CROWDFUNDING… OR, HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND SPEND MY MONEY WHERE IT DOES THE MOST GOOD
“Progress” by Agostino Arrivabene
(Andy Synn has been thinking… and now shares his thoughts in defense of the phenomenon of crowdfunding.)
I’m often surprised, and yet not surprised at all, at the amount of ire and controversy that surrounds the issue of crowdfunding.
On the one hand it’s seen as a way for bands to engage more directly with their audiences, to cut out the middleman, and get their music directly into the hands of their audience (whilst also, hopefully, cutting down on the oft-crippling levels of debt they would otherwise accumulate).
Yet on the other hand barely a month goes by without someone – whether an older band feeling crotchety, or a newer band trying to establish their “punk” credentials – getting their underwear in a twist over the issue, calling it “pathetic”, or equating it with “begging”, while stating that “real” bands like them never had to do that (simultaneously bolstering their own perceived credibility in the process, whilst also ignoring the hundreds and hundreds of “real” bands who take out loans from banks or friends or family in order to fund their music).
Still, I can see where both sides are coming from (to an extent anyway), even if I don’t necessarily agree with where they end up.
Let’s get one thing straight first. I am a fan of crowdfunding.
In this day and age, with dropping record sales, increasingly irrelevant label politics, and a slowly unfolding realisation that maybe, just maybe, the “golden age” of Metal (at least in terms of success and sales) was more of a statistical blip, than anything reflecting the “normal” state of affairs (the fact that there’s never going to be another Metal band as big as Metallica is, quite probably, something to cover in another column entirely), I’m supportive of anything that helps my favourite bands continue to make the music I want to hear.
After all, that’s what it’s really about in the end. The music. And it costs time and money and a whole heap of blood, sweat, and tears, for most of our favourite bands to make that music and get it out there where we can hear it and enjoy it.
It’s easier, obviously, if you’re not a touring band. If you’re a studio project with no specific deadlines or demands to meet, then obviously your overall costs are going to be reduced, and you’re going to be far more able to take your time over things, spread the cost, and write/record/release on your own terms. That’s no bad thing.
But we have to acknowledge that in many cases, and particularly with the music industry being the way it is, if we still want our favourite bands to provide us with the music we love, year after year, if we want them to be able to get out and tour and perform and continue to grow and develop as artists… they need our support. And though they certainly shouldn’t feel entitled to it… we also shouldn’t feel entitled to their music unless we’re willing to support them in making it.
All too often those who choose to engage in crowdfunding are painted as “lazy” or “greedy” or “pampered”. There’s this perception that any band using crowdfunding is somehow fleecing the fans, or else acting like self-entitled assholes demanding that others fund their extravagant rock-star lifestyle. And this, alongside a misconceived impression that there’s only one “right” way to make music, that because so many bands in the past have struggled and scrimped and saved, that every band has to do things exactly the same way in the future (without acknowledging the fact that many of the bands who use crowdfunding ALSO still scrimp and save and work hard at their day jobs to be able to even be in a band in the first place)… an impression that anything else is somehow “dishonourable”… has led to an unhealthy, and largely unfair, backlash against the medium of crowdfunding, and those who choose to engage with it.
Many of the critics of crowdfunding seem to forget that bands are people too. And that, yes, although it’s very much their dream to make music and play live in front of appreciative crowds (and, in a sense, we are the ones funding their dreams – though it’s hardly a one-way street), they still usually have “real” lives, with very real pressures and demands and troubles to go with them.
I shudder to think of how many bands, how many albums… how much awesome music… the world has missed out on because various artists simply weren’t able to continue, or even get off the ground, with their project.
And don’t let anyone tell you that these artists didn’t “deserve” to succeed. That’s some self-serving, retrospective bullshit right there. Although hard work IS still the most important factor (well, it should be, anyway), this idea that the only music “worth” listening to comes from people who’ve sacrificed everything to make it certainly sounds noble and empowering, but is incredibly blinkered and restrictive. A band can sacrifice everything they have and still make shit music… just as a band can find a way to work around their everyday lives and still produce something outstanding.
Plus, and let’s be brutally honest with ourselves here, you simply can’t discount the importance of chance and sheer blind luck in dictating the careers of so many of our favourite artists, the humblest of whom I have no doubt would readily acknowledge the role this has played in their success. And since that bitch Lady Luck has a tendency to leave you high and dry right at the wrong time, every band, from the very good to the very bad, runs the risk of never getting the right chances, the right opportunities, and so never getting their music out there to be heard.
Thus, at its very best, crowdfunding helps to remove some of this risk, whilst also offering better returns for both the bands and the fans. If you want to hear a band’s music, now you have a way of directly supporting them in making it. You’re invested, and an investor, in their career.
Like any system, of course, crowdfunding is open to abuse. One thing in particular that poisoned a lot of early adopters against it (those who hadn’t instantly written the entire concept off as “digital panhandling” anyway) was the ugly phenomenon of bands advertising stupid or relatively worthless perks that offered very little benefit or value for money to their fans; campaigns which, rather than appreciating the dedication and passion of their audience, were poised to shamelessly exploit it instead.
And while we’re probably never going to be able to prevent this sort of thing completely, the pseudo-free-market nature of crowdfunding almost guarantees that bands who continually take advantage of their fan’s good nature and support will eventually be called out for it, and (hopefully) punished accordingly, whilst bands who have fostered good relations with their fans – even if it’s just through consistently releasing killer album after killer album – will be able to benefit directly from their music and from the fans who love it and want to support it.
