The Kickstarter Dilemma: Parody & Ethics

November 21, 2011 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  15 Comments

When the online pledge system Kickstarter first came on to the scene, I thought it was genius, and could potentially revolutionize the music business, and reverberate throughout the creative world. And though it has proven indispensable to some projects, it has raised some questions of when it is ethical to accost people for money for creative endeavors.

My first dealings with the site was with the upcoming “Charlie Louvin: Still Rattlin’ The Devils Cage DVD out December 3rd, which had all the earmarks of what I thought Kickstarter was designed to do. The film’s goal was to help preserve history, honor a legend, and supply the Louvin family with 1,000 DVD’s to help pay for Charlie’s medical bills; an altruistic purpose. And the filmmakers did not ask for all they needed to make the film, having since spent thousands of their own dollars. They just asked for what was needed to “kick start” the project.

But almost immediately after Kickstarter was launched, the spirit of Kistarter started to be abused. The next time I was asked to contribute was to help fund a video for the band Josephus and the George Jonestown Massacre, and their song “What Would Lemmy Do?” Not that I have any problem with this band, this song, or this video, but just as an example, is this something we need in society, that we should put our collective will behind for the greater good?

Last week I was asked to support no less than 6 Kickstarter campaigns in the span of 36 hours. To say that parody has found its way to the Kickstarter world is an understatement. For months I’ve had a story entitled “Has Kickstarter Run It’s Course?” in draft form, but was unwilling to publish it because I didn’t want people thinking I do not support Kickstarter projects or the artists behind them, because in many instances I do. But now we may have reached critical mass with the Kickstarter idea. Only 44% of campaigns are being funded, and some folks are setting them up almost as a lark, like throwing a hook into the water just to see if it bites, diluting attention and sometimes money from other projects with a more purposeful aim. And there are risks to a Kickstarter campaign failing beyond the failure of the campaign itself.

For Kickstarter to stay an important and viable tool for creative and important endeavors, more responsibility must be shown. Kickstarter campaigns that this site supports can be found posted in the news stream (top right corner of page) when they’re started, but unfortunately there are so many of them, it is difficult to give each individual attention. And one of the issues with promoting Kickstarters is that unless someone has an intimate stake in the project already, they don’t want to hear about them, and the more there are, the more the word “Kickstarter” has people tuning out.

There is a deep, ethical question here. I never asked for any money to get Saving Country Music off the ground, and trust me, thousands of dollars have been spent. And many bands, artists, film makers, designers, and entrepreneurs didn’t, and don’t either. They save and sacrifice to see their dreams come true. So why should some projects receive a hand out, and others not?

Below I’ve put a list together of some questions I think people should ask before starting a Kickstarter campaign, and also some pointers of how to set up a campaign successfully.

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1. Does the project fit with the spirit of Kickstarter?

Does it have a primary or secondary altruistic focus? Is the result something that will better humanity, or is it just for entertainment? Has some injustice been done? For example a band that has an established, loyal fan base, but is going through contract issues with their label so they can’t get funding, or maybe a band that is deciding to go an independent route instead of falling prey to the industry, or that should be on a record label but isn’t for whatever reason?

2. Have all other options been exhausted?

Are you sure you can’t fund this project yourselves, or change the scope of the project to fit a more realistic budget? Have you looked at alternatives to professional studio time or professional assistance? Rich uncles, government arts grants, schools that offer free assistance to artists as part of training programs. Is this just a means to an end to get a project out, or is it a last case resort?

3. How much money do you really need?

Don’t ask for how much you want, ask for how much you need. The idea is to “kick start” the project, not necessarily fund it from beginning to end. Can you combine the Kickstarter with money from other sources as well? Look at every expense and find ways you can cut costs first. Instead of expensive studio time, look into maybe buying an audio interface, some software for your computer, a few good microphones, and turn a walk-in closet into a home studio. This may even result in better recordings, and you still own the new gear after the project is done.

4. Analyze your fan base or target audience to be realistic about the amount you can raise.

Don’t just fall in love with round numbers, say to yourself, “We have 300 people on our email subscriber list. We have 1500 friends on Facebook. If we can at least get a third of those people to each donate $20, then . . . .” Prepping before your launch can be critical. You may need to spend weeks or months shoring up your ability to communicate with your fan base before the Kickstarter clocks starts counting down.

