Is Fan-Funding The Future Of Music? I’m Not So Sure

“This is the future of music. This is how we fucking do it”, says Amanda Palmer in her video asking fans to donate cash to help her make an album without a major record label. It worked for her; she raised $1,192,793.

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But clouds are gathering around the fan-funding model. It’s not longer seen just as a cool, innovative new way of releasing music. Steve Albini, one of the most outspoken critics of this new approach, recently flamed Palmer for asking musicians to volunteer to play live with her for beer, hugs and high-fives, having raised over a million bucks.

I have no fundamental problem with either asking your fans to pay you to make your record or go on tour or play for free in your band or gather at a mud pit downstate and sell meth and blowjobs to each other. I wouldn’t stoop to doing any of them myself, but horses for courses.

He later apologised for calling Palmer an “idiot” but he didn’t step down on his point that it was “rude” of the singer to ask for “further indulgences” after being given over a million dollars. Palmer responded with a 3,000 word letter which basically said: YOU HAVE TO LET ARTISTS MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS ABOUT HOW THEY SHARE THEIR TALENT AND TIME. Her caps.

The ensuing backlash against Palmer et al suggests fan-funding is at a tipping point. But is it really the future? The concept of asking fans for money to help an artist’s project isn’t new. The British rock band Marillion raised £37k in 1997 to fund their new album and companies such as ArtistShare appeared as early as 2000. Recently, however, an increasing number of well-known artists are getting in on the game.

I became particulary interested in fan-funding when I saw that Ben Folds Five, an old favourite of mine and the first band I saw live, were using PledgeMusic to release their new album. My initial thought was: “Huh? Why do they need to ask for money?” I soon learned that other artists using this platform were just as heavy-hitting: Martha Wainwright, B.B King and James Murphy.

So what do the fans get if they donate through PledgeMusic? Some of the rewards are basic: signed vinyls, early album artwork, exclusive remixes, rare demos or videos from the studio. Others, though, are more interesting. A phone call with Martha Wainwright will cost you $75. Length or subject matter isn’t specified. An acoustic gig at home by the Brand New Heavies will set you back £2,000. Summer Camp offer a wide variety of personal experiences. For £50, you can get an exclusive three-hour set via Skype. For £250, they’ll write a song about you. For £300, they’ll prepare a dinner party for you. However much you pledge, you always get a download of the album.

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Kickstarter offers a few similar rewards, although in general it’s less about personal experiences. The Coup are trying to raise funds for a tour bus. For $5 you will get Boots Riley writing your name on a bathroom wall “somewhere in the world, along with a phrase that makes you look good”. For $5k, they’ll play your houseparty and “probably get drunk with you and pass out on your sofa”.

My knee-jerk reaction to the blurring of art and commerce? It grossed me out – but I wanted to find out more, particularly as I didn’t believe my beloved Ben Folds Five would do anything genuinely crass. The first obstacle in my mind was why artists needed the money and weren’t willing to put their own cash behind it.

Benji Rogers, founder of PledgeMusic, reminds me that most artists get a fraction of what an album earns. He’s keen to state the difference between his “direct-to-fan” model and “fan-funding”. While “Kickstarter asks fans for money, Pledge asks fan to the part of the making of a new album”. It’s not just as case of: “throw us some dosh, thank you very much”.

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Since signing up as a “dam VP”, I’ve seen pictures of sheet music ‘scribblings’, photographs of Darren Jesse holding the vinyl covers ‘hot off the press’ and the chance to receive an exclusive song on Ben’s birthday. It’s very cool – and there’s no doubt it would appeal to the band’s besotted fanbase. At a time when fans are closer to their idols than ever, through social media particularly, the vision that bands, not labels, should sell to fans, makes sense.

But surely the model is just for high-end, established acts who already have a considerable fan base? Rogers disagrees. He says a smaller band can start by offering their first few hundred fans a sneak peak of their EP artwork and watch the engagement grow. I’d be more inclined to agree with Ben Folds, who said in an interview with Forbes: “If you’re going to do well on Kickstarter or PledgeMusic, you have to have a leg up,” he said, although he added that it’s always been that way in the music business. We’ll have to wait and see.

I ask Rogers where PledgeMusic will be in five years time.

One day I think this will be normal. It will be viewed as an extension of the creative process. We’ve built the music industry solution – the studio is now the stage

Anything that allows artists to make good new music and provides fans with deeper access to a band they love can’t be bad. But to ask for money, you have to be pretty damn sure the product you’ll end up with is excellent. What if Amanda Palmer and co’s albums are complete bilge? Do fans get a refund?

Perhaps the discomfort some of us feel about the stark blurring of art and commerce is just a reaction to change. Perhaps my knee-jerk reaction to asking for money is backward-looking and way too British. It’s patronising to think fans are being exploited, as if they’re so stupid they can’t make decision for themselves.

But I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of the “thinnest skin possible between artist and their fans”, as Rogers calls it. I don’t really want to see Bob Dylan picking his nose in the studio. I want a little mystery, particularly in today’s tedious cult of personality and celebrity. And I can’t help thinking something would be lost by raising the curtain.