Thursday, May 3, 2012

Amanda Palmer, Kickstarter, ROI and The Future

One thing any comics-fan who immerses themselves in social media will now see on a daily basis is at least one Kickstarter campaign to produce a graphic novel or comic.  Sometimes its more than one.  Often its a RT on Twitter from a famed writer or artist who is doing nothing but RT'ing a pleading Tweet sent to said famed artist, and for whom RT'ing the original Tweet is an action of about 2 seconds reading and clicking.

I am not dubious of the Kickstarter technology, rules, etc...  If you are unfamiliar, Kickstarter is a site that enables folks working on creative projects to raise funds.  Basically, you get a description with web content attached (video, images, too much text in many cases), telling you what the artist is doing, why and who they are.  Then a dollar total they are raising, and what it'll go towards.  The answer is not: putting food on my table.  It's usually something like "production costs".  Its basically intended to keep the artists from going deep into debt while they produce the record, comic, statue, indie film, whatever...

There are then levels of support.  Artists are obliged to usually offer something better at each level.  $1 gets you a thank you.  $30 gets you a copy of the album.  $10,000 gets you a a day with the artist and a big thanks, plus a t-shirt.  Something along those lines.

For a better idea of what this looks like, I invite you to visit Kickstarter.com, but to look specifically at the page for musician/ performer Amanda Palmer.  

when someone asks you if you're a (rock) god, you say "yes"

If you've properly budgeted for your project, then its possible this can work very well for you.  Especially if you know a whole lot of people, so you're not counting on that one person to give you $10,000.

The established artist

Amanda Palmer recently asked for $100,000 from her network (and it IS a network).  She had a month.  In a few days, she's raised almost $450,000.  I count myself among those who have chipped in.


Not all that long ago, Palmer was signed to a label both with her breakthrough act, The Dresden Dolls, and then as a solo performer.  Dissatisfied with the work Palmer thought they were doing on her behalf that she knew she could do herself, she ended the contract and is now a woman without a country, unless you count her actual fanbase as a country, which, really, she should.

Right now she's got over 7000 people willing to kick in about $60 on average.  Here's a good article on someone else's thoughts on all this.

Palmer has the distinct advantage of behaving as an established artist.  But there are lots of those "established acts" who disappear every day.  Instead, Palmer has done an astoundingly good job worthy of some grad student's dissertation research when it comes to understanding her own social media presence, how to manage said presence, and launch it not into a career, but use all that work to ensure she has the career she wants.

To simplify: Palmer lives online.  I swear to God, the woman spends 24 hours per day on Twitter when she isn't in a studio or onstage.  She talks to, engages, RT's, and otherwise communicates with her fans non-stop.  I can barely keep up with just Paul.

When she has a show, she's promoting it herself.  She's either genuinely excited or knows how to fake it (I believe the former to be true) when it comes to her shows.  She plays free "ninja-gigs" you can only find out about by "following" her.  She engages her fans in the idea that they're all in it together, that "we are the media".  Not "they", nor "me" nor "I".

She promotes their art (usually of her or illustrating her work), and does this all well.

There's a lot more to be said about all that, but in the context of a conversation on Palmer's Kickstarter success?  It translates into a fanbase that not only follows her, but is invested because Palmer is invested.  And that meant that she reached her stated goal of $100,000 at 6 hours in, and quadrupled that goal in just a few days.

It would be remiss not to point out a few things:
  • The Dresden Dolls were on a label, and she had opportunities thanks to that label (circa 2004) that others may not have had to see how all this works.  How much this played into the current state, I can't say.
  • She is married to a successful author who, himself, has a serious online presence and devoted following.  The fandom no doubt loves the pairing (I find it charming).  And it can't have hurt either's reputation.  Its like seeing Wonder Woman marrying Batman.  Everyone likes that idea.
But a lot of artists start out with the advantage of label support and some radio play.  Palmer has managed to seize control of her own destiny, wrestle it from the corporate overlords and find a way to use them as a springboard to have the career she wants, on her terms.

