Kickstarter, personal ownership, and Amanda Palmer

A quick observation of something that is going under the radar with the whole “work for free or work for pay” debate that’s going on with Amanda Palmer’s decision to use “volunteer” musicians in her shows: Kickstarter.

Almost everyone who has complained about her use of “volunteer” musicians has done so and mentioned her windfall on Kickstarter, over a million dollars raised from supporters who wanted to help fund her next project. I tend to think that there may be reasons to say yes to playing for free but more reasons to say no, especially for someone who is well able to pay their musicians. And I know that that money is not 100% her personal profit. I’m not talking about that. I’m not even talking about whether one should play for free or not.

What I am talking about is the whole model of crowdsourcing the funding for one’s artistic projects, often noted as a way for musicians to manage a career in the new online model.

This whole experience has revealed serious weaknesses in the Kickstarter model.

Previously, when a musician had one wealthy patron, that one rich person was the only person they had to satisfy. On a label, one had a few rich suits and executives to keep happy. Now, with this crowdfunding model, one has not escaped that — one simply has thousands of backers to keep happy now, and for only $5 a pop or thereabouts. For $5, people now feel a sense of ownership over your project, and if they disagree with your direction, woe to you because it is more likely to blow up into a fan-led rebellion. There is just no keeping that many people happy when they all feel a very personal sense of ownership over your project.

There are more things to say about this, many of which I will happily leave unsaid. But this one vitally important thing is being lost in the noise: Kickstarter is not a sexy new Utopian way to get funded that will solve all your problems. Be very careful when you use it. You are making a promise to thousands of people (if your campaign goes well) that you will make them all happy, and that is not possible to do.

If you regard Kickstarter as a way to make a political statement against The Man, be aware that you are also making that promise in a very personal, “we’re going against the system” way, that will leave people very hurt and disillusioned when it doesn’t go as planned. Hurt, disillusioned people who have already demonstrated themselves prone to organize are a powderkeg. There is a lot to be said for backers who have no personal artistic or social investment in whatever the hell it is you’re doing.