What does a successful crowdfunded release look like?

Originally published June 09th 2014:

In spite of the current surrounding buzz, crowdfunding isn’t really a new concept. I think everyone reading this article will have come across a variety of tin-shakers trying to raise the money to support charitable operations. In the golden age of the high-street entertainment retail store, numerous pre-orders were introduced to let individual outlets know how many copies of upcoming releases to stock, while collecting the cash to cover their purchase in advance. Even further back than that, 18th century book and magazine publishers would sell subscriptions to unprinted texts so they would be able to afford to produce them.

These practices being roundly accepted, it seems strange that opinion appears to be so divided among the digital community regarding this mode of financing new projects, a situation especially prevalent between those discussing music. Some bands and artists seem to garner massive support for their crowdfunding endeavours, but others come under fire from all angles, deemed tacky or inappropriate.

There are plenty of articles out there on the web telling you how crowdfunding works in theory, but how about some inside information from the mouth of someone who has used the method? In this piece, I grab hold of one of the instigators of an underground success story in music crowdfunding, Talanas front-man and Eulogy Media boss, Hal Sinden. Time to pick the brain of a man who has experience, having taken one of these much debated projects from start to finish.

UP: Your last release, Asylum, has been getting a few spins round here. It’s a very nicely put together package!

Hal Sinden: Well, thank you muchly, most indeed!

UP: What I’d really like to get down to, though, is the process you went through involving the funding for it. It seemed to rely quite heavily on the current hot-topic of crowdfunding; what made you choose to roll that particular die?

HS: Well, funnily enough the recording itself was entirely self-funded. We decided to start a crowsdsourcing bid simply because we had SO many requests for physical product, which took us by surprise, so that large bulk of crowd sourced funding was actually purely for the creation of the digibook and the DVD content

UP: So it’s only the physical manufacture that’s assisted by the public?
HS: Exactly that, yes! However, I believe we’ll be looking at crowdsourcing again for future recordings, especially since we’ve just lost our studio, which we relied upon so much, and have recorded everything at. The thing is, crowd sourcing really is SUCH a scary prospect – when bids go wrong, it can be catastrophic on many levels.

UP: That is one of the major worries. When you set out to create a project through this means you can’t be entirely sure of the results

HS: It’s entirely speculative, yep. A very worrying feeling indeed, not least because of how reliant it is on publicising its existence. By its very nature, it’s open to scrutiny and comment from the moment you begin. For example, I hear Luke from Sleep Terror (an EXCEPTIONAL musician with a one man death metal band, tons of followers and fans) has had as much as two failed attempts. That can be poisonous from a PR perspective.

UP: Yeah, it’s true that there’s always been two sides to the reception of crowdfunded projects. Some people are all for it and ready to support however they can. Others can be very acidic and disapproving, painting it as a crass form of begging. Have you experienced any negative feedback from using this approach?

HS: Oh, there’s huge amounts of stigma about it. My hope is that that may be changing now given the rising profile of acts and artists who use the format. Nevertheless, it does undeniably take away some of the mystique of the process, and places artists in an extremely vulnerable position when it comes to looking at what they expect to earn from the release itself. Also whether they’re pricing themselves out of the market with what could be seen by some as unnecessarily high production costs. Our bid was for physical media production and an optional bit of content creation. However, when we come to crowdsourcing the next album (in its entirety), then I suspect we may face that barrage of people saying “but you can record at home on a laptop”. Well, yes, technically you can, but it just won’t sound the same as when recorded properly. You can write a novel in human faeces on the back of the radio times, but that won’t be much of a pleasure to read, will it?

UP: Some people might enjoy it! If those few are willing to pay enough, isn’t that a successful campaign?

HS: As far as I’m concerned, I’m actually far happier meaning a lot to few than a little to many. I know that’s quite a standard principle nowadays, but it does ring true. Consider our genre – it’s a niche market or a subgenre scene. Plus, we (as Talanas) choose to go against many of the trends even within that, so we’ll never have the kind of call on numbers that a band like Whitechapel might enjoy, but if those few people are good enough to allow us to keep writing and recording then that’s all we could wish for.

UP: That’s actually something I wanted to ask: Did the funding come mainly from smaller donations, or was it more a case of, as we’re discussing here, a small number of enthusiasts giving much?

HS: In retrospect, I think we perhaps overestimated the interest in the really bizarre and expensive packages. That’s not to say that some of the same ‘rewards’ might not gain some interest with a subsequent bid for future material, however the lesson learnt with this one was that we should’ve offered more low level incentives. It’s very easy to get carried away on the artist’s side with weird and wonderful rewards for people spending hundreds, but you do need to pull back a bit and remember that these are everyday people who simply want to make sure they hear a new album for the most part. Not a lot of people have access to several hundreds of pounds in disposable income each month, but 5, 10 or 15 pounds doesn’t dent your expenses as much. The most surprising popularity for us to see were the people pledging in the £20 – £30 mark. That was the most popular area and was REALLY encouraging to see. Mind you, you need only look at our demographic figures that can be measured via facebook (no absolute, but it’s at least an indication), and we tend to attract people more in the 25 – 35 year old fraction, so that will suggest a little more affluence than a few excited teenagers spending their newspaper round money.

UP: Could you remind me, please, what rewards were you offering in that price range?

