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I'm pretty wary of Kickstarter. For every outlandish but fascinating tech campaign—the Bonobo Chat app, for instance, would've allowed translated communication with bonobos via lexigram, so that you could be shooting the breeze with great apes from a specialized Internet-connected keyboard right now—there are dozens of modest Kickstarters that ultimately add up to little more than the shuffling and reshuffling of money among friends and acquaintances, never bringing in any significant resources from outside the group.
This seems to happen quite a bit with the funding of albums. As an aspiring crotchety naysayer—one who bumbled his way through a number of bands in his teens and 20s—I've always figured that if you don't have sufficient funds to put out your unsigned band's debut, then you work a few more hours stocking shelves at Trader Joe's, or you deliver a dozen or so extra pizzas a week. Simple enough. Using Kickstarter can come off as an icky way to guilt friends into contributing cash to a piece of music they know full well doesn't deserve to see the light of day. And if they feel obligated to buy the album once it comes out—assuming they don't get a copy gratis for making a Kickstarter pledge—then that completes its closed (and warped) circle of life.
What often makes the difference between a band Kickstarter that's worthwhile and intriguing and one that tries everybody's patience is the choice of incentives—and I'm not talking about guest-list treatment at a CD-release show or a rag-ready extra-large T-shirt. I'm talking about outrageous, even fantastical stuff. If you want me to donate $20, $100, or even (gasp!) $1,000, the selfish part of me will wonder what I get out of it, other than the knowledge that I helped support someone's grandiose artistic vision.
Kickstarters for certain kinds of start-ups can offer intriguing lifetime-membership opportunities. When Pipeworks Brewing launched its Kickstarter in 2010, the local brewery included a "Friends With Benefits" program that gave donors of $100 or more special privileges for life—they can reserve bottle allotments of every single Pipeworks release (even small batches), rather than hoping to track the beers down before they disappear from store shelves. And bands have understood for a long time how important it is to make their devoted followers feel like part of a secret society—something a little more exclusive than a garden-variety fan club. In the early 90s, nearly two decades before Kickstarter, Rocket From the Crypt offered free admission to any and all of their shows in perpetuity (contingent on the venue permitting it) to anyone showing off an RFTC tattoo.
Bands that have the means (that is, bands that are popular enough—independently wealthy musicians don't need Kickstarter in the first place) can and will go much further than RFTC to induce their fans to help fund an album. After all, they're asking for money, not just an inked-on display of loyalty. The pleas can be hokey, overblown, inventive, or even all three at once. Late last year Five Iron Frenzy launched a Kickstarter that promised, among other weird gifts, a two-hour guitar lesson (pledges of $750 or more) and a date with the band consisting of dinner and mini golf ($1,500 or more). The campaign eventually took in more than 200 grand, and ranks second on the all-time list of band Kickstarters—well behind Amanda Palmer's incredible $1.2 million—because people apparently love Christian ska way more than I can fathom.
Murder by Death from Bloomington, Indiana, closed a campaign on August 10 that didn't top Five Iron Frenzy in terms of funds raised—they finished about 20 grand behind, taking third place—but blew it away in creativity and ridiculousness. To pay for a deluxe vinyl version of the upcoming Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, the indie-rock ensemble went overboard with the incentives—they even included a "Golden Ticket" (at the $500 level) that works just like those old Rocket From the Crypt tattoos. This is only a partial, edited list of the premiums on the band's Kickstarter page—and most also include a copy of the limited-edition vinyl:
Pledge $100 or more
MBD WHISKEY CREW. — Any pledges over $100 and you become a member of the Murder by Death Whiskey Crew. Get a sweet-ass MBD gang patch. If you show up wearing your colors at an MBD show, you will be pleased to see the perks you will receive at the merch table. Plus look fuckin' rad.
Pledge $100 or more
POSTCARD CLUB! — Once a tour we will send you a postcard from the road. Fun! If you want to add this to an already existing pledge, just add $100. Doesn't come with anything else.
Pledge $250 or more
ONE-YEAR SUBSCRIPTION TO THE MBD BOOK CLUB. — Once a month receive some recommended reading from MBD. Each book will contain an inscription from a member of the band describing why they love the book. We will throw in fun other goodies now and then too.
Pledge $750 or more
OUR DRUMMER DAGAN WILL GET A TATTOO OF ANYTHING YOU WANT. — Yep. Obviously nothing hateful though. Maybe it's a heart with your name in it. Maybe it's your face. Maybe it's a kangaroo drinking a martini whilst playing basketball. I dunno. He's got a sense of humor. Maybe you do too.
Pledge $1,000 or more
MBD COVERS ANY SONG YOU REQUEST. — You pick the song. We cover it for you in a studio recording done at Farm Fresh Studios in Bloomington, Indiana. We will also hand-make a CD case for you and give you the only copy of it. The digital will be online for others to hear, but you have the only copy!
Pledge $4,000 or more
MBD WILL PERFORM IN YOUR LIVING ROOM/BASEMENT ETC in the USA (travel costs included in fee). — MBD will come to perform at your house for a show with your friends. Or for just you. Whatever. It will most likely be acoustic as to avoid the interference of the law. This fee is for anywhere in the USA. We will try to do the shows as soon as possible, and would like to do 'em sooner rather than later, but promise to do it (on a date we agree on together) before the end of 2013.
Pledge $4,001 or more
MBD WILL FLY YOU AND A FRIEND TO CEDAR POINT AMUSEMENT PARK AND RIDE ROLLER COASTERS ALL DAY WITH YOU. — You and a friend will go to the greatest roller coaster park in the world with MBD. You'll get photos of us all looking amazed at how rad the Top Thrill Dragster is. We will throw hoops around milk bottles and play the shit out of skee-ball. We will dish out whatever we can think of. It's the vacation you always wanted as a kid, with your favorite band.
Pledge $6,500 or more
MBD KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL BLOWOUT. — You and a friend get to go on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with MBD, touring our favorite whiskey distilleries in a badass limo. You'll fly into Louisville, Kentucky, and stay at 21C (one of the finest hotels in Louisville) and eat at their amazing restaurant, Proof, with the band. A photographer will join you, documenting this bacchanalian feast, and will print up a hardcover book of the best photos as a keepsake.
I'm not quite into goth-tinted indie-rock bands with cello players and orchestral accents, so I've never paid much attention to Murder by Death—aside from noting that they apparently play half the street festivals in Chicago every year. So when I got a PR e-mail a couple weeks back with the subject line "Murder by Death Become the Third Highest-Funded Music Project on Kickstarter," my first inclination was to hate. I was irked that a relatively successful band had used the site to milk its fans of money it knew they would willingly give up. If you want to release a fancy, die-cut-packaged, "speckled-moon" piece of vinyl, either figure out how to make it happen yourself, or release a boring, regular piece of vinyl—it'll sell, I swear.
But after seeing the extremes to which Murder by Death took the campaign—offering 34 pledge options and including house shows and vacations in the incentives—I changed my mind. I can't help but admire Murder by Death's wild imagination, despite how stupidly expensive the best options are (someone did qualify for the Cedar Point excursion, though). Even fans (and potential fans) who can't afford any of the best premiums can bond with the band just because the descriptions sound like the kind of cool stuff that somebody they'd want to hang out with might think of—which can only help rally a bigger audience in the long run. I just added "touring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in a badass limo" to my bucket list, that's for sure.
I'll probably always be a little iffy on Kickstarter, but if the goal is to use imaginative or peculiar means to help donors (and fans) feel involved in the band's history—while in the process raising money to produce something substantial—I think I can back that.