After being chased by clipboard-wielding charity campaigners on the way to work, transferring junk-mail appeals from mailbox to recycle bin and fighting off the attendant guilt, how would you like to be asked for donations so that scruffy musicians can release their album with the fancy packaging they feel their operetta about the history of hot-air ballooning truly deserves? Please, don’t whip out your credit cards just yet.
In 1993, Steve Albini published an infamous essay called The Problem With Music, which opened by comparing the experience of a band signing with a major label to swimming a trench filled with runny excrement. A record company rep waited at the end, waving a contract and a pen. Albini, who recorded albums by the Pixies, Nirvana and others, argued that the game was rigged, and that under the punitive terms of the standard major label contract, it would take several multi-platinum albums to start making rock-star money. If record sales fell short, bands would be strong-armed into years of indentured servitude.
If Albini wrote his essay about today’s music industry, when the band reached the end of the trench, it would see there was no rep, and no escape; the best possible outcome would be to swim hard enough to keep from going under. The major labels – and record sales in general – have been decimated by downloading; there is still money in live music, but only above a certain threshold of success. Today, up-and-coming acts are often up to their eyeballs in debt.
That is why bands have recently started turning to crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which fill the role that has been vacated by major labels: funding recording and touring projects. B.C.’s Brasstronaut and PEI’s Paper Lions are two bands that surpassed their relatively modest goals (of $15,000 and $10,000 respectively). Fans will open their wallets when asked nicely.
Some people are offended by bands soliciting funds through Kickstarter, though it’s hard to see why. Like most transactions between band and audience, it’s entirely voluntary. I have bought albums I could have downloaded, motivated by the same combination of affection for an artist’s music, and guilt over ripping them off, that crowd-funding appeals play on. And crowd-funding is far from a guaranteed payday for the artist. When hip hoppers Public Enemy proposed raising $250,000 in 2009 to make an album, they ended up with $75,000. It was a stern rebuke: Fans won’t back you if you lose touch with what made them like you in the first place.
If you really cultivate a loyal audience, you can generate serious sums. Dark cabaret artist Amanda Palmer raised $1.2-million through Kickstarter to make her new album, Theatre Is Evil. The notion that Palmer’s fans – of whom there can’t be that many, based on her past record and ticket sales – parted with that much coin is astonishing. Even more so is her claim, supported by a detailed blog post, that after manufacturing products for premium donors, and paying tour expenses and salaries, she will net less than $100,000.
Recently, Palmer called out online for musicians to accompany her during tour stops, offering to compensate them in beer and “hugs/high fives.” Given her success in funding her own creative project, some are slamming her for not paying all of her musicians.
One critic is Albini, who wrote online that while he had no problem with Kickstarter, he felt that after having raised a million dollars, “it is just plain rude to ask for further indulgences from your audience, like playing in your backing band for free.”
When you disturb the music-industry status quo, you ruffle feathers; consider the outcry when the Eagles charged more than $100 for concert tickets in 1994.
Pundits argued that it was better to give the money to the band than to scalpers, who would charge similar rates regardless of the tickets’ face value. But even though the shows sold out, the Eagles became the poster boys for rock-star greed.
Freed from major labels, artists like Amanda Palmer are renegotiating their financial relationship with their supporters. Given how lousy artists have been at taking care of their finances throughout history, they ought to be wary of making fans an offer they can all too easily refuse.