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  • Rich Kassirer

Funding their music through their fans

Musicians are seeking unique ways to fund their albums and tours, including offering exclusive sponsorships in exchange for donations. But is fan-funding sustainable?

Singer-songwriter Kevin So wants to make a live album, but has no record label to back him. Another singer-songwriter, Jenee Halstead, planned a tour to the Netherlands without the backing of a label to make it happen. A third, Jake Armerding, set out to raise $5,000 with the help of his fans to fund his 2009 album, “Her.”

The odds of these musicians – and the many others like them — meeting their goals have increased greatly in recent years thanks to their fans. Even in poor economic times, it appears fans are willing to donate anywhere between $10 and $1,000 to help fund their favorite acts’ new albums and tours. In return, fans not only feel like part of the process but in many cases get something in return – maybe an autographed CD or, depending on how much they donate, their name in the liner notes of their favorite artists’ album.

Fan-funding is an age-old system: the busker on the city sidewalk playing for spare coins offered up by an appreciative crowd. It’s also a fairly new system, pioneered and seemingly perfected by folk musicians Ellis Paul and Jill Sobule, who both, individually, raised enough money to fund their albums without any record-label support.

So while the system does work, the question remains as to whether it is sustainable enough for those same musicians to return to their fans and ask for their support for the next project. “Yeah, I think I can,’’ says Paul, about going back to his fans again for his next album. Paul raised $100,000 to make the completely fan-funded “The Day After Everything Changed,” released in January. “I think next year I could start again. There were a lot of big donors last time, which I don’t know I would get again. But I’m confident I could do $50,000.”

Paul created what he calls a “ladder system of goods and services,” in which fans paid a certain amount and in return got exclusive merchandise or opportunities. Among them were: “The Street Busker Level” ($15), allowing them to be the first to receive the new CD; “The James Taylor Level” ($250) receiving an autographed CD and a guest list pass to a Paul concert; all the way up to “The Woody Guthrie Level” ($10,000), a list of 11 enticements, including being named executive producer on the album and a live Ellis Paul concert in your home.

Paul is adamant that in order for the system to work, and especially to be sustained, musicians must offer something back to the fans.

“Don’t do it as donations,” he cautions. “Give them something for their money. Offer house concerts, recording sessions.” It makes fans feel like part of the process and more willing to help out.

Indie folk-rocker Erin McKeown did just that by allowing fans to “attend” a series of four house concerts, she dubbed Cabin Fever, via the Internet for a small fee. Each show took place in various places in her yard and had different themes, and benefitted the recording and release of her album, “Hundreds of Lions.”

Jill Sobule, who may have actually been the originator of the fan-funding idea, raised $80,000 to make her album “California Years,” which was released in early 2009. She created a website called Jill’s Next Record to explain her idea to fans. She, too, offered staggered funding choices, which were funny and personal. At the highest level was this: “$10,000, Weapons-Grade Plutonium Level – You get to come and sing on my CD. Don’t worry if you can’t sing – we can fix that on our end. Also, you can always play the cowbell.”

Sobule is known to her fans as incredibly accessible. She is constantly chatting with her fans on Facebook, offering insight into what she is doing and thinking. But she doesn’t feel she could just post the same fan-funding enticements as last time and get the same response.

“I am not sure I would do it in the same exact way, and for that much money,” says Sobule. “However, I am and would do it in more … ‘micro ways’? For example, John Doe and I shared a band and paid the expenses for them as well as the studio by inviting fans to spend the day watching a record being made. We had to raise $4,000 and did it. It was very fun, by the way.”

Sobule offered fans different “packages” – including half-day ($125) to all-day ($200) access to watch the recording process, and wrote this about it on her blog: The energy of having people there was such a revelation, as well as a good antidote from the often times sterility of a recording studio.”

According to E. Michael Harrington, professor of Music and Music Management at William Paterson University in New Jersey, done right, fan-funding could be a long-term solution.

“In the past, a musician’s best means to success was through one of the large record companies or one of their smaller record labels. Labels had the best equipment to record as well as a large machine that created, developed and promoted an artist’s career.  The advantages with respect to technology are gone as CDs are not as important.  And the artist has much more control over how she/he gets known.”

Ellis Paul is a good example. He was with Rounder Records for years before striking out on his own.

“A label offers you a brand and some clout, a staff of artists for design work and a radio staff and marketing people do press. And distribution,” he said. “You pay back the label through record sales.” He said he wouldn’t see any royalties until after the album sold $25,000 in sales, a tough number to hit for a folk musician.

So after he saw what Sobule did, he decided to try it himself.

“We did it and then the economy crashed. Even still, we did every bit as well as the Rounder stuff ever did,” he said about the number of records sold – and this time he didn’t have to pay any of it back.

And it appears younger musicians are taking notice of what some of these trailblazers have done and are trying it themselves – on smaller scales.

The $5,000 Armerding raised for his album was solicited by personal email to his fans. Halstead funded her tour of the Netherlands by raising more than $2,500 through the donation site Kickstarter, a Web service that helps facilitate the collecting of funds for a project of any kind. She raised it all through small-amount pledges from 50 backers. Both Halstead and Armerding offered “gifts” – CDs, T-shirts, etc. – to their fans for their donations.

Songwriter Kevin So, who is a friend of Ellis Paul, says he plans to follow the advise of his pal as well, to fund his upcoming live album.

“I think many new approaches have to be tried – musicians need to tap into previously unconsidered areas, companies and services to get support,” says professor Harrington. “Artists must become more involved with fans through all social media, YouTube. The more connected a fan feels with an artist, the better it is for both. An artist who would openly ask for money/funding could do well if she/he goes about it respectfully and innovatively.”

With major labels sinking and younger musicians finding success in building fan bases to their projects, “It’s only a matter of time before major label acts are going to be doing it,” says Paul.

To read the full issue of Modern Acoustic magazine, click HERE

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