So What Have We Learned From Kickstarter, Then?

kickstarter-funded-badge It’s been an interesting few weeks, this. Apart from the visa panics and the whirlwind of trying to get an album learned, recorded and made in three weeks, this has been my first use of Kickstarter (or indeed any such crowd-funding model beyond, y’know, just selling stuff to people) for funding a record release, and it has been fascinating and educational. Although I will admit I am still trying to figure out what all of the lessons are.

For those who don’t follow the blog or the label, we put together a Kickstarter project for Meursault, to help fund their trip to the US to play the SXSW festival followed by an East Coast tour. The idea was that people would chip in to support the project, and vote for five songs – Meursault songs or covers – that we would then record for an album and then play at a series of shows around Edinburgh. There were the usual extra bonus bits and pieces, but that was the basic premise of it.

The reason for this post is that in three weeks we ended up with an album which was already four grand in the black (we raised about £5k and the whole record was manufactured for about £1k), when most of our records take a year to chug through the release process, cost way more, and are still a few hundred in the red even a year or two after release. I found myself looking at the project again and again thinking ‘what the fuck are we doing wrong the rest of the time?’

The hard part is figuring which elements of this project are comparable to a regular release and which are not. There’s a part of me that would quite like to build a whole label around Kickstarter actually. You could basically release a couple of free singles, and then put the album project up as a Kickstarter, and that way you’d only really be putting stuff out if your audience liked it. The problem would be that, for all I assume the blog and the sessions would keep the audience in the region of ‘people I mostly agree with about music’, it still sounds just a little like an indie X-Factor and leaves little room for me insisting that you all like a band because goddammit I said so!

There are obvious reasons, though, why this project isn’t really comparable to a regular album release. A first US tour is a unique and landmark event for bands who have to do something as expensive as cross an ocean to get there. Europe we have managed by ourselves, more or less, but the huge extra costs for flights and equipment make this significantly more challenging. I am assuming this makes committed fans of the band more likely to feel generous, be they Americans wanting their first chance to see them or long-time local fans who want to see them spread the word abroad.

Also, because we were asking for extra commitment and generosity from our fans we tried to get them more involved, which we achieved by inviting them to vote on the songs. Personally I think this was a fantastic touch for an album like this, but obviously wouldn’t work with a normal record. ‘Hey, which of these ten songs you’ve never heard before and two you might half-remember from when you were drunk at that gig the other night would like to chose for the record?’

Nevertheless, I think we need to take a bit of a look at how we work and try and learn some stuff from this, because it went really well and was a world away from how we normally work.

1. Speed of recording. Considering most of the band didn’t even know most of these songs before we started, the recording process was amazingly quick. We spent five days at it, recording pretty much everything live. I am a huge fan of live recording, and that is only partially because it’s the only kind of recording I have the technical knowledge, equipment or experience to do with any real confidence. Obviously different projects suit different approaches, but I can’t help but feel that by far the best way to get an awesome-sounding record is by coaxing the best performances out of the band. I’m not sure any amount of crisp capture or post-production will make up for stilted, lacklustre playing.

With live recording everything is more informal and friendly, which relaxes people.  Also, there may be plenty of mistakes on this record, but because it was done as a band the musicians didn’t question them, they questioned whether or not it was a good take by the whole band. Put someone in a booth with a pair of headphones, however, and a mistake is no longer a minor whoops in an otherwise awesome take, it becomes a MISTAKE which must be fixed.  And of course when people are too focussed on what they themselves are doing rather than playing as a band, which is how most pop musicians are most comfortable, then mistakes are far more frequent anyway. And seriously, sitting in a studio by yourself, adding violin bits to something recorded three months ago… well that just doesn’t sound like much fun to me. And I don’t want to listen to ‘not much fun’, thanks.

2. Packaging. CDs are cheap, and we released this in card sleeves which we hand-printed in our living room, pretty much how we recorded the album. The unit cost ended up being pretty much the same as getting them mass-manufactured, but with vinyl, printing your own sleeves ends up being slightly cheaper (see our box set). This is even more evident if you’re talking about smaller runs of, say, a hundred records. It also brings a really nice personal touch to the release, and gets the band involved and makes them feel more attached to their own record. On the downside, if you basically just keep screen-printing onto blank card sleeves it can leave everything looking a little samey – is that boring, or just a consistent brand image, I dunno!

