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Crowd Control: financing music projects via crowd-funding.

October 16, 2014

This article first appeared in issue 37 of The Works – the magazine of BASCA, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.

Crowd-funding has become incredibly high profile in the last year. Amanda Palmer became one the most well-known names associated with it, when she raised over US$1 million dollars from donors using the Kickstarter platform in order to produce her album, art book and tour. Meanwhile, on the music specialist crowd-funding site Pledge Music, Ginger Wildheart raised money from over 6,000 ‘pledgers’ to record a triple album.

While this all feels very new, classical and jazz composers are well versed in having their work funded by public subscriptions and donations. A recent BASCA survey of how commissions are funded revealed that almost half of the 97 respondents had paid for a commission from individual giving or fundraising schemes. In other words, the tradition of public subscription as a way of funding composition is well embedded. A number of orchestras and other organisations run schemes that offer members of the public the opportunity to contribute to the commissioning of new classical work.

The Royal Philharmonic Society, for example, was set up 200 years ago in order to put on concerts paid for by members’ subscriptions, and has commissioned numerous new works including, famously, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Their fundraising for composers and performances of new work continues to this day.

Another example is Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s Sound Investment programme, which allows the public to purchase units of £150 towards the cost of commissioning new music, in return for benefits such as a named acknowledgement, an invitation to rehearsals or a chance to meet the composer.

Dr Gwendolyn Tietze, the group’s Director of Development, says that the scheme has been highly successful.

“We launched Sound Investment in 1991 with two aims: to raise money to be able to commission more composers, and to involve more people in the excitement of creating new work. So far, Sound Investment has helped us premiere 68 new works by a variety of emerging and established UK and international composers, raised over £300,000 for new commissions, and it has involved over 300 individual donors.”

This sort of innovation by commissioning organisations seems set to continue, with the announcement in May that a consortium led by Sound and Music has been awarded a ‘Catalyst Grant’ by Arts Council England, to enable them to run trials involving crowd-funding to cultivate mid-level donors.

Some media writers have already identified new opportunities from the rise of online crowd-funding, with independent film and video game makers able to use the technology to plug into an alternative source of money to put projects into production.

Award-winning media writer Richard Jacques, for example, has been asked to create music for the online trailers used to generate crowd-funding income, and says these platforms can work well to get interesting and more indie projects off the ground. Richard recommends keeping an eye on projects that are in development as a way of tapping into potential score-writing opportunities.

Independent fundraising

Online crowd-funding platforms can also offer the individual composer/songwriter or small organisation the option of fundraising independently without having the infrastructure of a commissioning organisation or music publisher to financially support their writing. Websites such as Pledge Music, Indiegogo, Kickstarter, My Major Company and others are all geared up to connect individuals with music projects in need of funding. But how suitable are these platforms for the work of songwriters and composers?

Certainly, one of the most obvious challenges is that most of the active crowd-funding campaigns for music online are being run by performers. The typical model is that supporters will be offered a physical or digital album and access to a live performance as a reward for their support, which may not be something that all writers can offer. Another issue is that in order to crowd-fund you need a crowd. Writers who are also artists and have their own fan base are likely to have a ready-made group to approach, but others will find that this is something that has to be developed from scratch.

On the surface, crowd-funding sites may not seem like the natural home for songwriters and composers, but there are a number of potential advantages. One of the benefits is that these sites often allow more unusual and interesting projects to find their audience without necessarily appealing to the commercial mainstream. Projects can take almost any shape or style, giving huge scope for creativity in how the work is delivered. Writers may find that they get a refreshing amount of support from their contacts and enjoy the experience of a dialogue with their network and the public directly as they create their work.

Author Miranda Ward experienced these benefits when she crowd-funded the publication of her first book F**k The Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice: Essays on a rock ‘n’ roll band. The book is a memoir based on her experiences as a freelance writer and her friendship with Oxford-based band Little Fish. The book explores the nature of success and creativity through the story of the band. Miranda was supported by fans of the band, readers of her blog and the local music community in Oxford to write the book. Getting grassroots financial support also enabled Miranda to demonstrate the demand for her book to the publisher Unbound.

“Fans of the band were prepared to throw their money at it and spread the word,” she says. However, she adds a note of caution, warning that independent fundraising takes a great deal of work. “I was really happy to do it, but it’s quite an exhausting process… I felt like I was a broken record constantly saying ‘support this thing’.

“And then you have to sit down and actually write it…I felt I had a responsibility to these people [who had pledged money]… it is a lot of investment on both sides.”

The crowd-funding life cycle

Crista Kende is a professional freelance violist based in New York City. For over a decade she played on a viola on loan from a foundation, but when she completed her Masters at the Juilliard conservatory, she had to find an instrument of her own. As she also has a job working at crowd-funding site Indiegogo, it was natural for her to turn to the platform to raise money for a world-class instrument to continue her career. Crista set out to raise US$24,000 over a 30-day campaign.

“There was definitely a lot of planning, a few months’ worth,” she says, speaking from her New York office. “I don’t think I understood the whole process until I did it for myself.”

