In just under two weeks I’ll be finishing an undergraduate degree and venturing out into the wide world.
Like most students these days, I will be taking an enormous debt with me. Over the past decade or so, the financial dimension of higher education has become increasingly difficult to ignore: during a particularly piss-poor two hour lecture a couple of months ago, the girl next to me leant over and whispered indignantly “I’m spending eighty quid on this!”. This kind of consumerist logic is increasingly the standard mode for students, and it’s a pretty depressing (if inevitable) development. Education does involve a financial transaction, yes, but surely “value for money” isn’t the chief concern? Maybe it’s just my idealist streak showing through, but shouldn’t the quest for knowledge be treated as more than a simple equation of money spent versus benefit gained?
Since the music industry crumbled like the alien fortress at the end of Krull, musicians have been stripped of the safeguards provided by record advances and reliable sales figures.
Since the music industry crumbled like the alien fortress at the end of Krull, musicians have been stripped of the safeguards provided by record advances and reliable sales figures. Like students, these days they’re required to consider the direct financial implications of their activities far more closely. The internet’s assault on industry structures does away with all those greedy middle men (great), but it also removes any cushioning intermediary between the artist and the financial bottom line (not so great), forcing even successful musicians to plunge headlong into the minutiae of the daily hustle if they want to make a living at all. Out of the confusion, one self-financing model has been growing in popularity over the past couple of years, as a way for artists of all stripes to get larger endeavours off the ground through direct appeal to the people that matter: their fans.
The premise is elegantly simple: you set up a page for your project on Kickstarter, Indiegogo or any of the other crowd-funding sites that have sprung up recently. There, you pitch your idea as persuasively as possible and state the amount you need to raise. Fans eager to enjoy the fruits of your labour can pledge their money. If you reach your target, everybody coughs up and the project goes ahead; if you don’t, nobody pays anything and you’re back to the drawing board.
Lately, artists in our tiny crevice of the cultural landscape have been resorting to this model more and more. The team behind Altered Zones used it to launch their new site, Ad Hoc; LA label 100% Silk secured funding for a tour documentary through it; and underground legends Dylan Carlson and Michael Gira have both turned to the same scheme to support forthcoming LPs. More recently, UK producer and not-dubstep scene stalwart DFRNT has set up a project to fund his forthcoming album, Fading. So, what is there to moan about? Musicians get some much-needed liquid assets, fans can bask in the warm philanthropic glow, and everybody enjoys the outcome. Right?
Arch-contrarian Michael Gira, creator of challenging, confrontational and often astoundingly good music, will become your personalised minstrel for a few hundred quid.
The discomfort starts with the “perks”. Take DFRNT’s project as an example: in order to encourage fans to invest as much as possible, larger pledges are rewarded with a range of customised treats. A $50 donation gets you, among other things, a signed copy of the album; $200 earns you an additional EP of unreleased tracks and a place on the producer’s promo list. For the princely sum of $1,000, the producer will create an entire EP in your honour, cook you meals and hang out with you for a day. Now, DFRNT seems like an upstanding guy. I’ve enjoyed his music in the past and I’d encourage you to check out the album samples and, if you like what you hear, think about pledging some money too. But doesn’t this all feel a little…distasteful? I’m sure the guy’s a good cook as well, but I don’t think I’d be able to enjoy a meal with a grand in hard cash looming over the dinner table.
This isn’t a one-off either – perks are a crucial part of the Kickstarter model. $1,000 would earn you a producer credit and “serious input” on the 100% Silk documentary (fingers crossed you’re not an overbearing moron, I guess). For putting $500 towards the next Swans album, Michael Gira offered to write and record a song with your name in it, explicitly praising you. Yes, arch-contrarian Michael Gira, creator of challenging, confrontational and often astoundingly good music, will become your personalised minstrel for a few hundred quid.
Herein lies the problem with this model. I wonder if these artists ever stopped to ponder whether their fans actually want to be in the driving seat? Might your ardent admiration for your favourite producer cool off slightly upon seeing them abase themselves for your cash? And how can an artist expect to cultivate any remotely intriguing image or persona when they’re presenting themselves on these mundane, businesslike terms? DFRNT’s pitch reads like a meticulously constructed funding application, from the exhaustive career biography through to the workmanlike descriptions of the music. Undoubtedly this is the best way to get people to pledge their cash, and all power to him for that – but is it the best way to present your music to the world?
I wonder if these artists ever stopped to ponder whether their fans actually want to be in the driving seat?
And this at a time when, it seems, we lust after the unknown as much as ever. An example: at a recent gig , Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland [Hype Williams] were substituted for an erroneous performer in full facepaint and goggles. In Glasgow they had a musclebound body builder on stage for the duration of the gig. The duo have given only one interview ahead of the release of Black Is Beautiful, and – like all their interactions with the press – it’s peppered with comically egregious lies. Under the heading Hype Williams: do they ever speak the truth?, Blunt tells us that he hates rap and listens to (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? “day in day out”. The duo – those aren’t their real names, by the way – apparently met at Oasis’s Knebworth gig in 1996. Thoughtfully orchestrated postmodern prank or kneejerk distaste for the mechanisms of the press, it’s never clear – but either way, Hype Williams give the impression of just not giving a fuck what the rest of the world thinks. And people love it.
The success of the duo – no doubt partly down to the brilliance of their music, of course – suggests that fans look for a far more complex relationship with their chosen artists than the Kickstarter model might imply. Viewed as investors, it seems baffling that people put up with the antics of Blunt and Copeland – or Zomby for that matter, notorious for his erratic media presence and tendency to issue death threats via Twitter. Yet we buy their music and we pay to see them perform (in Zomby’s case, the latter is a foolhardy investment indeed). What this points to is that musicians exist not just to deliver a “product” as efficiently and transparently as possible, but to perplex, allure and infuriate. They can be a half-blank canvas on which we project our collective desires, or a tenacious thorn in the side of wider culture. Plenty of the best music deliberately evades explanation and goes out of the way to alienate potential fans. Can you imagine punk getting its big break through Indiegogo?
Musicians exist not just to deliver a “product” as efficiently and transparently as possible, but to perplex, allure and infuriate.
In other words, the Kickstarter model – useful as it may be in practical terms – gives up a lot of what can be really meaningful about the dynamic between an artist and their audience, instead encouraging us to focus on notions of “value for money” and “investor return”. Music, like education, is a transaction that might involve an exchange of money (though in the former case increasingly less so these days), but exists beyond the merely financial. Obviously that’s not going to pay the rent or fund a vinyl pressing – I don’t have any answers here, just sanctimonious criticisms, sorry – but it’s a thought worth bearing in mind. I wish DFRNT all the best with his album – but if the direct appeal doesn’t work, maybe he should consider cracking out Photoshop and getting to work.