By: Jessica Hopper
Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her — confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
Over the past five years, my band has built up a modest fan base that largely includes all the wonderful people we have met in the process, and is bankrolled mostly by our three day jobs.
We just released our second album on vinyl. To pay for the pressing, we started a Kickstarter campaign. With only 73 backers, we were able to raise about $4,000. As I crunched the numbers (I'm a sixth grade math teacher on the side), I realized that a good portion of our fans were willing to pay much larger sums of money, than what their package was actually worth–and it sparked an idea.
If our families, friends and fans were willing to pay tens and hundreds of dollars on a promised CD or vinyl package for a Kickstarter, then why wouldn't they be willing to pay a small amount each month for guaranteed weekly content? The more fans who subscribed, the more advanced content we could give them. Also with this model, rather than haphazardly booking shows whenever we can get them, and trying to make something out of nothing, we can have set deadlines, with set goals to accomplish each week, and a set budget to accomplish them with.
We would still play live shows of course, but this time fans would know about them weeks in advance because they would have been receiving our awesome content each week. The content could include recorded music, stories, graphic novels (I dabble),and videos. We would have a more interactive relationship with subscribers each week so we would be able to easily find out what they wanted. At the end of a year, we could scoop up all the songs we released to our subscribers and put them on a vinyl to sell at stores and on tours. Finally, it would have the added bonus of making us feel like legitimate artists. Having to deliver something to our fans weekly would push our creativity, and force us to ask ourselves what we could do to keep fans coming back?
So there's the idea…but now comes the questions. How do we ask our fans who already do so much to pay us $4.99 a month? How many other bands are doing something like this? Where do we start?
You don't, because this is a bad idea. While doing a no-middleman business model is usually something I encourage, you have so much expectation about how it would happen and how it would make you feel that you need to stop right here.
I cannot think of a single act that I would like to get a new song (or "content") from every week save for a circa 1989 De La Soul, direct from their time machine, or pre-72 Zeppelin. I doubt I'd pay $60/year for that, let alone the work of a small local band I was partial towards. Your plan is basically milking the cow dry, a bad look especially considering that some of your fan-donors are blood relations. The $4000 you crowdsourced was due to the extreme generosity of less than a hundred people (congrats) — but the number you should be looking at at is 73, not the 4000. Forgive me for this harsh toke, but don't mistake that kindness for fandom. To me 73 doesn't scream that there is demand, it says that you have some exceptionally nice friends.
Just because you could bilk them doesn't mean you should; that's a horrible precedent. Looking at it from a logistical standpoint: Even if you band is super awesome, dedicated and has all sorts of multi-media skills for these sundry videos/podcasts/ bits o' "content," you better be some entertaining motherfuckers if you expect anyone to care after week six.
It sounds like you want this band to be your life and this is your way of getting really busy with your band so that it feels like it is something that it is not. There's a really good chance that this whole enterprise, if you got it off the ground, wouldn't change much of anything because the problem you are describing is a spiritual malady, not one that is going to be solved by your college roommate throwing $5 a month at it. If you do not feel like a real or legitimate artist, that is on you, all the crowdsourced bucks in the world will not fix that.
Do some meditation on this: it's very, very unlikely rock stardom or even popularity will come to you. Whatever feelings or thoughts come up, just sit with them–don't try to band-aid them. Just sit there with it and get real with the fact you may never get the validation you want, when and where and how you want it. Think (and write) about what 'legitimate' means and what it means to be an artist. You also need to read Lewis Hyde's The Gift; Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. It will inspire you to think deeply about some of these issues and help you untangle this thinking you have about money and success.
We grow up listening to records and jumping around our bedrooms air guitarring and dreaming those stadium-sized dreams. Through no fault of our own that dream stays in our hearts like a spark, way on up into the lives of our adult bands, and it can cause confusion and sadness, because it never evolved and grew up with us. And clenching on to that dream can even keep us from growing up. Let that not be the case here. It's time to grow your dream up, friend.
After you do this meditation and read The Gift, you are going to get busy with a new plan: you are going to think of something as ambitious and creative as this $4.99 plan, with the caveat that 1) it is all going to be free and 2) it's not going to be based on what other people can do for you, but how can this band be a vehicle for help and sowing goodness.
I am talking playing any and all benefits, getting in touch with places like KEEN Chicago, who need bands to play parties for Autistic kids and young adults, putting word out to these industry contacts you have amassed that you are that band that's game for whatever fundraising events that have. You are going to play acoustic at an old folks home and do some children's birthday parties, a school fundraiser. Stop laser focusing on your courtship of cool, moneyed fans or the "right people." Throw a treasure hunt that ends at your flash-mob style show in a parking garage. Connect with an organization like Intonation and have your whole band volunteer mentoring young musicians in underserved communities in lieu of a band practice. You must also help one person move using your band van, a gratitude to the universe that just floated you 4 G's for an album.
If you can write 12 new songs for pay, you can go into Bob Pollard productive mode for free. There is never a shortage of folks putting together benefit comps — volunteer yourself. Make your Bandcamp page donation optional. Make buttons (they are cheap and have a high profit margin) and you are going to donate each dollar you make off them to some cause that your band feels strongly about, and you can make a little sign for your merch table about it. Make a band zine with some mini comics in them and sell them at cost at shows. Since you have all this fire and energy to do band stuff, here you go — here is your opportunity to feel important, to stay busy, to know your band means something to people and to play a lot of shows.
Looking expectantly at the rest of the world to validate your interests, hobbies or art is a set-up to feel bad, to brood and be jaded that you are not understood. You need to reprogram you relationship with money as a creative person, because the one you have is like a hex. You need to grow-up your success dream and stop this focus on how it'll make you feel better. Start figuring out how you can be useful and how to make your 73 friends proud, pass on their kindness and faith, rather than how you can just get more money from them. The term of this assignment is one year, after which time you can revisit the idea of for-profit band hood.
This is your chance to get free from this trap and as you've wished, "make something out of nothing."