Jon Morris was looking for a change. He wanted to fulfill his dream of being a professional musician, but funds were scarce.
That’s where Kickstarter came in – a website that allows fans and strangers alike to back the creative endeavors of artists in all media.
Kickstarter was created by Perry Chen, Charles Adler and Yancey Strickler and launched in April 2009. But the idea for the site came about one night in 2002 when Chen wanted to throw a concert in New Orleans.
“He wasn’t sure people would show up, so he thought ‘What if there was a way to test a project?’” said Justin Kazmark, a member of Kickstarter’s communications team.
Backers—as the donors are called—are who test the projects. If a project doesn’t reach its goal, then no money is rewarded. Money is only received from the backers when the entire goal is met within the time limit set.
“It’s all or nothing – even if you’re just $1 short,” Kazmark said.
Kickstarter team, which is mostly comprised of musicians and artists, curates the projects submitted to the website. Projects must be a creative endeavor, but cannot be for a charity or non-profit. Kickstarter isn’t the first of its kind, but it’s quickly becoming the most popular. The website has raised $150 million overall, giving 18,000 creative projects the green light.
“Kickstarter was founded on the idea that there is value in the world beyond things that can make money,” Kazmark said.
Morris was already playing coffee houses throughout the Pensacola area, but in order to be taken seriously he needed to record an album. The only problem is, he needed money and as a middle school teacher he didn’t have the $6,000 he needed to make that dream come true.
“When I found out how much it was going to cost there was an initial shock,” he said. “I couldn’t afford it on my own and I didn’t want to get into major debt.”
He raised his $6,000 right before deadline with pledges totaling $6,030—a relief since the artist doesn’t get a dime unless the entire goal is met.
“I think the success of the Kickstarter campaign has been just one of many signs that this is the direction I should be going,” Morris said.
When you’re making a change as drastic as middle school teacher to on the road musician, you need all the confidence you can get.
“It sure does put some wind in your sails to feel the love and support of people who believe in what you’re doing,” Morris said.
Morris recorded the album in March, and it should be released in early June. Even after Morris spent his cash, he still keeps in contact with his backers by updating his Kickstarter page.
“I plan to continue to update my backers via Kickstarter, including giving them a download of the EP an entire week before the official release,” he said. “I’m grateful to them, and I want them to know it.”
As far as his musical dreams, Morris hasn’t looked back.
“Of course, it’s scary to make that leap, labeling yourself as a musician by trade,” he said. “But I can’t think of one great artist who dove into making music without taking a risk. The risk makes it worth it. It’s part of the story we hear in any great song.”
Funding for Dreams
Thanks to Kickstarter, artists don’t have to necessarily starve. They can meet their goals and have another outlet to network that does, literally, pay off.
When the local band Pioneers! O Pioneers! wanted to release an EP – not the kind with hand-written scribble on a Memorex CD-R, but a professionally made album, they needed the funds to manufacture it. They had the recording studio all taken care of, so they set at small goal of $500 to pay for the actual product.
“We knew we had a reachable goal since we recorded it ourselves,” said Mike Bishop.
They not only reached it, but raised over $600. That’s typical of most projects. Goals are surpassed, giving artists an added encouragement boost.
“I was shocked,” said Jason Leger. “Mike just kept texting me dollar amounts.”
Backers are not just family and close friends.
“There were friends on Facebook from middle school who gave to our band,” Leger said.
“My boss randomly gave us $50,” Bishop added.
The website raises funds and awareness through social plug-ins.
“The majority of people come to the site because of one project,” Kazmark said. “Then it spreads awareness through Facebook and Twitter, which is where the majority of the traffic is from.”
Of course, there’s always the fear that your project may go unfunded, which does happen. A successful Kickstarter campaign has to be proactive.
“You drive the traffic,” said musician Chris Staples. “I got nervous. I thought if I fail publicly, it’s going to be really embarrassing.”
Niceville-native and Portland, Ore. resident, Jenny Vu just recently finished her second successful Kickstarter project. After graduation from Ringling College of Art and Design, Vu moved to Portland. She not only had to make a living as an artist, but she was in unfamiliar surroundings.
“In school I didn’t work for the most part, I was just a student,” Vu said. “After school, I moved away to Portland, so it was a shock being out of school and away from my community and having to start over again. That is the thing I struggled with the most. Finding a way to make art on my own and feel happy starting from scratch.”