The non-established artists

And here, our story gets complicated.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit thanks to the sheer volume of RT's I see for Kickstarter campaigns via Twitter, Facebook, email, etc...

When it comes to the non-established artists whom I do not know...  Spending $10 at iTunes or whatever a CD is going for at Amazon makes a whole lot more sense than funding their work if I do not know them.

At the end of the day, it's a Return on Investment, and while I may support Palmer (and am happy to get my digital copy of the record and some vinyl), I'm also aware that a portion of that is not coming back to me in any form other than that I think maybe we all did the right thing.  Of course, that's why its so important that the Premiums offered with the investment make sense.

My Personal Little Feelings

But...  at the end of the day, I don't buy most of the stuff I buy that's a luxury item as a token of my good will.  I shop pretty hard to make sure I get the best deal (you do not want to know the hoops and mental exercises I recently went through making sure I spent as little as possible on a couple of books).  Just giving Johnny Comic Maker $50 for a comic that'd be $20 on the shelf?  That's...  kind of a terrible deal, even if my name does get listed (if its spelled correctly, which it won't be) in the "thank you's".

I believe in supporting art and the creation of art.  But one thing Kickstarter reminds me of is this:  There are a whole lot of people out there of all ranges of talent trying their hand at "art".  If I want to pat myself on the back for being a patron of the arts, you're going to have to be selective.

And, for me, every time I think about whether that money I'm basically chucking out the window to never see it again?  That could have gone to, I dunno...  orphans who need glasses, or one-legged-penguins or some other worthy cause.

In other words:  I can't really figure out how I'm going to give someone on Kickstarter money unless I have the pre-established feeling or relationship with that artist.  The end.

It's why I kicked money at Palmer for this project.  I would buy the vinyl and digital download, anyway.  But I think this is a good thing she's doing for media in general, and while I am (a 37 year old dude) not her core audience as I perceive it via social media, I figure she's given plenty to the internets for free.  I can kick something her way.  Heck, I'm a fan.

But that's just me.  And I have given money to a few things, maybe things which were a little screwy in hindsight (RoboCop statue for Detroit, anybody?).  So who knows?

The new model

Even with digital distribution and the significantly cheaper cost of film and audio production thanks to the power of all the junk that appeared starting in the late 90's, you still have to press and print things.  You still have costs associated with touring for a band, or touring for a book, or whatever else you might want to think of.  you may have gotten rid of the record label that was taking money from your sales but not doing their part (ahem, 1990's rap industry).  But there's still significant cost involved.*

I think its great that Palmer's pulled off what she has as she approaches $500,000, and I think anyone in the creative world can learn from what she does and has done.

I'd like to think in industries like comics, where you get such a big spotlight put on you working for DC or Marvel, it'd be great to parlay some of that instant name recognition into a Kickstarter project.  And maybe that's going to be where record labels, publishers and other traditional media suit-type companies find themselves.  Maybe.

Now, I do see the rise of the Very Special Snowflakes out there hoping a RT and their dream of basically retelling Avatar: The Last Airbender (But Lousier) to be a likely side-effect.  The machines of the industry were able to work to naturally filter for people who wanted it, and so that people who didn't have any stake in making sure you felt good about yourself were in the position to decide if you should get money.  And maybe we'll end up missing some of that.

But it also means you're on your own, and all the freedom and danger that suggests.  Maybe not as much danger as the kids who thought Kevin Smith was onto something by maxing out a handful of credit cards in pursuit of his dream and did the same before flaming out and failing to finish (turns out, making movies is often hard).


I dunno.  Have you supported anything on Kickstarter?




*that's not to mention that I've heard the cost of printing is going up as more stuff goes online and print shops aren't dealing in the same volume with their OWN purchasing and getting better costs they can pass on to the person hiring them, and thus onto the consumer.

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