Kickstart My Heart

Austin figures prominently in Kickstarter's risks and rewards

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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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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Kickstarter, Justin Kazmark, Aimee Bobruk, Kat Edmonson, Language Room, Bruce Robinson & Kelly Willis, Miles Zuniga, Del Castillo, Matt the Electrician, Bill Callahan, Daniel Johnston, Okkervil River

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