Kick-starting the future of music

I have seen the future of the music industry, and it's "… begging?

That might be the meany-pants way of describing crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter, but hey, you didn't come here for cookies and soothing words.

An explanation: Kickstarter is a website dedicated to funding the endeavors of creative types all over the world. Artists, writers, musicians, poets and filmmakers who aren't blessed with wealthy benefactors, or who haven't been fortunate enough to break into their respective industries, can open a Kickstarter account and announce a project.

They give a description, meant to entice people into chipping in money that will go toward creating a film or album. This is all done in good faith, of course.

Amazingly, Kickstarter has proven quite popular and has produced some interesting work. I recently watched an animated, short film funded by Kickstarter. It was pretty damn good and makes you wonder why the college kid who made it isn't already working for Pixar.

Kickstarter has funded Academy Award-nominated documentaries and some works of journalism that have shed light on some shady corporate dealings. All this is a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. Anything that helps creative people with interesting things to say to spread their message is fine with me. I couldn't care less if your album is released by Interscope or on your Kickstarter-funded website. Good music is good music.

Think about how many great artists died in obscurity without ever getting projects into the public eye. Maybe John Kennedy Toole would have used Kickstarter to get copies of a self-published version of "Confederacy of Dunces" into New Orleans bookstores. It could have caught on, and poor Toole wouldn't have offed himself in despair because major publishing houses in New York were too myopic to realize greatness when they read it.

Breaking into something like the music industry, or what remains of it in the iTunes era, is next to impossible. Let's say MC Conrizzle wants to make his hip-hop classic, "Original Newzprint Gangsta," but can't get a label to front him the cash. MC Conrizzle's only hope then is to keep plugging away in the off chance that one of the few remaining major labels bites, or he can stalk Jay-Z and force him at gunpoint to listen to him rap outside some New York club. Miraculously, Jay-Z is so impressed with MC Conrizzle's rhymes that he signs him to Rock-a-Fella Records, and "Original Newzprint Gangsta" becomes the most downloaded record on iTunes.

(Shortly afterward, MC Conrizzle sinks his fortune into a West Hollywood mansion, fights with his Kardashian girlfriend in front of reality-TV cameras and stalks around his pool in Gucci boxers, smoking Courvoisier-soaked blunts. You know how this ends, right?)

Or MC Conrizzle builds his rep hitting the rap battles in Chicago, works really hard at the clubs, hands out his cheap demo to anyone who will take it, then opens a Kickstarter account and is surprised that a few hundred bucks roll in. MC Conrizzle uses this cash to record more demos, hit more clubs, etc.

There are no guarantees for MC Conrizzle, but at least Kickstarter has allowed him another chance to pursue his hip-hop dreams. However, one thing MC Conrizzle would never do is bank his Kickstarter cash and then ask other rappers to appear in his demo for free.

This is precisely what musician Amanda Palmer did a few weeks back. Palmer is the relatively successful frontwoman of The Dresden Dolls and several other bands that have had exposure in music publications. Make no mistake, Palmer isn't Mick Jagger in her success, but I suspect she is one of the fortunate few who make a living on her music.

Palmer announced her new project on Kickstarter and watched as her fans filled its coffers with a cool $1.3 million. Which is great. I am down with this. If Nas or Neko Case ever broke from their labels and went independent and wanted cash for a new record, I'd throw a couple of bucks their way because I believe artists should be paid for their work.

Palmer, though, soon got her hand slapped by following up her $1.3-announcement asking musicians in the cities along her tour to chip in their talents for free, all for the chance to play music with their idol.

That, my friends, opened a can of worms. At what point does accepting financial help from your fans turn into exploitation? Punk and indie rock legend Steve Albini had some tough words for Palmer.

"I have no fundamental problem with either asking your fans to pay you to make your record or go on tour or play for free in your band "… I wouldn't stoop to doing any of them myself, but horses for courses," Albini wrote. "The reason I don't appeal to other people in this manner is that all those things can easily pay for themselves, and I value self-sufficiency and independence, even (or especially) from an audience."

Other respected musicians chimed in, and Palmer, after a halting defense, announced that she would pay the musicians after all.

I don't carry as hard a line on Kickstarter as Albini. If you can figure out a way to get your vision funded and into my hands, all's good. But remember there is a certain decorum that needs to be acknowledged. If you land $1.3 million on Kickstarter, then make your album, pay rent, buy food and go on tour. But then expand on your fans' generosity by making it possible for your backing band to continue pursuing their passion by paying them. This can only lead to good things.

By the way, MC Conrizzle's Kickstarter account is up and running. If you love me, you'll donate today. I'll take whatever you got.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email

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