Crowdsourcing for artists is steadily gaining traction. The infamous Ms. Palmer (of whom I have Opinions) had her big TED talk about it, that seemed to wow all the silicon valley types that attend those (and come as zero surprise to most artists, who’ve been couchsurfing, borrowing, and fan-funding stuff for eons).
I admit, it’s pretty super-cool as a concept. It helps spread the risk around. Rather than the artist putting everything they have up-front, they can get a pretty solid gauge of what sort of resources they’ll have available, what the demand for the finished product will be, and so forth.
Right now, it’s limited to a small subset of artists and musicians and tech wonks. What happens when everybody with a project hops on the Kickstarter/Indiegogo/gofundme/etc train? Will it still be as successful?
I come at this with some skepticism, partially based on social trends (to say nothing of the fact that not every project needs to be crowdsourced, nor is every project funding goal even remotely realistic).
There was a time, less than a decade ago, even, when the hip, cool, forward-thinking thing for a band to do was have a MySpace page. It was the future of promotion, we heard. Then it became a requirement – you were nobody if you didn’t have a MySpace page with a zillion friends. Then the signal-to-noise ration plummetted, and we all found ourselves inundated with 9000 friend requests a week from bands we’d never heard of, generated by apps attempting to game the system. MySpace friends no longer became a reasonable success metric for a band, and myspace as a music promotion platform withered and died.
It wasn’t an anomaly, either. MySpace had many other problems, and if this sort of thing hadn’t happened before and hadn’t happened since, it could be ignored as a one-off failure caused by bad practices. While Facebook has more traction than MySpace did, certain elements, previously hailed as the future of promotion, are now once again dying on the vine. Again, it was once a cool thing to do to invite people to shows using the FB event tools. Targeted invites! Regional! By interest!
I can’t speak for everyone, but I average about 10 invites a week now to events that are at least 1500 miles away, and even for local events I get more invites than I could possibly manage. Mostly I just ignore them or delete them.
So much for that.
Kickstarter is still young; it has some caché and a KS request can generate some buzz. What happens when more than just all those cool indie bands, filmmakers, and so forth start using it? What happens when a mid-size record label stops fronting production advances and starts requiring crowdsourcing? Heck, what happens when just more indie bands start crowdsourcing? Will we still be able to maintain a high signal-to-noise ratio? Or will we get slammed with dozens of pleas for funding every week?
The end result would be a “Kickstarter fatigue”, in whichthe whole system collapses simply because people get tired of hearing about it or dealing with it. Ideally, in a system like this, the best projects would garner the most attention and do well regardless, but (to torture an analogy) if the milk goes sour it doesn’t matter how well the cream rises.
Assume, for the moment, that that doesn’t happen. There’s still a definite growth curve here, and a strong competition not just for promotional eyeballs (like on a social network), but actual real money. What happens next, as things expand? Will it be possible for a project to get attention based on merits alone?
A distressingly likely scenario is that projects in competition for crowdfunding become locked in a “premium arms race.” You bring a signed CD, they bring a handmade letterpress traycard. You bring mentions in the liner notes, they bring a shout-out track. You record a personalized voicemail message, they fly to someone’s house and cook dinner. For consumers, that’s awesome, because the potential for value-add is immense. For producers, not so much, since more and more time that could be devoted to the project itself gets devoted to preparing premiums, and…well, if I was really passionate about and good at letterpress and papercraft, I probably wouldn’t be trying to record an album. It becomes a new layer of overhead that not everyone will have the aptitude for, regardless of how good their primary project is, and that sort of defeats the purpose. If you need to be a polymath to use the tool, then we haven’t really moved forward.
Internet-enabled crowdsourcing has a ton of potential, and the concept behind it is time-tested and solid. The biggest problem is that the current flurry of “new media solutions” are pointing to it as some sort of industry savior, a guaranteed path to success. Without some skeptical, measured approaches, at best it’ll lead to a lot of disappointment, but at worst it could lead to a crowdsourcing bubble that upon collapse leaves artists worse off than they were before – certainly with fewer resources available to them. Perhaps failure is the best option – if a higher ratio of failed attempts starts discouraging a high raw volume of projects, perhaps something like Kickstarter can reach a stable equilibrium before it becomes a bubble. What’s mostl likely is that, at least in the short term, the projects that gain the most attention and get funded will be the “cleverest” ones; but “clever” doesn’t always equate to “good.” A bunch of mediocre albums and indie films with edgy marketing campaigns isn’t an advancement, either.
As always, time will tell, and probably less time than ever, given the incredibly accelerating pace of industry “innovation.” I figure we’ll know in about a year if this is a curiosity, a bubble, or the next big thing.