No Quarter: Crowd Surfing
Investors. Funding. Executive producer. These are words that, for any fan or creator of independent media, have the distinct possibility of causing queasiness; a vital if ugly stepping stone on the way to getting literally anything made. Avoid the path of big studios and labels, and the best you could hope for is that incredibly damning faint praise of ‘cult’ success, languishing in the bargain bin with Troma movies and albums you’ve heard mentioned but never heard played.
Well, ok, maybe it isn’t as bad as all that. The system’s been around a while, and, if we’re being totally fair, it is a sort of necessary evil, a kind of Devil’s advocate for the lowest common denominator. No Indie label is equipped to deal with the demands of a Taylor Swift fan base, but the fan base still exists. As soon as the label meets those demands, they become a major or get bought out by one, and that’s basically how that works forever and ever and ever, amen. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and where there’s a concrete slab of singles charts and box office returns to tally, there’s also a pervasive weed breaking through with a promise of richly rewarding fans and fairly recompensing artists.
Welcome to crowd funding, the art of incentivising a project’s audience to contribute financially to its development. To be honest, if you haven’t already heard of it, it’s possible you need to stay in more. Crowd funding, or more specifically Kickstarter which, since its launch in 2009 has fast become the major platform for the practice, has scarcely been out of the news of late. Whether because of $20,000 potato salads, or the resurrection of fan-lauded franchises, it’s been pretty hard to ignore Kickstarter over the past couple of years, even if you might be tempted to disregard it as frivolous. However, despite its fundamentally good intentions, there are some pretty valid concerns about how the platform is used. Firstly, It relies upon a level of disposable income from its users which some believe lessens its democratising effect. That’s arguable, but, really, who is using the service? We already know that the demographic of the net is pretty young, and, if the reams of studies and articles are to be believed, those ‘millennials’ they can’t seem to stop referencing are notoriously apathetic. But it’s not apathy that leads someone to contribute money towards creating the best potato salad (ever!); it’s a kind of ironic detachment that has become the internet’s Lingua Franca. And, when you’re relying on the enthusiasm of the perpetually and purposefully disinterested, not to mention raised on the old way of doing things, catching an audience’s attention can still be a huge challenge. So, often the successes come from the most likely places, the Zach Braff and Spike Lee projects that have a ready and willing fan base, but crucially want to try and dodge the interventions from big studios that they feel hinder their creativity. But it’s pretty easy to raise a million dollars when your incentive is ‘have dinner with the guy from Scrubs’, and when that takes attention away from a genuinely deserving project not fronted by a millionaire actor, it definitely raises questions about just how democratic the whole thing really is.
Beneath those criticisms and relatively minor flaws though, there definitely exists something of real worth to a community that wants its art unfiltered through corporate hands, and no longer wishes to be cordoned away from their favourite artists. Success stories like that of Amanda Palmer, who managed to raise enough for an album and accompanying book despite being far from a household name, are very encouraging and bely the fact that there is a contingent out there eager to become a part of the artistic process, and more. When rap duo Run the Jewels suggested to fans that they would re-record their second album entirely with cat noises for instrumentation, for a price, it was little more than an in-joke between two artists and their fans. But one enthusiast didn’t see it that way. Now, one successful $65,000 Kickstarter campaign later, with all proceeds donated directly to families affected by recent police brutality in the US, the cat based production has already begun, with some of the biggest names in hip hop behind the boards. If that’s not direct fan engagement, then really nothing is.