Ben Folds Five have announced that September 18 will be the official release date of their first full“length album since 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. A lot has changed since the group called it quits at the turn of the millennium, but Folds, bassist Robert Sledge, and drummer Darren Jessee haven’t missed a beat. Taking advantage of the new surge in crowdfunding popularized by sites like Kickstarter, the band has financed their entire new record, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, through PledgeMusic.com.
A few months ago, we got the chance to talk to Folds about the making of the album and the funding process, and we’re excited to see the project finally complete. Folds’ close friend Amanda Palmer also recently made headlines for her massively successful fundraising project on Kickstarter. Last week, Folds took to Facebook to share his thoughts on her upcoming album, Theatre Is Evil, which is also due for release in September.
Listen to “Do It Anyway,” the first single from the new album, below.
With 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.
Kickstarter is based on a fairly recent economic model called micro-financing, whereby would-be entrepreneurs who otherwise lack access to capital are funded in small increments by a number of investors, who make a relatively low-risk investment. With Kickstarter, the recipients are artists, including musicians, filmmakers, and others, who offer various concrete rewards to investors, rather than a percentage of profit. An artist might offer memorabilia or merchandise related to the project at hand in proportion to the level of the pledge. The highest donations rarely exceed the low thousands of dollars and are more often in the $300 and under range.
That Kickstarter has fostered so much commerce exchange to the benefit of DIY artists speaks to the popularity of the model and reflects the development of this new music economy, which works outside of traditional suppliers of capital. Kickstarter’s initial success owes much to the novelty of applying a micro-finance model to musicians”fans saw a way they could become directly involved in the creative productions of artists they knew and/or liked.
As good and unique ideas tend to go, many more artists latched on and began using the platform to fund their own projects. Kickstarter, from a sociological standpoint, had tipped. But in terms of what it can do for musicians, Kickstarter’s moment of cultural pervasion has now become over-saturation. What was at first an obscure, invite-only avenue to make an art project into reality has lost the novelty factor, and is now in fact open to anyone who wishes to use it, whether they have a unique project or they’re another indie band just trying to scrape together enough dough to duplicate some CDs. Kickstarter has become little more than a too-familiar dot on the Facebook wall, easily dismissed. How many of your friend’s bands do you really like enough to want to help, especially when they can’t offer much beyond an advance copy of the album? And the backlash from those targeted has already begun, with public laments of being pitched by artists no more broke than they are.
Artist funding sites like Kickstarter are still of great use, both for filmmakers and artists with unique projects and for musicians of a certain level, who have already-engaged fans eager to be part of the process. The average unknown band who, in the early days of Kickstarter, could really benefit from such an interesting and unknown platform, are now spinning their wheels, struggling to meet their pre-set goal. (If users fail to meet a minimum amount of pledges, they don’t get anything”this is a motivating factor to investors.)
For Kickstarter, this means that this segment of users will surely level off. The question is whether they can focus on building other segments up so that non-band projects become part of their brand identity”art, originality, and success, as opposed to the stigma of countless bands all trying to achieve the same goal from, and this is key, the same audience. Kickstarter works in the long-term only when projects cross-pollinate and users fund several of them in small amounts. A look at the Kickstarter front page at press time indicates such awareness, with featured projects such as a TV series, an X-Files-inspired musical, boutique mustard distribution, comic books, photography¦ there isn’t a single featured musical project. Meanwhile, the organization faces competition from similar sites, like Slicethepie, Sellaband and PledgeMusic. The latter offers an additional charity component, and the former two are both devoted strictly to music projects.
Unless artists have something truly valuable to offer, or are speaking to a dedicated fan-base, they’d best think hard before launching a Kickstarter campaign. All this is not to say that it can’t be done successfully, but bands must be aware of the environment in which requests for pledges will be received, know their limitations, be creative, target carefully and work hard. OurStage is doing its part by highlighting some artists doing just that in our Kickstart OurHeart feature.