5. Understand the risks of a failed Kickstarter.

A failed Kickstarter can cast a pall over a project if you figure out how to get it made by other means later, which then begs the question, did you need a Kickstarter in the first place? This then can cast your band, production company, or organization in a bad light.

A Kickstarter project is an easy way for larger entities to measure the commercial viability of you or the project you wish to fund, as well as the volume or strength of your fan base or target audience, and your ability to communicate and network with them. If you can’t raise $5,000 for an album, why would a label want to release it, or sign you as an artist? Why would a distributor want to release your movie? And even fans may say, “Well, if they couldn’t get enough people excited about the album to get it funded the first time, why should I be excited to listen to it? And even if the project is funded, people can say, “They needed Kickstarter to get it funded because a label wouldn’t, so how good could it be?”

And understand there will be records of your failed Kickstarter online that may come up in search results when people are looking for your band, your project, your movie, etc.

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There is nothing in the Kickstarter bylaws saying your project needs a noble purpose. But what you are doing here is begging people for money. You are saying your project is more important than the money is to the donor. Yes, incentives for donations can return the favor in part, but over years of studying music, I am always struck how the difference between successful projects, and projects that are always struggling, is the willingness for the project’s participants to sacrifice. Kickstarter is a great tool, but unless people show responsibility in using that tool, it’s effectiveness will continue to be diminished.

15 Comments to “The Kickstarter Dilemma: Parody & Ethics”

  • You are so right about this. I anguished over whether to ask anyone to help through a kickstarter page. I have no other option. We have worked on Ruby Jane’s career with absolutely nothing, in fact in debt touring and getting her music out there expenses. I have indeed lost a lot of sleep about whether to do the page. I agree about DIY. We are not a charity. This is not a handout. I dont think the backers think we are or that kickstarter is a handout program. They get rewarded in many ways and actually, I embrace these folks in a new way..thinking of maybe a surprise reward for backers in the end or something. We are very, very grateful for the fan family and friends. I would not have asked for backing help if there was any other way in the world I could have helped get Ruby Jane in the studio. I could sell the car but transportation issue. Another point you are right on: asking for a logical amount. It will take 20,000 to do this cd right with publicity and everything and that small potatoes. I asked backers to only help with 10,000. I took the fans and friends into consideration here, not just our need. I honestly dont know where the other will come from. I pray a lot. Good article. I think most of the kickstarter folks are creative and in need. I back folks and dont mind being asked. There’s some good stuff on there. I think if there are people who need support in this society, its indeed the creative among us. Thanks for the article. I loved it. Always love your thoughts on things. :)


  • Excellent article. You’ve summed it up precisely without the animosity I would’ve thrown in.


  • I agree (mostly) with what you’re saying, and I’m one of the 6 folks that you refer to in the article. Much like Jobelle stated above, we thought long and hard about whether or not to do Kickstarter, where to set the goal, and what rewards to offer. Our first album was entirely self-funded and done on a shoestring budget. And while it was a good first effort by a very young band, we need to spend significantly more this time to really showcase what we do now that we’ve found our groove, and to get the quality end product we need. So we looked at everything including the total cost involved in recording, manufacturing, promotion, and how much we are able to spend out of our own pockets (which will be the bulk of the money spent). The hope is that folks feel like they get ther money’s worth if they pledge by offering good rewards, and basically getting funds up front from people who would want to buy the end product anyway. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but the fact is that we simply couldn’t see any other way to make it happen without asking for help.

    The only thing I really can’t agree with in what you’re saying is that there should be some kind of higher purpose or righting an injustice for someone to ask for money via Kickstarter. I honestly believe that bringing art into the world- be it physical art like painting or sculpture, film, music, etc- is in and of itself an incredibly noble purpose. And in the more narrow scope of music, and the state of modern popular country music in particular, I can see no better cause than helping out bands who are struggling to put out real, honest music. With the music business being just that- a business- the best way to make things swing away from pop fluff and contrived garbage is to spend your money elsewhere and help bring better music into the world and into the spotlight.


    • “I honestly believe that bringing art into the world- be it physical art like painting or sculpture, film, music, etc- is in and of itself an incredibly noble purpose. And in the more narrow scope of music, and the state of modern popular country music in particular, I can see no better cause than helping out bands who are struggling to put out real, honest music.”

