When violinist and vocalist Caitlin Cary needed to buy a new van for her current pop band, The Small Ponds, she used one of the most traditional methods. Cary went to the bank, applied for a loan and paid about $3,000 for Evangeline, a two-tone 1993 Ford 15-passenger that's pushing 200,000 miles.
With her previous bands, Whiskeytown and Tres Chicas, record labels and managers had helped to handle such exigencies. But The Small Ponds — a new band without a large label, a manager or a big operating budget — needed to find a way to make its first 1,400-mile trek to the world's biggest music conference, South by Southwest, this week in Austin, Texas. Cary had to do it herself.
But when Frontier Ruckus, a Pontiac, Mich. quintet, decided it needed a new van, the band asked its fans to help pay. On its website, Frontier Ruckus posted seven options for potential benefactors. For a $10 contribution, you'd receive a set of previously unreleased demos. For $20, you'd hear the demos and two live recordings. A pledge of $40 earned you concert tickets, while $150 warranted a personalized song. Pony up $1,000, and Frontier Ruckus would come perform in your house.
Two people donated a grand to Frontier Ruckus. In fact, the band raised more than $5,000, money the band has since put in the bank for the day that Dessie — their 1999 Ford Club Wagon XLT, which boasts 200,000 miles and top speeds of 30 miles per hour on mountainsides — finally dies.
"We're not completely destitute. We would've gotten a new van one way or the other," says frontman Matthew Milia. "But we could use a new van, so we wanted to get our fans involved with it. I saw it as an opportunity to have a garage sale to make these off-kilter artifacts accessible. And if they'd like some of these things, it goes in a useful direction for us."
Milia and Frontier Ruckus are part of a growing movement called crowdfunding. With crowdfunding, people interested in seeing a certain endeavor completed can contribute money in tiered amounts in exchange for gratitude or goods. Kickstarter.com, the largest site behind crowdfunding, has driven more than 5,000 projects, including movies, tours, books, software and albums, since its launch less than two years ago.
Some bands who've used Kickstarter think it might forever change the music industry — and, arguably, culture itself — by allowing consumers to put their funds where their fandom is. But it's not that simple, some say. Such systems take advantage of old fans by having them invest in a project that's not yet complete, critics say, and create illusions of demand. Those concerns haven't curbed the interest in crowdfunding, though; more than 2,500 projects are currently being funded through Kickstarter alone, and for each of the last eight weeks, more than a million dollars has passed through the network.
"For the past 60 years of recorded music, it's been prescribed, the way you record music and share it with people. There's no reason why that still has to be the case," says Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler. "The reason it still is the case is that, if you go to a record label and they give you money to make a record, they expect a record out of it. They expect a predictable piece of work. But as this grows, you're not beholden to that."
"I'm a really good candidate for the old system. I'm totally willing to work as hard as I need to, but I sort of need to be told what to do," says Cary of the regimen of managers and labels and booking agents she had with her previous bands. That old system, she's found, generally doesn't work. "Eventually, I think we may want to try Kickstarter."
Indeed, the crowdfunding phenomenon now extends far beyond the arts and Kickstarter. More than a dozen websites offer such services. Microgiving.com gathers funds for individual philanthropy projects, while Crowdrise.com gives charities and volunteer organizations access to a worldwide network of would-be contributors. A California news organization, spot.us, uses such techniques to fund journalism; if a potential story is important to enough people, it gets funded, reported and written.
For Rob Berliner, who plays mandolin and sings in the Philadelphia band Hoots & Hellmouth, crowdfunding fundamentally alters the way people can support what they value. It turns artistic commerce into a public radio pledge drive. To wit, his band raised more than $20,000 to record an EP and an LP via Kickstarter.
"We live in this world where the consumer can go see a movie in a theater, or you can find an illegal way to watch it at home," Berliner says. "That's where a lot of things are going now — you can take whatever you want from the Internet, and you can spend exactly what you want on things, and nothing more."
"Michael sold his car. It was an old BMW — nothing new, nothing fancy, a box model from the '80s," remembers Mark Holland, one of two twin brothers who founded the idiosyncratic Chapel Hill, N.C. band Jennyanykind in 1991. "We've all done that before, we've all run down to the music store with that $1,500 Telecaster that we didn't really need. We've all been there when we want to finance a dream."
