Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Kickstarter Dilemma

Today over at AV Club Milwaukee, Matt writes about the latest local Milwaukee Kickstarter project, set up by local "Folk/fusion/psychobilly" act The Fatty Acids. The project pays for not only the pressing of their new CD, Leftover Monsterface, but it also partially bankrolls a 2011 tour that the band is planning:

- Our 2011 tour will take us from Milwaukee over to the West Coast, down and over to Texas, then back up to Chicago/MKE. It's going to cost over $3500, and we'd like to offset that just a little bit.

I'm not anti-Kickstarter necessarily (and i'm very much not anti-Fatty Acids, as they're great people and a great band), but occasionally the semantics involved with these campaigns make me uncomfortable. As an avenue for album presales, it's not a bad model; my friend Conan has done this twice now, for his Karl Rove: Courage and Consequence LP and for his band Victory & Associates' upcoming vinyl disc. As AV Club Milwaukee also reported recently, Milwaukee slack-rockers Sat. Nite Duets are doing the same.

Where i start having issues with making it all work in my head is when these campaigns expand beyond a physical purpose into things like "pay for our tour." The Scarring Party did this recently, and if we go back further, Margaret from Pezzettino ran a campaign (that she took a load of shit for) to pay for repairs to her car that stemmed from incessant touring.

The oft-tossed dismissive that Kickstarter is nothing more than "DIY pandhandling" doesn't really wash; after all, with most campaigns, the people who back the project get something for their money (and the best campaigns are the ones that get the most creative with the perks they throw in, like the Evan Gritzon coffee primer or Conan Neutron band bio writing services offered by Victory & Associates during the campaign for their These Things Are Facts album).

Still, there's something that feels unsavory about asking fans to bankroll a tour, and i'm not sure i can place my finger on what it is. Maybe it's the language on the site? The copy refers to "backers" and "pledges," words that imply an act of charity. Would things feel more legit if the different backing levels were presented as outright purchases? After all, IfIHadAHiFi just provided our live performance services to the Bottom Lounge and were paid in kind--money that's going to go toward our first tank of gas on tour. How's that different than sending someone a care package of records, t-shirts and stickers in exchange for some gas money? Does the change in emphasis from the product sold to what the money's spent on really make that much of a difference?

It could be that i feel like there's a bit of disconnect happening between the realities of touring and the act of bankrolling them. The existence of Kickstarter itself is an admission that being in a band (along with most other artistic endeavors) is a goddamn money pit. Records and CDs are expensive, and a band's first several tours rarely pay for themselves. However, speaking for myself, i feel like our first shit-eating, money-losing tours were character-building exercises that tested our resolve. How much did we really believe in our music? Enough to take it in the ass driving eight hours to play for four people and hope that tomorrow's show will make up the deficit in the gas tank? Would it have been the same risky-ass but rewarding, camaraderie-building experience if we had two grand sitting in the bank ready to cover the bad nights?

There's a voice in the back of my head that says that bands that don't willingly face the risk of losing their ass in the pursuit of their art aren't really bands at all. But then, maybe those bands just aren't as stupid as we are. Are the bands relying on Kickstarter to tour disconnected from the realities of the road, or is the road changing? I often think that the members of Black Flag would laugh at us using our Google maps to find the club, so who am i to talk?

This is a post written by someone whose mind isn't made up. So convince me one way or the other in the comments, won't you?


  1. In my opinion, Kickstarter is utilized best when it is used to create something lasting: a book, a record, a sculpture, etc. Asking people to pay for a tour is essentially saying "Hey, we want to galavant around and have fun, but we don't want to pay for it." In fact, that sort of request is explicitly forbidden in the Kickstarter guidelines:
    No "fund my life" projects. Examples include projects to pay tuition or bills, go on vacation, or buy a new camera.

  2. Does the "Evan Gritzon Coffee Primer" get my coffee revved up and ready to go, or does it give me some basic background information on my coffee?

  3. That's a very good point, and it brings up more questions as to whether a tour actually falls under "fund my life." I mean, it's a creative project, but i also definitely look at it as vacation (since touring tends to prevent me from taking real ones). HMMM.

  4. Does it really matter? I think sometimes people are loathe to admit that even going to a friend's show can be considered charity. And hello closet of touring band's tshirts ill never wear.
    If you like the band and want them to tour, give them money if they ask for it. If you don't, don't.
    These dilemmas are interesting but at the end of a day, I'm not going to stop listening to an album because I don't believe the artist has paid enough dues.