To make it work, she found that she needed to be very proactive about contacting people, publicising her campaign, updating her Indiegogo page and other social media and responding to queries.
“It’s really like a part-time job, spending a few hours per day – you work for it,” she explains. This included reaching out to viola and classical music groups on social news and entertainment websites like Reddit, and contacting people on Twitter who she thought would be able to publicise her campaign.

She got a late boost from a mention on Norman Lebrecht’s widely-read Slipped Disc blog in the UK, and all of this helped her break out of her inner circle and reach strangers.

The kind of perks that Crista included in her campaign were carefully chosen so that she would be able to put the money raised towards the cost of the viola, and not on fulfilling the sweeteners. She offered viola lessons, a ‘Crista Channel’ where she would release one recording each month of viola pieces performed on her new viola, and tickets to a recital, among other benefits.

How did it go? Crista raised one quarter of the money within the first week. There was a lull in the middle weeks, which Indiegogo says that most campaigns experience. Two days from the end date, Crista was still short by US$11,000, but she met the target by continually reminding people of the countdown to the deadline, which spurred some late funders into action.

In the end, 188 different people contributed between US$5 and US$1,500 to the campaign. Crista estimated that she already knew around 75 per cent of the people who contributed – some were family members, but others were loosely connected to her, and people that she would not have approached for funding had it not been in the context of the campaign.

Crista’s primary tip is not to approach people feeling as if you are simply asking for money. The exercise needs to be treated as “creating a market place for your services” and finding a way to communicate with your audience on a different level, she says. In her experience, people are often more interested than you may first think.

Early adopters

On this side of the Atlantic, and in a popular music genre, BASCA member Rob Flanagan of London band, Some Velvet Morning, used the French site, My Major Label, to raise £100,000 for the group’s second album. The three-piece write all of their music together, and had already released their own debut album and an EP, before launching their funding campaign in late 2010. The site offers members a chance to invest in projects with profits being split between the investors, the band and the record label.

This campaign saw the majority of the money coming from investors hoping to make a return on a few hundred or thousand pounds speculated on the band, and fans putting in smaller amounts. Fans and investors were offered copies of the album and other rewards, such as T-shirts, studio visits, vinyl and artwork prints, depending on their level of investment. The money was raised within six weeks.

Rob says that the group’s high quality audio-visual material was important in winning the backing of investors on the site. “We got a synch in the trailer of a film called Kickass with one of our songs called How To Start A Revolution, and were allowed to use the footage for our video. I intercut the film footage with video of us performing, which ended up looking like a very high quality product,” he says.

Some Velvet Morning also posted demo material online, telling fans that as each new fundraising milestone was reached, another demo would be released. This helped to drive the campaign forward, with fans reinvesting or encouraging friends to back the campaign in order to hear the next demo. After a change of distributor and label personnel, the resulting album Allies was released in Europe, and online by My Major Company/Warner Music on 13 May 2013.

Within reach

While the concept of crowd-funding is nothing new, the online platforms now available have moved within reach of every songwriter and composer – regardless of their genre or size of project. In addition, crowd-funding platforms can also offer guidance and support as you plan your campaign. Pledge Music, for example, can offer advice on choosing the right funding target by using a ratio which considers online engagement with fans. It also offers advice on the right rewards to offer, and introductions to their partners which can help with publicity, manufacturing and fulfilment. Indiegogo’s ‘Customer Happiness’ team does a similar job, offering extensive online advice about how to organise a campaign.

Ultimately, the best way for songwriters and composers to glean inspiration is to look at successful campaigns, which have met and exceeded their targets. You can find out more about the examples mentioned in this feature in the box below.

LINKS

A few examples of successful crowd-funding campaigns for classical music projects.

Armenian Guitarist Gohar Vardanyan raised $3,000 for her debut recording: www.indiegogo.com/projects/gohar-vardanyan-s-debut-recording

The Declassified raised $25,000 for the launch of a new organisation for classical music:www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-launch-the-declassified–2

Lincoln Youth Symphony fundraised for a commission on Kickstarter:www.kickstarter.com/projects/lincolnsymphony/lso-commissions-piece-for-lys-side-by-side?ref=live

Serenata Renaissance and Folk Music Group on Pledge Music: www.pledgemusic.com/projects/6296/updates

Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign:www.kickstarter.com/projects/amandapalmer/amanda-palmer-the-new-record-art-book-and-tour

Ginger Wildheart on Pledge Music:www.pledgemusic.com/projects/gingerwildheart

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s Sound Investment scheme:www.bcmg.org.uk/commissioning/sound-investment/

The history of the Royal Philharmonic Society:www.royalphilharmonicsociety.org.uk/index.php/rps_since_1813/rps_history/

Consortium of commissioning organisations awarded a Catalyst grant from the Arts Council to investigate crowd-funding and other fundraising models:www.soundandmusic.org/catalyst

Richard Jacques:www.richardjacques.co.uk

Miranda Ward and Little Fish on Unbound: www.unbound.co.uk/books/f-k-the-radio-weve-got-apple-juice

Crista Kende raised $24,000 to purchase a viola:www.indiegogo.com/projects/a-viola-for-crista?website_name=violaforcrista

Some Velvet Morning raised £100,000 of investment on My Major Company:www.mymajorcompany.com/projects/some-velvet-morning