Crowdfunding: The Artist Fan Alliance

Musicians and other artists who haven’t risen to the heights of a major label contract through luck or choice will always have to direct their creativity away from music and to the more mundane matter of funding their work and lifestyle. In recent years bands have been raising the cost of recording and releasing their music through their fanbase in advance of the actual release. In these current times of lockdown with no revenue from gigging this has become more important than ever.

However, crowdfunding is nothing new and has a long history going back hundreds of years. Books have been crowdfunded for centuries, authors and publishers would advertise book projects before the book was written and only published if enough subscribers signalled their readiness to buy the book once it was completed.

Marillion were early music adopters of this model, not for a music release but to raise $60,000 in 1997 from their fans to help finance a North American tour. The success of the campaign has led them to successfully crowdfund all their releases since 2001’s Anoraknophobia.Jazz composer Maria Schneider’s crowdfunded album Concert In The Garden won a Grammy in 2004, the first album to win without being available in the usual retail outlets. Since then many performers big and small have taken the crowdfunding route.

The explosion of social media has made the task easier, potentially vast numbers of people can be reached in every corner of the world. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok all allow artists to speak almost directly to their keenest supporters easily and tap into their loyalty, and potentially find new fans. 

Crowdfunding also offers musicians a number of benefits, beyond the financial. The artist’s following can engage in the project to some extent increasing their sense of involvement and ownership. It’s fairly common once pledges have been received for early tracks or demos to be released to the pledgers, the artists can gather feedback from this to test the likely response and success of the finished music. Added to this if the campaign takes off beyond their core fanbase the artists profile will be expanded, which then will have a knock on effect of increasing the size of live audiences and again increasing income.

So, as a fan contributor to a number of projects I was curious to find out what it was like for the artist, and how successful the process is for them. 

I’m grateful to J D Wilkes, artist, author and leader of The Legendary Shack Shakers, Tim Whelan from Transglobal Underground, Paul-Ronney Angel frontman for The Urban Voodoo Machine and Gavin Jay, bassist for Jim Jones & The Righteous Mind for taking the time to chat and give their side of the story.

What was your project?

P-RALove Drink and Death, Hellbound Hymns and 15 Shots From The Urban Voodoo Machine

GJ – CollectiV

JDW – Grim Hymns, a solo project comic book via Kickstarter and The Southern Surreal album through Indie Gogo. 

TW Walls Have Ears although when we started the process with Kickstarter we didn’t know what the album would be called.

What did you offer?

P-RA – “Vinyl, CD, all kinds of crazy stuff that didn’t really work. People wanted signed items, handwritten lyrics, exclusive prints, t shirts, posters, that kind of stuff.”

JDW – “Free copies of the comic, autographs and donors’ names printed in the Thank You section for the album, autographed copies, printed thank yous, extra merch for higher tier contributors and a free turntable for the top bidders.”

TW – “Everything we could think of! Bundles of previously released vinyl and CDs, some T-shirts and posters, downloads of unreleased material and a very intimate gig in the living room of band member Hamid which was a great night.”

GJ – “A range of packages based around the album, from basic download to credits printed on the sleeve right up to a private performance by the band or joining us in the studio for a day to contribute to the album.”

What was the uptake on offers that were not the album itself?

TW – “All good except for the t-shirts, we’ve never been much of a t-shirt band.”
PR-A – It was hard thinking up stuff but we had a laugh thinking up the scenarios, a few people came to the studio, fly on the wall type thing.”

GJ  – “All of the packages included the album apart from a £5 offer for a sticker and booklet, which was more a ‘donation’ package and only had a couple of takers.”

Did offers exclusive to the crowdfunding sell well?

GJ – “Yes, all the packages had exclusives not available when the album went on general release, be it stickers and prints through to a really cool silver ring we had made in conjunction with The Great Frog. We had a range of choices from download only up to much more costly packages at the top end, which were mainly included as outliers. The executive producer credit was bought, but the private gigs didn’t sell – they were very expensive though. We wanted options for all price brackets, including any passing millionaires with a penchant for rock ‘n’ roll and deep pockets.”