That’s why, although I’m very much in favour of crowdfunding as a new paradigm through which music can be funded and made and disseminated, I still think it’s good to be a little sceptical, a little careful, with how and where you spend your money. You need to be confident that the band are going to deliver the goods (whether this means musically, or literally in terms of actual physical goods), as you’re going to be pre-ordering an album, an EP, a single… whatever it is… based on a band’s reputation and your own good will alone. The classic phrase “caveat emptor” (“buyer beware”) remains as relevant as ever.
But, just as much as it’s important for you (and me) to make good choices about where your money goes, you (and I) also don’t get to police what others choose to spend their money on.
Case in point, just yesterday Darkest Hour announced a new campaign to fund the writing and recording of their new album, which offered some very nice perks and some real value for those fans interested in getting involved. And participation, as always, is completely voluntary.
But I won’t be participating in this particular campaign.
You see, although I’ve been a major fan of the band for umpteen years, I was particularly burned by 2014’s self-titled album, which felt more like a blatant grab at popularity than it did an honest artistic statement, and so this time around I’m going to be holding back to see what happens, before I commit any of my cash and support.
And therein lies the beauty of crowdfunding.
For all its flaws, and for all the ways it can be exploited by unscrupulous assholes, the success or failure of any campaign rests in the hands of the fans, and what value they choose to place on a band’s music. Just as there are going to be those who loved the self-titled and who are more than happy to plonk down some dough for what is, essentially, a pre-order (with a few optional perks), there are bound to be fans like me who would rather wait and see if the next album is a step back in the right direction, or another sign that our time together is coming to an end.
One thing worth noting though is that Darkest Hour themselves put forward an extremely solid, and very respectable, justification for going the crowdfunding route, one which helps sum up not only the importance of crowdfunding as a way to achieve relative independence from the established system of label-based tyranny and indenture (at least as established by some labels), but also offers an intriguing take on how the whole process itself, in many ways, isn’t actually that new and scary at all…
To quote directly from their announcement:
“We started this band releasing our own music. Therefore, to do so now with modern tools and on our own terms is as much of a nod to the past as it is a look into the future.”
And there it is. The true crux of the matter. The band started out releasing their own music on their own terms, and that’s exactly what crowdfunding will allow them to do again. They’ve come full circle. After all, the money always came from their fans’ pockets one way or another; crowdfunding just makes this connection more direct and more explicit.
And whereas before the (arguably quite broken) system would have involved throwing money into the pit to fund the recording, usually putting the band immediately in debt in the process, followed by throwing more money into the pit to fund PR and advertising in the vain hope that there would be enough of an audience out there for the band to recoup at least some of that debt, crowdfunding arguably simplifies matters.
Each bit of funding essentially acts as a pre-order. Enough pre-orders will cover the recording/mixing/mastering/printing costs. The band therefore pre-sells enough copies to cover their costs immediately, while their fans are guaranteed a copy of the album as a result. Both sides benefit.
Not only that, but not having to go into debt in the same way the “traditional” system demands means that the band are free to spend any other money in a more constructive fashion. They’ve already reached their “core” audience, after all. Now they can perhaps invest some money in targeting new fans. Perhaps replace some of their more beaten-up and run-down gear. Heck, they can spend it all on hookers and blow for all it really matters. That’s their own money. What remains important is that the music I want… the music WE want… gets to be made, and that I, that we, feel like our choice was worth it.
Now, throughout this column you’ll have seen select songs dotted here and there. Each one of these songs is by an artist who I have personally chosen to support over the years, whether it was by pre-ordering their album, pledging money for their DVD, or donating some cash towards much-needed van repairs. Each time it was my choice. And each time I felt it was worth it to part with my money in order to support an artist I love.
That’s what crowdfunding means to me. A chance to directly contribute to the career of a band and keep them writing, keep them recording, keep them on the road touring and travelling and bringing their music to their fans. And though it’s far from perfect –what system is? – to my mind it’s one of the most important developments in the history of the music business.
Very well written! I feel the exact same way.Very well put Andy.
Thanks dude. I quite literally threw this thing together over my lunch break at work yesterday, and am quite pleased with how it came out. There’s a few things I wish I’d had time/space to add, obviously (there always are), but generally I’m just glad it didn’t read like a bunch of gibberish!
I was having a similar discussion recently over pizza on a late night at the Thrill Jockey office. Crowdfunding can be an effective method for an established band who already have name recognition – Darkest Hour, for example, will probably be successful in their campaign, even though I’m with you in holding back my money due to 2014’s disappointing self-titled. However, those who might celebrate it as a pathway to freedom from label tyranny forget the important connections a label provides – Nick Cave might be self-releasing stuff, but he’s been a high-profile figure in the music business long enough such that he already has expansive distribution channels to get his record out there. Rare is the band that gets big without some kind of label help along the way.
In no way am I denying that labels still have a role to play. Whether they always will is up for debate, but at the moment they still act as gatekeepers, in a sense, and definitely provide an air of legitimacy to differentiate “signed” from “unsigned” bands, as well as (ideally) providing their bands with their own experience, expertise, and contacts.
Still, I do actually know a (growing) number of unsigned bands who’ve done very well off kickstarter/indiegogo without being signed or having a long career behind them. Granted, they’re not completely “new”, but you’d be surprised how successful a small band with a dedicated fanbase can be. Though this is definitely on a case-by-case basis.
Either way though crowdfunding does give bands other options with their music, as well as strengthening their bargaining position with the labels immensely. Which can only be a good thing.