous. It kind of reaffirms the community that exists around music."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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