In 1993, the dream for Jennyanykind was putting out a debut 7-inch single. They did, and the trio's career progressed. They signed to a small label and then to Elektra Records, whose roster extended from Tom Waits and the Eagles to Anthrax and Missy Elliott. Holland remembers it as a time when bands were coddled, "put into the studio for weeks ... where you don't have to care about anything." But Jennyanykind didn't turn their major-label gig into millions of dollars, and, eight years after the release of the last Jennyanykind album, the Holland brothers are just hobbyist musicians with kids and jobs and lives. They have their own bands and projects now; until last May, they hadn't played together as Jennyanykind in nearly a decade. They decided to give Jennyanykind another chance, starting again with a 7-inch single split with Chapel Hill rock duo The Moaners.
Instead of selling the family car, though, they decided to procure the $2,000 they'd need for the single through Kickstarter. The Moaners and Jennyanykind will release the record with a celebratory concert in May.
"I was really skeptical at first," Holland admits. "We haven't really done anything in a long time. The question was, 'Who is going to care?'"
Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites are structured around deadlines. When someone launches a project, it's open to funding for a set number of weeks. If people don't pledge enough money to meet the funding goal during that window, the project fails. Any money pledged goes back into the pledger's pocket. Such thresholds become apparent when considering niche markets or projects based around a small but rather loyal fan base. Most any pop, country, rock or hip-hop group has the potential to sell thousands or hundreds of thousands of records, should the right song land upon the right ears at the right time. But all independent bands or labels aren't offering the sort of music that could make them famous or give them the sort of profit margin it takes to make and market a record.
Thomas Costello, a clerk at Chapel Hill's CD Alley, says he's happy to buy the music when it's available for purchase, even if it was recorded with money raised via Kickstarter. But as a fan of a band or a label, he doesn't feel like it's his job to pay directly for a product up front.
"It's almost like the cool kid asking the dorks to front him some lunch money. It's like, 'C'mon, you like me. I represent something you care about, so why don't you give me a little cash so I don't have to bartend a few nights a week?'" Costello says, admitting his analogy is reductive but accurate to an extent. "Just because the Internet makes it available, that doesn't mean you should take advantage of that fan relationship."
Milia, the Frontier Ruckus frontman who helped raise money for his band's new van with crowdfunding, shares that concern, too. Frontier Ruckus worked to alleviate the groveling aspect of such campaigns with a quixotic name — "Dessie's Retirement FUNRaiser," they called it — and by using it as a chance to interact with fans. A $40 pledge to Frontier Ruckus meant the next time the band's new tour van rolled through your town, they would have dinner with you.
"Yeah, there's that racketeering, exploitive side of it," Milia says. "But everyone sells merchandise on their website to people who want that merchandise due to their celebrity. It's just giving that merchandise an express purpose."
— Grayson Currin, a Raleigh, N.C.-based writer, recently used Microgiving to rescue a pit bull that wandered into his yard.
SIDEBAR 1 OF 1
At Kickstarter.com, there are a number of New Orleans-based projects seeking donations from interested parties. Among them*:
• The Whole Gritty City, producer/director Richard Barber's documentary about two high school marching bands.
Pledged: $10,805 (of $20,000 goal)
Days to go: 34
• The Empanada Intifada, Taylor Jackson's proposed "guerrilla gourmet food truck," which would sell empanadas in New Orleans neighborhoods underserved by supermarkets.
Pledged: $246 (of $9,000 goal)
Days to go: 4
• Protei, an "Open Hardware Oil Spill Cleaning Sailing Robot" — an oil skimmer using wind power for propellant
Pledged: $4,994 (of $27,500 goal)
Days to go: 34
• Shell Shocked: The NOLA Youth Story, Ashley Ebanks' documentary about youth violence in New Orleans.
Pledged: $24,689 (of $20,000 goal)
• Make Orange Moon Shine Bright, singer/songwriter Alexis Marceaux's attempt to fund her second album.
Pledged: $3,883 (of $1,500 goal)
* All information recorded Mar. 7, 2011.