Comment by Ian Savage
Around the back end of last decade, the direct-to-consumer business model facilitated so perfectly by the internet took the logical step into musician funding. A mini-explosion of websites like Sellaband, PledgeMusic, Kickstarter and Indiegogo occurred, allowing artists to bypass record labels and raise the money for their projects directly from fans.
Coupled with the decline of the major record label (arguably also a result of the ubiquitous world wide web) they seemingly offer a perfect means for musicians to take the DIY career path, retaining all of the rights to their material and connecting with their audience on a more immediate level.
For the uninitiated, here’s how it works. Rather than a band or artist putting pen to paper on a traditional contract with a record label, typically offering their recording expenses up-front to be paid back from sales, licensing deals or even tour and merchandise revenue, the fan-funding model gives musicians a set time period (up to nine months, most bands plump for less) to promote the fact that they will be recording. Their followers can then ‘pre-buy’ the opus, usually with various levels of incentive – anything from a few quid for a downloadable EP to four or five hundred pounds for an intimate acoustic performance in your own home or signed original artwork is not uncommon.
The crowdfunding website in question (we’ll focus on PledgeMusic from hereon in, as they’ve emerged as the dominant force in UK fan-based fund-raising) will then release the money once a band/artist have reached their cash target, minus a percentage for administrative costs – PledgeMusic charge 15%, which is typical. From there, the musicians are responsible – for recording their material, committing it to CD as needed, getting artwork and physical packaging sorted, and sending it out to their ‘pledgers’, as well as honouring any other commitments like providing memorabilia or personal appearances.
Many bands and musicians previously on major labels have grasped this opportunity with both hands. Some have had public spats with record labels in the past; some have been left in massive debt when their albums failed to sell what their bankrollers expected. Alien Ant Farm, Kids In Glass Houses,…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead and even Slash have current crowdfunding projects. Ginger Wildheart stopped his first PledgeMusic campaign when it reached 555% of his required monetary target (five being his lucky number, apparently) and says of the experience: “Record companies have historically been the bane of my existence, and I don’t know why I’d decide to replace something as fat free as pledge with a tired old model that has shown no interest in me for over a decade.”.
His Pledge train continues to roll unabated, with his latest two releases also having made more than 500% of their target, and Hey! Hello! track ‘How I Survived The Punk Wars’ reading like a how-to manual for bands in the post-record label age. The Hey! Hello! album recently debuted in the UK charts at number 12, outstripping Daft Punk and Justin Timberlake’s latest records.
Session singer and songwriter Givvi Flynn funded her first full-length album ‘Thieving From The Magpie’s Nest’ via Pledgemusic, raising over double her target amount. “Generally speaking, I think PledgeMusic is a great platform and while it will inevitably evolve to become even more efficient, it worked really well for me. In the first instance, all I had planned was a self-financed EP of covers, just for fun. While that thought was going on, I got so much encouragement from people in-the-know that I got brave and decided to make a full album (via Pledge) and include a stack of original material. I can’t see another scenario where I’d have got to make the music I did, and as I said, I made the rules all the way. I’m not gonna lie, it was really hard work but I’d do it again in a heartbeat!”
Chris Catalyst (of Eureka Machines/Ginger Wildheart Band/Sisters of Mercy) used PledgeMusic for the latest Eureka Machines opus ‘Remain In Hope’, with extra-cost incentives including framed handwritten lyrics and the band writing you a personal song. The album made 526% of its target sum. “The PledgeMusic model worked great for us. We have a good relationship with the people that come to see us and buy our records…[but] I wouldn’t use it if we didn’t have fans/followers in the first place. And it will only work if you commit to it and have a business head about the whole thing. If not, get someone else to run it for you.”
And herein lies the rub. For a new band to raise the cash to record a quality album or EP via fan-funding, they have to build a reliable crowd in the first place. With record labels shifting their focus to guaranteed short-term money-spinners like TV talent show winners and licensing established copyright songs to video game companies, the audience is now firmly in the power seat to decide which bands are worthy of releasing material and which will fall by the wayside. Chris Catalyst again: “Does it work better than record labels? If you get into bed with The Industry, you have a 1 in a million chance of getting as big as, say, Muse. Doing it this way, you have a 0 in a million chance of that, but you get to be the keeper of your own destiny.”
Which may well, some would say thankfully, have marked the end of trashed hotel rooms, limos in swimming pools and five-figure drug habits. When a band or artist are funded purely by their fans, the margin for error is much slimmer, the responsibility for your actions so much greater. It’s difficult to picture ’80s era Aerosmith surviving in a crowdfunded, YouTube-permeated era, when one bad show could literally lose you tens of thousands towards your next recording.
Recent surveys have shown a desire from music lovers to be more connected with the musicians they follow; Twitter and Formspring are another two routes artists are taking to fulfil this. Ginger’s Formspring has him answering questions from fans about everything from tour dates to his workout regime and haircut; Therapy?’s Andy Cairns habitually re-tweets fans’ views of his shows; Jesse Malin encourages followers to choose his setlist via Twitter. All the while, of course, utilising these new avenues to promote any crowdfunded projects they may have in the offing.
So is the fan-funding model useable for everyone, or just for those who have already been around the block a few times and have a guaranteed fanbase? As it has ever been, becoming successful in this new world order of music business requires a mixture of talent, hard work and sheer ‘right-place-right-time’ good luck (although an abundance of one may compensate for a deficit in another) – but the definition of ‘successful’ has itself moved massively over the past decade or two. Simply being able to give up the day job seems to be the gold at the end of the rainbow for many musicians now, with a will to continue making the music that they love by any means necessary outweighing any desire for a six-figure major-label recording contract. With audiences for unsigned music themselves in decline as disposable income is increasingly squeezed, savvy self-promotion and a brutal work ethic are the must-have tools for anyone embarking on a career in music in 2013 – there are still no shortcuts to the top outside of a short-lived TV talent show ‘career’.
As Chris Catalyst optimistically rounds off: “We’ve never had a record deal, but what we took from the Pledge campaign allowed us to pay ourselves for the first time. Just use your brain and your common sense.”.