JDW – “Yes, definitely. It was really driven by social media and word of mouth”.

TW – “Well enough, but offers for the new album and the old music were the biggest sellers.”

What do you perceive as the advantages of crowdfunding?

JDW – “It allows your fans to feel engaged, elite, and it ultimately prepays you for the manufacture of an item you can’t otherwise fund.”

GJ – “Freedom from record label interference, full creative control and retaining publishing rights to the music, which would normally have to be signed over.”

Why did you choose crowdfunding for these projects?

P-RA “We’ve come this far without a label, which is great, all our albums have been self funded. I would hate someone else to own my music, it’d be death to me. My songs are my children, I couldn’t have someone telling me ‘you can’t do this, release that, use this artwork’. We set up our own label funded by club nights, we managed to put enough money aside to set up Gypsy Hotel records.”

GJ – “As we just said, the offers we had from record labels when we were looking to make the album would have resulted in us signing over rights for a relatively small amount of upfront cash and possibly other compromises as well.”

JDW – “We was broke!”

Are there any more benefits, any negatives?

JDW – “Main thing is you get your project funded but bands can come across as needy, unglamorous and generally unsuccessful.”

GJ – “Aside from the things already mentioned, the ability to spend the budget as you see fit and be captain of your own ship. In the past I’ve been involved in bands where the label wastes huge amounts on naff promo videos or shitty looking merch and you are ultimately paying for it without having a say. The downside can be it’s a lot of work to organise, and stressful when launching with the worry that you might not make enough and the project will fail. Thankfully we hit our target on the first day, although you still have to watch your budget as you’re obliged to fulfil your pledges no matter what. We went over time in the studio which came close to being a problem, had we not raised more than our original goal we might well have had serious difficulties.”

Do you think you need a big fanbase to make crowdfunding a success?

TW – “No, our fanbase is weird and diffuse. We partly did this in order to try and define it a bit better.”

P-RA – “Absolutely. People don’t search for new music on crowdfunding sites. You have to get out and play live to get a fanbase. It’s an age related thing, Spotify doesn’t build that fanbase. Fans press a buttton and get it all for free. When you had an album you’d listen to every track, read all the sleeve notes, not now. We spend ages crafting a story, sorting the running order which is lost. ‘You don’t look at the Mona Lisa in chopped up pieces’ Physical product is really important, it’s coming back. Artwork on a piece of music is really important, gives you a whole feeling of the whole package, which you can’t get from an MP3.”

GJ – “It doesn’t have to be huge, we had less than 500 people pledge and raised over £21K. Obviously a certain amount of committed hardcore fans are necessary, it might have been more difficult if we weren’t already a known band with enthusiastic supporters.”

JDW – “No, but the bigger the fanbase the bigger one’s goals can be, and the more impressive the success.”

How does it compare to self funding and/or label funding?

TW – “It’s all part of the same thing. We made some money but not enough to run the whole band or the whole project. No one is going to invest in a band of this age except it’s own audience.”

P-RA – “We would’ve loved to be signed to label when we started out, but we set up on our own and got distribution, they take a percentage but don’t have any say on the end product. If you’re lucky the distribution company sometimes advances money for pressing.”

GJ – “Without a large bank balance it’s difficult to front the amount needed to record, produce and manufacture an album.”

JDW – “Having no label debt to recoup takes a lot of pressure off, depending how fascist the label is.”

What was the effect or impact on your relationship with your fans?

JDW – “It helps keep them feeling engaged, special, involved and caring. Overall, a really positive impact.”

TW – “Very good.”

GJ – “I think people felt more involved and proud to be able to help and have their names included on the record sleeve. The name of the album (Collectiv) was intended to reflect this, it was very much about what can be achieved with people power.”

P-RA – “It made the relationship better, you get on first name terms with your fans rather than CEOs of record labels. You meet people at a gig, they say ‘I got to have my name on your album” which is much better better than ‘hey I’m the secretary to…”

Did you find fans in places you weren’t aware of?

PR-A – “Found a couple underneath my bed. We had one email from Columbia but no surprises really. Our fan base is world wide, at least two in each country.”

