Friday, September 28, 2012

Subterranean Kickstarter Blues, Part 1- Korbl Klemecki


As I write this, the artist has just crowd surfed in roughly a swimming pool sized draping of fabric. She tried to do the same while rehearsing, but the audience was just 18 random college students. Last night, at her concert in Philadelphia, she tried again, but the energy of the crowd must have just not been quite right. Back on stage, she jokes about it, and from that happy moment of “finally, we got it to work,” launches into possibly the saddest song, “The Bedroom Song,” on the new album, “Theatre is Evil,” a song from one lover to another whose distanced themselves as the romance has died, but they continue to share the same bed. The mood whiplash works. This is the second time in the concert they've performed the song. After the first time, she read accounts tweeted from her fans with the prompt “quick, I need this for experiment! tell me in one tweet something sad/bad that happened in your bedroom. (no humor, won’t work) GO#InMyRoom.” As she read, she spoke both into a microphone, and an unexplained phone. Now she plays the audio that she recorded into the mike as she sings and talks, turning an already intense song and moment into a haunting experience of sorrow, loss
and cathartic oneness.

This all started four months and 11 days ago, on April 30, 2012 with a Kickstarter, a crowdfunding site. In the description, Amanda Palmer said “this is my first BIG, LEGIT studio album undertaking since breaking from a major label.” Well, for us, the fans, it started then. She'd already spent four years putting together a new band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, and laying out the songs for the album. She cast up on the web an appeal, or rather, a call to action, exhorting her fans “THIS IS THE FUTURE OF MUSIC-THIS IS HOW WE FUCKING DO IT-WE ARE THE MEDIA” with marker on cardstock in a video where she held up sign cards, channeling Bob Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues.

She's just led the crowd in singing Happy Birthday for the bassist, Jherek Bischoff and brought out a cake and champagne for him, as the entire management team joined the band. The office manager just moved, and apparently is now going to be rooming with someone in the crowd. Any other band, that might seem sketchy, but Palmer's fans are almost like a vast family of people who just haven't all met each other yet.

Now someone in the management team is singing Call Me Maybe.

Like I said, it works.

Palmer set a goal of $100,000 to handle all of the production of the album, with a May 30, 2012 deadline. Pledge rewards ranged from a digital copy of the album for $1, to the crazy, random mystery “Summer Mailbox Invasion!” reward for $250, which included special vinyl LPs of the album and surprise gifts on top of the album in digital and CD form, to custom painted turntables for $500 pledgers, all the way up to house parties at the pledgers' houses, art sittings and dinners with the artist, and even what was called the “THE GRAND THEFT MAKEOVER/PHOTOSHOOT FULL BAND
INVASION” where the band would show up with costumes and makeup and wigs and glitter, and party and mess around with the pledger culminating in a photo shoot ($5,000, $10,000 and $10,000 respectively). This reporter, who did pledge what he could, is sad that no one claimed that last one, as he sorely wished he could have. Or one of the turntables, for that matter. What? No I don't have any records, it would have just been amazing.

And amazing is exactly what I would call both this album and the whole journey. Within six days, the Kickstarter had 10,000 backers. More than 4,000 of those backers were in the first day. Collectively, those 4,000 funded the project twice over in that time. On a facebook post asking if anyone could remember how quickly it funded, Palmer replied “I think it was between 3-6 hours…” Because Kickstarters go for the full time allotted, rather than just until they're fully funded, the project went on to raise $1,192,793, or almost 12 times over. Palmer was the first musician to raise over $1 million on Kickstarter.

This project, that started as a hopeful, but unpredictable, dream, may also mark a new era in music. Indie albums get made all the time. This may, however, be the first time that a fan base has come together in such huge support, and funded an album, being sold in digital form for $1, twice over in 24 hours. It helps that, by doing the album independently, Palmer can cut through and forgo paying a lot of the middlemen that a traditional album has to pay. In her Kickstarter video, Palmer states that making the album through a major label was scheduled to cost $500,000 between recording, promotion and distribution. She goes on to say that she's “happy she let label.” She'd “much rather stand here, with Jim, holding up signs to ask you for the money to run [her] business. ...this way,” she continues, she'll “actually see a profit from her music.”

For a long time, the music industry has been a necessary evil for artists. But now, with the internet, things are changing, and musicians can reach all over the world, to connect directly with their fans, to make them feel like they're actually at concerts even when they can't be (at the celebration of the project being funded, Palmer wrote the names of every backer in sharpie on New York Yellow Pages, and filled a giant aquarium with them), to feel like the musician is a friend, or even a member of a weird, strange, hyper-random family, rather than an unapproachable monolith of a being on some stage somewhere, who couldn't care less about an individual fan.

--Korbl Klemecki

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Palmer's use of her Kickstarter funds has naturally attracted some controversy.  I'll be tackling that issue in a forthcoming piece, along with some commentary on my own misadventures as a lightly crowdfunded musician.

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