Making art for art's sake is an artist's job. As is the nature of a job, art should turn up a profit; it must be viable while also admirable. But the making of art that promotes tangible change or new perspective might also be worthy of investment by outside sources. This is where crowd funding comes in. People love to be even a small part of momentous change. President Obama's history-making small-dollar donations movement proved this point effectively. Strangers rallied to take part in bringing about the existence of something they believed in. In the best cases of crowd funding platforms, either we are helping an artist use their art to benefit a cause larger than himself, or we are helping to bring something unique and invaluable into fruition. This is what makes these platforms necessary and powerful. Kickstarter has provided artists with unprecedented opportunities that I fear are now being squandered. What has made Kickstarter campaign emails slowly start to resemble spam (and spamming is something Kickstarter strongly prohibits) is that most of the campaigns are no longer about enabling an artist to break new ground, they're just about enabling an artist.
Ultimately, the platforms are not the problem. Instead, the mindset behind how some artists use them is the real issue. The new Kickstarter mindset is actually nothing new, stemming from our now centuries-old, crippling sole dependency on the artist patron. At the base of that thinking is, "I want to make art because I really like to make art. But someone else should pay for my passion." Mind you, that is wholly different from paying an artist for their art. Absent from the barrage of mundane campaigns I've been receiving of late is a compelling "Why" not to mention a tangible "What next?" The only reason I'm being offered is the intense need to create, sometimes tinged with a not so attractive sense of entitlement to my money to make their art.
If we're not careful, Kickstarter and its counterparts could be on their way to becoming the new welfare for artists. What started out as an innovative program to assist artists in getting worthy projects off the ground could turn into a continued excuse not to get back to creative work that doubles as a viable way to support that art making. Would it be too much to ask that even the arts projects also be required to serve a greater good? It's time now for the addition of a new criteria -- for artists rather than just social entrepreneurs, that judges broadness of impact and long-term reach or simply asks the question, "Who else is getting something out of this besides you?" Inevitably, we'd see a rejuvenation of excitement versus dread about finding campaign emails in our Inbox. But just like the much politicized public assistance program, all artists are not abusing the system now possibly in need of reform based on impact.
Last summer, the ever-creative, award-winning wind ensemble WindSync ran a campaign on Indiegogo, a platform which allows your project to be tied to a cause and doesn't require your project to be finite. Their Play Different Project is an exciting program focused on tolerance that ties arts to the prevention of bullying and the building of self-esteem. Not only did this look good in concept, but there was a period of observation and assessment built in, as well as a plan for small and large-scale roll out. The cause and the business plan were so convincing that the only thing wrong with it in my eyes was that the financial goal was too small. I urged them to increase it, they did and then the funding goal was ultimately still surpassed. What made their project the standard for what artist crowd funding campaigns should be? WindSync's vision turned donors into financial and emotional investors. The project was so purposeful that potential investors would be proud to be associated with it. It made them curious for the outcome of not just phase one, but of the future of the project: its expansion and continued impact. I've been advocating for a while now that artists should be looking for investors and not donors, meaning people not giving out of pity or obligation but because they see future financial projections worthy of a true partnership. Ironically on Kickstarter, artists are not allowed to solicit investors in the truest business sense of the word. They can't engage in profit-sharing or offer financial incentives. No explanation is given, and it could be to ensure artists don't get in over their heads, but I have to wonder if it's that same tacit taboo of commercialism and art crossing paths. That question aside, Kickstarter has been brilliant in its guidelines.
They smartly limit potential project creators to finite projects to eliminate the possibility of financing whims and fancies. But it also could limit the artist from thinking past the project. Unlike what Kickstarter says in its description of finite projects, a CD-making project is not complete once it's released. In fact, the work is just beginning. Now the artist must think about turning a project funded by donations into a vehicle that could drive profit and be a part of building a sustainable self-sufficient career apart from donations, which isn't really self-sufficient, is it? If not, the artist will come rushing back to crowd funding in a year to hit us up for their sophomore CD instead of discovering the tools every small business needs to succeed. Ideally, they'll research the ins and outs of marketing, the art of branding and promotion and they'll sniff out their audience in the process so they're finally selling to the right people.
Another smart move on Kickstarter's part is the "all or nothing" pledge model that ultimately allows the public to deem whether the project is worthy of seeing the light of day. That is a great provision for donors and it makes sure artists don't have to live up to promises made based on full funding with only half the funds in the bank. But it's also a concept that could crush the chutzpah of artists whose worthy projects just don't catch fire on these platforms. It will be up to the artist to know their own worth despite the outcome of a crowd funding campaign.
By their own definition, "Kickstarter is full of ambitious, innovative and imaginative projects that are brought to life through the direct support of others." That is indeed powerful. The millions raised every day speaks to that. But imagine a world where artists fully commit to becoming the breathers of life into their own art. I dare say, more powerful still.
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