Kickstarter is also fairly easy and quick compared to the drawn-out process of applying for a grant that you may not get.
“I think it’s a great way for artists to speak directly to an audience, rather than relying on a middle person, like applying for grants where you’re going through a lengthy process to ask one group of people for someone else’s money,” Vu said of Kickstarter. “It eliminates a lot of unnecessary processing and delivers your ideas directly to people who may be interested.”
The Right Incentives
Maybe it is because artistic philanthropists scour Kickstarter with money to burn. But the truth is, the money comes from how powerful your message is and how good your incentives are. Of course ,talent comes into play, too.
“It’s not strictly donations,” points out Kazmark. “You get something – there’s always a value exchange.”
An important part of creating your Kickstarter page is deciding who gets what and making sure that the incentives you promise won’t cost more than the funds you raised.
“If you don’t have viable rewards, they’re not going to donate,” Morris said. “But the rewards you give need to be cost effective for you.”
For instance, you can’t promise every $5 donor a screen-printed t-shirt.
“If you don’t follow through, you’re just flippin’ off the people that helped you,” Leger said.
And sometimes, the best incentives don’t cost much.
“For every funding level of our project we gave a ‘thank you’ in the CD sleeve,” Leger said. “Maybe I’m lame, but I think that’s cool.”
Staples was utilizing the Internet to raise funds long before Kickstarter – using eBay as a way for fans to pay him to write an original or collaborated song.
“Sometimes they would send me an idea for a song or lyrics they wanted me to put music to,” he said. “I really liked doing it.”
For the higher-end backers of his most recent project, a full-length record that met its $2,000 goal in December, Staples chose to give incentives with that same personal touch. Incentives such as original songs, house shows – even the guitar he used to record the album really upped the ante compared to the merch you get at local shows. Two backers paid as much as $300 to have Staples play a house show.
“My goal was to make sure that people actually get rewards equal to the monetary value,” Staples said. “It’s a misconception to say you’re just asking for money.”
Vu’s latest project, a series of large-scale portrait collages, will be exhibited in the Littman Gallery at Portland State University. Vu raised $1, 273 to pay for the supplies she needed and she didn’t let any of it go to waste by using scraps from her works to make colorful, paper pins for her backers. Incentives also included original ink drawings and pastel studies. For $25, backers received the pin, pastel study, show card and a thank you note. Original art is rarely that cheap.
“It’s great because you’re not asking any particular person for a large sum of money,” Vu said. “People can pitch in what they can afford and it really can add up to a lot in the end.”
Without having to worry about purchasing art supplies, Vu could produce her work the way she wanted to.
“Kickstarter gave me the freedom to really pursue the work I was making,” Vu said. “Otherwise I wasn’t sure how I would be able to afford all of the materials for a body of work this size. I probably would have had to make a lot of sacrifices within the quality of work.”
Making a Difference
Kickstarter isn’t strictly in the music business. In fact, the largest category of Kickstarter projects is film, with music in second place.
When Carol Searcy was denied parental rights to care for her son in the hospital because she was not legally married to her partner of ten years, she knew she needed to take a stand. Searcy, who is a professional video editor and the owner of her own production company, All Good Creatives, decided she wanted to put a documentary together to raise awareness about the struggles same-sex parents face. The only thing holding her back was money.
“Being in Mobile, you don’t have a lot of resources to put together a project like this,” Searcy said. “I never had the funding to start my own project. This kickstarted my idea.”
Searcy raised $10,868 and is currently in production. She hopes to get the film some national press and is planning to pitch it to the Oprah Winfrey Network and HBO.
With a project that goes beyond just creativity and makes a statement, Searcy received support from strangers who were supportive not just of her future documentary, but the cause behind it.
“Half of my backers were people I know,” Searcy said. “There were a lot of big donors – like $500, that were anonymous or just gave a first name.”
Some of the more modest backers may have been trying to stay out of the politics that have surrounded the issue since it was first reported in 2006.
When you have such a big project ahead – and the pressure of knowing that people have invested a small fortune in your idea, there tends to be some snags.
“Of course you hit road blocks,” Searcy said. “You just have to keep going.”
Even $10,000 runs out quickly. Once goals are reached, Kickstarter takes 5 percent of funds raised and Amazon Payments takes 3 to 5 percent as a fee for transferring to the account you set up. Creators still have 100 percent ownership of their ideas and projects.
