Around 12:30 PM EST, I joked on Twitter (as I’m wont to do) that I was going to grab my lunch as soon as the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign broke the quarter-million mark. It was about $10,000 away from that benchmark when I started typing; by the time I clicked on the Tweet button to post those bon mots, that threshold had been passed. Two hours later, I took to Twitter to make with the funny & say I was going to grab my daily post-lunch snack once Veronica hit the million mark. At the time of that social media blurt, the Kickstarter campaign was at a mere $941,000. (Let’s note that the campaign earned almost another SEVEN HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS in about two hours.) This time around, I was able to wait a whole 20 minutes before that barrier was broken. Pardon the shit syntax in the following Tweet:
And the VERONICA MARS pulled in more money in the last 20 minutes than what a full-timer making $25 / hour makes in a year. (brb snacking)
— David Raposa (@falsebinary) March 13, 2013
About 55 minutes ago (as of this typing), less than 12 hours after the Kickstarter campaign had started, the $2 million dollar goal was met. That’s about the time I took the screencap at the top of this post. In that timespan, I ate dinner, watched the fourth quarter of the Heat / 76ers game, and started typing this thing. In that time, another $131,000 has been contributed to the campaign, with the contributor count going over 34,000. Clearly, the numbers show creator Rob Thomas crunched (as described in the description text for this Kickstarter project) to gauge the feasibility of this crowd-sourcing effort were pretty accurate:
The average pledge on Kickstarter is $71. Hell, if we could get 30,000 people to give the average donation, we could finance the movie, particularly if the cast and I were willing to work cheap. The most common donation amount on Kickstarter is $25. Surely, 80,000 of our three million viewers would find that price-point viable!
Then there’s that semi-damning line at the start of the next paragraph: “Of course, Warner Bros. still owns Veronica Mars and we would need their blessing and cooperation to pull this off.” So what this endeavor boils down to is fans subsidizing the making of a creative work based around a property owned by a multi-million dollar corporation. If you believe that corporations are people, maybe this situation doesn’t rankle so much. For perfect-world folks that believe crowd-sourcing should most benefit those that don’t have the funds to create the thing they so desperately want to make, though, it’s a little disconcerting. Folks with their nose to the film industry grindstone have consistently bemoaned the death of the “middle class” of film; most studios either want to throw lots of money at potential tentpoles (which leads to one Avengers for every ten Battleships), or go super-small in the hopes of turning out a comparatively decent profit (or in the case of the Paranormal Activity franchise, blockbuster-sized hauls). The price tags might not be the same in other industries, but the mindset’s the same: Go big or go homegrown. There’s very little interest, at least from the folks holding the purse strings, in supporting any kind of not-too-big, not-too-small endeavors.
For Warner Bros, then (and any other cockeyed fear-adverse media conglomerate), an opportunity like this Veronica Mars situation is a shrewd investment, if it can even be called an investment. Instead of putting up their own money to produce something based on an owned property that might not recoup its costs, these companies can just farm out the lion’s share of the cost (and the attached burdens) to interested parties while maintaining the benefits of ownership. If said effort flops, the books stay relatively clean, and at worst all you have to show for it is some market research findings. If it succeeds, congratulations on your sweat-free profits. If there’s going to be any sort of creative-arts revolution spearheaded by the rise of crowd-sourcing, it’s the gradual transformation of these TV / music / movie companies from the entities that produce and distribute the content to simply distributors.
That’s what Nonesuch Records (coincidentally, a subsidiary of the Warner Music Group) are seemingly doing with Nataly Dawn. Way back in the summer of 2011, the singer / songwriter (better known as one-half of YouTube sensation / Hyundai holiday pitch people Pomplamoose) started her own Kickstarter project to help fund the making of a solo album. To quote her pitch text, “Every dollar will go towards the album: paying the musicians and the people who will be filming the recording process, reserving the studio and hotel rooms, renting gear etc.” The original goal was $20,000; she ended up with five times that amount. She also ended up with a Nonesuch Records contract. Again, for the folks with the deep pockets, it’s a no-brainer; Nonesuch not only signs an artist with a sizable (and passionate) fanbase, but they sign one with an album already in the can. That’s one less expenditure to worry about, both for the artist and the label.
Of course, this is nothing new; larger labels routinely put out finished albums by an act that already had arrangements to release the album through a smaller company. The big difference, though, is the issue of compensation. In most of these cases — like with (pardon my indie rock bias) Merge Records reissuing the Sugar catalog, or the partnership made between Matador Records and Capitol Records to co-release albums like Liz Phair’s whitechocolatespaceegg — the big guys make arrangements with the little guys so (ideally) everyone that should get compensated gets compensated. When Nataly Dawn goes corporate on the back of fan funding, however, where’s that leave the person that ended up supporting a musician that no longer needs the support? (Based on the recentish comments on Dawn’s Kickstarter page, it leaves a fair number of them more than a little disgruntled.)
It’s one thing to give to an artist like Kristin Hersh, a well-established artist that’s been fan-funded and wholly independent since 2007, or Bowerbirds, who recently turned to Kickstarter to help with the building of their own studio and the recording of a new album. In those situations, there’s an unspoken (or possibly explicit) trust and bond between patron and artist that transcends the financial portion of the transaction; you’re helping people whose art you enjoy have the opportunity to make said art without compromise and on their own terms. When the patron turns into nothing more than an investor, though — especially when that turn occurs without the patron’s knowledge and without the possibility of any kind of non-aesthetic return on the investment — it’s an outrageous betrayal of that trust. Offer all the swag and insider access in the world, but while it might make short-term sense on the balance sheet, making fans feel like one-way banks isn’t a great long-term strategy.