Crowd Funding – will it work for bluegrass?

Berklee TodayThe Spring 2008 issue of Berklee Today, the official alumni publication of the Berklee College Of Music, has an interesting article on Crowd Funding. It was written by Peter Spellman, director of Berklee’s Career Development Center, who has written a number of books on marketing for musicians.

The concept of crowd funding is a relatively new, bottom-up sort of grassroots financing for new artists and/or projects that has been spawned in the Internet age. In a nutshell, it is one where artists appeal to fans to raise the necessary capital for recording, video production or tour support.

As record labels throughout the industry become more conservative when it comes to signing new acts and promoting second-tier acts, many artists – both new and established – have begun to consider alternative options. Spellman examines three web-based companies that were formed to serve this niche.

ArtistShare has been around since 2002 – old guard in today’s web world – and functions as a conduit between artists and fans, encouraging fans to make small investments (micro-funding) in artists’ work in exchange for special access.

Participating artists raise funding for recording projects by offering fans special interactivity options, such as the opportunity to download scores in process or to watch a recording session. An ArtistShare “participant offer,” for example, is similar to buying tickets to a live show; fans purchase incrementally priced packages that offer a glimpse of the artist’s work in progress, pre-release privileges, and, in some cases, credit on the final packaging or Web page.

Sellaband is a newer entry, launched in 2006 with the help of two former label executives.

It allows fans (dubbed “believers”) to invest $10 each until the goal of $50,000 is reached. The 5,000 believers provide funding for the band to record an album with professional producers and studios. Both parties earn money when it is released. At the moment, 6,355 artists are on SAB, and believers have funded six completed albums.

Lastly, he looks at Slicethepie, which functions as a sort of new music stock market.

The site’s Scout Room allows people to review artist tracks. Scouts don’t know the identity of the artist they review and rate. Reviews are multiplied and averaged out, and the 20 best artists go on to the Showcase. Scouts act as A&R personnel and earn about 10 cents per review, and they can earn up to 50 cents per review (with each listen taking about three minutes). If an artist is bought out by a record label (which happened to the band Gilkicker after being featured on Slicethepie), scouts and others involved benefit from the transaction.

After three weeks, the winner of the Showcase is guaranteed about $30,000.

You can read Spellman’s full article online.

These approaches strike me as creative, fascinating and innovative, though I can hear the question forming in your mind… But will it work in bluegrass?

A quick search of the three sites referenced above did not turn up any bluegrass music, so there doesn’t seem to be any track record there.

It occurs to me that the much smaller size of our market suggests that the labels dedicated to bluegrass probably do a pretty good job of snapping up the relatively few acts ready and able to commit to supporting a large-scale CD release. That being said, we have a great many acts that do not intend to pursue a full-time career in music, but may have something to offer that could generate fan support.

Bluegrass and related forms of string music have a much lower threshold of cost when it comes to producing a professional recording or video, and tour support isn’t nearly so costly as it is in the pop, rap, rock or country markets. Perhaps the smaller size of our fan base is sufficient to fund a new act in this way?

If anyone has some experience or information about this sort of Crowd Funding in or around bluegrass music, we would love to hear from you. Your comments are also welcome to this post.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.

  • I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about this lately and I think there is another way of fan funding that would work better for bluegrass artists than the services mentioned above. There are two examples in the Americana/Folk world, Bill Mallonee and Ari Hest.

    Bill Mallonee got started in the early ’90s with a group called Vigilantes of Love and he has recorded, boith solo and with the band, 25 albums to which he owns all of the masters. He sells these in digital format from his Web site (as well as iTunes) and he offers a subscription service for more content. For $10 a month (there are a couple of levels) you can download exclusive Web content from Mallonee. Some weeks it is a demo of a song he is working on, other times it is a rare live show from several years ago. This money goes to help with future recording costs and travel.

    Ari Hest signed with Columbia a few years back and released two albums with the major label before being released. No through his Web site he offers a subscription service called “52.” Subscribers get to download one new song a week, as well as recieve other things from the artist depending on the subscription level. Subscriptions start at $20/mo and include the weekly download, the ability to vote on which songs make it to record and then a copy of the finished product and concert tickets with the higher subscriptions.

    It would take an intial investment that might put some artists off, but I could see a band profiting from this in the long run, especially a band that doesn’t have the goal of going into music full-time. A subscription service that offered live music from your favorite act, or rare jam sessions, could be a big selling point.