“I got about $8,000 once fees were taken,” Searcy said. “But it gave me a base and I was able to purchase equipment.”
Harper Robinson, a professor at KD College in Dallas and Pensacola resident Barker White wanted to make a documentary about the BP oil spill. The two had some film background, but had never made a full-length feature.
“It’s a big topic for four people who had never made a feature length film before,” Robinson said.
The movie itself became a big topic. “Beyond Pollution” was accepted in the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. Before filmmakers can gain national attention, they have to get attention from backers. All projects rely on a short, introductory video that lets the viewer know who and what they’re backing.
“When you put something out there that’s not professional, it’s not going to garner attention,” Robinson said.
Any creative project has some personal meaning, it’s important to share that.
“Don’t be shy,” Kazmark said. “It’s important for you to share your story and inspire your audience.”
Paying it Forward
Kickstarter is increasing the caliber of the creative arts. From local bands producing professionally made albums, to art school graduates who don’t have to decide between dinner and paintbrushes, right-brained creators are given the opportunity to do what they love. And as more artists create Kickstarter accounts, they’re more likely to pay it forward and become backers themselves.
“I definitely got interested in other projects that were non-musical,” Staples said. “Like this one for aqua farming and just quirky ideas that could never get mainstream funding.”
Pioneers Leger and Bishop also check back in to Kickstarter to see what new ideas are cooking.
“I’ve funded two projects,” Leger said. “There are ways to help out artists you already love – like David Bazan. I’m going to buy his album anyway, why not help him make it.”
“I’m famous for giving away $5 here, $5 here,” Bishop said of his donations.
It’s likely that as Kickstarter’s popularity grows, more grassroots musicians, artists, writers and filmmakers will be able to make their dreams a reality.
“I think it’s cool that this kind of technology is available,” Staples said. “It gives me a sense of self reliance. It used to be that if you didn’t have a label you felt powerless. Now, it’s pretty wide open if you have the drive.”
Back it Up
It’s easy to get lost in all of the creative projects on Kickstarter. Here are a few projects around the country you can really get behind. Remember, if these projects don’t meet their goals, they receive no funds, so don’t wait.
Photographer Julie Dant is raising funds to produce a book featuring black and white images of Mississippi. The book with the working title, “A Vanishing Delta,” will feature images such as: abandoned small towns, share-cropper’s homes and Morgan Freeman’s blues club, Ground Zero.
Inspired by a dream she had where Missy Elliot was president of the United States, Rhode Island School of Design senior, Sakura, is raising money to print t-shirts, mugs and pins, as well as, track suits to make her dream a reality.
Brooklyn’s Thunder and Lightning has been working on their final album, “Disgust” for a year. Now, they just need to master and produce it. The album features vocal production from Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit as well as collaborations with Harlem Shakes, Darkside and The Great American Novel.
You saw them in Seville Quarter after Pensacola’s Double Bridge Run. Now support Mingo Fishtrap as they record a new album and perform their new music on tour.
Ceyenne Doroshow and Audacia Ray, the founder of the Red Umbrella Project, have been collaborating on “Cooking in Heels,” Doroshow’s debut cookbook. As a transgender woman, Doroshow is not your conventional cook. Her book will not only include delicious recipes, but also her life story.
Bring back tangible photos with Snapstagram, a project that turns your Instagram photos into 4×4 prints delivered right to your door. The project-hopeful logs into your Instagram account after you’ve chosen which photos you want to print. No uploading necessary. The price is $6 per 12 photos and shipping is free.
Seattle-based band, Garage Voice is hoping to raise funds for their next album, which is influenced by spirituals and gospels mixed with rock ’n’ roll.
Astor Place Hairstylists is a New York City institution. Karen Gehres wants to tell the story of the famous hair salon that has over 50 hairstylists and has served the city – as well as many celebrities since 1939 in, “Astor Barber All Stars,” Gehres’ second documentary.
Lafayette, La., musician Johanna Divine and artist Denise Gallagher have collaborated to make an album that is pleasing to the ears and eyes. The album, “Electric Tide,” is already done, but Divine and Gallagher need the funds to print the CDs and artwork.
Support the Post Haste exhibition in Oakland, Calif. and you support not just one artist, but eight. The exhibition will use the U.S. Postal Service as an analogy for vanishing public institutions and will be in the MacArthur B Arthur Gallery from May 4-28.