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Is crowdfunding the future of art?

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image by Patrick Carr

By George Martin Fell Brown

Do you remember Dragon’s Lair, the 1980s sword and sorcery arcade game featuring amazing, hand-drawn animation by none other than legendary animator Don Bluth? Well, guess what. Don Bluth is back and he wants to make a Dragon’s Lair movie. Just donate to his Kickstarter campaign to help get the movie off the ground.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, how about Super Troopers? Remember that 2002 comedy? Well, guess what? There’s an IndieGoGo campaign to make Super Troopers 2.

If that doesn’t appeal to you, then how do you feel about the hip-hop stylings of B.o.B? Well if you hop over to GoFundMe, you can help B.o.B raise the funds necessary build his own satellite so he can prove, once and for all, that the Earth is flat. He’s already 0.6% of the way towards reaching his goal!

Digital crowdfunding websites date back at least as far as 2003, when ArtistShare was founded. And the term “crowdfunding” dates back to 2006. But in the past few years crowdfunding has become a staple in the arts and entertainment. These campaigns aren’t confined to the arts. But within the artistic sphere it’s seen as a new way to bypass the restrictions that come with working through the major music labels, Hollywood studios, and the like.

By this point, however, crowdfunding is itself big business. And we should always be wary when big tech companies promise new technical solutions to the problems of capitalism. We’ve been through this before.


The promise of crowdfunding

The rise of the internet has made it easier to access a wide variety of art and entertainment. But, under capitalism, this has been a two-sided development. While the internet has made distribution of art easier, it hasn’t had a comparable impact on art production. You can potentially download, stream, or share a movie for free, but that doesn’t change the cost of making one.

Crowdfunding presents itself as a solution to this problem. This time the internet is being used to make it easier to produce art, rather than just easier to view it. Crowdfunding websites are basically online fundraising programs. But their online nature means you have potential access to a much wider audience than you’d get with a bake sale. This can allow artists to collect a very large number of small donations that can seriously add up.

In theory, it allows artists to break free from the pressures of working for a big corporation. Filmmakers can have an easier time working outside the Hollywood system while musicians can operate independently of the major labels. And, in the area where crowdfunding has been strongest, video game designers can create high-quality games without relying on the “big three” of Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

Crowdfunding also presents the making of art as a way to bring back artistic integrity. The big companies that dominate the entertainment industry are interested only in the bottom line. Any concern for the quality of the art they produce is incidental. But the fans actually care about the art. With crowdfunding, the fans are put in control, the profit motive is taken out, and the artist can work with the art in mind. In theory.

In practice, crowdfunding does allow for the creation of art that big businesses would otherwise be unwilling to invest in. But these gains come with their own costs, limits, and complications.


The Amanda Palmer affair                                 

The possibilities, and problems, of crowdfunding as a means of promoting independent artists became clarified in 2012, through an incident involving the singer Amanda Palmer. Palmer had been half of the punk-cabaret duo Dresden Dolls. The Dresden Dolls, and Palmer’s initial solo career, were managed by the Warner Music subsidiary Roadrunner Records, and Palmer’s increasing frustration with the label’s parasitic relationship with artists lead to her definitively breaking from the label in 2009.

In 2012, when Palmer was preparing a new solo album as ‘Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra’, she turned to Kickstarter to crowdfund the new album, an accompanying book and a national concert tour. In addition to soliciting donations, she asked fans at each stop of her tour to play string and horn parts alongside her and her band, promising “we will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily.”

As Palmer presented it, this wasn’t just a means to fund a new album. It was an entirely new paradigm, doing away with the cutthroat music industry in favor of a friendly, collaborative, community and fan-based approach to making art. In a promotional video for her Kickstarter campaign she famously held up signs declaring “this is the future of music,” “this is how we fucking do it,” and “we are the media.”

And the Kickstarter campaign was successful. Some might say too successful.

At the time, it was the most successful crowdfund in history, the first Kickstarter campaign to break $1 million. When that news came out, Palmer looked less like a plucky underdog, and more like a big-time celebrity. And paying musicians with “beer and hugs” came off less like a bunch of friends teaming up to put on a show, and a lot more like exploitation. Much like the exploitation Palmer herself had faced working for Roadrunner records.

The music industry has long been plagued by a set-up where lesser-known musicians are expected to perform free for “exposure.” And if this was the “future of music” as Palmer presented it, it wasn’t a future working musicians would look forward to.

