The Ultimate Guide to Crowdfunding for Musicians
So we’ve already gone over how to craft professional pitch emails. We’ve consulted industry professionals on the do’s and don’ts of proposing your music. We even built you a handy-dandy guide to succeeding on social media. All of these are just pieces of a much larger puzzle for musicians -- there’s still so much left to conquer. Assuming you’ve mastered the art of persuasion and built a loyal fanbase (hopefully using some of MusicNGear’s helpful tips), you might be headed into the next phase of your musical pursuits: the money. The funny (or wildly frustrating) thing about this industry is that it functions as two extremes. Depending on your reputation, wealth, and team from the get-go, pursuing a career in music can be at best a money-making dream come true (not without its issues, though) or, worse and more likely, a money-losing effort with a dash of hope lost too. We’ve been wading the murky waters of the industry’s history for decades, moving in and out of battles for autonomy with big-name labels, fights for earned and deserved royalties, controversies over streaming services, over who holds the best interests of their roster, over venue regulations… the list goes on and on. Everywhere we look in this industry, there’s another way musicians are bound to lose out on the compensation they deserve. It’s a tough truth.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves -- for independent musicians, you’ve gotta start somewhere. That’s why we’re taking you through a comprehensive guide to successful crowdfunding specifically for musicians -- because you’re gonna need funds to do all the big crazy things you want to do with your music, and if you didn’t recently find a secret treasure chest full of Benjamins in the walls of your grandmother’s house or scratched off a victorious lottery ticket, then chances are it’s not going to be easy to pay for them. Good news, though: this is where your family, friends, and fans come in. Launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to pursue your music automatically enlists the people you know and love, but that’s not to say you don’t have to work for it. We’ll learn later on in our guide that crowdfunding is akin to a party -- and that means you’ve gotta plan. Bear with us. We want to help you do this right, so there are tons of components to think about.
Choosing Your Platform
You’ve probably seen endless GoFundMe pages littering your Facebook feed or heard about that time a potato salad went viral on Kickstarter. Maybe you’ve even backed the next big Shark Tank certified product on Indiegogo. These are pretty much the top three crowdfunding platforms that most people know at least a little bit about, but like all things on the Internet, there’s an abundance of them. We’ve put together a quick chart below to show an overview of some of the major crowdfunding options available for musicians -- with just a glance, you’ll be able to figure out which sites take out the most fees, which ones offer customer support, which ones offer additional resources, and so on.
The point of the chart above is to map out the features of each platform so you can accurately assess which will be the best option for your project. There are many facets to take into account when you’re choosing a platform -- how long do you want your campaign to run? Are lower fees more important to you than a support section? Do you want to cap your campaign at a certain length? Of course, there are also general considerations -- if you are hoping to pursue a socially-conscious project (ex. maybe your band wants to launch a nonprofit initiative to fund music education at your old middle school), your obvious choice would be GoFundMe. To raise recording funds for your new album, you’re likely to sway towards Kickstarter or a similar platform. The point is to be in sync with every part of your project before landing on a platform. Think through the pros and cons. Decide which values you hold highest and which components will be most effective for carrying out a successful campaign.
Keep in mind that hosting flexible campaigns -- ones in which you are able to keep all pledges even if you don’t reach your goal -- are a safer option if you predict you will not end up funding your final goal. If you do host an all-or-nothing campaign, the vulnerability of this financial position may encourage you to work harder to fund your goal. Additionally, if your reward tiers are heavily influenced by a great number of expenses (ie. offering merchandise), it may make more sense to host an all-or-nothing campaign so that you won’t have to spend much of the funds to produce merchandise for your pledgers. Choosing which platform and which kind of campaign is best for you is a decision that requires you to think through the value of each component. Evaluate the risk in terms of reaching your goal, calculate what your rewards will cost you, consider your own investment in seeing out the campaign!
The Dark Side of Crowdfunding
When we first began compiling this crowdfunding guide, one of the platforms we planned to incorporate as a solid option was PledgeMusic. Over the past few months, however, PledgeMusic has faced major controversy within the industry for its lackadaisical and unjust treatment of its users. In the wake of this ongoing (and deserved) scrutiny, we opted to nix our encouragement about PledgeMusic. Instead, we’ll consider it as a case study and use this opportunity to discuss the possible pitfalls of crowdfunding.
