Exclusive Q and A: Ben Folds Talks Crowd Funding, Amanda Palmer and A New Kind of Fan Community

OurStage Exclusive InterviewsWith record labels in a precarious spot, many up-and-coming bands have been turning to crowd funding as a way to raise money for touring, recording, merch production and more. Major artists have taken note, with acts like Secondhand Serenade and The Voice‘s Nakia using the “rewards for pledges” model through sites like Kickstarter, ArtistShare and more.

Shortly after their long-awaited reunion, Ben Folds Five decided to test out this innovative new platform to help fund their first record in thirteen years. In exchange for donations, the band is not only offering prizes like signed vinyls and t-shirts, but they’re also¬†helping to promote the music, art, videos of their fans. They’ve even offered to call each fan who downloads their new song “Do It Anyway” or makes a pledge a Vice President of Promotions for their de facto record label, encouraging them to add “#ImaDamVP” on the end of their promotional tweets. We caught up with Ben to discuss the progress of the campaign, Kickstarter goddess Amanda Palmer and why we should help fight for continued arts funding.

OS: How is the record progressing? Can you estimate a release date at this point?

BF: I think we should be doing this in early September. Sometimes we’re late, but I think that should do it!

OS: Why did you choose to use a pledge model for funding this record?

BF: Looking at all our options, we had spoken to PledgeMusic a couple months ago. We thought that no matter how we do it, we may include that route, somehow. Last weekend, we started realizing, “Well, we’re going out on tour and it would be fun to put out something we recorded,” because we’re excited about what we’ve recorded, but we’re not on any kind of label or anything. We put it out free on a couple fan sites, which crashed pretty immediately. The next day, there were about 100,000 downloads out there. We thought, “Oh shit, we gotta put the record on sale.” You can’t be promoting it and then not pre-selling it too. The industry’s already screwed up enough as it is without shooting yourself in your own foot. We scrambled the next day to get it up and Pledge had been someone we’d been talking to, and we just did it.

OS: What made you choose PledgeMusic over other services, like Kickstarter or ArtistShare?

BF: I don’t know much about all of them, so I’m not good about shopping around. But what was compelling to me was that, in our position, I didn’t think it was really necessary to flash the sales number. That’s the way Kickstarter does it, Amanda [Palmer] did it that way and it’s been really great.But I play these things by feel, and that didn’t feel right to me. I likened it to sitting in a restaurant where, next to the food, the tally is turning over while you’re eating to see how much money is going to the restaurant…it’s not necessary to know that. But I think it’s really interesting, especially with Amanda Palmer’s campaign…it gives people an insight.

OS: You mentioned Amanda Palmer…and she’s shown in your video as someone who “knows what she’s doing.” Was her successful crowdfunding project an inspiration to Ben Folds Five?

BF: We’d already been talking to Pledge for months, but I knew she’d just done it and I thought it was fun. She’s my good bud, and I’m really proud of her for being brave and just doing it the way she’s been doing it.

OS: How have your fans reacted to your campaign? How long did it take for you to reach your initial goal?

BF: Our initial goal was reached before we woke up in the morning. That alleviates any tension for me, I funded the record to begin with so it’s nice for me to know that I won’t be going into any debt on my own stuff. These things are starters, though, they don’t continue. You still need to find a way to sell your record, once it’s out. I think it’s a nice way to reach out to fans and vice-versa. I think when the fans are essentially doing your word-of-mouth campaign for you over the Internet, that creates an opportunity for the artist to be paying attention and to say, “Oh, I really liked your video,” and to send people back to their site. A lot of people could potentially get their start by getting attention to their stuff that way. It creates more of a community that way, which I really dig.

OS: I thought that was a really cool aspect of your campaign. Have there been any fan submissions in particular that you’ve been really impressed by?

BF: So far, I don’t think many people have had enough time to get something together, but they’re all being considered a “Vice President of Promotion” and they’re all spreading the word. This is all a big experiment for us. The rationale behind it was, “Well, I could sit here in my apartment and tweet this stuff out, and I have nearly a half million Twitter followers, we should be able to get the word out.” But the thing is, not everybody’s reading that stuff. I’m finding that I have to be very repetitive, so hopefully that doesn’t get tiring to my closest followers who read everything. But it’s necessary because I still have people getting in on the end of of the conversation, and they’re tweeting, “What? You have an album for sale?” They’d heard nothing about it, and I thought I’d already said it a thousand times!

OS: You’ve mentioned that you’re a band who can “afford to not know what we’re doing.” Would you recommend that up-and-coming bands try the crowdfunding system?

BF: I think you have to be “and coming,” you can’t be “up-and-coming” [laughs] because you have to have some reason for people to come to the Pledge or Kickstarter to begin with. You’ve got to be playing out, I think. You have to be playing a lot of gigs. But I’m kind of preferring to let this go into the background once the record gets here. It’s always about the music, no matter how you sell your record. Frank Zappa used to sell his records by mail order to his house. Frank Zappa’s a legend! People don’t remember that now, they don’t know that. When you listen to that record now, you don’t go, “Wow, that’s such an amazing crowd-funded record!” You just listen to the record.

OS: Last month, you were in Washington to advocate for more arts funding. Why is this cause so important?

BF: I would like to see more arts funding, yes, but I’m really looking for continued funding. It’s part of our responsibility for all of the things that we pay for as a tax base. It’s our responsibility to fund those artistic things that make the country a smarter, more attractive place to be. It sells almost everything. Think of a website that doesn’t have some sort of design, graphic at the least, music…artistic talent is needed to help put these things together and it helps spur our economy… All we’re asking is that they leave it. I talked to Democrats and Republicans, senators and congressmen in my day there. They all know it’s important…I see how important it is as I travel, and I would hate for my kids and grandkids not to have the opportunities that we have. That’s why I stand up for it.

Keep up with Ben Folds Five’s campaign by checking out their official campaign page and following Ben on Twitter!