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In 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll', Ben Howarth reflects on PledgeMusic, and the ethics of fan funding
This column is often as much about the business of music as it is about music. Sometimes it is record shops closing, other times people downloading albums for free. Large amounts of money are still being spent ‘developing’ new acts, and increasingly large amounts are being charged to see them in concert (It won’t be long before anyone buying festival tickets will have to be subject to an assessment from Standard and Poor’s). But the bands themselves have never had less money.
Remember when early adopters like Chuck D and Alan McGee told us that the internet offered a world of promise and freedom from the dinosaurs of the major label aristocracy? The reality, for most bands, is a world without expense accounts, video budgets and double-decker tour buses. More and more bands are finding that they only people willing to invest in their activities are a small core of hardened fans.
And so, fan funding has developed. I first encountered it when Idlewild decided to ask fans to pay upfront, before they went into the studio. In return, you got to download some live recordings, and a promise that you’d be sent the finished album several months before its official release. I think Idlewild found the administration of this more work than expected, but it was largely successful.
Idlewild did their fan funding scheme themselves. Now, most bands use PledgeMusic. I decided to pay in advance for Emmy The Great’s second album. It wasn’t so happy an experience – I didn’t end up with the album any earlier than I would have if I’d ordered it from Amazon, which was the only reason I’d bothered, and (when it finally turned up) the album never quite clicked with me.
A vocal minority have begun to lash out at the fan-funding concept. Darren Hayman recently gave away his collection of Belle and Sebastian albums when he found out that they’d sought fan funding for a film project. Hayman’s point is that “Money changes art – it just does”. Of course, he receives money when his albums sell, and he has also had advance payments from labels in the past. But Hayman says that asking fans to pay in advance is a line he won’t cross – he wants musicians to feel free to follow their own instincts, and only worry about the commercial side of the music when the creative side is finished. He also thinks the relationship between fan and band means more than that between band and label.
Those behind PledgeMusic would say it helps bands to concentrate on creativity – they don’t need to worry about a label, they don’t need to compromise so much on the quality of equipment they use. Hayman’s problem with this is that a band who is worried most about pleasing a pre-defined audience is – possibly unconsciously – unable to make the album they would make if they made it for no-one but themselves.
While I agree that I don’t want my favourite albums to only have been made in order to make money, I’m not wholly convinced by that argument.
Sometimes the knowledge of an audience helps discipline artists and makes them strive to impress. I think there is a difference between what a musician does for their own amusement, and what they do as entertainment for others.
I am, however, worried by PledgeMusic. It feels like being a musician has been elevated to a charity case – the implication, somehow, is that we have to atone for the wider failings of society in failing to provide wealth for musicians. The same applies to the hand-wringing over independent record shops closing. I think small bands and small record shops are great, and society would be worse without them. But, it doesn’t seem right to treat music in the same way as we do helping the homeless and vulnerable.
There are fewer and fewer musicians who can afford to just make music, without having some other source of income. And that may ultimately mean fewer people joining bands. But if we follow the logic that the best music is made without money or fame as the objective, then it doesn’t matter if musicians have to do other things as well as music.
“But, then all we’ll end up with is ‘hobby’ bands”, I hear someone saying at the back. But what’s wrong with that? Experiencing the realities of normal life, in common with almost everyone else, can only help creativity. I’ve no deep objection to a successful musician giving up their day job if they want, but I don’t think it’s a pre-condition to making music successfully, and I certainly don’t think it my job to pay for it.
There’s an unpleasant, if generally unspoken, assumption behind PledgeMusic – that rock musicians deserve better than the rest of us. I don’t like it.
538 Posted By: Brian John Mitchell, Raleigh, NC, USA on 05 Mar 2012
The hobby band comment is of course interesting & I think at a point we generally are for things these days. There's nothing wrong with hobby bands being dominant as long as there's nothing wrong with a band putting out an album once every four or five years & never touring to work kinks out of the songs. In general to make a dozen good songs (which admittedly few albums have) might take 1000 hours of labor (which is why young bands are more prolific, they naturally have more free time with less familial/financial responsibilities). Which is fine, it's just something people need to realize we are saying as a culture.
As far as fan funding, I think it's fine if it's done honestly. For example if I say, "I have an album done, if you want to see it manufactured I need $1000, otherwise it will never leave the studio," I feel is valid. On the other hand I think saying, "I want $2500 to go into the studio to write & record an album," is invalid. In the first scenario you already have the art segment done, in the second scenario you are creating art on demand - which to me by definition is craft instead of art. I feel like done properly it is like an artist's grant & improperly it turns into begging. I guess the bottom line is if it's a trustworthy artist it works fine. Imagine if you'd been waiting 15 years for Chinese Democracy....