Nearly a decade ago, PledgeMusic was founded and quickly rose to award-winning status as a platform paving the way for fan-supported musical efforts. Over the years, it garnered awards in artist support, digital innovation, and more, but their 2019 kicked off with the bad kind of fireworks.
In January, reports of payment issues began cropping up (not for the first time, btw). Major media outlets like Billboard and Variety were covering the collapse, citing that rock band Fastball are still owed over $11,000 and a slew of DIY artists have yet to receive the funds they earned through their hard-worked campaigns. So what’s the issue?
It’s not that PledgeMusic is actively retaining the funds their users have earned (but at this point, after several shakeups, we’d venture to say that maybe they are). It’s that they’ve been repeatedly late on their payments to hundreds of users -- way too late.
PledgeMusic’s terms and conditions regarding payout are notably unspecific, but it’s important to say that they were actually adjusted last year after a similar payment controversy was revealed. Today, the information provided by PledgeMusic’s support section for targeted campaigns states that a percentage of a user’s funds are released upon hitting target and will “take place on the soonest available payment run… usually taking place on the Friday of each week.” These ambiguous terms -- soonest available, usually -- may be a factor in PledgeMusic’s payment downfall. Being unable or unwilling to guarantee a set schedule of payout has driven the company into a frenzy of half-hearted promises and a mob of unpaid users. Now, PledgeMusic must face the backlash created by their late payments and wishy-washy treatment of its user base. This is an issue of ethics and of trust. Hundreds of artists are now owed the money they earned -- the money they had to earn through crowdfunding because they don’t have the luxury of thousands of dollars at their disposal to do with what they wish.
Early this year, representatives for PledgeMusic (including the company’s former CEO, Benji Rogers) issued several statements expressing regret and a (vague) plan and promise to bestow the owed funds upon PledgeMusic’s users within the next three months. Owed long, long ago, hundreds of artists now await what will hopefully be a least-they-could-do remedy to what is, at its worst, a serious case of fraud and, at its best (and still pretty damn bad), a massive legal and ethical oversight.
What has happened with PledgeMusic is a blip in the larger world of crowdfunding, but it’s an important case study in the potential cons of an industry relying on company trust and fan support. Going forward, it’s imperative now more than ever that crowdfunding companies implement risk assessments, strategic plans, and extra precautions to protect their users from being swindled. Crafting detailed payment plans in their support sections is just the start.
Planning Your Campaign
Courtney Harge, a creative specializing in arts administration and fiscal sponsorship with NYC nonprofit Fractured Atlas, likes to think of crowdfunding as a party.
She says you need to plan.
But plan how?
Well, as we learned from Courtney’s lecture on crowdfunding last year at Fractured Atlas’ offices, there’s an algorithm of sorts that allows you to anticipate both your need and your reach -- meaning that you can predict how many donors your campaign will receive based on how many people you “invite” to it, but there are degrees to consider. Take a look at the image below:
What you see are the degrees of relation. At the core is yourself. Closest to you are your friends, family, and fans. The next closest degree are acquaintances -- people you know casually and the people your friends, family, and fans know who you don’t necessarily have a close relationship to. The farthest degree from you is “the crowd.” The folks in this layer are people you don’t know who might stumble on your campaign if it’s trending in the platform of your choice, or maybe they’re anonymous angel donors, or maybe they’re a fan of the kind of music you make and are looking to support a new band to bolster the genre. The crowd is the hardest audience to reach because you don’t have personal ties to them and won’t be directly pitching your project to them.
That’s why it’s important to think of crowdfunding as a party. You’ll need to get your friends, family, and fans involved as quickly and as encouragingly as you can. Invite them to the party! You know they care already, but give them reasons to care more and care harder and care frequently. You’ll be scoring support from other layers, but the people you’re looking to entertain most are the people you know and love -- the people who know and love you. If your goal is $10,000, odds are you’ll be able to raise $3,000 of that from friends, family, and fans alone. Going forward, you’ll need to make up the rest from acquaintances and the crowd. This is where your approach should get creative.
If they have the means to, the people you know will support you simply because they know you and likely because they believe in you, but to raise the majority of your proposed funds, you’ll need to convince other people why they should support you. What’s your value proposition? What will you do with the funds? Why should people care? What’s in it for them? These are the types of questions you should be asking yourself before composing and executing your official campaign.
