Quite a few musician chums of mine are currently using the ‘fan funding’ model to finance their next albums, and I’ve been watching their efforts with interest – partly so that I can write a blog post about it and partly because I may opt for a similar approach to financing my next record, whenever that eventually manifests itself (so busy am I fathering children and writing posts about how to promote music that my own music has taken something of a back seat recently. Anyway, enough about me).
So what is the ‘fan funding’ approach? Well, it basically boils down to using sites like www.pledgemusic.com (or, for my Irish cousins, www.fundit.ie) to encourage fans to pledge an amount towards the cost of making your album (I say fans, but really I mean your mum and dad and the dwindling number of friends you have who still put up with your annoying self-promotional efforts).
Typically, you set a fundraising target and ask everybody to help you meet it by pledging to give a few bob (or lots of bobs) in exchange for ‘rewards’. The greater the amount contributed, the greater the reward gained. So, for example, your humble fan pledges £5 and gets a digital download of the album; your Lord Ashcroft-type fan pledges £500 and gets a copy made of gold, a credit on the liner notes as executive producer of the album and, crucially, the opportunity to sleep with the band and dictate musical direction (yes, this is just like how politics works in the UK).
The whole thing is sort of like buying things in reverse: you pay now, get later. This is technically quite a bum deal, but I suppose that fans are not only getting a record (eventually) but a feelgood factor too; that quasi-religious warm glow that only arrives when you support a starving, independent artist (okay, a narcissistic, middle-class child / cousin / friend who happens to be putting a record out, and yes, I include myself in that category).
There’s usually a catch though: if you don’t meet your fundraising target by an appointed deadline, you don’t get any money; this being the case it’s a good idea to either have a rich uncle on standby to make up the shortfall, or have a few quid set aside yourself that you can donate anonymously and save face when not enough of your mates cough up.
Anyway, I've seen quite a lot of musicians use this model of funding quite successfully recently, which is why I thought it would make a good article for The Prescription...but I’ve spotted a few pitfalls too. So, in my ever-generous way, I thought I’d share some sage pointers with you about how to go about financing a record using this method.
1. Set your fundraising target very carefully
If you set your fundraising target too high, you might not get enough contributors to meet it - and this generally means zilch for you. This is crap on a number of levels:
- It makes it look as though nobody really likes your music (quite possibly a sad, harsh reality but you don’t really want other people noticing this too much).
- You’ll only annoy all your fans – and particularly your friends – if you have to reapproach them, tail-between-your-legs, with a new target.
- It may mean you have to dip into your own pocket (more on that below).
So before you start trying to finance a record using the generosity of your fans/mates, work out the number of REAL pledges you’re likely to get, and the average amount of each pledge - and base your fundraising target on that. Be conservative.
2. Be prepared to plug a cash gap
Hopefully all will go swimmingly well and your mum will give you lots of money towards your nice little music project. However, it might not; you may fall several hundred or even thousands of pounds short of your target. In which case, you’ll need to take a financial hit if you want to receive any dosh. So, when setting your target, work out what you can really afford to contribute yourself, and stuff some cash under a mattress in case you need it later (note: depending on how your chosen fundraising site operates, you may not actually be able to donate money to yourself, so you might need to slip a couple of sympathetic friends some money so that they can do it surreptitiously on your behalf).
3. Know your market
When offering ‘rewards’ in exchange for pledges, remember the market you are operating in: a music industry where content from big names – i.e., not you, sorry! – is now dirt cheap, or free. So don’t charge £12 for an ‘exclusive digital download’ when Madonna’s latest album can be bought on iTunes for a fiver or streamed on Spotify for free. You’ll just annoy people at best, and put people off pledging anything at worst.
4. Offer decent rewards
Make sure that the rewards you are offering are not all just opportunities for you to be self-indulgent. Although your signature on a CD might appeal to a genuine fan, it’s not going to impress your friends and family much; and no, they aren’t going to be that bothered by you offering to sing them a cover of their choice in their house for £600 either. So consider offering rewards that might seriously appeal to your ‘friend-base’ as well as your fanbase. Think outside the musical box: for example, consider bundling cool items of clothing with your CD that make use subtle use of your artwork without being too promotional (some musican mates of mine bundled a really nice tote bag with a CD they put out a few years ago - even I, as an arch-cynic, was convinced enough to part with cash for one). In essence, don’t make all the rewards too much about you; accompany your CD with items that are genuinely appealing in their own right (you might like to read our suggestions on physical items that your music fans might enjoy for some ideas).
5. Get the intervals between reward prices right
A very obvious point this, but people have different levels of disposable income – however, I’ve seen musicians overlook this when setting their rewards pricing structure, for example by offering rewards that jump straight from £5 for a digital download to £35 for a signed CD copy of the album. Since the fan-funding model in reality invariably relies heavily on people you know giving you cash, an approach like this means you are effectively forcing many friends and family members to choose between appearing a tad mean (by plumping for the £5 option), or generous but at a price they can’t afford (£35 – a lot of money for an independently released album, even if it comes with your name scrawled all over it). The more sensible – and fair – thing to do is to also offer a progressive range of rewards: for example, a digital download for £6, a CD for £10, a signed CD for £16, a vinyl copy for £25, a signed CD and vinyl copy for £30 and so on.
6. Remember that you are NOT a charity
When using the fan-funding model, it’s easy to view yourself as a very worthy cause...and forget that you’re not actually raising money for charity. You’re raising money for yourself, probably at the behest of an oversized ego (there’s nothing wrong with my ego incidentally – it’s better than yours). People do all manner of wonderful things in exchange for cash – climb mountains, trek across India, run marathons, eat vast quantities of mackerel and so on – but the key difference is these things are generally quite challenging and all the money raised is donated to improve people’s lives. But in your case, you had fun making your album and the fundraising you’re doing is going to improve your life (by saving you the bother of spending your own money on manufacturing your CDs). So when asking people to contribute, tone down the rhetoric and don’t come across like you are the musical equivalent of Mother Teresa and that those who are giving you dosh are somehow helping to save the planet. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own creative projects and I’ve been guilty of the hard sell myself in the past; but it’s extremely important to show that you understand, when asking your friends for money towards your project (or indeed when flogging them CDs in a more conventional way) that this is actually quite a big ask.
7. Consider whether you really want to ask your friends for donations at all
If you are in the lucky position whereby you have a genuine fanbase – a mailing list, for example, comprising several hundred loyal fans who actually buy your music – think long and hard about whether you want to bother your friends for pledges at all. It may be that you have more than enough genuine fans to fund your project, and although your friends may be a source of additional cash, there may ultimately be more disadvantages to badgering them for money than not. Firstly, you may irritate people you care about and, from a more selfish perspective, there are musical contexts when you might REALLY need to enlist your mates' help (for example, they may be more useful as bums on seats at an important showcase gig or album launch). Perhaps a balanced approach is to ask your fans to contribute first, and, if it transpires that you're not meeting your target, to ask friends to step in and help at that point.
8. Limit your communications
Don’t post demands for money on Facebook every five minutes (tempting and easy as it is to do so), or email people once a day asking for cash so you can master your album at Abbey Road. You’ll only annoy people and trash your online reputation.
9. Thank people personally
Finally, when somebody donates to your project, don’t take them for granted by relying on round robins or automated thank-you emails from your chosen funding website. If at all possible, send those who pledge money an individual email to thank them, or better still, drop them a text or a call saying how much you appreciate it. Not only is this a nice thing to do, but it will make people feel far more inclined to support you in future.
So, on that note, I’m off to offer my granny the opportunity to sing on my next record for £1000. Cheers gran.
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