3. Zero PR spend. This is one of the big ones. If your record is well in the black before it’s even released, why the fuck bother with advance PR? Or indeed any PR? PR is actually very costly, between the postage, the CDs and the sheer amount of time it takes.  It also causes huge delays to the release process – a three month lead time for the glossy magazines, for example. And yet and yet and yet… would we really have been as successful with this project without the money we’ve invested in PR in the past? I very much doubt it. And can you do a lot of PR at basically no cost, with streams, download links and a lot of emails? Yes you most certainly can.

The big problem is radio. I could happily write off physical promo if it were just print press. We get so little out of print media that we wouldn’t lose much, and a lot of the places which do take an interest in our releases are happy to operate on a digital-only basis anyway. However, we do get an awful lot of traction (comparatively) on radio, particularly the BBC, and they just don’t work with digital. One or two people I have a decent relationship with will respond to emails, but in general you can’t get through to people there with email promo. Well, I can’t anyway. So if we ditch physical promo, we lose radio, and mostly we can’t afford to do that. Still, given the cost physical PR adds to our releases, and looking at the sums for this album, I really, really think we need to re-evaluate how we promote our records.

4. Journalists can be total cunts. This went out to journalists on the day of the first release show and by the next day was on every fucking illegal download site on the fucking planet. We have a lot of pals who are journos and a lot of very good relationships with the press, but every single fucking time something leaks it is when it is sent to press. Now, if you write about music the pay is so shit that presumably you only do it because you care so much about music itself. In which case I can’t see how this would happen. Even if you’re just a hack trying to wring a living out of writing about what-the-fuck-ever-who-cares, then if you love something you hear, I can’t see how you would do this. But equally, if you hate something why would you even go to the trouble, and what are you trying to do – teach us a lesson by behaving like an absolute cunt?

Whoever the fuck it is who does this, I cannot express the amount of contempt I have for you. Honestly, it’s utterly pathetic, pointless, and makes you just seem a bit like Salacious Crumb: hanging around the more important people cackling away sadly to yourself but without any real hope of participating and without any real point to make. For those of us actually trying to make a contribution, it’s like treading in chewing gum: annoying and a little bit disgusting, but not even enough of a nuisance to really bother yourself with. You’re pathetic. Piss off.

5. Maintaining the energy. How easy will it be to re-enthuse the musicians from Bastard Mountain when it comes time to release their album in May, given it was recorded over a year and a half before that? I don’t know, but I do know this: absolutely everyone involved in this album has been hopping with excitement since day one. That means excited chatter on social media to everyone’s pals, rather than the more dutiful ‘check out the second single from my band’s last record’ stuff you tend to get. It means more energy at the gigs. The semi-improvised nature of the arrangements and playing has been a huge challenge, but the musicians involved are talented enough to find that fun rather than terrifying.  The excitement has also been constant, too – from the start of recording to release – and with a longer process that would have dissipated.

6. Audience excitement and commitment. Okay, the commitment has been helped by the voting, but the number of incredibly kind and excited messages I’ve received in the Kickstarter inbox has been really quite touching, I have to say, even for a cynical old fucker like me. I think the condensed process has had a huge impact here too, as well as the fact that we’ve consistently put out small bits and pieces from the process itself, even before we had finished audio – Matthew Swan’s amazing photos, that silly video of the recording process, and the Soundcloud stream of Tugboat, which didn’t make it onto the record in the end. I think we’ve managed to make people feel more involved in this record than almost any other, and I think that’s a really good thing.

So I don’t know. I many ways this was a one-off event which can’t really be replicated, and in all honesty maybe we shouldn’t even try. But it’s got me thinking about what we do an awful lot, and I think there must be some really important lessons to be learned from The Organ Grinder’s Monkey, if I could just tease out exactly what they are.

The Organ Grinder’s Trailer from Song, by Toad on Vimeo.

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