Executing Campaign Ideas
Once you’ve decided which platform you’ll host your campaign on and brainstormed the audience you’ll be reaching out to, you need to get started on the details: filming a pitch video, crafting your story, planning the rewards, etc.
Not all crowdfunding platforms require users to film a pitch video but according to social media management company Sprout Social, videos account for a staggering amount of preferred and engaged social content -- not only are they an active way to share your story and allow potential donors to visualize your project, but people actually want to watch them. If you do end up including a pitch video for your campaign, keep it relatively short and sweet (between 1 and 3 minutes should get the job done) and get to your call-to-action as soon as you can. Don’t leave us waiting; tell us who you are and what your project is from the beginning then tell us why we should care and what you want from us while still offering a punchy visual aid to intrigue us.
When writing the description or story for your campaign, there are a few different approaches to consider. While some campaigns stick to stone cold facts, many successful campaigns appeal to the pathos.
Back in 2014, UK band Johnny Kowalski And The Sexy Weirdos were gearing up for a springtime tour when their van was destroyed by arson. Uninsured and full of equipment, the van’s destruction put a serious dent in the band’s plans and bank account. Turning to GoFundMe for help, Johnny and the band launched a small crowdfunding campaign, seeking 3,000 euros to fund the purchase of a new van. Garnering support from “as far as the Czech Republic and as near as the landlord of a local pub,” the guys managed to secure two-thirds of their goal and were able to buy a new van and equipment to replace what they’d lost.
“If you genuinely need the money, you're within your rights to ask,” Johnny tells us, “and helping out those in need makes people feel good.” Of course, posting a picture of a burnt van probably poked people right in the pathos, but you don’t need a heart-heavy image or video to score donations. You just need passion, honesty, and a whole lot of details.
In September 2017, Billy Mays III launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first vinyl release of his electronic production moniker, Infinite Third. In just over a month, Billy surpassed his $10,000 goal by over 10% and was backed by nearly 200 donors.
Though he didn’t have a torched van to generate some tears from the public, he did have an expertly executed campaign detailing every facet of fund use, along with several brief updates for fans and donors alike. By mapping out -- in great depth -- each component of his intended release, from the track listing to the merchandise to the timeline and more, Billy brought donors into his vision in a way that allowed them to see exactly where their money would be going. According to crowdfunding experts Fundly, successful campaign launchers are those who update an average of 4 times throughout the campaign -- and those who do raise an average of 126% more funds than those who don’t. Consistency and progress is key to executing a successful crowdfunding campaign. This isn’t a “set it and forget it” type of effort. In addition to all the planning that precedes a campaign, the ongoing nurturing and promotion attempts will be what makes your campaign stand out and hopefully succeed.
One of the coolest parts about donating to a crowdfunding campaign is basking in all the different reward options and knowing that you’ve got the chance to score extra special merch from the artist you’re supporting.
But for the campaign owner, rewards are tricky. Because you’ll have to pay to order things like t-shirts or CDs in bulk as a reward to your supporters, in a way you’re paying for people to pay you. Some donors will opt out of a reward, though, and the rewards you offer shouldn’t be valued higher than each pricing tier they’re listed under, so you have the opportunity to play around with different reward and pricing options.
When alt-rock artist Verity White launched her campaign last year to fund a new album, the most popular reward she offered was a signed CD -- the tried-and-true method of nearly every crowdfunding campaign ever launched. It’s simple and it’s relatively cheap to produce and it’s special. Fans love to get anything signed, so it’s a great reward option, along with other typical items like a band t-shirt or a signed poster or donors’ names listed in the credits of your next release.
