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Kickstarter and many more 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 your funding goal during that window, the project fails. Any money pledged goes back into the pledger's pocket. Convinced that he would never meet any goal, Toth turned his Kickstarter test into his New Year's resolution: "If it failed, it would be a totally public failure. It would be a pretty good barometer that I need to stop."
Toth's project didn't fail. Rather, he flew past his goal of $5,500 in a matter of weeks, and with a week left in his project, Toth inched toward $8,000. That number not only validates his career so far but also reinvigorates his commitment to it.
Toth represents a sort of crowdfunding sweet spot for musicians. He's enjoyed some success, sure, but the dividends he's earned are slim compared to the decade of dues he's paid. Kickstarter seems to be the most effective when a band has previously done the groundwork—putting out a record on their own, touring, working for press—but isn't overwhelmingly popular. If you're too obscure, who will care enough to contribute? Get too famous, though, and the sense of ownership and investment that crowdfunding affords donors gets lost.
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, really, hundreds of thousands—of records, should the right song land upon the right ears at the right time. Consider The Arcade Fire, a Canadian band who, just seven years ago, played its bombastic, hooky indie rock in the tiniest, dingiest clubs for mostly no one. Last month, though, their album The Suburbs, released by indie Durham label Merge Records, took the top honors at the Grammy Awards, upsetting superstars like Eminem and Lady Gaga. The tunes propelled the once anonymous, still independent band in the vicinity of the mainstream. Traditional, rags-to-riches success remains a possibility.
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 like The Suburbs. For instance, another North Carolina label, Three Lobed Recordings, has been about as successful as any label focused on experimental music—spectral folk songs, psychedelic escapades, solo guitar meditations—could hope to be. The High Point-based imprint has released about 80 albums, and nearly all of them have sold out, meaning that some Three Lobed pieces now fetch high prices on sites like eBay or record-trading message boards.
Despite those sales, though, Three Lobed owner Cory Rayborn says his operating budget never exceeds $6,000. When he started considering plans to commemorate the label's 10th anniversary, then, he knew he'd have to find an alternate source of funding. The project—four LPs featuring unreleased music by label friends Sonic Youth, Comets on Fire, Bardo Pond, Wooden Wand and four others—would cost more than $30,000. Previously, Rayborn has driven projects with such high overheads by pre-sales. That is, he puts out notice to regular customers about a special new release, gives them a price and eventually delivers a product. For a label whose stock always sells out, it's a convenient way for fans to reserve something that will inevitably be unavailable. He'd seen the success that Toth, a friend and longtime label artist, had with his own Kickstarter campaign, so he decided to try it.
Rayborn gathered things to give away to donors. A donation of $5 would get you a handshake and self-satisfaction, while $65 would buy a copy of the box set. Offer $850, and you'd get one copy of everything Three Lobed ever released. A lawyer in High Point, Rayborn set what he considered to be a pragmatic goal of $5,500. That would be enough to get the project started, anyway, and he'd fund it piecemeal until it was complete.
"I finished the Kickstarter website on a Saturday night when I had some dead time at home. Those are the wee, nether hours of the Internet, when I put it up at 9 o' clock on a Saturday night," he says. "But by the time I went to bed the next night, we were just a couple hundred dollars shy of that goal—really cool, really encouraging."
Within a few days, Rayborn had doubled that number. And with almost five weeks left until his project ends on Kickstarter, 139 people have combined to pledge nearly $13,000 collectively. Together, their interest funded a project that, otherwise, the label might never have afforded.
"Whenever someone backs the project, you get an e-mail. And for the better part of that first week, every time I looked at my computer screen, it was, 'So-and-so is a maniac, and they have given you $350,'" Rayborn says, laughing. "Creatively, it gives you some sort of validation that the idea you had is worthwhile."
Thomas Costello counts himself as a fan of Three Lobed Recordings. Most everything in Rayborn's catalog, he says, appeals to his tastes, and he praises their approach—big, heavy vinyl records in bold packaging. But he didn't contribute to the label's Kickstarter campaign, in large part, because he feels that the system of fans fronting money for projects not yet finished is a faulty one. First, if the demand for such a box set really exists, it should pay for itself, either through a business loan or the sell of old inventory. Kickstarter projects, he says, create a mirage of demand.
A clerk at one of the Triangle's few remaining music stores, CD Alley, and a promotions assistant at Cat's Cradle, Costello 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 that 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."
Matthew 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 their fans. A $40 pledge to Frontier Ruckus meant that 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," says Milia. "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."
"It's all bullshit, man. The old way is just so obviously over," says James Jackson Toth, his voice crackling through cell phone static as his trio approaches the Canadian border for a show in Vancouver. "I tell people who are in bands to just play music. Stop reading rock books. Stop reading about Springsteen and Neil Young. That's like reading Plato's Republic or about the Knights of the Round Table. It doesn't exist. It's an illusion, and it fucks with you."
The old system of which Toth speaks comprises industry middlemen who plan everything for their bands—where you'll tour, when you'll tour, how you'll record, how you'll live. Those safeguards (barriers, some might call them) have fallen with the radical drop in profits during the last decade, both from the recession and from online music piracy. It leaves more bands in control of their money and career, though the money and the career might have slimmed.
For instance, Caitlin Cary remembers that during her time as a solo artist with a manager and a significant label at her back, the band would stay in hotels that were too nice for an act that wasn't filling clubs every night and wasn't blazing through the Billboard charts. She knew that the ends didn't meet, but she wasn't in control of the purse strings.
That's the sort of situation that, only a decade ago, Django Haskins might have encountered with his sophisticated pop band, The Old Ceremony. Hooky and handsome, they would've been perfect major-label bait before the music industry slumped. But Haskins and his band turned to Kickstarter last month to help fund their first tour through Europe this summer. They've nearly doubled their funding goal because people—and not a major label—want what they have to offer.
"The monolithic structures have mostly gone away. All the Borders are closing in Chapel Hill. If you want a book, you can order online or at a specialty bookstore," Haskins says. "Now we're down to a granular level of support, and it's happening all over the place."
Grayson Currin recently used Microgiving to rescue a pit bull that wandered into his yard in Raleigh.