Beggars’ Banquet: New Music Schemes for New Music Dreams

Over the last decade, we’ve heard a lot about new marketing and funding strategies for music and musicians that were emerging in the age of ubiquitous internet coverage and access. Streaming music and video, Youtube, email lists, artist/group websites and blogs, fanzines, Facebook, digital and hardcopy sales, self-publishing, on-demand publishing, and others. As inexpensive and easy ways to promote and market all manner of music, these are significant in terms of their potential. Using these new tools, musicians of all types, no matter how obscure the niche or style, were, for the first time, able to easily bypass the legacy labels and their tightly controlled production and distribution networks and produce and market their own music. Some musicians have done quite well (Pomplamoose comes to mind, although one wonders whether all that buzz and activity generates enough of an artist income stream to pay a mortgage in San Francisco) using these new tools.

For composers of New Music, these marketing tools are advantageous. We can sell our scores digitally using services like Lulu or Lightning Source (both of which I have used for years) and we can sell our music on a plethora of sites using a service like Tunecore. There are so many marketing opportunities, in fact, that it would be difficult to list them all. Funding, however, is a different story.

One of the main funding sources for composers is the “commission,” where someone pays for the composer to write a piece for them. This is a long-standing tradition in classical music which has relied greatly on the support of wealthy patrons (private, public, religious) for many centuries, and it continues to this day. Whether this patronage comes from wealthy admirers (Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-Flat–”Dumbarton Oaks), the aristocracy (Beethoven’s three Razumovsky String Quartets, op. 59), the state (hard to believe, but Shostakovich’s Native Leningrad Suite, op. 63, was commissioned by the Soviet Secret Police), and the church (in earlier times, most composers–J.S. Bach and Palestrina for example–wrote sacred music for their respective churches, and were supported by them in kind).

All of these examples of patronage are marked by the patron’s admiration of the composer’s creative work. The patron’s expectation is that the artist will create a work of art that will be of similarly high quality, one that might even earn the patron a footnote in history, without which these well-to-do aristocrats, bureaucrats, clergy, or captains of industry would likely be entirely forgotten. In this sense, patronage has a certain dignity; it is a concrete acknowledgment of artistic genius that provides the artist with financial support or employment, along with whatever degree of prestige or social status that comes with being recognized by the ruling class.

In contemporary society, the patrons no longer include royalty or the church to any significant degree. Composers are commissioned by arts organizations, public and private grants of various types, performers, university ensembles, and, of course, wealthy individuals who want to promote music and the arts. These options all retain the dignity and prestige of the patronage contract. Unfortunately, maintaining dignity is not a priority in the mosh pit of contemporary New Music funding. Here’s an email I received recently from a composer of New Music (name removed to protect the guilty):

Subject: Newsletter vol.1 no. 6

It’s July, it’s hot, but love is in the air…

The Love Songs Project
I’ve written about this project before, but now it’s moving into high
gear. The songs are being composed, preparations are being made to
begin recording, and donations are beginning to come in. If you haven’t
made a donation yet, please consider sending one. It doesn’t need to be
much, even $5 will help.

Why I’m raising money this way

There are many ways for an artist to find funding for their work.
Grant-writing is often the first choice…   Some people have asked why.
Grants are very difficult to win. They are often complicated to apply
for and can require the applicant to alter their project just to fit
the grant’s specifications. Not only that, everyone wants them, so
competition is fierce…

On the other hand, private donations are more personal. The donor
becomes involved and gains a stake in the project. By donating they let
me know that they believe in me and my work. Raising funding [sic] through a
grass-roots approach also builds an audience at the same time, an
audience of invested and interested listeners. For me, it’s more
important to have an audience than to plaster sponsorship logos from
granting organizations on my work…

Sure, I love you too, but as marketing or fundraising, this is not very persuasive. It is clumsy and awkward, an odd mixture of self-centeredness and pleading. It might work to raise funds from family, friends, and acquaintances, but there can be no misinterpreting this type of support–this is charity, pure and simple. This “business  model” does not have much, if any, potential to persuade a broad audience base to part with its hard-earned money.

