Getting a Kickstart

I recently had the opportunity to experience firsthand the wonders of crowd funding in the arts. At the moment, I’m working on a non-opera (it might be a chamber cantata—I’ll deal with that issue in a later column) for the group Rhymes With Opera for their June 2011 tour. This organization is one of my favorite music presenters, based on their history of producing excellent musical experiences on a very limited budget and performing them in a way that’s welcoming to non-traditional audiences. They tend to draw nice crowds of people who would claim they’ve never been to a classical concert but who are comfortable going to a basement or warehouse to hear experimental sounds.

Ruby Fulton and George Lam, the organizers of Rhymes With Opera, created a Kickstarter project for this tour. Founded in 2009, Kickstarter provides a platform that allows creative projects to easily solicit funding. The typical proposal asks for a few hundred or few thousand dollars, and tends to be the sort of project that previously would find creators maxing out their credit cards based on their belief in the importance of their vision and in hopes of regaining their initial investment through sales of the finished product. Now, anyone who likes an idea can provide an ante towards the fulfillment of the creators’ goals and artists can find a community to support their nascent germs. The brilliance of Kickstarter is that supporters, with just a couple of mouse clicks, feel that they are making an immediate difference. In increments of $5 or $10, these projects are able to amass groups of likeminded folks and eventually fund the creation of new art. Ideally, the supporters then feel that they have an ownership stake in the finished product and provide an audience for the completed works.

While the funding window for Rhymes With Opera’s project has closed, readers of this column likely know several people currently seeking funding through a crowd funding site like Kickstarter or Pledgemusic. For most of these projects, a very small donation can make the difference between completion and failure. When enough people take an active role, these micro-donations eventually amount to ample funds for the realization of the proposals.

In our current economic climate, large donations for the arts are becoming an endangered species. With obvious exceptions (and I would like to congratulate ICE on this exciting development!), new music presenters simply cannot access major funding sources. Therefore, I am heartened to learn of the relatively new and surprisingly powerful tools for matching visionaries with sympathetic audiences. I hope that this new paradigm allows for the creation of art works that otherwise would have never reached fruition. And to those of you utilizing these and other tools in order to bring art into being, I thank you for your efforts and look forward to enjoying as much of what you create as I possibly can.

14 thoughts on “Getting a Kickstart

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I tried this and through a lot of effort got to 75% of my goal in 60 days.

    A few things I noticed: It’s not very friendly toward classical/nonpop in general (as they judge each request before allowing it to go ahead). The Kickstarter audience is much younger than I am. Most of my contributions were in fact in the $100-$500 range from older folks I already knew, and only a handful of small ones. Only about a dozen contributions were from people I didn’t already know. I sent out nearly 5,000 emails to generate about 100 contributors — the same 2% as mass mailings. And I also noticed that some more famous folks/ensembles are now using the models, crowding out individuals who actually need the funding more — who aren’t going to get any of those few grants that are left.

    What it’s come down to, I think, is that this funding source is going to be exhausted quickly — especially as Big Names add these mass-contribution techniques to their pocketbooks.

    Dennis
    My still unfunded opera that premiere in 10 months

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    After looking at these sites I must agree with Dennis. They just don’t seem inclusive of the kind of music I compose. This post raises a larger point. It is obvious that gatekeepers are driving this bus not the composers.

    That’s wrong.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s gate keeper page

    Reply
  3. wjmego

    Kickstarter
    From the first month that it came out, Kickstarter has received complaints about lack of attention to various projects, and at the end of the day, the following is mostly agreed upon: Kickstarter is NOT a replacement for effective publicity and marketing. Kickstarter isn’t a place where a project will get random people looking and funding it, although it sounds like you did pick up several people doing exactly that…kudos to you for that! It just makes it easier and flashier and more comfortable for the leads YOU generate to give you money. It’s a great site, and I’m not at all saying you did this, since you did use a 5k email list (nice list, btw) but rather directing this at hopefully few lazy people who think Kickstarter will somehow create interwebz magic…it doesn’t. You will have to work hard for what you get, sorry. It’s a great site, but it’s not magical.

    Reply
  4. smooke

    well, it’s a start
    @Dennis- 75% of $12,000 seems very impressive to me. I know that it doesn’t help because you only get the funding if the project makes budget, but still, it’s impressive. But it appears that generally crowd funding works better for smaller projects where small donations can add up more quickly.

    And, yes, like all mainstream sites, Kickstarter focuses their publicity on projects with wider appeal, but there are exceptions. Last week, their featured project was Dana Jessen’s and Michael Strauss’s robot project. But I also agree with wjmego what the main appeal of Kickstarter is the ease of donations and that the creators must generate the publicity themselves.

    Happy new year to all and thanks for commenting.
    -David

    Reply
  5. ewhirsh

    In my own experience using the platform, and in talking to other artists, that Kickstarter vets projects is not about the tastes of its employees, but rather their assessment of your level of aspiration, your ability to use the platform well for a project that somehow serves more than the artists themselves.

    I’m a little surprised at the minor amount of backlash against Kickstarter in the comments, as it is just a DIY-extension of a site that has enabled the careers of many non-pop composers, Artist Share.

