Register Monday | August 10 | 2020

Veronica Mars, Amanda Palmer and the Complications of Crowdfunding

Last week, the creators behind Veronica Mars, the short-lived but beloved television show that aired on UPN/the CW between 2004 and 2007, made internet history when their Kickstarter campaign raising funds to support a Veronica Mars movie reached its $2 million goal in less than 12 hours. It was, by a good margin, the fastest, most successful campaign in the crowd-funding website’s history.

It also sent the Internet into its typical thought-piece tizzy: “Did Veronica Mars ruin Kickstarter?” asked Slate. The Atlantic called it “self-indulgence posing as community bartering.” Hit Fix wondered how the model could apply to other shows. (Answer: with difficulty.) My brother likened the experience of following a Kickstarter campaign to that of waiting in line to ride a theme park attraction. And so on and so on.

All this offers the opportunity to look at the Kickstarter model in more detail, something I’ve been meaning to do ever since Amanda Palmer raised $1.2 million last year to support her album, Theater is Evil, generating both media acclaim and media backlash (similar to Veronica Mars). Not surprisingly, I have some questions about all this.

The idea of Kickstarter is simple: ask people to pledge to donate money to support your project, typically with some sort of reward at each level of donation (akin to those PBS telethons that, if you’re at all like me, were in the way of your Sesame Street Christmas specials growing up). If the project reaches its goal, Kickstarter collects the donations and gives you the money (minus its 5 percent cut); if it fails, no one pays anything.

As of its most recent stats update, there have been 10,768 music projects on Kickstarter that have been successfully funded. The majority of these (more than 8,000) are in the $1,000 to $9,999 range. To date, Palmer’s is the only one to raise $1 million, though there are 14 that have raised more than $100,000. The success rate for music projects is relatively high compared to most categories on the site: at 54.5 percent, only dance and theatre are more successful.

Here in Halifax, there have been a few successful crowdfunding campaigns for music projects: Rose Cousins raised more than $25,000 on Kickstarter to support her latest album, We Have Made a Spark, which just won the ECMA for Folk Recording of the Year. And on a smaller scale, Heartbreak a Stranger (the stage name of songwriter Aaron Hartling) raised $1,000 on a similar service (IndieGoGo) to help complete his Trenton EP, an ode to the small Nova Scotia town he grew up in that details its economic collapse. Other successful campaigns include Becky Siamon, Norma MacDonald and likely others I’m not aware of.

Most of the rewards offered in these campaigns are what you’d expect: copies of the album in various forms, posters, memorabilia, etc. But there are some fun ones: Heartbreak a Stranger offered a trip to the barbershop, Cousins offered homemade cookies and Palmer offered access to special VIP album launch parties.

At its most basic level, what a crowdfunding campaign does is simply move the money around in a different order: fans and supporters who were almost certain to buy your album or attend your shows now pay you before the project instead of after. It’s an alternative (or an accompaniment) to the more traditional ways music projects are paid for: take out a loan, go into debt, get an advance or use your own savings, all in the hopes that the resulting product will be successful enough to make that money back. A Kickstarter campaign means your fans directly finance your work instead of financing your debts.

Between this and the community spirit that dominates these platforms — “fund and follow creativity,” boasts Kickstarter (emphasis mine) — you may be wondering what the problem is with crowdfunding as a business model. And I confess that, for the most part, I consider them an exciting way to make projects possible that might not otherwise get off the ground.

But it’s hardly a model without some conundrums.

“This feels fair.” The moment Amanda Palmer said those words in her recent TED talk, titled “The Art of Asking,” I felt a shudder run down my spine. Is this really happening, I asked? Is this the ethics of commerce we’re being forced to accept?

Let me backtrack.

I have no strong opinions about Palmer one way or another as a musician and artist, with no real connection to either the Dresden Dolls or her solo work. As a persona, I find her problematic, in that I think she tries to present her role as community ringleader as being the opposite of celebrity but ignores the blurred line between the two. Yes, she may walk the walk more than a Lady Gaga, in the sense that her relationships with fans are more intimate, but there’s far more in common between the two than I think she’d care to admit; her fan relationships still rely on devotion, artistic exceptionalism and her personal charisma. (I’m not judging Palmer for any of these—they’re at the core of the fan/artist relationship—but there’s something disingenuous, to me, in how she downplays them in her own case.)

