Ross Edman, aka Datahowler, is a designer and musician by trade. But for the last few weeks, he's also been a salesman—pitching friends, family and the curious denizens of the Internet via a video about his upcoming space-themed record, Slowdrifter, in the hopes of raising the funds necessary to master the album and press a few hundred copes on CD and cassette.
Like many independent artists around the country, Edman turned to the two-year-old website Kickstarter for his fundraising campaign. And it paid off big time: Edman raised $600 more than his stated $1,500 goal.
"I was extremely surprised," says Edman. "My project was featured on many blogs and on every major section of the Kickstarter site. The co-founder and a few other staff members of Kickstarter even pledged for the project. The support I received was overwhelming."
Edman's not alone, either—in recent months a host of independent North Texas acts with vastly different fan bases and financial goals have found success on the website, including Fever in the Funkhouse, Daniel Hart, Green River Ordinance, A.Dd+ and Via Maris.
Though featured in The New York Times, Washington Post and elsewhere over the past year, the site remains a relatively new concept for most music fans. It works like this: An artist sets a monetary goal for their project and explains where that money will go should they meet their fundraising goal. They set a specific time by which they hope to accomplish this goal (usually a few weeks), and if they meet it, Kickstarter keeps 5 percent of the money raised, while Amazon takes another 2 percent for facilitating payments.
If the goal's not met, all donations are canceled and the artist is left to ponder the worthiness of their project or improve their sales pitch—a dilemma currently faced by Denton act Sunnybrook, whose Kickstarter account recently failed to achieve its goal.
"My first mistake was that I didn't post a video on my page," says Tailor Deihl, owner of Sunnybrook's fledgling label, Appalachian Records.
Luckily for them, you can retry Kickstarter as many times as you want, though your project does have to pass the website's smell test—that the posted projects have both a finite aim and finite ending—before it will be posted.
Another requirement of Kickstarter's is that artists, to encourage donations, offer gift packages for different donation levels, just like a PBS pledge drive. This practice is the backbone of what makes Kickstarter so successful, as fans and investors receive plenty of cool rewards—eccentric singer-songwriter Jim White even claimed he would rename his first-born child after a high-dollar donor—as well as the satisfaction of knowing they're part of a project they believe in.
"I'm big into this notion that, beyond creating great music, artists should also give their fans items worth buying," says Rosalinda Ruiz, manager for Dallas hip-hop duo A.Dd+, who raised money on Kickstarter for a national promotional campaign for their upcoming debut album, When Pigs Fly.
"Our incremental prizes were based on realistic expectations of what people could give and items that could mean something to them," says Ruiz, who helped the duo devise perks like limited-edition packaging, private release parties and A.Dd+-designed T-shirts, "all things that took time and effort to create and that we hope will have even more meaning to the fans now and later down the line."
Successful Fort Worth band Green River Ordinance even severed ties with Capitol Records in the hopes of funding their own album on Kickstarter, and were able to raise over $41,000 by offering fans everything from private house concerts to a night of bowling and laser tag with the band.
"We were blown away by the generosity of our fans," says Jamey Ice, the band's guitarist. "Green River Ordinance has been a band for 10 years. And, for the first time in 10 years, we are completely debt free and will be making a record debt free. When we made our first independent album and EPs we borrowed money from our parents to do it. When we decided to do music full time and quit school and jobs, we took out a loan to buy a van and a trailer and basically paid for our first tour with a credit card."
The band's investment did allow them to raise their profile, however. So, when Capitol/Virgin came calling with a big record deal, Green River Ordinance thought they had it made—only to quickly realize the drawbacks of being on a major label, including even deeper debt.
"All a record deal is, is a giant loan," says Ice. "They pay for everything and give you money, but it's actually just a giant loan against your record. But with Kickstarter, our fans have paid for our future record. It's amazing and really frees us up to do a lot more."
Obviously, almost as important as the financial freedom Kickstarter affords is the bond that a successful Kickstarter campaign can create with an artist's fan base. Reunited Deep Ellum stalwarts Fever in the Funkhouse recently found this out firsthand when they raised over $16,000 on the website, ending their campaign with a thank you concert for their generous fans earlier this month at Club Dada.
"Fever already had strong support from our fan base, but after our Kickstarter campaign I feel it has grown even deeper," says Nikos Brisco, the band's frontman. "Kickstarter is a risk, kind of a public gamble. It takes a good bit of effort and confidence to present yourself as worthy. To have our fans reach out to us in that manner and back us with their hard-earned money, in these tough times, is a solid shot of encouragement."
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Some believe "crowd funding" sites like Kickstarter could even put big record labels out of business, and, with stories like these, it's hard not to see their point. But with Kickstarter being such a new concept, it's also hard to envision what the future of the site will hold. As more and more bands, artists, filmmakers and authors join the site, will it reach a saturation point where the average person bristles at the request for yet another donation, just like people have grown to ignore the flood of event invites and promotional posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter? Will investors revolt when a beloved band takes an artistic left turn on a fan-funded release? Just imagine the backlash Neil Young or Lou Reed might have received for Trans or Metal Machine Music had they been financed with the hard-earned money of longtime fans.
They're interesting questions, to be sure, but even without clear answers, a privatized, American-as-apple-pie version of the public arts funding along the lines of those enjoyed in countries like Canada and Sweden certainly can't be a bad thing for struggling musicians.
"Hopefully it means that higher quality, independently made art is possible," says Daniel Hart, a Dallas-based Kickstarter user who has worked with everyone from St. Vincent to The Polyphonic Spree. "Better films can be made, better recordings—someone could paint for a month instead of working a day job.
"That kind of freedom is not essential for good art to be created," says Hart. "But it certainly helps."