We all know the type, the pretentious, insufferable idiot. The person who when asked what he’s been up to, always responds: “working on my novel.” Despite that answer, you’ve never actually seen him working on a novel. Still he’s happy to tell you all the details of the wonderful book that exists mostly in his own head. But now it’s not enough for him to bore you with the story. Now he wants you to publish it too. Or at lest part of it.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was reading about Kickstarter as a soon-to-be-launched website in the pages of Wired magazine. Now it is gaining in popularity and about to hit the mainstream of American culture. With the recent buzz over the multi-million dollar funding of a Veronica Mars movie, and Amanda Palmer’s Ted Talk: The Art of Asking a lot of attention is being paid to this new way of financing projects.
Much has been written about the benefits of this new model, especially as it concerns the “democraticization” of art funding. It is true that Kickstarter has a very low barrier to entry. After meeting a few criteria any eligible project can be featured on the site for people to support. The project is then presented to the users of Kickstarter who can decide to back the project at any specified level they choose, earning better rewards for higher-dollar commitments. No funds change hands until the deadline passes. At that point the project is submitted to a pass/fail standard. If it has met its funding goal it will be provided all the funds pledged (minus processing fees). If not the project receives nothing.
The most interesting description I’ve heard of Kickstarter is that it allows people to monetize their reputations. This idea was put forward on the Social Media Marketing podcast. The guest was explaining that people with large online followings are able to convert their fan’s respect to cold-hard cash. The theory is that many fans are happy to contribute to a new campaign as a reward for the free content the artist has produced previously . This likely explains the run-away success of a project like Howard Taylor’s Schlock Mercenary Challenge Coins. Taylor is the writer/artist of the long-running web comic Schlock Mercenary and one of the hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast. It’s hard to see his project being over 800% funded as anything other than a “Thank You” from his fans for a decade of free humor.
Still I notice that Mignon Fogarty, who podcasts as Grammar Girl, did not need a Kickstarter campaign to write her best-selling books. So maybe reputation isn’t everything.
The myth of Kickstarter is that is the perfect choice for funding the local, independent artist. Projects like the new album from Indianapolis musician Jennie DeVoe seem to back that up. DeVoe is the number one draw in central Indiana. She’s played every festival in town and is the go-to host for everyone from the local radio station to the Symphony. It makes sense that she would have the fan-base to support her project. Now with Kickstarter she has a platform to essentially offer pre-sales of her album to her audience. This is the most straight-forward use of crowdfunding and DeVoe more than doubled her relatively conservative goal.
But looking at the details of her project, it is obvious that if her backers were only buying a chance to get a new album, even a signed copy, her project would have failed. Adding up donations of $100.00 or less reveals that if these were her only Backers she would have only made it 60% of the way to her number. So even the biggest-name in a sizable metropolitan market relies on Big-Money Backers to carry her over the finish line.
The least examined aspect of the crowdfunding model is what happens when a Kickstarter succeeds but then the project fails. The artists on Kickstarter are under no obligation to deliver the projects they promise. I could pitch an exciting idea for an animated project, raise $15,000 to support it – and then deliver a flip-book. That would meet the terms of the project, but not the expectations of the Backers. They would have no recourse to regain their donations, and I would have their money.
Crowdfunding rewards ideas instead of execution. Projects are funded on all-or-nothing basis and the money is disbursed in a single sum after the goal has been reached. There are no deliverables and no intermediate financing. No reward for completion. No penalty for poor performance. Worst of all crowdfunding operates on the same principles as the Too-Big-To-Fail banks. They socialize the cost and the risk of projects while privatizing the rewards. Backers are not investors. They have no claim to anything other than the reward pledged for their funding level. That could be as insignificant as a Thank You email. The artist keeps all proceeds, copyrights, and esteem that might come from the project.
Not to mention that Kickstarter and other crowdsourcing platforms just seem like the new socially acceptable way of asking your family and friends to sponsor your silly little hobby.