Last year, after her Kickstarter campaign, Palmer got into a bit of hot water for asking fans to come onstage and help her perform horn parts for some of her compositions. The issue: they’d be paid in tickets, beer and hugs, not money. Musicians groups freaked, the internet went bezerk and Palmer went from cyber-hero to cyber-villain almost overnight. Personally, I think the whole thing was overblown—she was only going to have them join for a song or two, not an entire set—but Palmer was partly at fault for the hyperbolic language with which she presented the concept, making it sound far larger a deal than it actually was. (Also, there’s the idea that “you raised $1.2 million and you can’t pay a few musicians?” which, well, is hard to argue with on a basic gut level, even if the facts may be different.) At best, though, the idea was still a little ethically complicated.

But it was not so complicated for Palmer, as she explains in her TED talk. Which brings me to the quote in question, which to me sums up Palmer’s entire perspective on the fan/artist relationship and, I’d argue, the core mantra of crowdfunding in general. She tells of one night finding out that the house she and the band were booked to stay at was that of a young fan who still lived with her parents, and who were undocumented immigrants. The family slept on couches and shared beds so that Palmer and her band could have a place to sleep. She questions herself if this is fair, until the morning when the family is so incredibly grateful just for having her stay, explaining how much Palmer’s music has meant to their daughter.

“Yes,” says Palmer, satisfied. “This is fair.”

Why did this line bother me so much? It’s not that I take issue with artists asking their fans to support them, which is what Palmer suggests is the source of most of the criticism against her. (I’ll raise some other issues with this later on, though)

No, I’m mostly troubled by her assertion that a fair exchange is simply one that feels fair to both participants.

Economics is not a rational game: we live in a free market of feelings, where our beliefs, experiences, loves, hates and indifferences are constantly at play in the things we purchase or the investments we make. The very nature of the artist/fan relationship involves perceptions of value that go far deeper than the physical (or now, digital) artifact that’s changing hands, and when someone like Justin Timberlake comes out of exile to release a new album, the real commercial item at play is your imagined idea of Timberlake and what he means to you.

But none of that has anything to do with fairness. Fairness is a concept that mixes perceived value, actual value, the economic status of the participants and countless other variables. It’s wonderful that a fan feels that Amanda Palmer’s music is so important to her that she’s willing to give up all the beds in her house for the night, but that doesn’t actually make that exchange fair. Under that logic, an exploitive relationship would be fine as long as the participants are okay with it. (In a great New Yorker essay on Palmer, Joshua Clover calls this “the Oompa-Loompa defence.”)

I’d argue Palmer has a higher status of power in the artist/fan relationship (though she’d likely disagree), because she’s the object of both creation and devotion; the relationship wouldn’t exist without her. Therefore, she has a greater responsibility to carefully consider what is fair. She can’t just leave it up to her fans and their feelings.

I don’t mean to pick on that particular story, or even on Palmer, really; she’s just the most vocal proponent for this philosophy that I have some issues with. There are lots of advantages to taking music outside of the “one price fits all” model, where every album costs $10 and the prince range at a concert is set by where the seats are in the venue. But one of the risks is that the artist-fan relationship can be twisted in ways that may end up being slightly less than fair for the fans.

The Veronica Mars case is troubling in this respect, because the fans are basically paying the production costs for a film that the studio who owns the rights (Warner Bros) could easily have afforded. What’s more, while Warner Bros will get a percentage of any profits for distributing the film, the fans won’t see any profits from their investment in production—other than, of course, the film existing at all.

More so than all the free posters and DVDs in the world, that’s their reward: a project that might not have happened now exists. Is that good enough? Is that fair? Maybe yes, perhaps no. But let’s not pretend the answer to that question is cut and dry just because it makes people happy.

