The Fans

Crowdfunding Cuts Out (Most Of) The Middlemen

Anthony Cekay

"You know, anyone can get free music online, anyone can get free YouTube videos online," Anthony Cekay says. "So the way to really capitalize on that is [to] allow the access." Isaiah Singer hide caption

itoggle caption Isaiah Singer

For musician Anthony Cekay, a venture into the world of crowdfunding started with a poem.

A friend challenged Cekay, who double-majored in English and music in college, to write a poem that humanized the devil. From Cekay's poem grew a series of poems; the poems evolved into a melody; and that melody developed into an eight-hour piece of music, "The Spectacular War Museum."

Cekay was invited to present the piece in vignettes at a New York venue, but he wanted to offer an experience that went beyond a traditional performance: He wanted to stream his shows and have a jazz blogger offer a running commentary throughout. The problem was that the venue, while supportive of the project, didn't have the capital he needed to back the whole thing.

So, Cekay turned to the crowdfunding site RocketHub and raised $2,500 to pay for equipment, 20 musicians and tech support.

"We brought in well over 600 people both live and watching the performances recorded," Cekay says. "And that just wouldn't have been possible to do online without the crowdfunding element."

RocketHub is one of several crowdfunding sites burgeoning on the Internet that allow musicians — and other creative-types like filmmakers, writers and painters — to enact a kind of grassroots campaign online to earn money to fund their ideas. It may help musicians to get a career boost or pursue a nontraditional project, but it also allows fans to interact with musicians in a unique way.

For one thing, fans who contribute get a tangible reward from the artists. Cekay says his "fuelers" had a level of involvement that went beyond seeing one of his shows. Depending on how much money someone contributed, that person would receive a highlights DVD, mp3s or a books of poetry that inspired the music.

Anthony Cekay and fans

Anthony Cekay's cousin Christopher Allen, who fueled Cekay's project, with Anthony Cekay and Brain Meece. Allen won a t-shirt in a raffle Cekay held each week to fuel the project. Isaiah Singer hide caption

itoggle caption Isaiah Singer

Yancey Strickler, a co-founder of a crowdfunding site called Kickstarter, says crowdfunding is a business model that lies somewhere between commerce and patronage. Musicians get funding, but fans get something too: They get access.

"People like knowing where something is coming from and what the process has been to get there, and it gives you [as a consumer] an opportunity to be involved in a way that you never would otherwise," Strickler says.

The idea of selling seats to the creative process is nothing new. In fact, Brian Meece, a co-creator of RocketHub, says crowdfunding is a throwback — a throw way back.

"We sometimes say Beethoven-plus-social-media equals crowdfunding," he says. "Because back in Beethoven's day, he had patrons basically give him financial contributions so he could continue his work. And that's how he got paid."

The difference is that instead a handful of patrons funding an artist, crowdfunding has allowed more people to play that role. But despite the success that some artists have seen using crowdfunding, music researchers say it's not a replacement for the traditional record companies.

"I think the crowdfunding aspect is interesting, but shouldn't be overestimated," says Mark Mulligan, vice president and research director of Forrester Research.

There are practical obstacles. Crowdfunding can't do the dirty work that many musicians either can't, or flat-out don't want to do — things that a label might take care of, like marketing, promotions and distribution. In other words, it can help you buy a van for a tour, but it can't book your shows for you.

As Kristin Thomson, a consultant for the Future of Music Coalition, says, marketing through crowdfunding takes a certain kind of creativity — and an already-existing rolodex or fan base. It's difficult trying to build a fan base while you're trying to get people to financially support you, she says.

"Ultimately, a band wants to be out — playing music, writing music, performing," Mulligan says. "They don't want to be marketing and promoting."

Mulligan says that crowdfunding may resonate with certain types of artists, but for the mainstream, it's a means to an end: a stepping stone to a record label — or a life after one.

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