The Kickstarter Dilemma: Parody & Ethics

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.