The crowd-funding conundrum: The line between bringing fans closer and taking advantage

The crowd-funding conundrum: The line between bringing fans closer and taking advantage

“Help Eisley tour our new record and spend our lives with YOU,” goes the headline on the Kickstarter page launched by the Texas indie-rock band in April. While established bands use the site practically every week to enlist fan support and bypass traditional record labels, Eisley raised the bar: It wanted $100,000 to support a new album, money traditionally provided by a record label. And it wanted those six figures for a tour that was set to begin six weeks after the Kickstarter launched. 

The band justified it by noting that four of Eisley’s five members had kids in 2012, which means it has “four beautiful new mouths to feed, safely transport, and care for” (italics theirs) on the road. To reach its goal, Eisley has assembled rewards that range from an online acoustic show ($1) to a custom guitar with hand-drawn artwork by the band ($5,000). However, a bulk of the incentives are predictably low-overhead items like an EP featuring unreleased songs ($15), a digital download of unreleased demos ($50), or handwritten, signed lyric sheets ($100). (“These should look sweet framed,” says the band.) For VIP treatment at a show, fans who pledge $500 get a guest list (with a +1), access to the sound check, a pre-show meet-and-greet, a free shirt, and maybe “grab coffee before the show if we’re able.” At press time, 43 of those 50 available packages remained. 

Eisley drew plenty of criticism for its campaign—“To everyone criticizing Eisley’s Kickstarter goal of $100,000, remember: They’re the first band in the history of music to have children,” tweeted Alternative Press managing editor Scott Heisel—so bassist Garron DuPree responded to Kickstarter users’ requests for an itemized list of expenses. He estimated the costs of a two-month headlining tour, including a bus, gas, crew salaries, etc. to be upwards of $116,000—and that’s without the band members being paid. He added, “Of course, these are our rough expenses, which are contrasted with the money we make from playing shows and selling merch. What we make often offsets most of the costs, but in many cases it doesn’t—leaving perhaps 10k or so unaccounted for. Now, keep in mind that we are attempting to fund an entire record cycle, that could (hopefully) entail as many as 10 tours to support our record. Now you begin to see that our goal for this project isn’t as absurd as it initially sounds.” The problem is that, if anything, this explanation makes the project even more absurd because no other business would abide by a model that loses money on the thing that’s supposed to support it. And if it costs more than $100,000 to tour for two months, how could the band possibly swing 10 tours (including the UK and Australia)? Does it occur to Eisley that if it can’t make enough money touring to support itself, maybe it needs to scale back or at least rethink its approach?

Eisley isn’t the only band using Kickstarter or Indiegogo to fund projects that benefit itself far more than its fans. Earlier this year, Bowerbirds raised $37,477—surpassing its $28,000 goal—so that its “new album (and side project)” could be made in a “DIY studio.” According to the band’s page, the group has been working on this project since 2007 and needs its own studio because its members “believe that recording our music in a place we created especially for that purpose, by ourselves, will result in better, more inspired recordings for less money and in less time” (emphasis theirs). Bowerbirds’ list of incentives was vast, from dishcloths knitted by frontman Phil Moore’s mother ($30) to a weekend party at the cabin studio ($3,000) to an executive producer credit, mascot status, “a special birthday present every year for the next five years,” and more ($10,000). Tellingly, of the 108 incentive spots for fans donating $1,000 or more, only two were filled.

These musicians seem to rationalize their campaigns under the guise of the “Do It Yourself” ethos, but they’ve twisted it, effectively shifting the responsibility of making new albums and/or touring onto their fans. It’s one thing to ask fans for help pressing a new album by paying up front for it, but it’s far different to ask them for tour support or to fund a studio, then make them pay again later for new music or tickets to shows—music and shows that would exist without this symbiotic relationship. The D.I.Y. ethic hinges on artists’ responsibility—they work hard to create art on their own terms, not sell demos at inflated rates to make up for a lack of revenue in other areas. 

Eisley and Bowerbirds are hardly alone; countless bands have asked for tour support or money to cover recording costs, ranging from the successful (Reggie And The Full Effect raised $58,000 toward its $50,000 goal) to unsuccessful (The Rebel Road Tour has less than 20 days to raise the remaining $147,000 of its $150,000 goal.) But as record labels become less relevant, bands need new ways to generate income. Crowd-funding is ideal for projects like documentaries that require massive amounts of overhead, but offering negligible rewards in exchange for five- or six-figure payouts, all under the guise of D.I.Y., not only seems disingenuous but could also cut the movement off at its knees. 

Moreover, crowd-funding can be ethical. Circa Survive covered the costs for self-releasing its 2012 album, Violent Waves, by paying for it up front and then selling vinyl-and-download combos to fans for $25. David Bazan used a similar, even more transparent model to fund his 2011 album, Strange Negotiations. When asking fans for money, Bazan’s team explained, “Barsuk gave him dough to pay for dudes to play on the record and some gear upgrades to make it sound great. But in order to focus his full attention on recording (so he doesn’t take three years like he did with Curse Your Branches), we need to keep him at home as much as possible until he’s finished recording the album.” Knowing exactly where the money was going, I felt confident in pledging $40 for an LP, T-shirt, $5 merch coupon, and some liner-note love. 

Musicians may be afforded the luxury of dressing and acting the same way they did when they were younger, but that doesn’t make them exempt from the growing-up process. No other industry—besides film, at least—would support someone seeking a benefactor to bankroll major life choices. The problem here—and with the crowd-funding model in general—boils down to acts like Eisley and Bowerbirds wanting to have it both ways. They like their label when it comes to promotion and distribution, but when it comes to budgets they are suddenly helpless. Eisley’s members may have come up with their Kickstarter incentive ideas themselves, but the campaign exists in order to fund a tour that was arranged by a booking agent and promoted by an in-house and independent publicist, both of whom presumably got paid. 

Bowerbirds already met their goal and will presumably have an album out in the near future. At the time of this writing, Eisley still has $42,809 left in its goal, but I suspect the group will still find a way to hit the road in June, even if its fan-funded Hail Mary falls short. There’s nothing wrong with going to fans for help, but it’s a fine line between asking for encouragement and being exploitative. Although it’s encouraging to see fans pony up thousands of dollars to support an act they believe in, it’s important that bands keep their requests reasonable and the rewards fair if this symbiotic relationship is going to sustain itself for years to come.


Full disclosure: This author participated in a Kickstarter campaign for his podcast Going Off Track last year and raised $5,000.

Filed Under: Music

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