A few more thoughts about Kickstarter prompted by two recent articles, one in the New York Times by David Pogue, who writes a popular tech column, and the other by Jörg Colberg in his blog Conscientious. Kickstarter, for those of you who haven’t heard, is an internet fundraising platform for creative projects. It’s only been around for two years, but has become–at least in my circle–ubiquitous. Everyone says to everyone, oh you should raise the money on Kickstarter. As if it’s a sure fire way to fund your dreams. It could, indeed, be just the ticket. But based on my successful experience with it, I’d say don’t do it unless you are really serious about your project, your prospects for funding, and your ability to follow through on that dream and the promise that is made implicitly with your backers.
Consider, for instance, that your core backers–at least to get started–are your family, friends and colleagues. In the process of asking them for money you may discover that those with the means to support your project may, in fact, be extremely stingy. Some may strangely disappear into the woodwork, or become suddenly unavailable. Others will surprise. People who you thought were only casually interested in your work, some with very little money, will jump right in with a substantial donation. In running a Kickstarter campaign, you run the risk of damaging relationships with friends, or finding out things about your friends that you, maybe, would rather not know.
In the end, fortunately, I was able to extend my network further and many backers were people unknown to me, some who heard about the project from the publicity I was able to generate, and some who were part of the Kickstarter community–people who get pleasure sifting through the projects offered on Kickstarter’s website, supporting those that interest them. Ultimately, that is what this is about–building and tapping into a community of people who want to share in the creative process, who appreciate the simple notion that dropping a few bucks into the offering basket will sustain something worthwhile. Like church, the fulfillment is often more spiritual than tangible. In my case, however, my 85 backers were essentially pre-ordering my book, and as it has turned out, getting it for less than the final retail price.
David Pogue in the Times, seems to regard Kickstarter as another of those Internet phenomena that makes sense to a younger generation of early adopters while leaving the rest of us baffled. At least that’s the rhetorical device the savvy Mr. Pogue uses to frame the subject, knowing, of course, that most of his readers probably haven’t yet heard of Kickstarter. He focuses on a handful of tech products that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars above their original goals. Product concepts that took off virally, given the fact that backers do not get a financial piece of the action, seem stupefying, even crazy. For my book project, there was no runaway viral infection. It was more of a slow fever that occasionally spiked up. Much of the time I just sat hunched over my computer screen in a sweat, monitoring the trickle of donations, sending out emails, thanking backers, and generally being a nervous wreck.
Reading through the comments about the Times piece I am surprised at the number of negative responses. A lot of people have trouble with the idea that project backers aren’t investors in the traditional sense–and that the money comes with no strings attached. It seems like cheating. It is clear that Kickstarter breaks all the rules and shakes up the establishment. The gatekeepers who control the flow of money, who man the curatorial/institutional ramparts, can finally be circumvented. The democratization of the marketplace has always been the promise of the internet, often unrealized. Kickstarter harnesses that promise, at least on a modest scale.
Talk about modest. Despite Pogue’s touting projects that achieved megabucks on Kickstarter, I managed to scrape together $11,000, enough to partially fund my book Time and Space on the Lower East Side. As a freelance artist severely buffeted by the winds of the “great recession,” I have trouble landing commercial photography assignments, much less acquiring the money to pursue book projects costing tens of thousands of dollars. There are few grants available for artists in this country. We do not, apparently, as a society, believe that government should support individual artists. And most institutional support of the arts goes to other institutions like museums, symphonies, non profits that promote the arts but do little for struggling artists. Every year thousands of artists apply for NYFA (New York State) grants, and the relative handful who get selected receive significantly less than the $11,000 I made on Kickstarter. Every year hundreds of photographers apply for Guggenheim grants, and four or five get selected. Last year I applied for money from the Graham Foundation, a Chicago based organization that funds architecture related projects, mostly to academics. It was a long shot, but I applied for money to photograph the architecture and landscape of megachurches putting a good deal of effort into the application. Had I been selected–I was not–I would have received much less than $11,000. And what do you do once you’ve applied for one of these grants? You sit on your duff for months while committees of the wise decide how to divvy up a pittance.
I have always avoided saying this, but I will now. Applying for these grants is a waste of time. It’s time to walk away. Kickstarter, and other up and coming models, offer a much better way to raise money for individual artists. It isn’t perfect. Jörg Colberg of Concientious has problems with the all-or-nothing aspect of Kickstarter. He thinks there should be more flexibility in setting goals. His point is well taken, though I understand why Kickstarter does it. Additionally, Kickstarter is a business, and both they and Amazon, which handles the dolling out of money take significant chunks of the pie. But seriously, I am prouder of my recent Kickstarter achievement than the New York State grant I got way back in 1980 or the NEA photographic survey grant I got in 1982. Except for a few projects I’ve done which were initiated by non profits–projects I did not choose on my own–I have been shut out of by the grant giving institutions since then. With Kickstarter I was able to mobilize my resources, take control of the process, and work with others to realize my goal.
It’s time to make the grant gatekeepers irrelevant, if they aren’t already. It’s time to walk away.