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A (big) return to (micro) patronage?

post brought to you by: calmstock

piggy_bankI’ve been MIA for a while. Getting a new EP recorded, CDs and vinyl pressed (one-sided white vinyl!), gigs and radio appearances booked, promo packages together– it’s a ton of work as you all know. But I think I’m coming out of the woods a bit and want to get some thoughts down on the exciting re-emergence of patronage via new, arts-focused, micro-funding platforms.

Perhaps best known as a driving force behind the European Renaissance, arts patronage has played a vital role in advancing culture for centuries. And beyond the visual arts, patronage has impacted the work of some of the greatest writers, scientists, and composers we’ve ever known. Nowadays, however, there’s a lot less in the way of direct-to-artist patronage. But since I’ve only taken one art history course, I’ll stop there and leave the history lesson to others.

That said, it’s important to recognize the critical role patronage can play in contemporary culture, and it’s great to see technology providing a means for connecting people and ideas to crowd source micro “gifts” that advance creative endeavors— particularly musical ones.

As a former grant writer (among other things) for a contemporary arts center with a storied live music program, I was routinely dismayed by the difficulty of fundraising for music projects. The simple, yet no less frustrating, rationale was always this: things you can see are more tangible, thus visual art forms are better positioned for fundraising. The ephemeral nature of music typically doesn’t appeal to patrons in the same way. One can’t quite feel ownership over a commissioned piece of music in the same way you can a commissioned painting, and one is easier to display in the foyer. That was the argument anyway.

So why the current momentum in micro-financing music? What’s happening now, I think, is that (a) people still value real, honest music and are becoming increasingly bored by mainstream pop; (b) it’s getting cheaper to produce quality music projects; (c) the 20th century music funding model (i.e. the recording industry) is becoming more irrelevant by the minute; and (d) we’re talking high-volume small gifts. You don’t necessarily need one major donor when a couple hundred small-scale donors will do just fine (and can actually be easier to secure).

Fundraisers will tell you there’s a significant difference in tactics required to secure 200 $25 gifts as opposed to 2 $2,500 gifts. The latter is about cultivating dialogue and stewarding potential (major) donors looking to advance a personal vision. The former is more “transactional,” requires little cultivation, and is more easily scaled. Sure, donors at both levels want a “return,” but the expectations of a transactional donor are much more manageable– making web-based, crowd-sourced, micro-funding a great fit for musicians looking to execute small- to medium-scale projects.

The well known success story of Jill Sobule illustrates this perfectly. Through a special website, Sobule offered “returns” to her patrons that –to varying degrees– allowed people “ways-in” to her project (in much the same way a museum membership program works). It wasn’t about “guilt” or “charity” (as some micro-funding critics have said). For higher-end patrons it was about realizing a dream (I got to sing on Jill’s album!!), while at the smaller gift level being part of something unique and special was enough.

So, my $.02 for musicians out there thinking of trying out a micro-funding platform? If you’re known like Jill Sobule and have a strong fan base (i.e., a strong brand), you can probably raise money for run-of-the-mill projects like CD/vinyl pressing by coming up with “returns” that make it exciting enough for patrons to step up. If you’re not well known, consider something new. What kind of project could you put together that people might find interesting who don’t even know your music? How might you build a compelling art project “around” your music? And how can you frame the project so that it provides ways in for friends and strangers alike?

Either way, let’s try and NOT use these new platforms for business as usual. The truly exciting opportunity they provide is the ability to garner support to try something new, as well as connecting with like-minded people who value the role of music in contemporary culture.

I have a Kickstarter invite burning a whole in my pocket, but I’m taking the time to try and plan a project that people can be a part of–  something with different “ways in” for people of varying means. Who knows if it will be a success, but it’s great to have new avenues for pushing the envelope.

Some sites to check out:

http://www.kickstarter.com/
http://www.sellaband.com/
http://www.thehectorfund.com/
http://www.society6.com/
http://microfundo.mymondomix.com/

4 Responses to “A (big) return to (micro) patronage?”

  1. Ryan says:

    I think patronage is one of the only way for some art to survive economic downturns and “impossible math.” We all learned that “trickle down” policies regarding the arts don’t work, however. It’s impossible to force good taste. Interesting topic.

  2. calmstock says:

    Agreed. Europe is facing big challenges as they’ve long relied on government funding for the arts and (in general) lack individual fundraising expertise– although I’m sure they’ve come a long way recently out of necessity. One of my colleagues is actually in Glasgow at the moment giving a talk to a group of orchestras on branding / philanthropy…

    Anyway, for me, it’s more about having platforms to explore new means for “releasing music.” I’ll scrimp and save to get CDs / vinyl pressed, and will try to use these new platforms for things a bit more “out there.”

    More on the subject from Wired– LOVE the idea of “Impulse Patronage”:
    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/02/st_geek_cash/

  3. Thanks for the post. I’ve been meeting with a small group of people and we have been having this exact conversation, looking at music patronage from all angles. I’ve been checking out all sorts of arts non-profits to see what they are doing and your insights are very helpful as well.

    • calmstock says:

      Hi Suzanne, thanks for writing. I read your piece in the Guardian, it was great seeing comparisons of real-life examples. FWIW, I do a lot of work in the arts/philanthropy world. Happy to chat further any time.. -brandon

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