The Problem With Fan-Funded Music

You want blood? If you’re a Gang Of Four fan, you got it.

In a bid to drum up interest in their new album ‘Content’, the punk-funk pioneers have put together a £45 box set version, stuffed with personalized goodies, including vials of their blood, a cassette of their first ever gig, a decorated Walkman, and a yellowing pair of guitarist Andy Gill’s Y-fronts (let me double-check that last one).

There’s clearly an element of cheeky humour in this – the scratch-and-sniff booklet has to be a joke – but it’s indicative of a serious and meaningful development in the industry: fan-funded music, which until now existed primarily as a chin-strokey blog topic rather than an actual thing, is starting to pick up real-world momentum.

GOF are raising money to record their album via Pledgemusic, one of a number of sites that enable musicians to crowdsource their studio endeavours. Sellaband is the one most people have heard of – they teamed up with Public Enemy in 2009, before going financially tits-up.

But there’s also Kickstarter, which offers not music, but “personalized experiences”: for £500, say, a band might play a gig round your house. For £600 they’ll work you into their lyrics.

It’s an intriguing idea, but in my opinion it doesn’t go far enough. Why not appeal to richer fans with bespoke, “enhanced” offerings? For example, for £50,000, Marcus Mumford will personally bounce into your living room on a Space Hopper and bellow ‘Little Lion Man’ into a megaphone while polishing your balls with a chamois leather.

Why not? Some sicko would pay for it. But deep down, I’m hoping the promised fan-funded revolution never comes to pass, for the simple reason that it’s fundamentally undignified: it turns bands into marketing men. There is, after all, something profoundly needy and not-right about a band needling their fans for funds.

Being a hard-up musician in 2010 is unglamorous enough already. Fucked Up touched on this in their recent blog post demystifying SXSW. In it, they painted a harrowing picture of an “economic battleground”, where musicians find themselves shilling for shoe companies and vile energy drinks in a bid to break even on the trip.

It never used to be this way. Being an artist and being a salesman were once diametrically opposed. “Sell out” was an insult that stung. When Bruce Springsteen arrived in London in 1975 to find shouty promotional posters proclaiming him “the future of rock and roll”, he went round tearing them down.

These days, since labels have less money, artists themselves have to take on the tedious everyday tasks – communicating with fans, designing artwork, bulk-buying drugs etc. Bands have become their own PRs. The other week, one publicity-hungry unsigned act played a guerrilla gig in the road outside our office.

Good luck to them. That’s the economic reality. But it strips away the mystique. Ian Curtis never had to Tweet the release date of ‘Transmission’. My Bloody Valentine never fretted about how to harness Facebook to maximize e-commerce opportunities.

We live in a world where bands are intensely aware of the need to market themselves. So much so, any act that doesn’t play the promotional game – MGMT, say – are viewed with suspicion, even hostility (how dare they not pen any songs that Radio 1 will like!).

But there’s a broader point here. These days we are all blaring self-promoters. Social media have fostered a generation of eager marketeers, with Twitter and Facebook acting as our own personal shop windows. The latest buzz site, Mflow, taps into this salesman urge, turning music discovery/recommendation into a transaction.

That’s understandable. We are consumers, not artists. But with bands it’s different. When musicians are compelled to do the dirty work of hawking their own product, instinctively it feels like the death of something. You want blood? If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll pass.