Back in October 2010, My First Earthquake set up a rather daunting Kickstarter fund: $5000 to fund their next full-length record. Within three days, the band’s goal was reached. The members of My First Earthquake now have two things they can be happy about:

  1. Their next album is substantially funded and they are, in fact, ready to “destroy a recording studio.”
  2. They have loyal fans who jumped at the chance to donate their cash just to hear more My First Earthquake tunes.

And this is all because Kickstarter made it easy to do so. Several other local bands and musicians have utilized Kickstarter for their 2010 projects, including Lia Rose, Sonny Smith, Battlehooch and Shuteye Unison.

In case you’re not already familiar with Kickstarter, here is the general idea:

Kickstarter is a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors. Kickstarter is powered by a unique all-or-nothing funding method where projects must be fully-funded or no money changes hands. Every Kickstarter project must be fully funded before its time expires or no money changes hands. Why?

  1. It’s less risk for everyone. If you need $5,000, it’s tough having $2,000 and a bunch of people expecting you to complete a $5,000 project.
  2. It allows people to test concepts (or conditionally sell stuff) without risk. If you don’t receive the support you want, you’re not compelled to follow through. This is huge!
  3. It motivates. If people want to see a project come to life, they’re going to spread the word.

In sum, it’s a means to raise money for endeavors, with a significant amount of assurance built in.

So how does Kickstarter differ from, say, putting a big PayPal button on your band’s homepage asking for donations? Or stripping the entire process of digitalization and just putting a donation box out on your concert merch table? Fundamentally, there is no difference – any money donated still ends up in the band’s pockets, to be spent at the band’s discretion.

Except that Kickstarter provides both a visualization of the band’s goal and confidence that the donated funds will be used as promised. Most anyone can set up a Kickstarter project (from Bacon Camps to solo performances to bringing back a beloved theater – although not all ideas are right for Kickstarter), but if the goal isn’t reached within a pre-determined amount of time, the money is returned to those who donated and the user is back at square one.

For bands, if a fan chooses to donate, and the goal is reached, the money goes to making the new album; in fact, users who reach their goals are expected to provide updates. For instance, My First Earthquake have “been privately posting to our Kickstarter backers thoughout,” as well as providing updates through outlets like Facebook (and receiving rather positive exchanges). This is opposed to the more traditional donation outlet, where you don’t necessarily know where your donation goes if enough isn’t raised for the proposed project.

People who donate to a band’s Kickstarter campaign are acutely aware from the start that their hard-earned money will not go to waste and instead will go directly to the music, a.k.a. the real reason that they donated in the first place. It is a full-circle, collaborative experience between artist and fan – unlike before, when it was tough to establish an easy, direct connection in the process of making records. The process is also mutually beneficial (relatively speaking) – Kickstarter projects can offer incentive to backers at various levels, in order to show appreciation to those who donated. For example, My First Earthquake’s Kickstarter levels were broken down as follows:

Pledge $1 or more: TINY FAN – Access to exclusive video updates and one pre-released song.

Pledge $12 or more: EARLY RISER – Digital copy of the album a full month before it’s released publicly.

Pledge $25 or more: STAMP COLLECTOR – Advance digital copy, mailed CD with band pin, sticker, and personalized thank you note.

Pledge $45 or more: DISASTER LOVER – Earthquake Preparedness Kit (The EQPK) – all our music (in digital and CD form), plus a band t-shirt and steel water bottle, first aid kit, condoms, life savers, all in a handcrafted bag.

Pledge $80 or more: LONG-TIME LISTENER, FIRST-TIME CALLER – Autographed limited edition poster, your name on the CD + website, plus The EQPK, with an extra shirt for your special someone. Plus a serenading phone call or we’ll record you a voicemail greeting — your choice.

And so on and so forth, up to a $3,000 limited “OUR BIGGEST FAN” donation level. The donation level that received the most backers in My First Earthquake’s campaign was the $12 level, followed closely by the $25 and $45 levels (all three include receiving a copy of the album once it’s completed).

Since reaching their goal, My First Earthquake have been working on their album and keeping their backers apprised of their progress:

We used a streaming music site called MixApp to host a few online listening parties of our demo tracks and had a ton of fun. We had a mix of diehard fans — some who might have known more about the band than some of the members in the band — and others who’d recently discovered us.

We just finished recording this week. 10 songs, plus an extra song commissioned by one of our fans (not listed on Kickstarter, it happened just after we finished fundraising). We’ve shot a lot of footage during recording, so we’re editing those for our Kickstarter updates. We’ll likely do another online listening session. And then we have a ton of CDs, merch, and other gifts to send out to our bigger Kickstarter backers.

Right now we’re also figuring out how to market the album to everyone who didn’t back us on Kickstarter. We’re grateful that a service like Kickstarter exists. Now someone needs to do the same for promoting bands who are staying independent – the industry is still largely driven by labels, making it tough for bands like ours. We have some fun plans in the works, but that’s for another time.

This is not to say that launching a Kickstarter campaign is all sunshine and rainbows, and a guarantee that you’ll get your project funded. There may be a variety of reasons why a Kickstarter campaign could fail: setting the goal too high, poor marketing, or just bad luck. Additionally, if you are a band and considering a Kickstarter campaign, remember to budget accordingly. As My First Earthquake confessed:

Advice to bands using Kickstarter in the future: anticipate that 30% of the money you raise will go to fees (Kickstarter and Amazon, who collects the money) and the prizes you’re offering. We under-budgeted on that a bit.

2010 has been yet another year where musicians and innovators were not afraid of going against the traditional album release cycle – Radiohead’s pay-what-want In Rainbows probably being the first/most well-known example back in 2007. Since then, more and more bands have started releasing free/cheap music, offering up whole streaming albums for preview, etc.

Kickstarter’s increasingly involved role in the fan-supported album is yet another example of breaking the mold, by spinning the process completely in reverse. Instead of fans showing their support by purchasing bands’ albums post-release (and perhaps just getting their hands on a pirated digital copy instead), they can show their support ahead of time and help fund the making of the album itself.

It will be interesting to see what 2011 brings with Kickstarter’s role in fan-funded musical endeavors. While My First Earthquake and Lia Rose raised money to fund their albums, Sonny Smith raised money for his “100 Records” project, Battlehooch raised money for the “Desolation” video series and Shuteye Unison are raising money to release their album on vinyl. As we witnessed in 2010, Kickstarter has the potential not only to connect bands directly to their fans and provide a new spin on the process of releasing albums, but to inspire creativity among musicians for new and unique projects.