The backlash was swift. Raymond M Hair Jr – president of the American Federation of Musicians, one of the unions in the US and Canada – criticised Palmer. He said “playing is work and there’s a value associated with it, and that value ought to be respected.” The Musicians Union of Seattle Local 76-493 was less diplomatic, sending out angry tweets saying “hugs don’t pay rent” and “MUSICIANS BEWARE! Grand THEFT Orchestra wants your services for free. Will pay hugs and kisses.”

In the heat of this backlash, Palmer backtracked and agreed to pay the musicians. But only after attempting to defend herself in a way that made things worse. Initially she wrote an open letter to one of her critics declaring: “This isn’t about money. For me, this is about freedom. And about choices.” Only after this open letter intensified the backlash did she agree to pay her workers.

For all the backlash, Amanda Palmer is no corporate capitalist. A year before, she had performed for free for crowds at the Occupy Wall Street encampment, as well as at smaller Occupy encampments in Boston, Oakland, Seattle and other cities. Her Kickstarter campaign seems like an honest attempt at bypassing a notoriously awful music industry.

Nonetheless, from her own humble beginnings, Palmer should have known better than to plan a tour where some of the artists get paid – even if it is only enough to subsist during the tour – while others don’t. If she and the touring artists and crew were in the budget, then the local session artists should have been too. If she thought the budget would not meet them, she could have planned to do without.

But the underlying problem is that crowdfunding itself, like many other technological ‘fixes’ for the evils of capitalism, was never going to be up to the task.


The reality of crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is not collective ownership: it keeps production, and any resulting profits, in private hands. But its appeal is that it appears to democratise an aspect of the production process. Traditionally, the initial capital for production is put forward by the capitalists themselves. Under crowdfunding, more and more of this seed capital takes the form of donations from consumers.

But by putting the burden of raising initial capital on the fans, a crowdfunding project has to already have fans to succeed. Chris Roberts, the creator of Star Citizen, was already an established video game designer, having designed Wing Commander in the 1990s. Similarly, Amanda Palmer was as successful as she was because she already built up a large fan base through her time working for a major label. Most struggling artists don’t have that luxury.

Since the Amanda Palmer controversy, crowdfunding has become a lot more widespread, but it hasn’t become the “future of music” like Palmer expected. The artistic medium that has made the biggest use of crowdfunding is video games, with Star Citizen raising over $172 million. In music, no artist since Amanda Palmer has been able to break $1 million.

Star Citizen faced its own controversies with constant delays in getting the game out and a buggy end-product that failed to justify the investment. Crowdfunding of video games has allowed a number of smaller gaming companies to compete with bigger companies, but it has not challenged the profit system which keeps many products bland and most artists poor.

It we look at movies, the most successful crowdfunding project has been the 2014 movie Veronica Mars, which raised over $5 million. Veronica Mars was based on a TV show that aired on US networks UPN and The CW from 2004 to 2007. The class-conscious teen detective show developed a cult following, but got notoriously screwed over by the producers, leading its cancellation after the third season.

In the world of network TV, Veronica Mars was an underdog. But most aspiring filmmakers never get their own network TV shows in the first place.

This is what most of the big crowdfunding projects are like. In addition to Veronica Mars, the Super Troopers sequel and the Dragon’s Lair movie are both tied to very successful preexisting properties. Among the other big crowdsourced films are passion projects by big Hollywood celebrities like Zach Braff, Adam Carolla, and Spike Lee.

One partial exception to this is documentary films. In this case, a few successful crowdfunding campaigns have been built simply on the topic of the documentary. A lot still rely on previous marketing by big corporations, focusing on fan cultures or topics that have large fan cultures.

But some political documentaries have been made by appealing to the supporters of their causes. This includes good and bad causes. Citizen Koch, an exposé of the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers, was barely able to scrape by through a Kickstarter campaign. Meanwhile the right-wing Irish filmmakers Ann McElhinney and Phellim McAleer have already raised $2 million on IndieGoGo for an anti-abortion documentary.

To see all of the worst aspects of crowdfunding, you need look no further than the 2016 movie Range 15, an action comedy about soldiers fending off a zombie apocalypse. To date, this is IndieGoGo’s fifth-highest crowdfunded film.

But it wasn’t initiated by any artist, aspiring or otherwise. The movie originated from the companies Ranger Up and Article 15 Clothing, both of which specialise in selling military-themed clothing to veterans. The CEOs of the two companies appear in the movie playing themselves, as do a number of prominent military figures. The crowdfunding money came primarily from the veterans who purchase clothing from the companies.