This brings me to my other big-picture issue with the Kickstarter model: not the risks to the fans, but the risks to the artist.

There are a lot of smart people who believe that what we’re seeing with these Kickstarter projects is just the beginning: that with the state of music commerce being the way it is, the most viable model for many artists will be to ask their fans to fund their work ahead of time rather than after it’s completed. And, admittedly, there’s a lot to like about this idea; I have this picture in my mind of the Neanderthal consumer tossing aside passivity to become an engaged, activist patron of the arts.

But of all the discussion around Palmer and her Kickstarter efforts, the piece that stuck with me was from Big Black/Shellac guitarist and professional shit disturber Steve Albini. Sadly, this part of his message board posts got lost in his framing of “Amanda Palmer is an idiot” (which he apologized for) but it’s worth pulling out and revisiting:

I have no fundamental problem with either asking your fans to pay you to make your record or go on tour or play for free in your band or gather at a mud pit downstate and sell meth and blowjobs to each other. I wouldn’t stoop to doing any of them myself, but horses for courses. The reason I don’t appeal to other people in this manner is that all those things can easily pay for themselves, and I value self-sufficiency and independence, even (or especially) from an audience.

Think about that: “independence from an audience.” That phrase struck me as viciously opposed to the times we’re living in, like an out-of-place relic from the past suddenly popping up in 2013. (Some might argue that’s exactly what Albini is in general, and somehow I don’t think he’d mind.) In 2013, an artist is expected to have a social media presence, to be constantly connected with their fans and, under the Kickstarter model, actually engage their fans as active participants in supporting their creative process. These days, an artist’s dependence on their audience is text, not subtext. (And, in the case of Twitter, literally text.)

Mind you, that dependence is always there to some extent: an artist needs to sell art (or some other part of their artistic experience) to generate income to make more art. But Albini’s comment is a reminder that the artist/fan relationship can be an uneasy one for artistic creation. What happens if your impulses as an artist take you in a direction your fans aren’t prepared to follow? Or if you feel compelled to create a project designed to reach a different audience than the one you currently have?

When the artist funds their art, and asks for support after the fact, this is less of a big deal: you weigh the risks, you make the choice, it works or it doesn’t. But in a crowdfunded model, you’re asking the audience to follow you down the rabbit hole ahead of time, with their dollars, without necessarily knowing where it might lead. Will they jump on-board for a weird concept album? A folk or electronica detour? The greatest artists all have albums that are cult favourites but which many of their fans don’t appreciate as much; does a Kickstarter model make those less likely?

The fan/artist relationship should be a conversation, but I do wonder about the degree to which the Kickstarter model shifts the balance. On the one hand, an audience that feels more active in the creation process could be more likely to give the final end product a proper appreciation. On the other hand, though, they could respond more negatively if it’s not to their tastes. Did I help make this shit? 

I guess the question I’m stuck with here is this: is the crowdfunding model a resistance to the instant-gratification culture, or a model ripe to fall victim to it?

One final thought: all of these questions and issues I’m raising may well be overblown. But I raise them perhaps because the longer I observe internet culture, the more skeptical I am of the technological utopianism that seems to greet the arrival of any new social-media innovation.

Our distrust of institutions has reached such a fevered state in the early twenty-first century that the appearance of connecting with actual humans—any humans—comes with this tinge of democratic possibility. Now that we can connect with one another, we’ll show them! (Whoever “they” might be in this case.) But society’s power structures are based on the same basic human impulses that drive what we do online, and the digital commons may ultimately be even more open to manipulation in its ability to tribalize thought and create emotional bonds through continuous contact.

There’s part of me that really wants to buy into the emotionalism of Palmer’s efforts: she’s clearly genuine in her intentions, and while she was a major-label artist at one point, that she now has the tools to be able to maintain her own fan system on her own, on her own terms, is exciting. Likewise, it’s amazing that a Veronica Mars film can now be made because of the direct, rapid outpouring of fan support. Part of me just wants to shut up and be excited about these, because they feel exciting. They may even feel fair.

But feeling fair is not the same as being fair—not in this world or the digital one.