  5. Michael, the answer to your question is right on the V&A Kickstarter:

    "You Can't Download Coffee Lesson with Evan Gritzon. V&A Bassplayer/vocalist Evan Gritzon is something of an expert on all things coffee, come and hang with him for a lesson in all things related to the bean! Also access to all project updates and digital download ahead of time."

    Lindsey, as a dude in a band, i'm loath to think that anyone is being charitable toward us. Don't buy our shirt if you're never gonna wear it.

    And personally, i think there's a lot to be said for "paying dues." It's all very nebulous and WAY open for debate, but i think bands that are forced to operate on certain levels make very different music from those who don't. Not better or worse...just different. (Although i will defend to the death my thesis that people like Vampire Weekend and Chester French make abysmal music because their cushy upbringings let them afford to, but that discussion may be a bit too tangential to this one? I dunno?)

  6. It does weird me out a little, but I think it comes from a "why wasn't this around when we were touring (and would people have funded us)?"

    After thinking about it a bit, I figure, if people are OK with donating their money for something like touring, than it's OK with me. It's just a dramatically more efficient way of going "some money for the touring band" after they've played.

  7. I think this is your martyr-dom talking. Sure, Kickstarter is sorta tacky, but not any more tacky than asking wedding guests to contribute to a PayPal account for a honeymoon (or hell, even putting in your registry info in a wedding invite [which I did, but I was very young]).
    Also, the apprehension about asking your fans to bankroll your tour is sorta null since that's what you want them to do anyway, and just before stuff like this you wanted them to pay for shows and buy merch. So, to this Kickstarter is fine, but only if you don't mind asking for help.

  8. "some money for the touring band" is an interesting way of looking at it, but is it different if i wasn't there to see the show?

    Your question of "why wasn't this around when we were touring (and would people have funded us)?" is perfectly valid. It could very well be where i'm coming from too, just a high-and-mighty "pssh, WE didn't have that when we started out" sort of chest-thumping. I'm totally cool with being called out if that's the root of the issue for me.

  9. Hoo boy, well... seeing as how i'm being called out by example I will say this: The Rove comp was a time sensitive thing that basically could not have happened any other way. It was a cause and a statement as much as a record, even if the cause was to stick in a well deserving somebodies eye.

    The Victory and Associates record would still exist as a record, without kickstarter. We paid for the recording out of pocket... but it would not exist as a physical entity. Which, as lifelong music nerds, was not something that appealed to us. But we basically had the money to record and not release it. Hence: Internet! And $5,000 worth of people wanting to see that record become a physical reality, and we did, with coffee lessons, collector's plates, bio writing, t-shirts, etc. But also because people wanted to see us put out a record the way we wanted to put out a record. Something that would not even have been possible a couple years ago.

    The "internet panhandling" thing is reductive and usually misleading. I've seen kickstarter (and other service) campaigns that pretty much are that, where the "rewards" that are offered are laughable. A few other SF bands were raising funds for records at the time that we were... let's say that the respect for the donors was palpable in ours and perhaps not so much with the others. (Read: Their 'rewards' kind of sucked it)

    I feel as of putting together a campaign for a physical object of some kind, like a record. Is totally fine. But if a band wanted to use it to a fund a tour, I doubt I would contribute unless the rewards were something I really liked (exclusive material, t-shirt or something.) The band was one I loved, and I knew that there was no other way that it would happen.

    Victory and Associates is a new band, (well a year and a half, so fairly new), but we've all played in bands for years and done more than our share of "shit eating" tours. Considering how many sources of revenue have been cut out completely from even breaking even, how much gas has risen in price and the amount paid out to the bands on an average night at all, I don't blame bands at all for turning to the internet for tour support. That said: it would have to meet all the criteria, and most bands I would do it for would never open themselves up to the world of withering criticism that is crowdsourcing.

    Would I use it to fund a tour? Almost certainly not... not just as a "hey, here's this tour!" thing. It would have to be something like a Rolling Thunder review bus tour of V&A, Poison Control Center, Hurry Up Shotgun, Police Teeth, Bismarck and Virgin Islands or something. Otherwise yeah, i'd just save and get the time off... but that's also me and I don't think less of others for going another route too.

    I wanted to see the Scarring Party (to use your example), so I kicked in for their tour. It succeeded, I did! Heck, I even set them up one of the shows, and I got to see a great band and make some new friends because of some stupid stuff on the internet. Awesome! I don't really see who is harmed, other than a lot of people that are jealous.

