An Argument Against Fan Funding by Brian Hazard

Let’s be honest. You don’t need the money.

Anyone can make a record for next to nothing these days. Almost any other hobby is more expensive: photography, mountain biking, even video gaming. When a teenager singing into a webcam gets exponentially more views on YouTube than your latest “professional” video, the answer isn’t more money.

You’re just not there yet.

(hey, don’t feel bad – I’m not either)

Tracking at Abbey Road Studios won’t get you there. Hiring T-Bone Burnett to mix your album won’t get you there. A full-day mastering session with Bob Ludwig won’t get you there. 10,000 pressed CDs with 18-page inserts won’t get you there. A $5,000 promotion budget won’t get you there either.

No matter how much money you throw at your project, we’re all limited by a stubborn principle called free market pricing. People are only willing to pay what a product is worth to them, not what it costs to produce. The intrinsic value of music is in free fall, and people won’t pay for it if they’re just not that into you.

So why are musicians flocking to fan funding (also known as “crowdfunding”) sites like Kickstarter, Sellaband, Slicethepie, PledgeMusic, and artistShare in droves?

My guess is that they figure “why not give it a shot”? Well, I’ll tell you why not, and offer a better option.

  1. It’s dishonest. I’m simply not willing to pretend it costs thousands of dollars to put out an album. If you can’t sell 100 CDs at $10 to pay for replication, make CD-Rs at $2 a pop, produce them on-demand, or go digital-only. Effective promotion doesn’t necessarily come with a price tag. And really, why should your fans pay to promote something they already bought?
  2. They own you. By entering into a partnership with your fans, you become accountable to them. Until you follow through on your promises, you no longer call the shots. As Hugh McLeod explains in Ignore Everybody, “The sovereignty you have over your work will inspire far more people than the actual content ever will. The best way to get approval is not to need it.” While some may actually like the added pressure, it comes with a loss of control.
  3. You could fail. Publicly and humiliatingly. Everyone will get their money back while you walk away empty-handed. Your fans may conclude that either your goal was too ambitious, or just maybe, your music isn’t as good as they thought is was. Your failure functions as a reverse testimonial. And then what? Are you really going to dump the whole project? If not, why hold it hostage in the first place?

We’re all adults here, right? If your project is so promising and you can’t scrape together $1500 from your “real job,” you could always write up a business plan and get a loan from the bank. Then again, they may just chuckle and offer to raise the limit on your Visa.

Fortunately, there’s a way to reap all the benefits of fan funding with none of the downsides: take pre-orders.

You can still create tiers with personalized extras, like phone calls with the artist, studio attendance, or a custom song. If you accept payments directly, you earn an extra 10% that would otherwise go to a third party. You can create a plan that scales with your goals (“if we reach 100 pre-orders, I’ll press CDs and all digital album sales will include physical CDs as well”). Or you can wait to add tiers until you reach certain milestones, so you don’t promise anything you can’t deliver. Best of all, you’re not locked in to anything. You can adjust your approach as you go based on fan response.

Taking pre-orders puts free market pricing on your side, by allowing you to create only what you need to fulfill demand. Best of all, there’s no “goal” to reach, so you keep every dollar. Risk is no longer a factor.

When is fan funding a better choice than taking pre-orders? What can an artist do on a fan funding site that they can’t do on their own? Let me know in the comments!

Author: Brian Hazard

Brian Hazard is a recording artist with sixteen years of experience promoting his eight Color Theory albums. His Passive Promotion blog emphasizes “set it and forget it” methods of music promotion. Brian is also the head mastering engineer and owner of Resonance Mastering in Huntington Beach, California.

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