GJ – “Not really, although it was good to see people all over the world get involved.”

JDW – “Surprisingly, yes. We must have made some new fans”

TW – “No, the pattern was pretty well what we’d expect, it was more a case of connecting with those who were already interested.

Who ran it, the band collectively or one member?

JDW – “I ran the comic book myself, it was my project rather than the band, the album was dealt with by our manager.”

GJ – “Mostly me, with Jim presenting the promo videos and throwing in ideas, as well as helping with the packing of the albums – that was a hell of a lot of work!”

TW – “Two of us, myself and Hamid Mantu, kind of the core of the band,”

P-RA – “Me and J Roni Moe, we are Gypsy Hotel Records, we take care of everything ourselves. ‘If you want something done do it yourself’.”

Was there any help available from the crowd funding organisation, are there consultants?

P-RA – “Pledge were very helpful, I had a contact person who was very responsive and helpful. The big guys at the top weren’t active though. Pledge Music went bust, many artists lost their money. 15 Shots was our last one, we got all our money.

GJ – Not with Kickstarter. I took a short online course which outlined the crowdfunding process and I was able to email the people behind that for advice. When we were looking at which platform to use Pledge Music’s offer of individual support did seem tempting, but we felt it wasn’t worth the extra percentage they were charging. As it turned out a wise move given what happened there!”

JDW – “To be honest I can’t remember.”

TW – “We used Jo Breeze and she was great. Couldn’t have done it without her

Was it worthwhile financially?

GJ – “Yes, definitely.”

TW – “Yes, although it wasn’t cheap the way we did it.”

JDW – “Yes indeed.”

P-RA – “In every case we had paid for the studio time, for us it was about getting the finished product made. Our next album ’Snake Oil Engine’ will be crowd funded, but we’re not sure whether through a company or direct ourselves.

Was finance your only measure of success?

P-RA – “We didn’t get into music for the money but we wanted enough to go round. Obviously the more money we get the better the product we can put out, more advertising and so on.”

TW – “No, although it was the main thing of course, but the connection with the audience was important. It helped make us feel there was a point in making an album in the first place.”

JDW – “Pretty much, yes.”

GJ – “No, the main incentive is always to make the album that you want to make, money is just part of the puzzle, the oil in the machine. We didn’t make a lot personally from the album but it needed to be made, it’s the primary function of a band. There was also creativity in the presentation of the project and I’m very proud that my sleeve artwork reached a wider audience and received great feedback.”

How confident were you of success when you set out and would you crowdfund again?

P-RA – “ We had no idea when we did the first one, we just went into it. Ginger Wildheart said we should do it, that we’d be successful. I was a bit baffled by it all. Now we’re approaching our fourth crowd funder I wouldn’t consider any other way.”

JDW – “Personally, not very, but I was pleasantly surprised both times. After some time has passed I might crowdfund a project, maybe not for an album though.”

TW – We thought we had a strong case but it was still a relief when people responded so quickly. It was a one-off, but I’d consider doing it again for a good reason.

GJ – We were uncertain, it was new territory for us so there was a certain amount of trepidation. Our original goal I think was £10K, so to more than double that was a pleasant surprise. I think it could well happen again, although probably in conjunction with Cargo Records, who are our distributors. They have experience running crowdfunding projects and could help with mailing out the packages, which was one of the biggest headaches. So a bit of support whilst retaining our independence would be the ideal balance.”

So there we have it, a lot of common ground and some interesting contradictions based on the artists aims and results. Speaking to fan contributors they are motivated not just by the fact they want to have new music from the artists the like and follow but also a sense of identity and patronage, being part of a movement, being involved in some way with an artists success.

For the artists, creative freedom seems to be the biggest driver in this technique, perhaps due to the commercialisation and big label involvement which has prevented many artists and performers from being able to truly connect with their work and fans. As far as I’m concerned the best benefit for us consumers is the increasing access to more diverse sounds through a community-driven side of the music industry, which is allowing music and its creation to remain accessible, and directed by those who create it. And in these uncertain times, it could be a lifeline for artists to ensure when we can go to gigs again there will be a diverse and healthy pool of talent for us to enjoy. 

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