BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DOLLAR (OR $20)? The New Music Patronage

Amanda
Palmer, Gang of Four and Eric Bachman are among the many musicians taking their
business ventures to the people.

 

BY RON HART

 

Not even a decade ago, the only pledge drives you would
really hear about were from listener-supported radio stations like WFMU, Jerry
Lewis’s Labor Day Telethon, PBS and your local school PTA’s bake sale. These
days, however, as a means to stay afloat in a rapidly capsizing music industry,
more and more music acts are turning to their fans to help them fund their
artistic ventures in the advent of such websites as Kickstarter, PledgeMusic, BandCamp,
ArtistShare and IndieGoGo. Taking a cue from the groundbreaking online
campaigns of Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails to engage directly with their
fanbases, these sites provide a means for artists to help raise the appropriate
revenue to get their respective projects off the ground.

 

“IndieGoGo is based on the fundamental belief that bringing
new ideas to the community can be achieved in an efficient and democratic way,”
explains Slava Rubin, co-founder and CEO, in regards to his company’s goals for
the artists who work with them. “IndieGoGo is democratic; we believe that every
project or idea has a right to reach [its audience].”  

 

“We’ve always said that musicians should get reasonably paid
for what we do,” proclaims Gang of Four frontman Jon King, who along with his
bandmates utilized PledgeMusic.com to successfully help fund their forthcoming
album Content. “But the new
model-where music is shared and downloaded for nothing, where traditional
record companies are doomed but where technology-based intermediaries like Apple,
who don’t invest a cent in talent and are making almost all the money-means
that it’s no longer possible to earn any money from recorded music.”

 

Dresden Dolls siren Amanda Palmer (pictured, above) has,
too, found good fortune by taking the online patronage route as well, making
over $15,000 in under three minutes following the announcement of her new EP Amanda Palmer Performs The Popular Hits of
Radiohead On Her Magical Ukelele,
through BandCamp at a minimum pledge of
84 cents. For Palmer, who has long been a most vocal critic against the greedy
practices of the music industry, this model is a perfect fit for artists with
realistic goals in mind.

 

“For a hardworking artist who’s not particularly interested
in fame, glamour and fortune but is, rather, invested in art and community and
making music on their own terms, the major label system is generally a
disaster,” says Palmer. “I think the most important focus moving forward should
be the attitude everyone is taking towards the exchange, since it’s becoming
more of a working class music economy. Now that the blockbuster structure has
fallen, musicians need to come to terms with the fact that superstardom isn’t
the goal-the goal is making a living wage.”

 

But where some can see music patronage as a proper means to
an end in these shaky times for the music business, there are a few who can see
the hairline cracks in the model that could prove to be troublesome as well. Case
in point are the financial issues that have encroached upon the otherwise noble
campaign of Venice Is Sinking, an Athens, GA-based indie rock group who funded
their new album, Sand & Lines,
through Kickstarter.com, but did not anticipate the problems on the
distribution end of things following their pledge drive (part of which was used
to help give back to the rebuilding of the legendary Georgia Theatre, where the
album was recorded and sadly was destroyed by a fire shortly thereafter).

 

“We’ve always been into Fugazi-style pricing, whenever
possible,” believes the band’s Lucas Jensen. “The problem that we have now is
that we set the bar too low, and now we’re accruing costs that we didn’t
anticipate, and we’ve also gone way late on delivering our rewards to our
donors, which can be downright embarrassing.”

 

Another issue that arose upon the discussion of music
patronage is the insularity of the strictly online-only venture, as brought up
by indie rock veteran Eric Bachmann, who funded his latest Crooked Fingers EP, Reservoir Songs II, through Kickstarter.
He has concerns about the lack of social identity in the action of online
pledge drives.   

 

“We have to be careful,” he warns. “It’s great that we can
reach all these people and fans from our laptops to ask them for money, but if
that’s the only way we interact then we are giving something up in terms of
community: everyone in their little pods writing little notes to one another
while never getting past a certain layer of communication,”

 

And while it has proven to be easy for artists with built-in
audiences like Palmer, Gang of Four and Bachmann to find success going the
online music venture route, smaller acts looking to establish themselves beyond
their own creative neighborhood might have more concern with this type of model
than good old fashioned “get in the van” style promotion.

 

“See, if it’s only your fans, friends and family members
that are donating, that’s great and everything, but it’s not like a successful
Kickstarter campaign is going to put you out there in front of any new people,”
believes Lucas. “Nobody’s gonna give you money who doesn’t know you these days
unless your project is super-unique-and, let’s face it, releasing your band’s
indie rock record is not particularly unique.”

 

Resources: Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com); IndieGoGo (www.indiegogo.com); Bandcamp (http://bandcamp.com); Pledge Music (www.pledgemusic.com); ArtistShare (www.artistshare.net)

 

 

[Photo of Amanda Palmer: Gregory Nomoora]

 

 

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