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Published: 2013/03/29
by David Steinberg

Featured Column: Kickstarting the Future

So it’s come down to this. Bands can release music that they think fans will appreciate, but they have no guarantee that they can actually make money from the purchase. The touring business has stagnated, which makes it harder to sustain a band that way. With fewer record company advances and the obvious issues around persuading people to actually purchase albums, bands have decided to eliminate the middlemen and just request money upfront. Want a new album? Fine. Donate through Kickstarter [1] and if we get enough, we’ll make it.

In theory this is a great way to go about funding projects. Most bands have a subset of diehard fans for which a new album would be worth a lot more than the 10 dollar purchase price. Why not tap that resource and let the less committed fans free ride off of the fanatics? The most obvious problem with this is that it becomes hard to fund things if you don’t already know that you’d want it. Once a record is created, you can hear samples or have a friend play it for you or randomly check it out on a streaming site and decide that you love it, but it’s harder to know that you’d like an album that doesn’t exist yet.

Even if you knew the band, getting fans to fund the album before it exists could lead to stagnation. When your contribution to the album is more transparent than the vague connection between going to Tower Records [2] and the band making money, you’re potentially going to feel like you should have more say in the creative process. “I’m funding this! I want songs like the ones that I love only different ones.” Could Graceland have been created this way or would Paul Simon’s fans want only another Still Crazy After All These Years?

(Aside: one thing that I’m not worried about is the publicity Kickstarter campaigns like the Veronica Mars movie that raised four million dollars. There are few shows that have a big enough audience that would be able to generate that kind of money but are small enough that the studio wouldn’t fund it. Yes there will be attempts by big media to co-opt this, but I think they’ll revert to easier ways of making money.)

There is a solution to both of the above problems and it’s one that suits our subgenre well. How can you get people interested in an album before they’ve been able to hear it? How do you point to directions that you’re interested in exploring to clue fans into an approach that they might be willing to help finance? The answer is the same to both. If you play shows, it’s easy to get people to discover your music, to hear your new songs, to get excited about the path you’re traversing. Fan funded albums might not continue to be a solution for everyone, but it does seem made for the Jambands world.

[1] For those who haven’t heard about it, the way Kickstarter works is that people pledge money in order for a project to get funded. If the funding reaches the amount of money that the band (or game or movie or…) requested, everyone who pledged gets charged. Donating at higher levels usually comes with an extra perk or two, e.g. a signed copy of the album.

[2] Note to younger readers: there used to be these places called “Record Stores.” People would go in them and browse rows of records or compact discs and would regularly buy albums on the basis of the band name or the album cover or their proximity to another band that they knew that they liked; that’s how I ended up with a rather good disc from Penguin Café Orchestra. I kept checking to see if there were any new Phish albums and the name caught my eye. It was an imperfect system but it had its charm.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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