THE KNIFE

THE CROWDSOURCED ARTIST

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In all of human history, there’s one thing that remains constant: Artists need money.

What’s changed is the way artists acquire funds to keep producing their art. Way, way back, in the time of the court composer, a king would pay an artist as a “staffer” to create, say, a symphony. This was a great gig if you could get it, as the artist could make a healthy living, enjoy steady employment and hone his craft. But there was a downside. If you didn’t compose a piece to the king’s liking, you could be fired, have your fingers cut off or face execution. Kings were weird like that.

Fast-forward to the ’50s and the rise of popular radio. “Payola” was the word of the day, as record companies would pay DJs a large sum of money to spin singles from artists they wanted to promote. Thus, record companies came to rule the music industry until well into the early 2000s, forcing artists into a corner by offering them huge advances to record their first album, only to require repayment of that investment before the
artist could log a profit, which was rare until your second or third successful release.

With the advent of Internet radio, file-sharing and streaming sites, record deals became far less important. But recording a single or even an album’s worth of material was still the goal. And that costs money. Without the backing of record companies, artists were forced to look elsewhere. Enter the age of crowdsourcing.

Last week, the second annual One Spark festival hit Downtown. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were up for grabs for musicians and artists who performed or presented. Visitors would vote for their favorites, and the number of votes each artist got dictated how much of the pot he or she would receive. For those nearest the center of Downtown, where traffic was the heaviest, this was a fantastic opportunity. For those on the festival’s outskirts, it meant several long days of performing to virtually no one. (I know. I did it last year.)

This type of crowdsourcing is a real-world extension of online equivalents like Kickstarter and GoFundMe. At those sites, artists set up webpages touting the merits of their projects and ask for the money to get it done. If you reach your goal, you keep the money. (In some cases, you keep what you raise no matter if you hit your goal.) This type of fundraising has been a bone of contention in the local music community. The biggest issue is this: How much is too much?

Recently, a Facebook musicians’ forum to which I belong was flooded with commentary about a local songwriting duo and their fundraising campaign asking for $25,000. The musicians in the forum freaked, issuing long threads of vicious attacks. I joined in; I thought 25 grand was an unreasonable sum. (To be fair, the duo also raises money for a charitable organization, which some forum members believed they used as bait for donations. I thought this argument was weak.)

My gripe was simple: When I was a young musician, it was about working hard and raising money to produce a crappy cassette demo by touring, making and hand-distributing our own fliers, playing as many shows as we could to as many people as we could reach in hopes of getting that elusive record deal. There was no worldwide fundraising mechanism in place. There was no network of eager donors handing us fistfuls of no-strings-attached cash. Just four guys in a shitty van driving up and down the coast, sleeping in parking lots and hoping to make it to the next gig on time.

Crowdsourcing is a great thing, to be sure. And with governmental arts funding always on the chopping block, any way an artist can make a living seems justifiable. But there is a tipping point at which well-funded artists can squeeze out the less affluent (but maybe more deserving) among them. The more money you make, the better quality your product, the greater your exposure.

The converse of this is also true: If your presentation at One Spark looks cheap and you have only 27 Twitter followers, no one is going to back you. You could be the next Stravinsky, but if your Kickstarter video looks like it was shot in a garage, good luck getting more than a couple of bucks from someone besides Mom and Dad. 

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the debate continues, as made abundantly clear by one of my Facebook friends who last week posted that “all the bands that are playing One Spark this weekend for free” were, in less vulgar terms, suckers.

Of course, one of those suckers that played for free, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, took home more than $11,000 in prize money.

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