Angry Metal Lisa was crowdsourcedI’m a big fan of Kickstarter. I think that the idea of Kickstarter is truly fantastic; crowd-sourcing capital to avoid the big money parties that have traditionally exploited creators in the name of profit. Particularly in the era of increasingly bad things happening to record labels (and being perpetrated by them), due to their inability to keep pace, it brings a bit of democracy to a lot of industries that just don’t have a lot of democracy; namely the music industry or the video games industry. I, personally, have backed 13 projects now, and all of those (which have finished) have been successfully funded. I also backed Wildernessking’s non-Kickstarter project to fund a vinyl project, because I thought it was cool. When The Project Hate was in need of cash, I ponied up—not because I’m a huge fan of the band, I’d never actually heard them at the time—but because I wanted to support someone who just was dead set on turning their project into a reality. But let me tell you something: I don’t believe that Kickstarter is the future of the industry. At least I hope it’s not. Because while a thing like Kickstarter has the potential to support some bands, it also has the potential of being an impossible climb for others.

Let’s look at a list of Kickstarter successes. First, I’m not aware of any metal bands that have been successful on Kickstarter (and technically, Wildernessking would not have been successful on Kickstarter because they never did make their whole goal), but I assume some must have been [Obscura was – AMG]. But the projects I am aware of that have been successful on Kickstarter are The Order of the Stick, Shadowrun Returns, Wasteland 2, Amanda Palmer, The Banner Saga and a number of others who have the same kind of pedigree that they do. What you’re seeing from the projects is that already established artists and developers show up, and they pull in tons of support—overwhelming their goals by as much as 900%. Ex-Stratovarius guitarist Timo Tolkki has taken 27 days to get to 98% of 50,000 dollars, for example, and he still has 33 days to go. But if you start digging a little bit what you see is that there are tons of really great project ideas that gain no traction. This is not because they aren’t necessarily good (I am particularly interested in this independent video game Uktena which has gained very little funding, though given its niche value it’s maybe not the world’s best example)—instead this is because they are no one. And this is the key. An influx of capital is necessary for the production of material, but also the promotion of that material. Traditionally, record labels have done this. And while record labels are certainly not the ideal way of funding this business given their business models, what a record label does is take bands that could never have raised that money and elevate them—at cost, of course, to the band.

Kickstarter does not elevate bands that are unheard of. There can be plenty of reasons—particularly in a society where local music scenes are suffering dramatically because of the readily available massive amounts of media on the Internet—why great local bands don’t get heard by anyone. This means having to get those bands other types of exposure. But the problem is that breaking into that market requires a lot of luck, but it also requires a lot of personal capital investment or someone taking a chance on you. That chance taken, the label can use their contacts and networks to advertise the band’s music, to get the band media attention and to do all of the things that these institutions are built for and that independent musicians are not built for.

So there are two things that I come away with from this. First, independent musicians do not have the networks to break out of their structural position. In this sense, we can think about what Amanda Palmer can raise (what, 588k as of the 8th of May at 17:12 Central European Time) versus what an independent artist can raise. Doing it independently means you raise a good chunk of money to fund a professional product but you have no money leftover for any of the expenses that turn you from a local artist with a CD no one is buying, into an act that is touring nationally and selling merch. AFP (that’s Amanda Fucking Palmer) was on Roadrunner, had a successful band that opened for Nine Inch Nails, has toured alone without equipment and often sleeps on peoples’ floors. She does not do what a metal band needs to be able to do in order to succeed on the road. But all of that money still needs to come from somewhere: and for a small band with no success under its belt, but a lot of talent, labels fill that void.

Second, whenever anyone says “Oh, but the talent will rise to the top,” (which is what Internet philosophers love to say secure in their faulty assumption that everyone starts out with exactly the same opportunity), it’s easy to call bullshit. I’m sure every single reader of this blog knows of a band that was really good that never went anywhere and couldn’t get attention. I’m sure if you were to dig through the Kickstarter pages you would find tons of great ideas that will never get the attention of the masses so that no one will know ever existed because they were not known by anybody and so they were never given the kind of exposure that would be necessary. And then, even if independent artists are successful at funding a project, they cannot fulfill all of the same functions that a label can, because like in all power situations, power is situated in already existing capital and structures. In essence, what’s happening when an Amanda Palmer or Obscura or Radiohead or Timo Tolkki has success with this kind of “business model,” is that the capital investments of labels are paying off.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for Kickstarter—that should be obvious—but I am highly suspicious that this is going to be the way for new bands to really “make it” in the modern context. For someone who has already established herself and has a big following, I think Kickstarter is ultimately way smarter than signing a new record deal. The economic incentives make perfect sense to me in that specific situation. But in this case, there isn’t a slope to climb to get there so much as a cliff that needs to be scaled in order to stand on that plateau. Labels invest money in climbing gear for bands. Sometimes that gear is faulty and sometimes these dudes just can’t climb, but the labels do their best to make sure that their investments pay off. And while that’s not perfect (really, really, really not perfect), it is definitely better than a situation where “the crowd” only funds what they’ve heard of  already or the extremely lucky band or project that gets name dropped by a successful artist.