Hollywood has come under fire in recent years for its willingness to accept big donations from the military in exchange for adopting a pro-military stance. Now, thanks to crowdfunding, the establishment can produce flat-out military propaganda and let veterans foot the bill.


Freedom or necessity?

Of course, not everyone using crowdfunding is trying to cheat us like this. Most campaigns are still small, struggling artists, with no hope of the financial success of the big firms and no desire to construct enormous profit machines. And some people even use crowdfunding campaigns for basic necessities during times of crisis.

Plenty of ordinary working and unemployed people increasingly rely on crowdfunding to raise money for medical treatment, or preventing lenders from foreclosing on their homes. And this necessity-based crowdfunding has made its way into the world of art as well.

The Amanda Palmer affair drew attention to the problem of artists being expected to work for free, but it didn’t create that problem. And if you’re a struggling musician who’s expected to play for free, crowdfunding campaigns can be the only way to survive. In this sense, you might say that Amanda Palmer was a victim of dialectics. The unexpected quantitative success of her crowdfunding campaign resulted in a qualitative change in the character of that campaign.

While the big crowdfunding projects come from companies like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, another rising company is Patreon, which orients much more towards these struggling artists. While Kickstarter and Indiegogo focus on one-time targeted campaigns, Patreon focuses on collecting recurring donations for ongoing projects. Instead of individual movies, video games, and albums, Patreon funds podcasts, blogs, webcomics, and online video series. Most of these projects are things that would normally be free, and the artists depend on the donations to be able to continue making art for a living.

The most financially successful Patreon project is Chapo Trap House, a political comedy podcast loosely associated with the Democratic Socialists of America. The podcast currently makes $91,490 per month, but most artists make much less. The total amount of money raised on Patreon per year by all of its creators is still less than the $172 million Star Citizen raised on Kickstarter in one go. For many of the artists who rely on Patreon, the resulting donations are the difference between being able to have a career as an artist or being trapped in their day job.

Even on this side of things, the result of crowdfunding has not been the promised unleashing of artistic potential. Because crowdfunding is a necessity for these artists, more and more of their time is devoted to marketing. And more and more of their money. Podcasts and YouTube videos increasingly end with appeals to donate on Patreon. And since donations are voluntary, artists often make special deals where the highest donating patrons can have some say in the content.

But the biggest exploiter here isn’t the artists, or the big donators – but Patreon itself. In December of 2017, Patreon announced a restructuring of its payment process. This includes imposing a flat fee on donations which will particularly affect donators who make a large number of small donations to different things they like. Patreon says the change means a higher proportion of each pledge will end up with the artist – but the change could also reduce the overall number of donors each artist gets. Meanwhile, Patreon makes more money on its presumably higher number of low-value donations. Once again, the seemingly collaborative process of crowdfunding is used to maximise corporate profit.


An ‘accidental experiment with real communism’?

At the time of the Amanda Palmer affair, the New Yorker produced an article that pinned the blame on Palmer’s vision of “art supported by interested communities, workers who can show up for some reason other than pure need.” The article described this vision as a cynical ploy that supposedly “resembles an accidental experiment with real communism.” And it warned of the wider implications by asking “what is the fate of art after private property is done away with? Will people keep making it? Will they keep reproducing, marketing, and distributing it?”

But the problem with crowdfunding is its capitalist character: it tries to create “art supported by interested communities” without taking the resources needed to produce that art into collective ownership. Most of the problems with crowdfunded art are problems that are inherent to art under capitalism. Struggling artists have had to beg friends and fans for funding long before crowdfunding existed. And successful arts businesses have been finding ways to maximise profits at the expense of workers and consumers for as long as they have existed.

The problem isn’t with the vision, but crowdfunding’s failure to meet it. That requires real system change, not just a technical fix.

Unions representing artists need to fight back against big businesses’ attempts to screw them over, whether through crowdfunding or not. Beyond that, we need to fight for a massive increase in public and arts funding. And to pay for it, we need to take the banks, public services and big corporations into public ownership under the democratic control and management of workers and users.

This could allow the free time and access to facilities for everyone who wants to engage in the arts, and end the distorting influence of the profit-driven big entertainment firms. This is how we can actually achieve the goal that crowdfunding only promises.


George Martin Fells Brown writes software for a living and plays trombone and dances in his spare time.

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