If you’re feeling brave and want to get a little creative with the rewards you offer, we’ve compiled a brief list below of slightly unconventional reward options by suggested price tier:
Handwritten thank you note + sticker sent via snail mail
A physical print of the album or single artwork of your donor’s choice
Handwritten postcard sent from studio w/ an exclusive pic of the band in studio
Personalized playlist on Spotify of songs you think your donor might like
Discography bundle -- physical copies of every release you’ve done so far
In-person tour of your studio
A physical print of the album or single artwork of your donor’s choice
Design a digital valentine to email to each donor -- make a pun out of their name, get cute with it, thank them for their love
Handwritten lyrics to your donor’s favorite song of yours
30 minute Skype session or phone call with a donor -- let them interview you, tell them everything they want to know, get to know them, etc
Songwriting collab -- let your donor write one or two verses. Write the rest then record a performance of it to send to your donor
Do a 3 question email interview with your donor
Let a donor email you suggested titles or subjects for future songs
Song-related rewards -- a signed pack of gum for a song called “Gum,” a donor-addressed letter for a song with the word “letter” in it, etc
Print a limited edition vinyl on the color of your donor’s choice + sign the insert
Give lessons -- one-hour drum lesson, songwriting session, etc for local donors
Things to Consider
So you’ve planned out your campaign. You chose your platform (after super careful thought, right?), pinpointed the audience you want to reach, picked out the rewards you’ll be offering, and you are ready. That’s great! You’re almost there but there are a few things you should keep in mind before you smash that CAMPAIGN LIVE button.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race… Sometimes
Crowdfunding is not a one-speed race. There will be dips in donations -- but don’t freak out. The natural progression for a campaign, depending on how much time and energy you invest in active, frequent promotion of it, goes like this:
What you’re seeing above is a depiction of the highs and lows of a campaign. Your campaign will be most active at its very beginning because this is when you’ve gotten it on everybody’s radar. It’s fresh, it’s brand new, and people are ready to contribute. Things will start to slow down towards the middle of your campaign because the majority of the people you predicted would donate probably already have. At this point, it can be tricky to get things back up and moving -- we’ve got pretty short attention spans -- but it’s okay. It’s natural for your campaign to wane and buffer. Once you’re in the final stretch and you’re calling upon new and old donors to help propel you forward to the finish line, you’ll begin to see donations rise again. Don’t try to force activity along during the campaign dip -- just wait it out, post an update or two, and rest up before you get back to pumping out the campaign for the grand finale.
Not Every Day is a Good Day For a Campaign
We all know that Mondays and Fridays are the best days to release new music. There are hashtags and events and discussions happening twice a week just to gush over new releases. Just like how certain days are best for visibility of new music, there are certain days that are the best (and the worst) for launching a crowdfunding campaign.
Stay away from weekends and holidays! While it might seem like a good idea to launch your campaign on a weekend -- leisure time for many tends to include a whole lot of surfing the web -- there’s considerably less pledge traffic coming in on weekends. According to Crowd101, many pledges are racked up on Wednesdays in direct correlation to weekly internet usage rates being at their highest mid-week. Consider holidays to be totally booked -- people are feeling generous, sure, but they’ve got their own major donations and purchases to contend with so it’s unlikely that you’ll strike gold if your campaign is launched alongside a holiday. Don’t launch at night either -- if nobody’s online to scream and shout about how awesome your campaign is from the get-go, it might get lost in the deep black hole of the internet only for you to have to resurface it yourself in the morning. Launch in the AM so you’ve got the time to set up an exciting (and excited) campaign for all your friends and family to scream about.
Asking for Help is not a Sign of Weakness
Amanda Palmer once wrote that “Asking for help with gratitude says: ‘We have the power to help each other.’” As a musician often thrust into the public eye (you might know her as one-half of dark cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls or from her solo performance work), Palmer’s been no stranger to seeking help when she needs it from the community of fans that she’s built. In her philosophy -- the art of asking -- she recognizes the inherent fear and shame that accompanies needing help. She argues that beyond the fear and shame lay empowerment and grace.
People want to give. Supporting the arts when and if you have the means to is something really special. Sharing kindness makes us feel worthy and it’s a unique way of engaging in human connection. You should never feel ashamed to ask for help when you need it and when you want it -- there will always be people willing to support you in pursuing your dreams.
Time to Party
If you’ve made it this far in our crowdfunding guide, you’ve learned much of what you need to know to successfully execute a crowdfunding campaign if you choose to pursue this path. Need a refresher? Here are the key takeaways to consider:
- Choose your platform carefully.
- If you repeat “PledgeMusic” three times while standing in front of a mirror, you’ll lose all your money.
- Cater to the audience you predict will most likely donate.
- Create a sweet pitch video and keep your donors updated.
- Offer rewards that are awesome to pledgers but don’t cost you too much.
- Don’t worry about the donor dip.
- Avoid launching your campaign on weekends and holidays.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Think you’re ready to launch your campaign? Go forth and party, rockstar.
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