Chances are you are not familiar with the song stylings of the Cabin Sisters, and you probably never will be. The band consists of Zosia and Clara Mamet, television actresses (Zosia is on Girls, Clara on The Neighbors) and daughters of playwright and filmmaker David Mamet. The sisters recently posted a Kickstarter video where they sat by a woodpile, panhandling for funds to make a music video for a song that sounds like it’s played on spoons and sung by seals.
Kickstarter is a successful crowdfunding site (Indiegogo, Rockethub and others do the same), a space where innovators and artists make a pitch to the public for donations to bring their ideas to fruition – e-patronage. The Mamets asked for $32,000 and received only $2,783 before the deadline, ergo they got nothing. They failed not because they’re rich kids who don’t need the money – even though they are, and they don’t. Crowdfunding isn’t about need; it’s about collective excitement, which means it’s about the fans, not the celebrities.
From atop the woodpile, in their Dust Bowl mama dresses, the Cabin Sisters made many mistakes. In voiceover, they admitted that they had been playing together a short time, and regarded the project as “basically an excuse to spend time together.” Clara states she just took up the banjo and “plays really badly.” (Yes.) The text of the pitch underscores their status as well-off culturati offspring: “The universe has given us both an opportunity to make a living in our young adult lives as creative people and it is one of the greatest privileges a person could ask for, the ability to do what you love. This has become another opportunity for that privilege.” The last sentence is incomprehensible yet galling, and it echoes one important word: privilege. When asking strangers for cash, it’s not a good idea to remind them how little you need it.
The fact that the Mamets failed suggests that the free-market democracy driving Kickstarter is working properly: They put a bad idea out there, no one bought it, and now the idea is dead. Artistic Darwinism. A post about the fiasco on the website HitFix noted: “Non-celebrities don’t like it when celebrities ask them for favors.”
But this isn’t exactly true. Recently, actor-writer-director Zach Braff, who once earned $300,000 an episode on Scrubs, turned to Kickstarter to help finance a sequel to his film Garden State. He asked for $2-million and raised $3.1-million. Similarly, makers of the cult TV show Veronica Mars wanted to make a film version, and raised $5.7-million – $3.7-million above the goal – in 11 hours. The pitch really sailed on a clever, funny video featuring the show’s stars, including Veronica herself, Kristin Bell, who is also a 1 per center.
People will give money to a crowdfunding effort for two reasons: to support an unknown project that’s exciting and new, which the Mamet video is not, or to support something already beloved, which the Mamets are not. Both Veronica Mars and Garden State had loyal fan bases, a community that existed before it was tapped. Being famous-ish isn’t enough. Melissa Joan Hart, former teen star of Clarissa Explains It All and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, recently failed a Kickstarter bid to fund a romantic comedy. Wrote Entertainment Weekly: “If Hart had tried to get backers for a reboot of either Clarissa or Sabrina – Sabrina, the Middle-Aged Witch? – loyal fans likely would have come out in droves” – whether she needed the money or not.
Kickstarter isn’t really about need. Those asking don’t have to prove that crowdfunding is their last resort; it isn’t charity. Supporters don’t get a financial return on investment (they might get a “reward” like a DVD or a T-shirt). Psychologist Abraham Maslow described humankind as functioning within a hierarchy of needs. The most basic, physiological human needs fill the biggest, bottom part of the pyramid, including food, breathing and sex. At the top of the pyramid is “self-actualization,” the domain of inner talent, creativity and fulfilment. This is the kind of need that Kickstarter serves: dollars actualize dreams.
This might explain why, when you click, there is a feeling of altruism, especially when backing some of the more obscure projects, like a children’s book about the environment. Even Braff presented his pitch in altruistic terms rather than financial ones, claiming he needed money to circumvent the creatively oppressive Hollywood system. By giving him 10 bucks, a supporter becomes more than a fan, but an ally. When Gawker launched the Rob Ford Crackstarter campaign, seeking $200,000 to pay drug dealers for the release of a tape of Toronto’s Mayor reportedly smoking crack, the campaign succeeded because contributors felt they were serving a greater good. A large community – in fact, a whole city – was literally and metaphorically invested.
The Cabin Sisters’ mistake was throwing their entitled individualism into a collective space. They forgot the crowd part of crowdfunding, and they paid because we wouldn’t.