Crowdfunding and Me

I’m not a heavy crowdfunder. Over the years, I’ve supported 13 projects. A few short story anthologies, a handful of records. Not a ton of stuff, and certainly not on the level of one of my friends, who’s helped bankroll so many projects that he’s getting spammed by crowdfunding startups, practically begging him to be a beta tester/funder. Of that baker’s dozen projects, I’ve been burned by only one that looks like it’ll never see the light of day. With that one exception, everything I’ve supported has come to fruition. For me, as a consumer, crowdfunding has worked out really well.

I hear and understand the grumblings about it, though. In the well-publicized wake of the Veronica Mars movie asking for two million bucks and raking in more than $5 million, Zach Braff of Scrubs and Garden State fame ran into a bladestorm of criticism for trying to fund his own project the same way. “Why don’t you get up off those stacks of syndication cash you’ve been sleeping on and fund it yourself?” people seemed to ask. Nevertheless, he exceeded his own two-million-dollar goal with a take of more than $3 million. So yeah, there were plenty of people offended by the idea of a big name like Braff passing the hat around, but there also more than 46,000 people who liked the idea of his project enough to fund it.

These competing ideas about crowdfunding, especially when it comes to the arts, are nothing new. Maybe in some ways, they’re particular to the arts. We don’t seem to have a trouble with game studios asking for cash or with tech-savvy entrepreneurs trying to prototype a smartphone gadget, but something about a musician asking for money apparently carries the foul stench of commerce.

Even among my musician friends, two camps square off. One says, “You know, if I want to make a vinyl edition of my record, this could really help me gauge the interest for that kind of thing.” The other bluntly states, “If you don’t have the money to make it, you shouldn’t be asking for other people’s money!” To which I ultimately have to throw up my hands and say, “To each his own!” I can look at it only as a consumer and ask myself the question, “If this gets made, am I getting something fair in return for my money?”

A good example is online cartoonist Abigail Howard’s The Last Halloween project. A finalist on Penny Arcade’s online reality show Strip Search (and who I thought should have won), Howard asked for $9,000 to finish the strip on her own after she didn’t win the show’s grand prize of $15,000. She ended up pulling in more than $126,000, which should certainly ease any concerns that she might have about being able to complete the strip and still buy groceries. I didn’t contribute to the project; by the time I got there, it was funded five times over. Also, there weren’t any rewards that offered a physical product (yes, yes, let the cries of “fogey” rain down). Maybe when the strip is complete, she’ll offer a printed collection. I’ll certainly be on the lookout.

I did contribute, along with 333 other fans, to musician John Murry’s recent kickstarter. You probably haven’t heard it, but his The Graceless Age album is one of 2013’s very best records so far. A harrowing diary of Murry’s addiction and recovery, it put him on many radars as a songwriter to watch.

Well, he offered up a kickstarter this year to complete the songs that he and his friend Tim Mooney had been working on before Mooney died. He asked for $26,500, which struck some folks as a bit high. Murry addressed their concerns, saying that the record would be made in Ireland, and that most of his musicians were scattered across Europe. The concern among the doubters seemed to be that we might be paying for things not “directly” related to the music, such as food or plane tickets or whatever.

This gets to the rub of a lot of Kickstarters: what exactly are we paying for? I donated to the Murry kickstarter because the prospect of getting a physical copy of the record — and helping make sure the record got made — for 20 bucks seemed like a very good deal, indeed. I’m very much in the mode of “I want that to exist. Please make it.” But I can see why the price seems steep, especially in this golden age of low-cost recording. But I also believe that a good studio costs good money.

Furthermore, what do I care what he does with the money as long as every contributor feels like they got a fair shake and the record gets made?

I’m an English major. For several decades now, I’ve been very comfortable with the historical idea of patronage: of a person seeing the value of someone’s work and supporting that person so that the distractions of day-to-day worries don’t keep the work from being done. Granted, benefactor’s intentions weren’t always so selfless. From what I understand, the Medicis saw it as something akin to a money-laundering scheme. Nevertheless, names as big as Shakespeare, da Vinci, and Mozart all enjoyed some amount of patronage, and there’s no arguing with the benefits that we enjoy as a result.

Those examples, though, all came from the coffers of churches, politicians, and noblemen. Unless you count the fact that I keep my kids in crayons, I’m certainly in no financial position to be someone’s lone patron. But as a group? Why shouldn’t we just say at some point to someone, “Your work has so much value to us that we’d like to keep you focused on it.” Eventually that donation campaign is going to occur, if it already hasn’t. The backlash will predictably be huge.

The issue of money is always weird. Money makes people act weird, in general and in relation to one another. So it’s no surprise that Universal Music’s recently announced crowdfunding effort, The Vinyl Project, has met with a mixed reception. Despite the music industry’s troubles, Universal still has a few coins in its pocket. However, they’re also understandably risk-averse. So their new venture asks for funding help to repress iconic records in vinyl.

On the one hand, you could say that UMG employs enough bean-counters to know whether something stands a chance of recouping their costs. On the other hand, of course is the argument of, If it ensures that this record gets pressed, sure, I’ll put my money up front.

There’s also the concern that crowdfunding raises a different level of expectations from fans, as if Murry is supposed to suddenly invite me over for BBQ just because I dropped a few bucks into his bank account. I’m sure there are people who think like this, but I’ve never understood it. A more reasonable and consistent expectation seems to be, I like what you’re doing. Here’s the money. You’ve explained what I’m getting in return. That’s it. I’ve donated to a couple of short story anthologies, which then had calls for submissions. I submitted stories and they were rejected. That’s as it should be, if my work wasn’t up to snuff.

Granted, I do think there are some bad seeds working the halls of Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other crowdfunding sites: artists who do deliver on their promise of product, but who I feel also exude a sense of entitlement about the whole thing. So while I might think their projects sound interesting, I might not donate just because they come across the wrong way. It’s hardly logical.

Ultimately, that might be the fascinating thing about crowdfunding and the arts: this idea that something quantifiable can live or die by emotions and perceptions. An artist gives us, we hope, a very well-considered reckoning of the cost to create something. We, in turn, react from our guts, bringing our own biases and preconceptions into the equation to judge the worthiness of something’s existence before we’ve even experienced the results of the final product.