    The music marketing blog Hypebot, and its related Music Think Tank, have been a good place to follow the discussion on the potential uses of fan funding (irrespective of which website platform is used). Here is one article suggesting a method, here is another against the entire idea, and yet another which proposes a better model.

    Finally, as for non-pop projects being successful on Kickstarter, congratulations are in order to Search and Restore, a brand new New York-based organization which seeks to bring new audiences to the neglected forefront of jazz music, both those artists taking a compositional approach, and those focusing on open improvisation. They recently met their $75,000 campaign goal.

    Reply
  6. ewhirsh

    I will also point out that the fan-funding ecosphere has many participants, including IndieGoGo which lets the artist keep whatever portion of funds they raise, whether or not they meet their goal.

    While technically not fan funding, Fractured Atlas offers a great set of services to artists.

    Reply
  7. philmusic

    In truth contributors are always fans. Besides, their are many organizations out there who will act as “fiscal agents” to help raise funds for artists. Some use paypal. That the above web sites don’t seem geared to my music is obvious but so what? For me it would be about the cost/convenience. Not the “coolness.”

    As to my comments about “gatekeepers” this was not about the fan funding sites but rather about the difference between their use by, say, a individual composer, or by an institution. Even for myself Phil Fried is one thing and operabob is another. That said its hard not to notice that these sites seem to follow the mainstream to the letter.
    Phil Fried

    Phil’s page

    Reply
  8. Dfelsen@mac.com

    I write this awash in the moment of just having found out that my modest, frill-free project of writing a piece of chamber music has been fully funded through the miracle of Kickstarter, with days to go no less.

    This of course, took some doing: the commissioner, the astounding Meerenai Shim, worked tirelessly, posting and reposting appeals, as did I. We’ve raised our $5,000, and did it at least not by tapping only people we knew. Many unknown to either of us (or only known to us through, say, twitter, including one David Smooke, author of the above excellent article) contributed. Small amounts (our largest single donor gave $250) but now everyone who helped is in on the action.

    To those who think there is a “type” of Kickstarter project, there simply isn’t.

    Like I said, it is not just a matter of putting your project up there and hoping. One does need to work at it–both Meerenai and I are somewhat exhausted from our efforts (and this before I write or she performs the piece) but flush with what seems like a good precedent for composers. Obviously you need to be a willing participant, as does your commissioner, but I wonder why one would not be? Meerenai offered copies of her book, I my own (yet-to-be-designed but don’t touch that dial) spiffy Felsenfeld T-shirts (who among us doesn’t want one?), as well as copies of the score, free downloads of the mp3 of the piece once it is recorded, and other goodies. In other words, people GOT something in return–at the very least, they exited with a sense of supporting something.

    I’m sure this route isn’t for everyone, but honestly, it beats cobbling together music and sending it off to distant committees only to await the results. Or doing “the ask” with a wealthy patron. Same exact process, just a broader spectrum of involved souls each with a low financial impact.

    I do wonder how often one can wage such a campaign (Every year? Three? Ten?) but I learned a lesson from this process: in this world that vastly undervalues what we composers do, it isn’t always possible to learn even from our immediately previous generation how to get paid–we truly have to make our own way.

    Reply
  9. philmusic

    “..fully funded through the miracle of Kickstarter..”

    I have complained about the veracity of the internet before. The word “miracle” in this context would imply that you had nothing as a composer. Oh, except your Rolodex, sorry, your fellow twitterers.

    Your claim that your fiscal agent was the source of your success is misleading.

    Phil’s fully funded site

    Reply
  10. smooke

    congratulations!
    @Danny:

    Congratulations on meeting your Kickstarter goal and on getting your commission funded. I’m glad that my extremely small contribution was helpful.

    I agree with your assessment. When I first saw (via Twitter) that the project existed, I didn’t act, mainly because I wanted to see that it had your imprimatur. And then it’s easy for me to forget about the projects that I find of interest, so the consistent reminders from you and the sponsoring flutist were very helpful. Finally, it appeared that people got excited as you neared your deadline and your goal and that this combination helped to spur significant action.

    I’d love to get your thoughts as to how often one could engage in this type of activity. My sense is that it gets less effective the more often utilized, and so I’d guess that once every couple of years would be about right.

    Congratulations again!
    -David

    Reply
  11. philmusic

    It makes sense for a composer in NY commissioned by a California performing group to use the net for fund raising, yet isn’t it Twitter that seems the likely hero here? Faster than snail mail less intrusive then a mass e-mails? More italicized than a facebook event? Also a twitter friend group is by choice isn’t it?

    You have to get the word out before you can collect the cash.

    Phil

    Phil who must learn to twitter more page

    Dfelsen: I apologize If I did not get the irony of your post. So many times irony isn’t irony at all, and I have never read a post from you before to compare. Worse still many posters here continue to pretend that their private party is open to all. Again my apologies as well.

    Reply
  12. smooke

    more on Kickstarter
    It appears that I’m not the only one to take notice of Kickstarter and Daniel Felsenfeld’s project. Now the Felsenfeld commission has also been featured in the New York Times. Congratulations!

    Reply

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