As I’ve been musing on the role of Kickstarter in the “new” music business (like a lot of people), a few things really stand out to me. Let’s start with a biggie. On Monday, Kickstarter passed the $1 billion mark in total dollars pledged by backers. That's as legit as it gets, folks. Oh, and by the way, more than half of that amount was raised in the last 12 months alone (Kickstarter started in 2009). Music projects account for $104.7 million of all the money pledged so far. Well, that’s pretty amazing. But here is the bit that caused me to fall out of my chair. As of today's statistics, 55.16 percent of music projects have been funded,* compared to an overall Kickstarter success rate of 43.55 percent. That means that as a way to fund a venture, Kickstarter actually works better for independent music endeavors than for all its other business categories. Not sure I've ever seen a business statistic where the business of music had an advantage over others.
For a long time now, there have been many different paths to fund a new recording. It’s my opinion that for the majority of independent artists, crowdfunding is hands-down the best. I view crowdfunding as not just a means to pay for a product, but one of the measures of an artist’s potential for a viable career.**
One way to think of any crowdfunding experience is as a kind of metric to gauge whether you know and understand your market (fans) or if you’re living in a place that starts with La-La and ends with Land. Let’s say your campaign was a dud. Maybe it was because you made false assumptions about what and how big your market is or you set a funding goal that was unrealistically high or unnecessary. Maybe your presentation was all wrong. If you want to make your living primarily through music, you need to think like a businessperson (shocking, I know). As a process, Kickstarter is valuable because it forces you to think about what your goals and needs are, then encapsulate them in a concise pitch to potential backers. Look everybody, it's a business plan!
Way back when, bands spent an inordinate amount of time trying to collect "friends" on Myspace or wherever. There was a false perception that if they grew their roster to the size of a successful artist’s, they would become equally successful. Some record labels even bought into this. In reality, there’s no such parity. Online friends have no real investment in your work. But Kickstarter backers are doing something more meaningful than hitting the “Like” button on your Facebook page. They’re liking you in a substantive way—becoming a real partner in your professional journey.
I’m seeing more independent artists bring their funded projects to Manifold Recording, where I’m chief engineer. Chapel Hill’s Matt Phillips and the Philharmonics spent their Kickstarter funds here to record their latest album, Move, while virtuoso pianist Frederic Chiu made his Kickstarter-funded record Hymns and Dervishes here. The newest Kickstarter project coming to Manifold is the debut album by “The Voice” finalist Kat Robichaud. She ended her Kickstarter campaign early this morning with full funding. She started with $20,000 as her primary goal, then added stretch goals of $30,000 and $40,000, and hit an amazing $42,583.
Kat moved swiftly to motivate the fans she earned on “The Voice” to help create something tangible: her upcoming self-described “theatrical rock explosion” album. The cornerstone of a Kickstarter campaign is the concept of giving backers “gifts” in exchange for a pledge of a certain amount—be it a digital download, a shout-out in the liner notes, a private concert, or a chance to hang out with them in the recording studio. But beyond that, backers want to be part of something they “believe in.” As Kickstarter says on it Web site: “Backing a project is more than just pledging funds to a creator. It's pledging your support to a creative idea that you want to see exist in the world.”
Backers need to believe you’re doing something that benefits everyone. Kat, who crowd-surfed during one of her “Voice” numbers, struck the right note in her campaign. She persuaded backers that their participation was validation to pursue her dream, and that part of her dream was sharing it with them. She also explained that their pledges were key to determining the size and scope of her project. This might be why backers ponied up an extra $10,000 for her first stretch goal. By adding that amount, she explained that she could "upgrade" the project by recording with yours truly at Manifold. With the first stretch hurdle cleared, she then announced that meeting a second stretch goal (another $10,000) would allow for an album release show at the Lincoln Theater in Raleigh, N.C., billed as a "live-streamed concert with a costume-party extravaganza." She’ll be making a live recording of it to boot. That is going to be one hell of a party.
It should go without saying, but you can learn a lot about how to craft a good Kickstarter pitch by simply examining campaigns that were successful, the ones mentioned here included. The more specific you are in your pitch, the more likely potential backers will see your project as something credible. Give would-be backers a precise accounting of why you need to raise your stated goal and how you will spend the money to achieve it. You might even show them where you plan to complete your project and add that to your storyline. Matt Phillips and the Philharmonic, for example, used Manifold as a backdrop in their pitch video, and Kat used photos in her first stretch-goal pitch. Associating your project with other positive, successful things can add legitimacy. Oh, and the word "cats". Not kidding. Read on ...
Is there a Science to Kickstarter?
Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology think there may be. They wanted see if it was possible to connect the success of a campaign to the language used in the pitch. So they analyzed 9 million phrases and 59 other variables commonly present on crowdfunding sites. They identified words and phrases used in 45,000 Kickstarter projects, 51.53 percent of which reached their funding goal and 48.47 that didn’t.
For example, the phrases “also receive two,” “has pledged” and “project will be” strongly predict that a project will reach its goal, while phrases such as “dressed up,” “not been able” and “trusting” are attached to some duds. A particularly interesting word used in persuasive pitches was cats. Eric Gilbert, one of the researchers, said, “We had no clear explanation for the occurrence of cats — except for the commonly accepted wisdom that the Internet loves them." Click here to download the whole paper and the list of the good and bad words.
If you reach your Kickstarter goal, you’re probably going to be crazy-giddy. But when you come back down to earth, keep in mind: Kickstarter might help you complete the project of your dreams, but it’s no guarantee of a successful career. In fact, it's just help to make your product. You don’t make money unless you go out there and SELL IT. Which is why crowdfunding is but one step — in one path — to success in the new music-business world.
* Figures reported as of March 5, 2014.
**Disclaimer: This is about commerce, not art. Success in crowdfunding is no statement about the ultimate quality of the art. As I'm sure you know, most artistic genius is not recognized in its own time, and many of those geniuses die broke, in obscurity... So, screw that and let’s make some coin!