Dan Le Sac Writes

Dan Le Sac Writes: Dan Le Sac on crowdfunding – The gains are obvious, but what do we lose?

By | Published on Wednesday 26 June 2013

Dan Le Sac

As the music industry gradually creaks and winds itself around the internet, seeking out new ways to do business, crowdfunding is one source of financing for music-related projects that has seen dramatic growth. But, asks Dan Le Sac in his latest column for CMU, is this actually “The Future Of Music”, as Amanda Palmer put it, or is something lost when you come to your fans cap in hand?

In the last few days Scroobius Pip and myself have had a re-press of our first album crowdfunded using Beat Delete, a service that brings out-of-print vinyl back to life. For simple ideas like this, crowdfunding is a wonderful thing, but over the past few years, as sites like PledgeMusic and Kickstarter have grown, I’ve started to doubt whether this format is quite right for our little industry.

This isn’t exactly a revelation but the music business has changed dramatically over the fifteen or so years I’ve been in and around it. It also shouldn’t be a huge surprise when I say that the lion’s share of that change has been driven by the internet. Due to social networks, we now have direct access to musicians in a way unlike any other time in musical history. And with the development of high speed broadband and increasingly small file sizes, the myriad ways in which we can get music without actually paying for it is an issue that has only just started growing pubes.

Both of these phenomena have forced a change in the relationship between bands and record labels. Where once labels could be seen as venture capitalists taking risks to launch an artist’s career, now, in part due to illegal downloading, labels are less willing to take those risks. But with the increased exposure and access provided by social networks, not every artist needs them to.

At its best, crowdfunding has the ability to make things happen that may never come to light via traditional routes. It is a democratic process, people vote with their money to give a project a future, that vote makes them a stakeholder, that vote gives them ownership (mainly ’emotional’ ownership) so that hopefully they’ll give even more support in future. More importantly, it allows artists and creators to retain more control over their work, and the money they spend getting their work out there.

Of course, the ‘crowd’ has always ultimately funded the music industry; for better or worse all crowdfunding sites like PledgeMusic and Kickstarter do is make that relationship more explicit. The eagle-eyed of you will notice I slipped a little “for better or worse” into that last sentence and it’s those four words that this article is really about. Although crowdfunding can be hugely helpful to an artist, whether nurturing a fledgling career or continuing an established one, asking your audience to become a silent partner isn’t always a sound investment (I think I may have laboured these banking analogies enough now, just so you know).

Crowdfunding may be a way to free yourself from an industry dominated by corporate media, a path to extricate yourself from the pissing contest that is major label marketing, but there are a few bumps to negotiate along the way.

Firstly, ‘why’ an artist chooses to use crowdfunding is important to the ‘crowd’. If the artist thinks it just looks good and is great PR, then they’d better hope that their audience has an average IQ of 70, otherwise the ‘crowd’ will see through them in a second. Some bands see crowdfunding as a way to avoid risk, but risk is good! Nothing ventured, nothing gained and all that; if you’re not willing to put your own hard earned cash up for your own project then why should you expect your fanbase to?

Secondly, what artists are willing to sell in order to fund their project often shows how much respect they have for their ‘crowd’. Offering up signed drum skins or having your name in the sleeve notes in exchange for higher pledges is all well and good, but when a band offers up “Dinner with the lead singer” for £500, aren’t they really saying to their ‘crowd’: “You want to meet us? You gotta pay for it and we are going to rinse you for everything we can”. Now, I know I’m a small artist but if you want to meet me it’ll cost you two things. The bus fare to wherever I’m playing in your town and you saying “Hi Dan”. Within seconds we’ll be talking nonsense about synths or ‘Call Of Duty’ or even ‘Call The Midwife’ if you like. Yes, I watch ‘Call The Midwife’, move on.

Finally, as much as your ‘crowd’ might like you, what happens if you fail to reach the target? In the case of PledgeMusic, the money isn’t taken until you pass your goal, so no harm no foul there. Your audience don’t lose anything other than the album you’ve been promising them for the last three months. Except potentially they lose you, as from the music industry’s point of view, that failed crowdfunding campaign might be proof that you don’t have enough of a ‘crowd’ to sell gig tickets or be a pull on a festival line-up.

Failing to reach your target could end your career entirely. Sadly the music industry is still heavily based on perception. How much you get paid and the gigs you get offered are based on a promoter making an educated guess on how many people you’ll pull through the door, so if your album doesn’t happen due to a seeming lack of interest, then why would they assume anyone would turn up?

So, while it might seem like a good idea, or even an easy option, it’s worth assessing other options before embarking on the crowdfunding route. Could you and your bandmates fund a record yourselves? You’d be surprised how cheap it can be to get a record out and marketed with a little lateral thinking and a lot of hard work.

As a music lover, there is something mystical about great bands. Much to Scroob’s dismay, I put musicians and recording artists on ridiculous pedestals. They are mythical creatures that have the ability to move me with simple formulations of sounds and words. Yet if they where to introduce themselves by saying, “Fund our record or it won’t exist”, that mystique becomes something mundane.

We say “music lover” because the relationship between the creator and listener is a romantic one; a great record can bring about extremes of emotion but spending your first date talking about who’s going to pay the council tax quickly kills the romance.

To counter my own argument a little, there is something to be said for an artist who is honest. Great relationships are built on honesty, but when you think of a band you love, do you want to think about the nuts and bolts, or do you want to think about how their music changed your world?

For all the power crowdfunding gives an artist, for it’s ability to level the music industry’s playing field, for the power it gives to the audience to decide what makes the grade, I just can’t get past the idea that legends are not crowdfunded, sourced by committee and baptised by the masses. They are born of hard work and a single-minded faith in what they do.