      Can’t disagree with that whatsoever, and if I implied any different, that was not my purpose. Like I said above, I’ve held off for a long time speaking on this matter, because inherent in it will be the thought that you’re speaking out against specific people, or against the process in general. Since this is all “charity” in one form or another, some people are afraid to speak their minds. But my overall goal is to see more of these Kickstarters go through, and one way to do that is there to be less of them.

      I’m not saying I know the exact solution or that I or anyone else should be in charge of deciding what project is “noble” or not. But in my opinion, it is a problem, and the first was to solving that problem is dialogue. I’ve got my big boy pants on. I can take some heat for being insensitive. The point is progress.

      I look at the 3 projects above and the very real possibility they don’t get funded, and it makes me sick to my stomach.


      • I hear you, man. Any time there’s a good thing, people are going to jump all over it. And when something becomes overused it becomes less effective. But yeah, like you, I wonder what the answer is. Just because I don’t give a shit about a particular project doesn’t mean it’s not worthy- and the same goes for people who might not give a shit about my particular project. It’s tricky. I hope that it reaches a good balance where less projects are initiated, while more of them are successfully funded.


  • I feel as though there should be a separate Kickstarter section, or another website all together, for bands/musicians and the like. I’m sure there are faults for this idea. It has struck me odd that musicians use the website when they could just raise the money through their own website in most cases. Then again, Kickstarters makes everything much more accountable and reliable. Oh, well.


  • If there’s anything I’ve learned since quitting my ‘day job’, it’s that if you aren’t making money now, the next project won’t fix your problem. Roughly a year ago in an interview, someone asked me what I thought about “crowd funding”. I told him that if I needed money I’d sell more CDs or do without. If someone sees fit to give me money for my music, I’d rather have them buy a CD or better yet, COME TO THE SHOW!

    The few times I’ve donated to kickstarter etc. have been to help hard working people get over the hump on almost finished projects or replace stolen items. They DESERVED it. If your band is just too broke for studio time, earn it or get out of the business.

    @ Jobelle, I wish you and Ruby Jane the best. Surely with a few years of sacrifice, you both have a solid understanding of what it is you are INVESTING in. As for “dreams”, I stopped chasing my lifelong dream when I found out my wife was pregnant with our first child. It was a waste to chase an illusion. REALITY set in 7 months later when she lost her job (and insurance). Since then, this sequence of blessings has allowed me to earn a living as an unkown artist and more importantly, I get to be Daddy! If Ruby Jane’s dream is to have an impact, she already has a role model showing her the way. She WILL have an impact, you can’t buy that with any amount of donations.


  • Of note: a person isn’t forced to donate. If it doesn’t suit you, don’t donate. The couple of projects I’ve sent money to, I’ve done so happily. There’s been projects since that I’d love to help, but haven’t been able to. And then there’s projects that I’m not interested in. None of these offend me by having a Kickstarter page asking for donations, any more than the Salvation Army does with the bells around Christmas time. I donate if I believe in the cause and can afford to, and if I can’t, I don’t.

    A final note: artists COULD set up a campaign via their own site, but, in my opinion, running it through Kickstarter gives it a bit of cred. I didn’t see it mentioned here, but Kickstarter actually screens projects. Not everything submitted to Kickstarter gets the green light from the site.

    In my opinion, it’s an interesting, focused tool for struggling, broke-ass artists. We’ve been touring for years, and can attest to the broke-ass part of it ;)


    • That is correct- Kickstarter screens projects to make sure that they fall within the parameters of what the site is about. And, not only does using the site as a funding platform give a project credibility, it also means a project can get in front of a greater range of people than just using a band’s own website. Although chances are small that someone previously unfamiliar with a band will donate to a project because they see it on Kickstarter, that chance still exists. And us broke-ass artists need every bit of help we can get!


    • I agree, if you’re going to solicit people for money, Kickstarter is the way to go, and I don’t see any benefit or difference with running it through your own website. I have no problem with Kickstarter as an organization, and they are partnered with Amazon, who I decided long ago was one of the few companies I would partner Saving Country Music with for music links/previews/etc.

