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Kickstart My Heart

Austin figures prominently in Kickstarter's risks and rewards

By Adam Schragin, Fri., Feb. 24, 2012

Kickstart My Heart

Justin Kazmark, from the communications team for Manhattan-based Internet start-up Kickstarter, speaks on the phone about his company's growth and how a once three-person team has very recently increased to 37. Discussing Austin in the company's success – Austin is one of 10 cities featured prominently on www.kickstarter.com – he apologized that he couldn't offer more precise numbers at that moment.

"This morning I walked into the office and something incredibly unique had happened," he explains. "A project that had launched trying to raise [a total of] $400,000 raised that much in less than 12 hours. It's now at almost $700,000."

The amount of traffic on Kickstarter was so high at this point that the development team was working solely on keeping the website from crashing.

The project to which Kazmark refers is a San Francisco-based video game prospectus from firms Double Fine and 2 Player Productions, which finishes its funding cycle on March 13. By the date of this writing, the total raised is at almost $1.9 million. This largesse is unique indeed, a milestone for a company whose model is based on small dividends amassing into big ones, an American appetite for risk, and old-fashioned entrepreneurial moxie.

In a story such as this – one about business as much as it is about art – money speaks loudest, and sometimes best. Austin enjoys a lucrative but still new toehold in alternative financing, and musicians, in particular, have been frustrated, pleased, and even bowled over with what Kickstarter has and hasn't accomplished for them.

Nuts and E-Bolts

Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler founded Kickstarter in 2008 telecommuting from Brooklyn and Chicago. It was one of many companies to grow out of the long-settled ash of the dot-com bust, one hoping to merge the interactivity of still-burgeoning but unmistakably successful sites like Facebook and Twitter (founded in 2004 and 2006, respectively) with that same component of crowd-generated content and – most crucially – a clear revenue stream.

Kickstarter works like this: An individual, band, or business proposes a project, musical or otherwise (food-related, environmental, technological, etc.), and the amount it will take to finance it. Then they set a date by which to raise the funds. The maximum time period to reach a monetary goal is 60 days – lowered from 90 last June – and the bottom line can range from $1 to whatever the imagination can conjure. As the host, Kickstarter takes 5% of the campaigns that successfully reach their funding amount. Amazon Payments, the middleman between project creators and Kickstarter, takes another 3% to 5%.

Projects come in all creative flavors, but site rules indicate that what's funded there must have "clearly defined goals and expectations," and can't be directed toward the purchase of something like a vintage amp – unless you can make a strong case that your project all but depends on your purchase of a 1962 Vox AC30.

Arts patronage is as old as the arts themselves, from Harriet Shaw Weaver gifting James Joyce parts of her inheritance to public television gifting Elmo shoelaces for donations, but it's Kickstarter's Web 2.0 tweaking of the formula that sets its program apart. Kickstarter depends less on select contributions of a wealthy few and instead feeds on many, many smaller pledges that lead to a composite whole. The model, described as the "long tail," became vogue in both pop economics and tech after Wired Editor Chris Anderson popularized the term in 2004 (see "A Market of Multitudes," Feb. 1, 2008).

The more sexy component to Kickstarter's success is the "risk and reward" foundation decreeing that unsuccessful projects – whether they fail by one dollar or a thousand – see none of the money they've hypothetically "raised." If a project doesn't reach its goal, money never changes hands, and Kickstarter receives no cut. It can be heartbreaking to see something come near fruition and stall, but for the successful, it can feel like winning some kind of artistic roulette.

"It creates a trajectory, a narrative structure," says Kazmark of the all-or-nothing approach. "All projects have this storyline, and this sense of urgency, and now you have a network of people excited to get this story past its finish line."

The Price Is Right

As rich in creative schemes as it is hungry geeks with a "try anything once" approach to everything from bacon desserts to bicycle-powered bars, Austin's a fertile Kickstarter breeding ground. The first – and first successful – Kickstarter campaign here was undertaken by alt.rock band Language Room, which asked for $10,000 to finance a used RV and tour behind its debut LP, 2009's One by One. It raised $10,328, setting a local trend of tilting toward the victorious. Of 654 local projects launched on Kickstarter, 385 have successfully raised funding, while 269 did not. Seventy-two projects were in motion as of Valentine's Day.

Aimee Bobruk is an indie-folk artist whose own second album was funded through Kickstarter. On Nov. 14, 2011, she concluded her fund drive having raised $12,260, her goal having been $10,000. Choosing an amount to raise is a tough decision in and of itself.

"I don't know how to describe it – it's like putting a price on what you really need," says Bobruk. "And I needed $10,000 just to finish the recording. That's not including the pressing or publicity or radio advertisement."

The ideal amount, she guesses, would have been more along the lines of $25,000. So while her total earnings fell short of what it might cost a singer-songwriter to produce, release, and promote an album without incurring personal debt, Kickstarter allowed Bobruk to – at the very least – finish recording with famed producer and Austinite Brian Beattie, whose credits for Daniel Johnston, Okkervil River, and more make his time worth her fans' money.