Let’s call the former “Fan Financing v1.0” (of which I’m sure there are many other versions to be found). The genre has recently gone corporate, with a new online service called Kickstarter. The site is off to a prodigious start, with features in the New York Times, CNN, WIRED, NPR, and the Bay Citizen announcing the birth of this “new way to fund and follow creativity.”

Kickstarter is an online service that accepts “pledges” to fund a specific art project that is featured on their site. An artist opens an account, and then posts information regarding the project along with the amount of funding that is being sought through the donations. The project’s “backers” make a pledge, but, unlike NPR pledges, the charge is made to your credit card through when the project deadline is reached. Backers may receive “rewards” of various types based on the amount donated. Costs? Kickstarter takes 5% and Amazon takes 3-5% as their fee for the service, leaving the artist with 90% of the donations. Projects include all manner of creative endeavor–from recordings, photography, commissions, and every other type of creative project you can think of, and some that you can’t (there’s actually one from someone who wants people to help pay for his masters degree dance recital!).

Most of the obvious questions are dealt with on their FAQ page. Here are a few:

Q: Are pledges tax-deductible?

A: Only if the artist is a registered 501C3, which most are not.

Q: How do I know if a project creator is who they say they are?

A: Kickstarter doesn’t get involved in vetting the projects. Backer beware: use your “internet street smarts.”

Kickstarter uses Amazon’s payment machinery to accept donations and forwards the funds (minus the 8-10% fees) to the artist or organization. It’s a slick service that appears to be quite successful so far, supporting a staff of 18 young hipsters working in New York City.  It absolves itself (as it should) of any tax1 or legal liability. Kickstarter simply provides a site to advertise, collect, and transfer funds to the artist if the project reaches its full funding goal.

Kickstarter takes the novel “fan-funding” concept and gives it credibility and stability by providing a sharp, professional, and low-cost means for artists to not only to promote themselves and their products, but to acquire the funds to create the products in the first place. And, they’ve given it a corporate feel, while at the same time creating a website that maintains a quirky, grass-roots, and generally “artsy” demeanor. That’s not an easy task, but Kickstarter has succeeded marvelously in combining commerce and what appears to be genuine arts advocacy.

This fund-raising model seems, in retrospect, almost obvious in this day and age–artists and fans collaborating in a mutually beneficial scenario to further the creation of new art. What could be a more perfect use of modern communication technology in support of the arts, especially in a time when private and public funding appears to be waning? And it’s community supported, community minded, and it even builds community, it’s anti-corporate while at the same time being corporate (new paradigm alert) and it inverts the hated “power structure,” returning control to the artist who collaborates with fans from the outset. And, the cream on the cake–it’s new, it’s online and we’re all wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and living in the Village!  Pinch me please.

Not so fast. Fan-funding is really nothing new. Every artist in the world who is successful is, by definition, “fan-funded.” Many artists receive initial funding from public or private sources, but if those initial forays don’t result in a real fan base that is willing to pay for extant (rather than imagined new) recordings, the funding disappears.2

It is not quite a Pyramid Scheme. It doesn’t have multiple levels nor does it have the visceral element of greed on the part of investors to fuel the machine and it also provides a legitimate service, so it’s completely legal and above board, but there are similarities.

Kickstarter seems more like a Triangle Scheme–an innocuous, wind-powered, and legal version of its felonious 3D cousin. The small donors must be made up mostly of friends, family, acquaintances, fellow grad students, and perhaps the occasional wealthy donor who will kick in a larger sum. The number of donors is therefore limited to, at best, a few hundred which means that the foundation is weak. The Pyramid Scheme has upwards of a dozen levels; from the artist’s perspective, the Triangle has only two levels (top and bottom) which means that there is no compounding as the funds move upwards.

