When Brooklyn, N.Y.'s April Smith and her snappily dressed backup band took to the stage at the South by Southwest Music Festival last year, her brash, catchy, foot-stomping folk pop style, informed by the aesthetic of '30s and '40s ragtime, attracted positive attention from magazine and blog writers, including celebrity gossipmonger Perez Hilton.
Despite the media attention and a coveted spot in the Lollapalooza music festival lineup, Smith still had no record label — and thus no advance to pay for the recording of her sophomore album. The unsigned artist wasn't sure she wanted that to change.
"It seems like a real crapshoot to go with a label and take a chance that they're going to love you so much that they're going to be with you every step of the way," Smith said shortly before traveling to Austin to perform at this year's SXSW Music Festival, which kicks off today. "I just felt like if I could do it on my own, I could make the record I wanted to make and not have to answer to anyone."
So she turned to Kickstarter.com, a Brooklyn-based startup that pairs aspiring creators with financial backers, using the Internet to democratize the patronage system that's long financed works of art. Call it crowdfunding or call it micropatronage — either way, it's a new method for would-be artists, athletes and journalists, among others, to finance creative endeavors and adventures, gauging interest in their work and negating the financial risk.
Kickstarter turns 1 year old in April, making this the first SXSW where the new venture is an active player, and bands, films and events across the festivals bear the platform's distinctive boot print. Kickstarter has funded SXSW movies such as "Beijing Taxi" and "1 1/4/08" and recordings from SXSW performers including Smith and the Rural Alberta Advantage.
It's also been used to underwrite the traveling expenses of bands visiting the festival, including Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned and Lost Coves. It's facilitated several events, including the New Orleans bounce music showcase and Datapop, a two-night celebration of 8-bit video game-inspired electronic music at the Highball. And both of Kickstarter's founders are addressing panels during the conferences.
A Kickstarter creator sets a fundraising goal — in Smith's case, $10,000 — and a deadline, with a maximum of 90 days to raise the money. Each project gets its own page, where the creator keeps in touch with contributors — called "backers" — with text updates, videos, music or links. If a project hits or exceeds its goal by the deadline, all backers are simultaneously charged through Amazon Payments, and Kickstarter takes 5 percent off the top. If a project fails to meet its goals, no backers are charged, and the creator doesn't receive a penny.
Within three months, drawing on the power of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to promote her project, Smith raised $13,100 from 224 backers who contributed an average of $58 each. She's now touring behind the final product, "Songs for A Sinking Ship."
With the advent of digital music distribution — legal and illegal alike — leaving the record industry in a lurch, eyes are on services like Kickstarter for a possible way through the fog.
"Some people may look at supporting a project through Kickstarter as patronage, some may look at it as commerce, and a lot of people look at it as a little mix of both," said Perry Chen, 33, CEO and co-founder of the site. "When you're involved in a project early on, you get to, especially with the Web, see it grow and know that you are a part of its growth."
Artists offer different levels of funding incentives, in the style of a PBS pledge drive. For $50, Smith gave backers a signed copy of her album. For $100, she'd include the name of the contributor in her liner notes. For $1,000, she'd write a song about the backer — or a subject of his or her choice — and send the person five copies.
Incentives like that foster a personal connection and attract backers like Will Weider, 47, chief information officer for a chain of hospitals in Wisconsin. He was turned on to Kickstarter through a podcast and has backed seven projects, including Smith's.
"She did a really nice job personalizing her appeal. It was very noncommercial, which is really something I like about Kickstarter, that so many of its people are still getting started. It's a way to participate in a meaningful way and not just have my $11 participate in iTunes," said Weider. "And if I was being honest, there's a bit of a fantasy involved that you're maybe at the ground floor of helping out somebody who might be kind of big someday."
The idea for Kickstarter came to Chen in 2002, when he wanted to throw a show during the New Orleans Jazz Festival but didn't have the money. Frustrated, Chen — a Tulane University graduate who'd worked as a musician, an author, an art gallery owner and a preschool teacher — developed an idea for a service that would mitigate the risk of artistic endeavors by allowing contributors to share the costs.
In 2005, he met Yancey Stickler, 31, formerly the head of the editorial staff at online music retailer eMusic. They raised about $300,000 in seed money from friends and launched Kickstarter as a nine-person operation. Just under a year later, it's successfully funded nearly 700 projects — about a 40 percent success rate.
