Kickstart your art
Online philanthropy sites help out local musicians and artists
The members of Sister Crayon had almost everything they needed for their latest tour: time off from work, an album to promote, and enough ambition to fuel late-night road trips and weather crappy motel rooms.
The one, crucial thing they lacked? Reliable transportation.
With the bands’ members only working part-time jobs, however, saving up enough money for a road-worthy vehicle seemed an impossible pursuit.
“We were in dire need of a touring van, but it’s so expensive,” said Sister Crayon’s Terra Lopez.
“There was no way we could do it ourselves.”
So, Lopez and her bandmates turned to the Internet for help. More specifically, they signed up on Kickstarter, an online pledge-drive site aimed at funding such creative endeavors.
Kickstarter, founded in 2009, is at the forefront of so-called “crowd funding” sites that include IndieGoGo and PledgeBank. The purpose is to give artists a social-networking platform to ask fans, friends, family—and complete strangers—to bankroll projects via one-time micropayments, typically ranging from $1 to $1,000.
While it seems that this new type of pledge drive works—Sister Crayon got the money for its van, after all—such sites also stir debate: Is this Internet-driven arts philanthropy—or glorified begging?
Lopez laughs at the idea that she and her bandmates asked for a handout.
“It’s like you’re a business writing a proposal for a grant,” Lopez said. “You have to work really hard; you can’t just post something and ask for money.”
To even qualify for the site, she explained, the band had to go through a rigorous application process that included submitting a mission statement with a specific financial goal, as well as a list of rewards that would be offered for each level of donation.
Sister Crayon’s reward list included simple gifts—CDs, T-shirts and stickers—as well as more elaborate thank yous, including a chance to perform with the band on an upcoming CD and a home-cooked dinner, compliments of the band.
The resulting efforts, Lopez said, proved to be time-consuming and hardly the equivalent of a free ride.
“It’s hard—much harder than just playing 10 shows in a row.”
If an artist fails to reach its goal in the allotted amount of time, then it forfeits all donations; Sister Crayon met its goal of $3,500 in 37 days—in fact, they earned $4,500—with some pledges coming via names they’d never seen before.
“We got donations from people in Florida and Colorado—it’s a cool, word-of-mouth thing,” Lopez said.
Now the band must make good on its rewards.
“We got a lot of those [dinner] ones,” Lopez said with a laugh. “Now we have to learn how to cook. It’s a lot of work.”
Still, even with the cash rolling in—Kickstarter, like most crowd-funding sites, takes a percentage—some artists are reluctant about asking people to open their wallets.
For Grass Valley poet Molly Fisk, the idea seemed to conflict with the very nature of her personality. “Asking for money is hard. It’s uncomfortable,” she admitted.
Then again, she added, arts philanthropy at the individual level is hardly a novel idea.
“This is how artists have always proceeded to get money,” she said. “From the 14th century on, [artists] have had patrons.”
Fisk applied to Kickstarter in an effort to raise enough money to take the essays she produces for the Nevada City radio station KVMR 89.5 and market them to stations nationwide.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting had already awarded Fisk a $5,000 grant, so Fisk set a goal to match that money in 30 days.
Then she started to watch the clock tick down.
At first, just a few donations trickled in, and Fisk, who planned a list of rewards including private readings and essay subscriptions, wasn’t sure she’d come anywhere near her goal.
Then she started promoting her pledge drive.
“I don’t like being solicited to give money and then made to feel guilty if I can’t, so I tried to go about it in a funny way,” she said.
Fisk took to Facebook with daily status updates about the project, poems, statistical breakdowns of her donors and other bits of trivia—anything to keep people aware and interested.
What she got in return, Fisk said, was perhaps worth even more than the money she earned.
“Kickstarter [really did] a huge amount for me, publicity-wise,” Fisk said. “I’m getting more friend requests on Facebook, and I also just got asked to do a reading in Mexico.”
Stephanie Sauer calls Kickstarter a key “grassroots” asset in today’s DIY-minded artists. The filmmaker, who divides her time between Sacramento and Brazil, used the site to raise funds for The Ancient Documentaries of Southside Park, a short film that chronicles a 1900s-era quest to find Royal Chicano Air Force scrolls.
Sauer had already received a small grant from the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, but it wasn’t enough. She kept her Kickstarter goal modest—$350—with rewards that included DVDs as well as living-room film re-enactments. Sauer exceeded her target by more than $200 and, she said, reached people she might have otherwise missed.
“Kickstarter is important because it allows people who don’t know about you to [learn] about your project,” she said. “It allows growth.”
And, she adds, it’s definitely not “shameless begging.”
“I was raised working class, so the idea of this was weird to me at first, but I don’t see it that way now—it’s a tool like any other promotional tool.”
For Zack Pangborn, Kickstarter isn’t so much about the money but rather the possibilities.
After Pangborn exceeded his Kickstarter goal by more than $500, he decided to revise the concept for his planned art book, The Art of Z.E. Pangborn, 1999-2009.
“I ended up adding more pages and upgraded it to a hardback,” he said.
“That upped my costs by 40 percent, so it’s less profitable than it could have been, but it’s not just about the money,” he said.
“It’s more about getting my artwork out there—it’s about the opportunity.”