Financing in bluegrass: beg, borrow, or steal?

If you’ve followed recent news (and I don’t recommend that you do), you may have seen that Facebook has taken a beating this week due to controversy related to, well, controversial things that I don’t fully understand but they sound pretty bad. In a nutshell, though, the result is that Mark Zuckerburg apparently lost something like 3.8 billion dollars in a single day. 

Before you worry yourself sick about this, thinking this may cause Mark to have to wear an inferior grade of grey T-shirt, you can take heart that this is roughly the equivalent of you or me getting a $75 parking ticket. No fun, but we’ll be okay, as will Facebook. It’s in the “too big to fail” category. If it ever appeared to be truly failing, we would encourage a government bailout, or even a crowdfunding campaign. Without it, how would we post pictures of our breakfast, or snow, or snow on our breakfast; and how else would we argue with people about politics, convincing no one? And here’s an important one, speaking of crowdfunding: how would we spread the word about that Kickstarter campaign to finance our new recording project?

It so happens that this very subject was the cause of some recent wrangling on Facebook itself. Is crowdfunding a crucial part of the “sharing economy,” “the gig economy,” or the “we have no money economy”? Or is it just glorified begging?

Without trying to stake out a controversial position on this that would inevitably lead to a lot of haters chiming in in the comments section (by the way, “haters” are now defined as people who disagree with us), let me just say that I wish people bought more music on the back end, and thought of it as “funding” the music, too, so contributions wouldn’t be needed on the front end. If everyone paid to stream the music they’re listening to by buying “premium” memberships in streaming services like Spotify, or they purchased CDs or LPs at the merch table even if they don’t actually listen to CDs much anymore or even own a turntable, we would have a very different economic situation for people creating the music.

In an ideal world, a record label would offer a budget sufficient to record an album (with the disclaimer that “sufficient” means very different things to different artists), but in some cases they don’t, and this can either be chalked up to labels just trying to avoid paying for stuff out of general cheapness, or it can be seen as a reflection of this time of poor sales.

Many artists in bluegrass music have chosen to avoid the record label altogether, and self-finance completely. There are advantages and disadvantages here: A big advantage is full artistic control and full ownership, which translates to keeping all the royalties yourself, and it also means more profit per CD sold, once you’ve paid off the expenses. A big disadvantage, on the other hand, is that your promotional team may consist of just you and whoever else you can con into helping you, and your promotional plan may only consist of making noise about your CD through the very same Facebook who just allowed your personal information to be stolen by ill-intentioned people in foreign countries.

Another serious disadvantage is that you have to come up with the money up front yourself, not just for recording, but for the graphic design, manufacturing, etc. This is where the crowdfunding model has become popular. And, as stated above, it’s also being used to close the budget gap for artists with record labels that aren’t being too forthcoming with capital.

But is crowdfunding really the right way to go about this? In days of old, back when cellphones were really huge, before they got really small then got really huge again, people looking to finance a recording project did so by fairly conventional means: by saving money, getting a loan, finding a few investors, mowing lawns, selling instruments, teaching, selling meth (or teaching and selling meth—the Breaking Bad financing model), carjacking etc. With one or two obvious exceptions (selling of instruments should only be a last resort), these are pretty honorable methods. Aren’t they still worth pursuing today? Is there a reason individual donors should be called upon?

There’s also the time-honored method of just setting aside funds from your current project to finance your next one. Some might argue that with CD sales being what they are now, you can easily get trapped in an endless cycle of never getting to see your profit. But boy when you release your final CD, just before you retire from the business to open a soap store, you’ll be in the money, free and clear.

There’s no doubt that asking people to kick in funds for an artistic project appears more worthy than a GoFundMe campaign to finance your wedding or your vacation to Cozumel, which is also being done. Still, some are always going to view this as the equivalent of selling Avon without the payoff of the tube of moisturizing sunscreen. There are, after all, tangible financial benefits to the artist who gets his or her record financed by other people.

On the other hand, for those who offer genuine premiums to their investors in the form of free music or “experiences” with the artist, crowdfunding can involve fans in new and different ways (something I’ve written about here before). 

Another way to look at this is that the advent of crowdfunding has made it possible for struggling artists to finance their first recording project while still being able to work on their music, without getting overly sidetracked by demanding day jobs, or a life of crime. Small investors are showing that they believe in this artist enough to feel it’s a worthy cause. It’s similar, then, to applying for and receiving an artistic grant.

To get back to a point I made earlier, though, the simple purchase of a CD or LP directly from the artist is also a statement of support, and a meaningful contribution to an artist’s career, and to any future recordings. I’ll let others argue about the issue of how things are financed before the recording. Bluegrass Today would prefer that you debate that below; Mark Zuckerburg would prefer you debate it on Facebook, and he’ll try not to give your personal information away to nefarious strangers out to manipulate you.