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The secret to Kickstarter success is not only in the project, but in the network and timing

By John Terauds on September 12, 2012

Toronto’s Annex String Quartet is trying to fund its début album online.

(UPDATED) The Annex String Quartet is, I think, the first group of Toronto art musicians to try Kickstarter, an increasingly popular way for artists to raise money for a project using the power of social media –a process that’s called crowdfunding. They have set themselves a deadline of Sept. 20 to raise $8,000 to fund all the activities leading up to recording their début album.

UPDATE: As of the afternoon of Sept. 14, the Annex Quartet had nearly doubled their Kickstarter pledges to $3,087 coming in from 46 people. An update that morning added that the foursome already has in hand seven of the 12 arrangments they need to make the album.

As of this morning, 36 people had pledged $1,607 since their Kickstarter campaign was launched on Aug. 20. This means nearly $6,400 has to show up over the next seven days. That must be discouraging for the Torontonians, who had hoped to exceed the $8,000 so that they would have money to start paying for the actual studio time.

UPDATE: I received a comment from Toronto cellist Rachel Mercer of the Made in Canada Quartet after I published this post of a successful Kickstarter campaign the group organized over the summer (see comments below). A quick check of their Kickstarter project page (here) shows they exceeded their $8,000 target by $6,031, gathering financial support from just 97 backers.

In case you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, here’s how it works:

An artist or group defines a project, which in the case of music typically is a concert (paying for the venue and fees before selling tickets), a video or an album.

The project gets posted on Kickstarter with an explanation of what it is, what the deadline is and what the contribution levels are. The Annexers set up a 10-rung ladder where people can contribute $1 all the way up to “$2,000 or more.” When a contributor makes a pledge, they must honour it on the deadline date if the project has met its financial goal. If the financial goal is not met, all the pledges are returned and the group has to start again. Each pledge comes with a defined reward.

Whether or not the donor gets a tax receipt depends on whether the group raising the money already has a charitable number, or not.

Once everything is posted, a Kickstarter project depends on the ripple effect of social media, of an ever-increasing circle of family, friends and acquaintances to get the word out. The artists themselves will periodically post updates and pep talks to keep the momentum going.

The beauty of this type of grassroots fundraising is that it substitutes the long, nail-biting wait of an arts council grant with a 30-day nail-biter that (hopefully) provides a little bit of encouraging news every day. The downside is that the outcome is far from guaranteed.

I wrote here about how adventurous New York City quartet Brooklyn Rider funded their latest album this way back in February. They enjoy a substantial following in the United States and beyond. The Annex String Quartet is still largely a local ensemble, so the pool of people who know what they do and how well they’re likely to execute their plan numbers in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

When you are looking to fund something a loonie at a time, that is a huge handicap.

I am absolutely convinced that the future of art music concerts and recordings lies in this sort of social media-driven model because that’s where the world is going. When even Coca Cola organizes pop-up marketing events solely on Facebook, when self-published books become online bestsellers and pre-pubescent singers make music videos that go viral, it’s a clear sign that the youngest consumers of entertainment and the arts are making decisions on the fly via word-of-messaging.

A year ago, I thought it would be great to have a Toronto-centric version of Kickstarter for classical music, only to realise that the art music community is so far behind the social media curve that this would be impossible. But, as we inexorably near the end of the era of concerts packaged in subscription series and the dissemination of information and reviews about them in print, getting the word out online will become the way many artists and presenters set up concerts.

In the meantime, I’m offering totally unsolicited advice to the Annex Quartet and anyone else interested in Kickstarting their careers.

The project has to be clearly defined and articulated. Read the Annex Quartet’s statement, and it is badly out of focus, and pretty meaningless to anyone not familiar with the list of composers:

“The Roaring Twenties” project took its initial steps back in January of 2012. While discussing possible music and sounds, we began to look at the music of the 1920s and its aftermath- music written after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and during the second World War. This inspired us to commemorate our fifth year anniversary through a début album.

After countless hours of study and careful consideration we have come up with an album we feel will be beneficial to us and our audience as music lovers and enthusiasts. Featured composers of the 1920’s include Jelly Roll Morton, Fred Fisher, Lew Pollack, Paul Specht, and Antonio Maria Romeu. Other composers featured on the album include Sydney Bechet, Ernesto Lecuona, Juan Carlos Cobian, and Kurt Weill to name a few. In addition, we welcome Hilario Duran and Andrew Downing as the music arrangers, Sarah Jane Pelzer as guest singer, and artist and performer Heather “Calliopie” Hermann who will design the art work for the album.

Also, it is not clear from the project that an actual album will come out of the fundraising — yet the rewards for donors are all predicated on receiving individual tracks or more from it (the bold type is the Annexers’ own):

This is the minimum amount needed for us to carry on with this wonderful project. The money will help us fund the arrangements, artwork, and general contribution of our collaborators. These costs do not include fees for recording studio time and physical production of CD’s. That is a completely separate number that can cost up to $10,000. This is why we ask for your continued support in hopes to surpass the $8,000 mark, and help us get closer to funding our entire project. Falling under $8,000 mark will label the project as unsuccessful and will refund all monies collected during the period. We hope we can surpass this minimum amount needed and reach our actual costs of $18,000. Thank you for your continued support!

And, the artists need to be able to tap a web of thousands rather than hundreds — even with the most cleverly and clearly articulated goal. Timing is everything, too. Launching something during the dog days of summer in the art music world, which typically takes a much-needed siesta before tacking a new season, is not a great way to get attention.

Art music represents only a small percentage of the projects posted on Kickstarter. You can scan them here, to see what appears to be working and what isn’t.

The most successful project in the classical field — musopen.org‘s attempt to record the classical canon in a way that guarantees free and open public sharing — raises a lot of questions related to music in the online world. Even so, it attracted 1,276 backers who donated a total $68,360 exactly two years ago — that’s only $9 more per person than the Annex Quartet’s current pledges, gathered from an audience that numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Crowdfunding is in its early stages. It needs imaginative ideas as well as a network in which they can be propagated. It’s tough, probably far more competitive than the most arduous Old School competition ever devised. But this is one of the places where art music has to be present in order to make sure that it attracts new, younger audiences.

I wish the Annex Quartet well — now and in what will hopefully be their more successful campaign the next time.

What are your thoughts on this?

POSTSCRIPT: Thanks to a last-minute push, the Annex Quartet reached their goal. Read the new post here.

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Here are the two videos the Annexers posted on Kickstarter to promote their project:

John Terauds

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