    Ultimately, I kind of look at it like the internet itself... there's a whole bunch of internet out there that I give NO FUCK about, and a few small corners that I love dearly and choose to support. Something would have to be really indulgent for me to get upset about a kickstarter campaign.

  10. "Also, the apprehension about asking your fans to bankroll your tour is sorta null since that's what you want them to do anyway"

    I get what you're saying, Evie, but there's a difference in that i wouldn't expect someone in Milwaukee to contribute directly to a show that they're not going to attend in Seattle. But like i say in the post, it's not like Kickstarter contributors don't get something physical for their money. The more i think about it, the more i think it's all in the semantics and the execution of the campaign.

  11. OK, Conan, "called out" might be a bit harsh, since i used you as an example of one i didn't really have an issue with. ;P

    Where it probably boils down is that Kickstarter, like so many other things, is a tool, and it can be used well or really poorly.

  12. Oh yeah, and I was touring hard before cellphones were even as prevalent as they are (nights only! super limited minutes) You had to go to a local library to use the internet...
    Heck, no air conditioning, no ipod or even cd player. Heck, most venues didn't even have e-mail... or they checked it once every 2 weeks. You remember those days.

    But you know what? I tour now too, and I *LOVE* having all of those things. It's fucking great! A part of me wants to lecture younger bands that complain about complaining about touring now... and a larger part of me wishes that it wasn't that easy, since not everybody even should. BUT, in the end I get a little libertarian about it I guess.

    Is it tacky? I guess, but it's up to the donor to decide if the reward is worth it. Unless the reward is like: a high five or something, which is pretty lame.

  13. "Where it probably boils down is that Kickstarter, like so many other things, is a tool, and it can be used well or really poorly."


  14. Most of the people who are being asked for money (especially when a kickstarter campaign is promoted through a messageboard largely compromised of your musician brethren) are struggling musicians themselves, and that's a problem I have with it--I think. I'm actually more OK with the "fund my life" or "buy me a can of sardines" causes then I am with struggling musicians asking a bunch of other struggling musicians for straight-up cash. Also, the "Yeah, we did it!" which inevitably comes at the end of a "successful" campaign (usually topped off by the band itself in some way because failure is not an option) rings disingenuous to me.

    All that being said, I'm thinking about starting one to fund my world series of poker 2012 run. Something about the band thing just rubs me the wrong way. No offense to present company.

    -John Houlihan

  15. Ah, the Kickstarter debate.

    It's a fundraiser platform. like any other fundraiser selling pizzas, car washes, lemonade stands... for the arts, radio stations, public tv...

    take it or leave it. if you believe in the group, and have the means to chip a cinqo in their tank to keep the engine running further down the road, and maybe get a commemorative pin or decorated toilet paper in the process, then go for it.

    if you hate everything the group does and stand for, then don't pull up their pants and get on with your crossword.

    if you love everything about the band, really want them to tour and wish you could buy every goddamn pack of peanuts for their snacking pleasure but are a broke fucking musician and can't afford to even eat yourself, then chill and don't hate on your brah because they started a kickstarter campaign. your free words of encouragement are just as valuable, so share the love and tell them how much you care and kiss their effigy at night.

    smells like fear spirit. everything's changing rapidly and we're all trying to figure it out. kickstarter will work for some but not all, and those that it works for will have to figure out how often or much they can rely on their audience to keep the dream alive without exhausting the fans (or yourself). you may find yourself spending over 80 hours for ONE personalized reward (and maybe the campaign is more successful than you think, then you're finding that you'll still be hacking down that list a year later...).

    bitching about a band's kickstarter is like taking issue with your milkman for being gay.

    who cares? does it work for them? awesome.

    do you like getting fucked in the ass? figure it out.

    i sure do. haha :0)

  16. Eh, you know how I feel about it. But to summarize: If it's basically an album pre-pay pre-order, awesome; anything else, I feel it's a bit ridic.

    I am however incredibly intrigued by this idea of pre-selling shows before booking a tour: http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=12929
    You'd need to have a certain audience size to do it, I guess, but it's a fantastic idea. It works a LOT better for me than a kickstarter campaign for a tour does.

  17. It seems that the default reaction to an honest opinion is to claim to be picked on, regardless of intention. Grow a thicker skin or quit rock and roll.

  18. KT--interesting idea. It reminds me of David Bazan's advance-ticket-sale house shows.

  19. I'd been meaning to send it to you when I saw it, after our kickstarter discussions last spring. It just makes so much sense to me. (I don't know your reference but I'm sure it's dead-on!)