Amanda Palmer, Kickstarter, and Everything
Today’s question from the mailbag:
Any thoughts on the success of Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter drive?
Unsurprisingly, I have several.
First, as background: Musician, creative person and delightfully weird human being Amanda Palmer put up a Kickstarter page to fund/sell her upcoming musical album, her first full-length production in a few years. She had a goal of raising $100,000 in a month; she raised that sum in something like seven hours, and three days in, she’s at (checks, it’s 10:20am as I write this line) $439,481. That’s pretty excellent.
Needless to say this has people saying this is proof Kickstarter is the solution to everything/doing everything one’s self is the solution to everything/eliminate the middleman, preferably with a shotgun/and so on. On the flip side, Palmer herself has noted detractors, including people who seem to believe Kickstarter is nothing more than high tech begging or pan handling.
So, with that as the background, my thoughts, in no particular order.
1. I think it’s fantastic for Amanda Palmer. I say that as a fan of her work, solo and as part of Dresden Dolls, as an admirer of her creative drive and willingness to put in the actual work of maintaining a career, and as someone who has a friend married to her, who she makes ridiculously ridiculously happy as far as I can tell. As a creative person, it’s both gratifying and humbling when people step up and support you — with money! Of all things! — so the fact she’s received so much support from her fans is just wonderful. The fact that Kickstarter, as an entity, has made it easier for her and other creative people to fund their projects, is also great, and one of the true benefits of the Internet age.
2. This is a decade in the making. I went back through Whatever to find the first time I made note of something Palmer did; the answer was November 2004, when I put in a link to the song “Coin Operated Boy” by her former band Dresden Dolls. That’s seven and a half years ago; the band was active for a few years before then.
Between then and now most of what I know about Palmer is her working her ass off: Making music, playing that music, going off and making more, and building both awareness and a fan base. She left her music label a few years ago and has been putting out music independently since then; she’s presumably learned a thing or two about the mechanisms of DIY art during that time — and in that time she’s trained her fans in the fine art of supporting a truly indie musician (or at the very least, a truly indie Amanda Palmer). This is hugely important.
All of which is to say that like so many overnight successes, this isn’t. It’s the result of someone working for a very long time to get themselves into a position to make the most of this particular kind of opportunity. Complementary to this:
3. Palmer has an awesome network. She’s got hundreds of thousands of fans to whom she talks every day via Twitter and other social media, most of whom are rooting for her success. She has friends and loved ones with similar or greater fan reach (even accounting for overlap), who are happy to promote her and her works. Basically, when something happens in the world of Amanda Palmer, it’s entirely possible for more than a million people to become aware of it almost immediately.
Again, this doesn’t happen overnight. Those friends and loved ones are collected through a lifetime; those fans are created through work, music and touring. Is Palmer using them to promote herself? I suppose she is, but I think it’s probably more accurate to say that those people are willingly choosing to be part of her messaging system. I’ve retweeted stuff from her before, not because I felt obliged but because I like being a participant in her success. I retweet other news from friends and people whose work I admire for much the same reason.
You can buy Twitter followers (if you’re willing to spend money stupidly), but you can’t buy a living network of people who are invested in you as a person and/or a creator. You have to earn that through work, and by being a person worth friendship.
4. Palmer doesn’t get to keep all that money. Leaving aside taxes (duh), Palmer has to pay production costs, musician fees, tour and travel expenses and all other costs incurred in the rather elaborate tiers of stuff she’s offering to supporters. A fair amount of that money will go out of the door again. Which is, of course, what happens when one is running a small business, which is precisely what Palmer is doing here.
One of my major concerns about Kickstarter projects in a general sense is that I often wonder how many of the projects actually end up in the black for their creators. This is particularly the case when it comes to writers, artists and musicians, who are famously complete shit at working through their finances anyway, but who are also, through Kickstarter tiers and through encountering production costs that were previously handled by other people, wading into financial waters they often know next to nothing about. I wonder if people understand that Kickstarter isn’t a magical ATM but a storefront, and that they are committing to running this store — production and fulfillment both — for the duration. I expect a lot of Kickstarters ultimately end up in the red because the people running them haven’t built out a business plan, and have no idea what they’re getting into.
I expect that Palmer may be one of the exceptions — precisely because she went DIY a few years ago and has had time to learn the ropes and to have some real-world, practical experience with what everything she does (and has proposed doing) costs in a financial sense. That said, I would love to know what sort of margins she’s working with here, particularly with some of her more elaborate tiers. I have reasonable confidence she’ll end this adventure of hers in the black, but I think everyone boggled by the money she’s raised might eventually be surprised how much of it she won’t get to keep.
5. Palmer has made some big commitments. For example, she’s sold 25 house parties at $5,000 a pop, which she expects to be able to fulfill in the next 12 to 18 months. So, that’s essentially 25 other tour dates for her on top of everything else she has to do. Yes, I know, $5k for showing up with a ukulele and hanging out at someone’s house for four hours doesn’t strike most people as hard work (heck, pay me $5k, I’ll totally pop by with my ukulele!). But you know what? Spending four hours being on in front of strangers — and formally performing for one of those hours — is actually work. I know because that’s what I do when I tour for my books. Palmer has other events listed which require more than just her showing up with a winsome stringed instrument, which aside from the financial considerations is more time/energy/effort/planning for her. I get tired just looking at everything she’s promised to backers.
(This is why, incidentally, people accusing her of “online panhandling” are trolling jackasses. Palmer doesn’t have a hand out for charity — she’s offering specific goods and services when you set down your coin. You know exactly what you’re getting, and what she’s committing to. Again, this is a small business, and one with a detailed menu.)
In sum: It’s awesome that Palmer’s Kickstarter has done so well — but look at what it’s entailed. It’s entailed time, effort, planning and work both backward and forward in time. That currently $439,000 isn’t a windfall for her; it’s a marker of what all that commitment to the work has earned.
If you’re one of the people looking at her Kickstarter money with stars in your eyes and awesome plans of your own in your head, ask yourself first: Have you put in the time? Earned the credibility? Scoped out the financial balance sheet? Made the commitment to fulfill every single thing you have promised?
Palmer has. If you haven’t — on any of this — be aware that your results, shall we say, may vary.