Numbers like that have established Kickstarter in a niche. It has a broader focus than similar music-funding services like Sellaband, Pledge Music or Artist Share. And unlike Slice the Pie, backers of Kickstarter projects don't expect to reap the financial fruits of the artists.
Among those taking notice is industry veteran Ian Rogers, CEO of Topspin, a direct-to-fan marketing software platform, who will sit today with Stickler on a SXSW panel addressing crowdfunding.
"It's exactly the sort of thing the Internet makes possible. Any real innovation on the Internet in the last few years has had to do with connecting people," said Rogers. "That really is the story of the Web, and it's the story of Kickstarter the same way it's the story of eBay or Facebook."
And while a recording industry in shambles may offer the most obvious frontier for Kickstarter's advances, the platform funds creative ventures of all shapes and sizes. To comb through the list of funded projects is like thumbing through the Moleskine of a particularly ambitious dreamer. Kickstarter has enabled the creation of handmade artesian sodas, a Manhattan pingpong parlor, a pedal-operated butter churn, a one-acre urban farm and even an open-source nuclear fusion reactor.
"Stepping outside of music, I'd look at the popularity of farmers markets or the slow-food movement as evidence that consumers are increasingly interested in the lives behind our products," said Stickler, who serves as chief community officer .
But, still, Kickstarter's potential impact on the music industry is among the most intriguing questions surrounding the service.
As chief of music conference panels for SXSW since 2002, Andy Flynn, 50, has carefully followed the industry's struggle with the question of how to cope with digital distribution. Flynn viewed the launch of music sharing service Napster in 1999 as a game-changer and has been looking for the next step ever since.
"My first reaction was, 'Boy, this is completely illegal,' and my second was, 'That's beside the point; this changes everything,'\u2009" said Flynn about Napster. "And the story of the last decade has been how people in the business and musicians have confronted this new reality. Certainly the crowdfunding, fan-funding and direct-to-consumer marketing efforts are interesting developments in the post-label era, if there is such a thing."
Brian Zisk, founder of the San Francisco MusicTech Summit and co-founder and technologies director for the Washington, D.C.-based Future of Music Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates for musicians, argues that financial engagement with fans — be it through Kickstarter or another service — is now a part of the industry's landscape.
"The question isn't whether this will be a huge model in the future. It will be," said Zisk. "The question is if Kickstarter's going to run away with it or someone else might pop in and steal their thunder."
Of course, the burden of being both artist and marketer is an added stressor for musicians and would-be Kickstarter success stories. Artists have to not only create but also send and devise incentives for fans and promote their projects. In other words, they need to be hustlers — not exactly something every artist would appreciate, which co-founder Stickler acknowledges, noting that "(author J.D.) Salinger would have been a terrible Kickstarter creator."
That extra burden is the Catch-22 of the Internet age, said David Kusek, vice president of Berklee College of Music and head of the school's online classes division. Kusek wrote "The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution" in 2005, predicting a future where "music (was) like water: ubiquitous and free-flowing."
While the digital age allows artists to communicate with a bigger audience than ever before, it also forces them to invest extra effort into marketing themselves.
"I don't believe that the DIY, connect with your fans, free music Internet age is any easier by any stretch of the imagination. You really have to work hard," said Kusek. "You're making the decision to build your business around yourself, and it's a blessing and a curse. You have ultimate control but ultimate responsibility at the same time."
Still, it's a responsibility many musicians are willing to assume. When the time came for the Austin space rock duo the Boxing Lesson to record a new album, "Possibilities," they turned to Kickstarter . Initially skeptical, guitarist and singer Paul Waclawsky chose to give the site a shot after watching the Austin rock group Shearwater use it to finance a supplemental art book, "The Golden Dossier," to complement its album "The Golden Archipelago."
With just over 30 days to go, they've raised only $10 of their $5,000 goal. But Waclawsky said that even if the project falls through, at least they gave it a shot and, they hope, gained a listener or two.
"It's a new landscape for the record industry, so we decided to go for it and take a chance," said Waclawsky. "And if it doesn't work, at least we can say, 'Hey, we tried,' and hopefully we got ourselves out there in front of some new people in the process."