In a few hours, Ashlie White will drive from Durham to Virginia, where she'll pack 500 pieces of vinyl into her car. Tomorrow, she'll wake up early, stuff almost 120 of those albums into cardboard mailers and ship them to the people who've already paid for them.
By Saturday, she'll divvy the remaining copies among the region's record stores and prepare for a release party. On Sunday, she'll help ready a celebrity chef dinner for some of the record's key supporters, many of whom donated money to her project, Pet-Tich-Eye, via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
In the last three years, several area acts had used Kickstarter to fund new records, tours to Europe and even new studios; White figured that, based on enthusiasm alone, the same folks would fund Pet-Tich-Eye, intended to be released as a full-length album and art book this week on Record Store Day.
A year ago, White, a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduate student and local music fan, concocted Pet-Tich-Eye to pair local musicians, visual artists and photographers with the goal of producing a new multimedia work that she could sell to raise money for a charity of each artist's choice.
She decided to start the project in major fashion—a 10-track LP pairing 50 of the Triangle's most noteworthy musicians, photographers, painters and illustrators. But before gauging public interest, White used her credit cards to pay the musicians, the recording studio, an audio mastering engineer and a vinyl pressing plant—racking up $14,000 in debt. In exchange for the record and prizes such as private concerts or pieces of art, she reckoned supporters would use Kickstarter to pay off her debt.
The plan worked, but not with the ease White expected. After the Kickstarter launched, supporters quickly pledged more than a quarter of the $14,000 goal. But the flow of money soon slowed, while local criticism for the project began to flood in via social media. The specific complaints varied, but two clear themes emerged: White had paid for the supply out of pocket, assuming there would be a demand, so that was her debt to bear, not the community's. And what's more, the project with the strange name seemed unfocused: Why were these musicians and photographers involved? Wasn't it all a little insular? And how did the charities benefit? Wasn't the money being used to pay off White's debt?
These are, White says now, are all valid concerns. Talking through her decisions after the project's completion, White admits she's less a businesswoman than a passionate person; she often balks at her own answers, explaining her internal logic as though working through it once again. She decided to press expensive vinyl because she wanted the project, which includes a lavish website, to be more than "something on a screen." Vinyl "celebrates more than just the music." She chose to release the music on Record Store Day "because I've always been a supporter of local record stores." White agrees that she might have been trying to fit too many priorities into one project—when to release it, who to involve in it, how to present it—while misjudging the wants of her potential customers, i.e. the folks that she needed to pay off her debt.
That, of course, is a flawed business model, but in the end, the musicians that helped her start the project helped her spread the message as well, pushing Pet-Tich-Eye toward its goal. One of the record's players even made the timely donation that pushed the project past $14,000. White says she's learned those lessons and hopes to apply them to Pet-Tich-Eye's next project. But for the next few days at least, she still has plenty of work to do.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Glad debt."