So, it’s a squat, hollow triangle, but it still provides funding right? Well, it might work a few times, but that group of “fans” is not supporting the project based (in most cases, I’m sure) on the music, they’re supporting it because they have a personal relationship with the artist, or they’re counting on the artist’s reciprocal support of their upcoming fundraising campaign. In either case, these forms of motivation wear thin quickly:

Honey, I just got another funding invitation from your nephew on Kickstarter. That’s the third one. I thought we ‘kickstarted’ his career with the first two. His career needs more than a kickstart at this point, it needs an ambulance and defibrillator.”

“Send him one more, and then we’re done.”

Family, friends, and fellow grad students are not fans, they’re more aptly named “hostages,” and their goodwill is not bottomless. “Multi-level marketing” schemes like Mona Vie have the same problem and are plagued by the same issue, namely, once the personal relationship capital has been burned up, most “associates” have trouble finding “clients” or new “associates” to inhabit their downstream. Not a problem though–just bring in a new set of “associates” with a completely new set of friends and family, and the system continues to deliver profits to the top levels, fueled by the greed and naïveté of the middle levels. Basically, all of these schemes are sustainable only as long as the goodwill remains, which, for Kickstarter clients, is probably two or three projects at best. After that, if you haven’t built a fan base made up of people who don’t share your DNA or your DMA, your fan-financed career is finished.

If we look more closely, and we include Kickstarter and Amazon in our Triangle, we find that it actually does have a middle level which is occupied, unfortunately, by the artist. Now let’s broaden the view and do a little math: If 20,000 projects are funded annually (a conservative estimate, given that the platform is open to artists from around the world, not just the US) at an average of $5,000 each, then Kickstarter grosses $5 Million, and Amazon grosses $3-5 Million. The artists gross $90 Million, but their net is zero. (Actually, they probably go into the red from the many unseen ancillary expenses that crop up in arts production.) So, the bottom level donates the week’s Starbucks money, the top level rakes in a lot of cash, and the creator hopefully gets most of the project expenses paid. The Triangle, viewed from this broader perspective, is really a Golden Triangle because it reveals that it has significant and ongoing income potential, but again, unfortunately, not for the artist.

As is most often the case, the peripheral support organizations are where the money is made–promoters, agents, record companies, t-shirts/hats and concessions.3 That is true in this case as well where the real winners of fan financing are the fan financing portals (and perhaps some peripheral benefits to the community in which all of these projects are presented). The creator, however, is caught in a pincer between the small number of potential donors (whose contributions will diminish as quickly as the evaporating relationship capital upon which it is based disappears) and the real money makers (the occupants of the top level), Kickstarter and Amazon. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.


1 There are tax issues for the artist though. These pledges are still income and must be reported, so receipts for expenditures must be fastidiously kept.

2 In the lucrative pop music industry, management and patrons lay claim to the profits from the first recording(s) in order to recoup their investment. After that, the artist can begin to amass their own fortune from the spoils, but there are many who emerge from the boozy haze of momentary superstardom (the “one-hit wonders,” among others) soulless and penniless.

3 There is a quote attributed to Hunter S. Thompson that sums it up nicely:

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.

Thompson may have actually said this about the television industry, but it applies equally to every aspect of the entertainment industry, which is likely why it appears in so many iterations. Whether a misquote or not, I’m sure he would approve.

About FraKathustra

2 Responses to “Beggars’ Banquet: New Music Schemes for New Music Dreams”

  1. Egads – One has to wonder how the modern musician ever finds time to practice and compose given that they now must be recording engineers, graphic designers, mass mailing marketers, booking agents, video producers, web developers, funds developers, grant writers, and on and on.

    Not to mention holding down another job to pay the bills while trying to keep gigs happening.

  2. Absolutely ~ what a struggle. Yet always an opportunity to grow and evolve!

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