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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For the last couple of years, the website Kickstarter has been helping artists, musicians and filmmakers fund projects by getting lots of people to make small donations. It's enabled people to raise cash for projects that may never have been funded in the past.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH: The Kickstarter formula is pretty simple and powerful. It starts with an idea, a project.

(Soundbite of Kickstarter video)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: This summer, we have a vision for something bigger, better and more unbelievable.

Unidentified Man #2: "X-Files: The Musical."

KEITH: The Colonel Mustard Amateur Attic Theatre Company in Lincoln, Nebraska is planning to transform "X-Files" the TV show into "X-Files: The Musical." They're up on Kickstarter right now, and like most projects on the site, their pitch for funding comes in the form of a video.

(Soundbite of Kickstarter video)

Unidentified Man #1: We'll need props.

Unidentified Woman #1: We'll need lumber for the set.

Unidentified Man #2: We'll need aliens.

Unidentified Woman #2: Be a part of something phenomenal.

Unidentified Man #1: Help us make this dream a reality.

KEITH: There's a goal. For "X-Files," it was $1,500. There's a deadline, usually 30 to 60 days out. Then friends, family and often total strangers back the project with a few bucks, sometimes even thousands. If a project meets its goal, it gets funded. Otherwise, the backers aren't charged. It's an all-or-nothing situation, and it works.

Mr. YANCEY STRICKLER (Founder, Kickstarter): Over 600,000 people have pledged to a project on Kickstarter, to the tune of over $50 million in our first two years. Right now, it's over $2 million a week that's being pledged to projects.

KEITH: Yancey Strickler is one of the company's founders. The company takes a 5 percent cut from each successfully funded project. But unlike grants or loans or record deals, when these projects get funded, there are no strings attached.

Mr. STRICKLER: We don't turn down someone because their art is bad. We've never told someone to rewrite the third act or to ditch the singer or to lose 10 pounds. It's just: Are you coming to this with a spirit of wanting to take your idea and express it to the world and see what happens? And are you going to reward the backers who support you in a fair way?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ANDREW ROSE GREGORY (Musician): (Singing) Where we lie down, our bed is green.

KEITH: This song is from Andrew Rose Gregory's lost album. Well, it's not really lost, but it's been sitting on a shelf for the last year-and-a-half or so.

Mr. GREGORY: It's a really sort of nitch-ish project in that it's a modern, folk-rock setting of the "Song of Songs," the book of love poetry from the Hebrew Bible.

KEITH: Gregory is best known as a member of the Gregory Brothers, the crew behind the wildly popular "Auto-Tune the News" YouTube videos. But he's been a musician for years, and he sees Kickstarter as a way to finally put out this album he really cares about.

Mr. GREGORY: I was trying to shop it to record labels, but I've just gotten impatient. And now that Kickstarter's really blown up in the last two years, I just think it's a great avenue for me to do it myself in a better way than I've done my albums before.

KEITH: But artists and musicians aren't the only ones who see opportunity in Kickstarter. Dave Petrillo and David Jackson invented something called Coffee Joulies. They're made of stainless steel formed to look like oversized coffee beans, and they're filled with a special material that they say keeps coffee at the perfect temperature for drinking.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DAVID PETRILLO (Co-founder, Coffee Joulies): Thanks for watching our video. I'm Dave, and these are Joulies. My friend Dave and I have been working on Coffee Joulies for the past nine months. It started with a problem that I think everyone has experienced: Coffee isn't always the right temperature.

KEITH: Petrillo and Jackson needed to raise $10,000 to turn their prototype into a real product. But after their video went viral, Petrillo says they raised more than $300,000.

Mr. PETRILLO: This took off really fast, way faster than we thought it was going to.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KEITH: Coffee Joulies is now up and running at Sherrill Manufacturing, a silverware factory in Upstate New York that was nearly shuttered until the two Daves showed up.

Mr. PETRILLO: How's it going, Toby?

TOBY: Going good.

Mr. PETRILLO: Going good?

TOBY: Yeah.

KEITH: Here's the other Dave, David Jackson.

Mr. DAVID JACKSON (Co-founder, Coffee Joulies): If we weren't on Kickstarter, we'd have to basically build some ourselves, sell them to raise some more money, build some more, and it would have taken at least a year of doing that to get anywhere close to where we are now. And we just completely, you know, leapfrogged that within a month.

KEITH: These more entrepreneurial projects built around a product have taken Kickstarter by storm in recent months. Kickstarter's Yancey Strickler says the company didn't know what to make of it at first.

Mr. STRICKLER: I think our hearts are very much with the small, idiosyncratic arts projects of, you know, some girl in Milwaukee doing something interesting for $500, or the really imaginative documentary. You know, that's sort of our world. But I think that these products have brought an interesting element to Kickstarter that has really helped everybody. And so, you know, I think it's something that we get more comfortable with every day.

KEITH: What all the projects on Kickstarter have in common is they tell a story, a story about the creators and their desire to make something, be it a neat gadget or an album or a musical based on a TV show about aliens.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can view some of the videos used to sell projects on Kickstarter. Just go to our website: npr.org.

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