HS: At that price range we were offering things like signed posters and handwritten sheets of lyrics or guitar notation.

UP: Along with the physical EP?

HS: Oh yes, everyone who pledged £10 or more will be getting a physical copy of the digibook of the album, along with a digital version as well. When we come to sell it outside of those who pledged, we will price it slightly higher, given its new and the increased level of content. Plus, I believe we’ll then go on the same principle for future releases – you’ll get the content for less money if you pledge to help make it.

UP: I have been saying for a while now that physical recordings aren’t necessarily dead or dying, but lack of effort in their production is – i.e. if you want fans to buy an actual CD, it better come in a well-designed, unique package. Do you think Asylum’s planned design (20 page digibook and various add-ons depending on level of donation) helped you to reach your goal?

HS: Well, the bog standard plastic jewel case release has gone the way of a dodo, in my opinion. Our first two releases (Reason & Abstract and The Waspkeeper) were in that format, but from now on we’ll only release physically in a limited run and with properly considered accompanying content in a good looking package. I think people deserve that. I think from a retail perspective also you need to be aware of how people will be prepared to spend now. Digital releases reflect how much worth people are prepared to put into purchasing music, so therefore if someone’s going to shell out for physical then I think most will be prepared to spend that bit more as a ‘special’ transaction. It’s pure luxury.

UP: Yes, there’s lot more music industry management for the modern underground band to consider these days. For example, you mentioned earlier that promotion is an incredibly important part of a crowdfunding campaign. Most industries seem to consider social media – facebook, twitter, etc – as an integral means of achieving this, but how did you find the experience of raising awareness through these avenues?

HS: It was fairly nerve-wracking, actually. One should bear in mind that we published this recent crowd sourcing bid right on the cusp of Facebook going totally public about how they were cutting down on the volume of page posts – something we rely on greatly for pretty much all our business. The suggested solution on their side was that the most ‘popular’ pages will still enjoy good traffic, but the only way of getting ‘popular’ is by more people seeing your posts so it was a complete catch 22 situation… unless you pay. We paid. It was galling, to be frank. however, the big thing we then realised would be important was to promote the bid itself with video content that was at least watchable on a basic level of entertainment rather than being simply informational. We’ve always preferred to entertain people in that way rather than with dry or overblown / contrived presentation. Thankfully, our key audience seem to respond well to that.

UP: Was the Facebook paid promotion worth it?

HS: In some ways yes, in others no. Whilst we didn’t gain a vast amount of new supporters (which admittedly was secondary as a goal), we did manage to remind many of our existing supporters that we exist and have something worth investing in – we had otherwise ‘dropped off’ the map with many of them since Facebook decided that apparently users don’t want to read about the bands they’ve personally committed to. I don’t like the idea of all social media marketing going that way, but it’s inevitable. What will be fascinating to see is the effect it will have on journalistic publications and their reliance on paid advertising for their day-to-day revenue. Will we see magazines and blogs adopt Facebook’s targeted model or will they simply truck on, hoping that the labels and artists will continue to pump hundreds of pounds into each issue for open advertising space? Or will this kill off the magazines? Who’s to say? Frankly, it’s stunning to me to see that there are still so many of us stupid enough to continue as musicians given its extreme level of cost and personal loss. I’m firm in the belief that magazines are the next to go, however sad / positive that may be, depending on your viewpoint.

UP: That sounds like a topic for another interview!

HS: It’s something that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about!

UP: You’re not alone

HS: But just imagine what it will do to the industry. There are positives and negatives, but I think more and more people are questioning whether they really need a third party (no matter who well educated or experienced they are) when it comes to acquiring new media. You can get access to new releases SO much quicker now, whereas before you’d check out a review because it meant the difference of wasting £13 or not.

UP: Things are indeed changing, and as per usual, it’s the little guy who struggles the most. Crowdfunding is one aspect, and media is another – hopefully one I will cover at a later date. It just remains for me to say congratulations on hitting your target and thank you for taking the time to talk about your experiences! Do you have any last advice for those considering a crowdfunded release?

HS: Thank you mate, nice one. I would strongly advise that anyone considering crowdsourcing any aspect of their creative venture to look at what they’re offering from a viewpoint that is as removed as possible from your own personal involvement with it. What you’re offering may be great fun for you or those who know you well, but why would someone totally unrelated be interested in receiving a pair of your underpants in return for £50 of investment? Ok, a banal example, however many bids I’ve seen price themselves WAY too far into a rather repugnant sense of self-worth and interest that they feel should already be present in their audience – it rarely is, and we’ve certainly been guilty of this in the past.

In the modern day, it means much less to be an artist, and if anything you’re seen with a peculiar blend of suspicion and pity by punters instead of the wonder and grace that we saw in the ’80s and ’90s. People want to know that they can relate to you in some way, most crucially on a human level. I wouldn’t say underselling yourself is the key, nor do I feel that all artists must be humble to the point of grovelling, but if a band on their second release is genuinely saying that signing their forthcoming CD reasonably justifies a £5 mark-up then maybe it’s time for a re-think of what you mean to those you hope will pay that much. It would be more valuable to ask yourself – should you instead be signing everything anyway, or better still – why would a prospective new supporter want their high value physical release ruined by some poorly done, self-aggrandising graffiti?

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