      I will say, I understand Kickstarter screens campaigns, but if your success rate is 44%, that may not be enough. A few months back, a really cool girl named Devilyn Carver, who does a lot of work promoting and booking bands, had a camera stolen that she used to post pictures and videos for bands. She set up a Kickstarter to help pay for a new camera, and Kickstarter pulled the campaign. However, a video for :What Would Lemmy Do?” went through. And again, not to pick on those guys, but that is just an example. So from a technical standpoint, you could meet all the requirements, but still, should it be a priority?


  • As it pertains to music/album funding, Kickstarter emerged in what has basically been the demise of the record industry. It filled part of the funding vacuum left by disappearing indie labels and agents. It did not fill the knowledge gap. Presumably, an indie label would offer a team of experienced business people who have at least enough of a track record to secure funding for an artistic project. In turn, an artist would have freedom (and luxury) to express themselves in a studio while the team would help steer the project in a profitable direction.

    Kickstarter may have widened the accountability gap. I’ve heard “if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense”. That’s true. If a band has enough of a following to sell their music, why would they need donations? It appears that about 56% of people agree that if you can’t fund your own project, it’s not worth doing.

    In music however, the art is most often defiled when it’s anchored to a dollar amount. Success (if it’s monetary) depends on an artists ability to produce something meaningful and viable. It can’t be done alone. People must be willing to SUPPORT good music. Some show it simply by showing up, paying a cover, buying merch etc. Some show it by making/posting videos and pics. Some show it by writing articles, reviews, and providing a forum for productive discussions (and by giving free advice). Modern technology has made it tough on “emerging artists”. There’s just sooooo much music out there to sift through. Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to be a supporter. For instance, you can just scroll down to the bottom of the page and click “donate” ;-)


    • Great comment.

      Only thing I would say is that on a whole, independent music infrastructure has weathered the storm of contraction in the music business music better than the big boys. I still think there is a lot of opportunity out there for bands on independent labels.What has changed there the most is the amount of competition.


      • That’s very true. Although, even with indie labels, a band needs to reach a certain level of success on its own before a label will typically show any interest or consider investing. Which of course makes good business sense, but it does make it tougher for a band just starting out to initially get “over the hump”, because you have to do it on your own. And, for a band making very little money on its own- because that’s just the way it is when you’re trying to get established- it’s tough to achieve that initial level of recognition while still maintaining a “day job” to pay the bills and make money to invest in the music. Like any business venture, a band takes not only time and skill to get off the ground, but capital.

        As for the competition aspect- It is a catch 22 of the way people discover and consume music now. The internet has definitely made it more viable for artists to become successful without record labels. But, there’s also a lot more stuff to sift through, too. I know that I myself am very much guilty of being ignorant of music that I would love due to the fact that there’s simply so much stuff out there that I hear and have no interest in. Basically, if I hear the names of 30 bands mentioned, I’m less likely to check any of them out than I would be if I only hear about one or two. Of course, then I finally do hear or see someone that blows me away and kick myself in the ass for having not known about them sooner.

        The music world is a different place than it used to be. We all just need to adapt and roll with it, myself included.


  • Thanks for articulating my problems with Kickstarter.

    Don’t get me wrong, as a musician I can sympathize with how hard it is to make any money, and how hard it can be to pay for recording, touring, etc. As for “if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense,” as mentioned in a previous comment – that’s bullshit. There are far too many artists I love who never made squat, and whose albums I never would have heard if a record company hadn’t been willing to lose money putting them out.

    But there seems to be a sense of entitlement about many band Kickstarter projects that rubs me the wrong way. Whenever I see a band with their Kickstarter beggar cup, I always wonder – do they have cable? (I don’t.) Do they have an iPhone with a $100-a-month data plan? (Me – nope.) Are they really sacrificing in any way to do what they are trying to do? Or are they asking others to do the hard part for them?


  • Interesting comments. I am an unfortunate Kickstarter “backer” who placed a pre-order for a manufactured product, only to see you my money disappear. The project developer failed to set aside funds properly and now claims he is unable to provide refunds. (Google the “hanfree” project.) The Kickstarter concept is a little different when applied to musicians, but I think valuable lessons can be learned from my experience. When you accept funds from strangers on the Internet, you are entering into a contractual arrangement with them. If their funds are intended to be a “donation,” there had better be a written, properly executed document reflecting that fact in a clear and unambiguous way. And whatever your intentions with these funds are, you had better do your homework and properly manage the finances of your project in an intelligent and well-planned fashion. Being a well educated and savvy business person is a critical component to being a successful musician.


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