Could Kickstarter Be Evil?
Paul Constant and Jen Graves Debate Art, Money, and the Internet
Paul Constant: It all started with a press-release e-mail from Blue Scholars. The subject line read "Blue Scholars raise $41K+ and counting..." On the semilucid level at which I receive surface e-mail information, I thought to myself, "Oh, that's nice. Blue Scholars had a fundraiser for Japan." But the e-mail continued:
I wanted to touch base with you about the Blue Scholars' next album, Cinemetropolis, and their decision to "sign with the people" and raise funds through Kickstarter. Support from fans has been overwhelming; they have pledged more than $41,000 already, with 15 days left in the campaign.
Oh. No. The "news" is that Blue Scholars are raising that money for themselves. And all of a sudden, a bunch of feelings I had been subliminally courting about Kickstarter bubbled up in my brain. Like the best ideas, Kickstarter is pretty simple: An artist or organization explains a project on the site, and if enough people pledge donations within a certain window of time, the pledges become real money. If they don't reach the goal, the pledges evaporate harmlessly. Kickstarter takes a clean 5 percent cut. And like all the simplest ideas, I think it might become troubling—I'm concerned that Kickstarter might start pulling money away from nonprofits and charitable organizations, becoming a way for entertainers and creative-minded people to exploit their fans.
Jen Graves: If Blue Scholars give people what they want for what the people decide to give, then is it exploitation? Or have we become so used to a middleman that it seems crass for artists to conduct financial transactions directly with audiences—no record labels, no art dealers, no house taking a cut, no grant-making panels. Is there anything "charitable" about Kickstarter? If so, then how big does an artist have to get in order to be a fox in that henhouse? Blue Scholars aren't Kid Rock. Wouldn't something like Kickstarter help midlevel artists support themselves and their families while working full-time at their art, rather than being distracted and stretched by day jobs?
I just wonder whether we accept only two kinds of artists: starving and filthy rich. Artists in the middle bring up questions about whether art is bourgeois, whether it has value if it is, and whether artists have to live outside of norms in order to make meaningful art.
Let me back up and say this: My experience with Kickstarter began with the Seattle independent store Pilot Books, which hit me up out of the blue one day—for what, I can't even remember. It's just such a great little store that I was happy to give $15. I'm pretty sure they offered me some perk-ish thing in return (invitations?), but that's not why I gave the money. I just like them and want to see them succeed, and it felt good to give them my own personal "grant."
My other exposure is through Seattle artist Rick Araluce, who sculpts miniature dioramas. Araluce is working through a mechanism similar to Kickstarter but exclusive to the arts: United States Artists. To be eligible to post their projects on the site, artists must have won awards or grants from "partner or recognized organizations" of USA Projects.
Araluce's first call came after he'd been rejected by Bravo's art reality TV show. "I guess I'll have to make my $100,000 the hard way: one project, grant, award, or piece of sold artwork at a time," he wrote. Enter United States Artists.
"I am inviting you to consider investing in my latest project, 'The Longest Hours,' under the auspices of this new online community... The attached images describe a work-in-progress, yet it is a work getting closer to completion with every passing day! By the beginning of May, the work will be complete and will ship to New York City." The sculpture will be in an exhibition on the art of the diorama at New York's Museum of Arts and Design this summer.
My big question is this: Is asking for money directly less savory than asking dealers to represent you or critics to get interested?
Paul Constant: This does raise questions about how much of a salesman an artist has to be in the age of the internet. A few local authors have complained to me about how polished you have to be to succeed—you have to have a web presence, you have to have a Twitter account, you have to post links to positive things people write about you. You basically have to be a shameless huckster, and there is nothing more shameless and hucksterish than asking people, outright, for money. So maybe the modern state of the arts has finally reached its logical apex (or nadir) in Kickstarter?
I gave to that same Pilot Books project. It was a worthy cause, and Pilot Books isn't a nonprofit and so isn't going to get any corporate or foundation money. I've also given money to cartoonist Julia Wertz, whose tiny publisher needed $5,200 for a new edition of her first collection, and to Stranger Genius Jim Woodring's United States Artists bid to build a seven-foot-tall pen. And, again, I love Blue Scholars, but I am less excited about Macklemore's Kickstarter campaign to fund a music video. I think when you're asking your fans to pay for your promotional tool just after you sell out three nights at the Showbox at the Market, you are treading dangerously close to the verb "bilk."
And that's my main problem: Kickstarter doesn't distinguish between worthy and unworthy. Its biggest drive to date is a campaign to mass-produce a watchband for the iPod Nano; the target was $15,000 and it raised almost a million dollars. You don't get more bourgie than that. Another blockbuster was $50,000 to build a Robocop statue in a Detroit park. Michigan has an 11 percent unemployment rate, 58 percent of students graduate from Detroit public schools, and some snickering fans of 1980s cinema contributed 50 grand to build a statue that should come preinstalled with air quotes? That money could have been put toward a scholarship (they could even have called it the "Robocop Memorial Achievement Fund" or something equally dopey so their lulz-quota could have been met).
I'm concerned Kickstarter will be overrun by artists who already have marketing people and are already good at manipulating social media and playing the system for maximum publicity outcome. There's precedent: YouTube has become a cesspool of prepackaged "viral" videos that are actually stealth marketing projects for corporations. I'm worried that major labels and publishers—powerful people—are going to transform Kickstarter into a little money farm, turning consumers into producers and milking them on both ends of the process.
Jen Graves: I phoned these potential industrial farmers of intellectual property.Kickstarter Cofounder Yancey Strickler, a former freelance rock writer, is generally idealistic: "We want this to be a platform for not doing the typical thing," he said, "which is abandoning the things you love before you even give them a try." (Strickler, Perry Chen, and Charles Adler founded New York–based Kickstarter in April 2009.)
But Strickler admitted Kickstarter is having this debate internally. The site gets 250 proposals a day. Each is examined; some are argued. As Kickstarter's profile rises, bigger names are drawn to it, he said. Actor John Cameron Mitchell is raising $25,000 to produce a graphic novel by Dash Shaw. A producer on behalf of actor Matthew Modine is raising $20,000 to turn Modine's behind-the-scenes footage from the filming of Full Metal Jacket into an app. Why can't Mitchell and Modine pay for the projects themselves? "Sometimes, people don't need the money but want to get connected to an audience," Strickler said.
Kickstarter is not need-based and not quality-controlled. "We don't want to be in the position of saying, 'Well, if you ditch the lead singer, then we'll say yes,'" he said. "We're looking for people who work in the Kickstarter spirit. We require every project to offer a reward. This can never be a PayPal jar." And this way, he added, artists can work without the interference of, say, bottom-line Hollywood studios or bureaucratic publishing houses. "Maybe Blue Scholars need that $50,000, maybe they don't," he said (Blue Scholars ended up raising $62,391). "But this way, they're only answering to themselves."
But is that iPod watchband a "creative project" or just a small business? "There is some level of conflict here—we used to have a no-businesses approach," Strickler said. "But, really, this was just a guy with an idea, and design is art. We limit Kickstarter to projects. Startups come to us when they don't want to go to venture capitalists, and we say no, it has to be a project. It's complicated."
We can all agree on that much.