"I think Kickstarter is amazing, and that everyone with a creative project should do it. But know that you have to commit to not only the product, but to a realistic goal," she says.

What Kickstarter also offers is a sense of geographical continuity. A user can click on the Kickstarter home page, hit "Discover great projects" in the upper left corner, then browse projects currently funding in Austin. These include everything from a community cookbook and a film about musician Bill Callahan to a limited-edition set of tarot cards. The local community seeking funding is small enough now that it doesn't take long to browse through them all, while the breadth of projects, as demonstrated, is wide. Additionally, Kickstarter's place-specific interface helps potential donors learn more about what ideas and creative gestations are being developed in Austin. In this way it's not just a fundraising platform, but also a promotional tool.

"It's not just money that people walk away with," says Kazmark. "They build a community of supporters along the way. They come for the funding and walk away with an audience."

Bobruk was surprised at how much her fan base grew throughout her campaign.

"I've had a couple of people contribute who I didn't know, and who have never seen me play. Some guy out of Germany gave me $150. I asked, 'How had you heard of me?' He said, 'I just discovered you on Kickstarter.' I was like, 'Wow.' That's a major blessing, you know?"

In terms of what sorts of projects fare best on Kickstarter, Kazmark can't say for sure, but does hint that, "Ideas that may not be a good fit for traditional institutions tend to do well." A local project fitting the "nontraditional" parameter with snug certitude is a recent successful campaign by opera singer Julie Brown, who raised $4,005 for an album of arias. A UT graduate whose performance career was sidelined when she took time off to care for her son with special needs, Brown returned to singing only to find that she didn't jive well with the local opera scene.

"They wanted to know what I had done in the last 10 years," she explains, and when her answer was insufficient for the Lyric Opera, she took a different route. "I'm getting my voice out there, but not in the conventional way."

Like Bobruk, Brown had to manage her expectations at first. An initial Kickstarter project in which she hoped to work with an entire orchestra reined in $10,000, but needed an additional $10,000 to achieve full funding. For her second attempt, she relaxed her ambition, asking for a fifth of that original sum. Her compromise worked, and, like Bobruk, she was surprised that the majority of donors weren't friends and family.

"They were strangers from all over the world," she says with some awe.

The Big(ger) Leagues

In another decade, singer Kat Edmonson might be well on her way to Norah Jones-style notoriety, a deal with Blue Note Records freshly inked. Instead, her situation is a bit more complicated.

"The last time I made a record I charged everything to my credit card," she says a little darkly about funding her forthcoming second album, Way Down Low, via Kickstarter. "I felt very strongly about how I wanted this project to be. I didn't want to have to ask anybody if it would work or if we could do this, so I just asked for a considerable amount of money on Kickstarter."

Artists like Edmonson, without a label but with a fervent fan base, are ripe for Kickstarter success. She raised almost $54,000 dollars for the new album. It helps that Edmonson understands the dynamics of the project, and what she can offer in return. In an accompanying video on her project's Kickstarter page, Edmonson can be seen recording with producers Al Schmitt and Phil Ramone, and awarding a subsection of her "contributors" with personalized labors of love, including manicures, snow-shoveling, and sink repair – a nod to the actual incentives Edmonson offered to those who supported the release of Way Down Low.

"In every project there's a value exchange," says Kazmark, "and it's up to the project creator to create a compelling set of rewards for their backers in exchange for a financial pledge. We've seen project creators get really creative with that."

While Edmonson didn't offer snow-shoveling, she did, in her actual campaign, offer everything from personalized voice mails to a large package (for a $5,000 contribution) that included a day with Edmonson at Capitol Studios during her recording session.

Conventional wisdom may have it that no one wants to see how their sausage gets made, but in terms of art projects rather than actual slaughterhouses, Kazmark says the opposite is true.

"People love to feel like they're part of it."

In Search of God

What works for Edmonson, Brown, and Bobruk doesn't necessarily work for everyone.

The compulsively creative Bill Baird, whose album Career is planned for a March release, threw his weight behind a Kickstarter project to finance a film called The Origin of Sound. The concept for the film involved a trek to India in search of, "What some call G-O-D, what others call Brahman, what we call sound," and managed to raise only $2,233 of a hoped-for $45,000.

Undeterred, Baird went to India to make the film anyway. Via email, his ambivalence about working with Kickstarter is crisp.

"Kick starter [sic] is strange," he writes. "Under the guise of 'helping artists,' 10% of your raised money is taken right off the top. If a bank did that, they would be called crooks."

On a more positive note, he does "think it is a good idea," but that it "needs to be improved upon." In lieu of the money from crowdsourcing, Baird is going in a more familiar direction, with materials donated from several corporate sources – airline tickets from Air India, a motorcycle from Royal Enfield, and film from Fujifilm.

"There are always strings attached with sponsorships, but in this case they are pretty minimal" he offers. "I guess there are no hard and fast rules to this thing. Whatever it takes to get the project done."

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