I get a lot of questions about Kickstarter and funding commissions through this tool, and have chimed in on a number of Twitter conversations about its effectiveness.

Kickstarter is a threshold giving system: for those unfamiliar with it, an artist or small organization can set up a fundraising campaign through the tool. Kickstarter provides a unique web portal for the giving, and takes a percentage of the fees. No 501(c)(3) tax deduction is offered, rather, the user sets up a series of giving benefits at different levels. For a new music project, this can boil down to basically fronting the money for a CD to make the project possible. The threshold offers a double safety valve to reduce the risk on a project driven by independent artists: the donor’s money won’t be wasted on an unsuccessful project, and the artist won’t be forced to work with insufficient resources.

Despite a number of successfully funded Kickstarter projects, many people are starting to resent seeing a link or request from the site, and this conversation is not unique to the new music community. Theater and other performing arts folks are also debating the challenges and usefulness of a site like Kickstarter. My response to these concerns is that you can’t blame the tool: blame the people whose behavior reflects a lack of understanding, and poor implementation, and, if you’re afraid you might be one of those people, try and figure out how to use it well.

A successful Kickstarter campaign – i.e., one that raises the money needed for the project (whether this is the threshold or a higher goal) – is the end product of successful communicating the value of one’s project, and converting that value into a dollar transaction on the part of the audience. This type of conversion is not unique to this platform: ticket and CD sales also require the same diligence when it comes to reaching audiences. Traditional marketing wisdom says that it takes 10 impressions/interactions with your product or brand before a new audience member reaches that point of conversion.

The advertising, promotion, and fundraising behavior that people resent comes from people who can’t think beyond their immediate circle of friends, colleagues and potential supporters, and just corner them or ask them repeatedly until they wear down. Christian Carey has likened composers sending him a Kickstarter link to the kid knocking on doors selling candy bars to his neighbors (“Well, only after I’d gotten twelve Kickstarter requests in a single day!” notes Carey).

Let’s be really honest: we all HATE that kid. He’s cute, the money goes to a cause that sounds good at the time, and you basically can’t say no when he’s standing on your doorstep. When you close the door, there’s a good chance you think to yourself: “Now what the HECK am I going to do with a box of 20 chocolate bars?” (Or, if it was my brother on your doorstep, you could basically kiss the money goodbye, because there was a chance that the envelope of money disappeared into the bowels of his completely disorganized desk.) This is why my mother always made me write a note to my neighbors, which I distributed in mailboxes, informing them that I had a school fundraiser, what it supported, and the deadline, and then I had to wait for the neighbors to call me.

This begs the all-important question: how do you find that audience, and how do you accumulate the 10 impressions needed per donor, without driving everyone around you completely insane? Like any good communication, advertising, or traditional fundraising campaign (some might say there is no difference from this latter), accomplishing a Kickstarter goal requires answering some key questions.

Identifying your audience requires thinking beyond your immediate circle and understanding what will motivate the target group of donors. The answer to what makes a YouTube or other Internet video go viral is identical: finding a point of resonance with something the audience already values, and providing something that taps into those values. This doesn’t mean “spinning” your pitch or changing anything you do artistically, but it does require some awareness and thoughtfulness at the outset.

I’ve worked on promoting three Kickstarter campaigns for new music projects, two of which were over-funded, and the most recent doubled its goal. My very first engagement as an independent publicist resulted in Meerenai Shim and Daniel Felsenfeld anchoring Chloe Veltman’s New York Times article about evolving models of commissioning in January.

In Meerenai Shim’s case, her first Kickstarter campaign was successful because the concept of the project was something that everyone in her new music community on Twitter could get behind: an independent musician was undertaking a big fancy commission purely because she’s passionate about new music, and wanted to pay Daniel Felsenfeld a fair price for his work. The underlying values made this an easy project for the community to get behind. Meerenai had already done a lot of work building up this community online, and translated that work into her promotional pieces to drive the campaign: videos, reward swag like t-shirts, and even engaging a publicist to amplify the message beyond her immediate circle.

Dale Trumbore’s most recent campaign tapped into the communities of family and friends who had known her, soprano Gillian Hollis, and the other members of the project team. We reached out to personal circles that had known us growing up, attended the musicians’ high school and college recitals, which wanted to see the local girls accomplish something great. The video and other promotional materials focused on the members of the team, their talent, and the opportunity that this project represented.

An interesting side-note about Dale’s project: when she set her threshold, Kickstarter asks the artist to “ask for the minimum needed to make the project successful.” This is good advice: I’ve seen users set overly-ambitious threshold goals, which they then struggled to meet by the deadline. Dale took it to an extreme, setting her Kickstarter goal at $15, which meant that everything over that went directly to the project. The threshold does not have to be the fundraising goal: Dale’s real goal was $2,000.

Indiegogo is a similar service with one main difference. Whether you achieve the threshold goal or not, you get to keep the money you raise.

The most challenging Kickstarter project that I worked on that was a challenge was Curtis Hughes’ campaign to fund his recording of “Say it Ain’t So, Joe,” which had premiered a few years prior to this project. I was initially enthusiastic: I could see a lot of potential tie-ins, and he mentioned the buzz that had surrounded the original production. Unfortunately, there were several things that added to the difficulty, and created stress that could have been avoided.

First, Curtis’ goal (and threshold) was significantly higher than any of the other projects I’ve worked on ($11,000). Second, the musicians engaged on the recording did not represent the full complement of the Boston-based Guerrilla Opera Company. Using part of an organization can present its own challenges. If only some are invited to participate, it may limit the rest of the organization’s drive to support the project and to spread the word among their audience. The intended audience I pitched was one that I really didn’t know very well (political writers), and I honestly didn’t know Curtis or the Guerrilla Opera community well enough before leaping into the project. Despite these initial challenges, we learned as we went and there’s a happy ending: the project ultimately did get funded, and I understand that the recording process went smoothly.

Audience awareness is the single biggest answer to any successful effort that an artist undertakes and converting those efforts into the bottom line that makes it possible to dedicate oneself to the project. The more we know ourselves, the art at hand, and the target audience, the more effectively we can communicate and produce results.

Fundraising through Kickstarter: pitfalls to avoid:

  • Nagging your audience: whenever you post the link, make sure that there is always a new tidbit, fact, or supporting detail to offer your audience
  • Wasting your credit with your support network/audience: make sure this is the project that you want your supporters to devote their attention to
  • Setting an unreasonable goal/threshold for the scope of your support network and target audience: know how much your market is willing to give, and ask accordingly. If that means scaling back part of the project, or finding additional sources of funding from other arenas, adjust accordingly.
  • Desperate, last-minute begging to reach an absurdly high goal: set your threshold at a comfortable place, so you can accomplish something meaningful, and your efforts aren’t wasted on a goal that you miss.
  • Modeling your Kickstarter campaign too closely on others’: offer something distinctive

This post originally appeared as a guest post at the File Under? music blog. We don’t normally do cross-posting, but because we get a lot of questions on how to use Kickstarter and Indiegogo–and because we wanted to introduce you to our new Music Editor, Maura Lafferty–we thought this would be a good way to do both at once. — DJL

  • July 19, 2011
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