  • Fisting_Andrew_Golota

    Well put, man. A lot of well-known musicians are talking about how Kickstarter is the future (for them anyways), but ironically they’re only able to raise money on there because of the foundation their record labels laid for them early on. Local/unsigned bands will not have that advantage. 

  • Anyone who thinks that Kickstarter is *the* way for bands to make it these days is as much an idiot as anyone who still thinks labels are *the* way, or who thinks any other way of getting started is *the* way. What’s exciting now is that we’re no longer constrained to a singular, monopolistic “way”. There’s new ways, and there’s only going to be more ways.

    Is there always going to be an incredible amount of luck involved in getting noticed? Almost certainly. Are the vast majority of bands, however good, ever going to go anywhere? Of course not. Are the odds of, say, at least breaking even a bit better now? I think so. But, and I think this is the really important point, the balance of power is swinging towards the artists and the listeners, rather than the middlemen, giving them more options and more freedom. And that is a good thing.

    • Fine, but I think that saying it’s the way for any independent artist who is not *very* well established on an international level is a mistake. I don’t think it can fill the funding needs of the independent artist. 

      •  I don’t think that’s necessarily true – you’re obviously not going to raise bucketloads of money if you’re not pretty well-known, but that doesn’t mean it can’t contribute a useful amount of money to smaller artists they wouldn’t otherwise have stood much chance of getting. They’re just not going to be able to permanently ditch the day jobs just yet.

        Of course, it’s never going to make you famous in itself like a label’s marketing might might, but there’s ways of getting noticed on the internet too, they’re just probably not going to make you much money themselves. Mix the two (and talent and luck, as ever) and there you go, theoretically.

        (A glance at the most-funded Kickstarter music projects, for example, shows a solo project by the girl from Pomplamoose at #4 with over $100k raised, and they got famous on YouTube and have never been signed to a traditional label.)

  • Ton of thoughts here. I’ve been thinking a lot about what kickstarter is, what it isn’t, and what it will do to games and music. Overall, I really like Kickstarter. But I also kinda hate it. 

    First, I think it’s wrong to think of kickstarter as ‘funding’ and totally wrong to think of it as investing in something. Kickstarter backers are pre-ordering a product. They give you 10 bucks, you send them the product when (if) it’s finished. This isn’t without risk to the purchaser. There is no recourse for a backer if the project tanks or the project runners turn out to have no idea what they are doing. It’s only a matter of time before one of these high profile ones blows up and causes a shitstorm (my money is on wasteland 2). 

    Kickstarter will not elevate the total unknowns are the newbie local band. And it shouldn’t. People should only back projects where there is a demonstrated track record of success. Turns out making a record is fucking hard, there will be schedule over runs, budget over runs, etc. Forking over your money to someone who can’t manage that makes no sense and will pollute the whole ecosystem if it happens enough.

    For a local band that has established themselves a bit, maybe released something in the past, I think that is potentially worthwhile. 

    Oh, and the whole idea of labels investing and providing struts for new bands appears to be going away. The trend is towards indie labels charging bands up front for everything. The band basically buys the labels promotion machine. 

    I’ll stop there.

    • My point is that I doubt it will elevate the mid-level band who one would hope would be getting larger national play. I don’t expect a new band to be going from nobody to Amanda Palmer in no time—that’s the reason that labels “develop” artists. The point is that the development process is a capital investment process. So in essence what’s happening in these situations is that capital was invested, the artists developed, then that “capital investment” started making money for itself and not for the people who invested the capital. The capital investment period, however, is necessary for success, due to the intense amounts of promotional work that labels do. And where would a band like Opeth be without the initial investments of a label that probably made very little money off of them? Would they ever have succeeded in a Kickstarter world? I doubt it. 

      Labels should be investing and developing, but I understand why in this situation they are no longer doing that. Their profit margins aren’t the same and losing out on a cash cow like Amanda Palmer or Radiohead must really chap their asses nice and good. 

      I think the big point is simply that Kickstarter works for a specific group: the already established artist. It will help smaller acts do minor things along the way, but I’m not convinced that it is a path to success in the long term. 

  • Well, it is extremely difficult to envision how Kickstarter, especifically, will impact any entertainment business model that is basically well established by now. Publishers/gatekeepers/middlemen and the like have traditionally become the Bad Guys in almost every interaction they have with today’s consumers. It’s not made any easier for them when they have been antagonizing so much with the Internet general culture and practices, questionable as they might be. 

    We are, nonetheless, in a crossroads of sorts. It is undeniable that the Internet has empowered the content creators and consumers alike, to the point that the Middlemen is losing almost every battle to reclaim absolute control of most processes that were their domain, like distribution and promotion. 

    Do they still have a place to be in this day? Well I’m sure they are very aware that is becoming VERY limited. Is the Internet going to “destroy the Music business” as we know it? not if they can help it.  That was/is the real reason behind ACTA, SOPA, PIPA and CISPA, and every effort to destroy Net Neutrality, regain control of media and content distribution for a very few privileged individuals and companies.

    I am much more intrigued by the impact Bandcamp will have in the short and middle term (I’m actually writing a piece about it). There we have a very unencumbered way to make the Internet work for everyone, artists, labels and consumers alike. It has everything to really change the way everyone thinks of selling and buying music online. If they really keep improving the engine under the same principles, I feel like it will have a similar impact the itunes store had in the not so distant past, if not even bigger.