Passing the Virtual Hat

Kickstarter and other crowd funding platforms scratch Humboldt’s creative itch


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Singer/guitar-plucker Sam Whitlach ended a set at the Jambalaya earlier this year in classic songwriter fashion, with a little pitch. If you like his songs, take some home on his CD.

The album he recorded as A Man Named Samuel is full of good songs, but it has little to do with the music he's playing now. The CD came out in 2006, so the songs were written years ago.

"Yeah, that's a problem," he conceded in a conversation a few weeks later at a summer street fair in Arcata. Whitlach has plenty of new material, but not plenty of money to produce a new CD.

What about crowd funding? Has he looked into Kickstarter or Indiegogo?

He'd never heard of them.  

Kickstarter, Indiegogo and similar online companies offer a platform for artists and others to collect money from friends, family and even strangers to support their work. Users fill out a form, add photos, text or videos, and pay fees that can run around 10 percent of the total raised.

In just a few years, crowd funding has begun changing the shape of the music scene in Humboldt, lessening the creative struggle at least a little, and playing midwife to more CDs than likely would have been produced otherwise. The source of extra money has been especially helpful here, where most performers work day jobs.

But the money doesn't just fly in on its own -- musicians, artists and others have to solicit backing through social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. That can be a downside for who don't want to monetize their friends, or who, like Whitlach, haven't had the time or interest so far.

"I'm not that into Facebook," he said, just as another local songwriter, Caitlin Jemma, happened by. Jemma financed her debut record with Kickstarter. She did not exactly ease his fears.

"You have to be on Facebook a lot," she said. "You really have to do a lot of networking. If you're not on Facebook or Twitter, you're not going to be able to promote your project."

Starting with her social network (she has around 600 Facebook friends) and reaching out via phone and email for pledges from family, friends and friends of friends, she reached her goal in 30 days and received $1,000 -- enough to pay for production of 1,000 copies of a CD she calls Home Means the Hills.

She's happy with how it turned out and is quick to recommend Kickstarter. "I've seen a lot friends be able to express themselves in ways they wouldn't be able to without those funds, and not just in music, in all kinds of art," she said.




Kickstarter was not the first crowd funding platform; ArtistShare claims that title, and it's a crowded field.

There are dozens of competitors, many with different missions, collecting funds for educational projects, issue awareness, scientific research, nonprofits, those who need help with medical bills and even weddings and funerals.

But Kickstarter is undeniably huge, the leading crowd funding site in Internet visits, and one of the few bold enough to release stats on how many people use it and how much they have raised. On a typical day, Kickstarter says, it has 3,500 live projects in the United States and United Kingdom.

"We've had more than $400 million pledges since we launched, more than 30,000 successfully funded projects," says Justin Kazmark. He's been company spokesman since Kickstarter launched in 2009 (with a half-year break to hike the Pacific Crest Trail).

Unlike the other two most-visited crowd funding sites, Kickstarter has an application process that screens out many endeavors right from the start: No charities, no scholarships, no raffles, no real estate and no open-ended proposals.

"We have a specific focus on creativity," said Kazmark. "We believe creativity deserves its own space." Funding is limited to "creative projects" with the terms "creative" and "project" key in defining what's approved or rejected by staffers.

"Whatever it is you want to fund, it has to fit into one of 13 categories, everything from arts, music and comics to food, games and fashion," said Kazmark, who is one of the few dozen staffers manning Kickstarter offices in Manhattan's Lower East Side. And it has to be a "project" with a specific creative goal. It's mostly left up to the creator to determine what that means.

Kazmark explained, "We're not making any judgments on your work -- we don't tell you, 'Lose the bassist,' or 'You said this is going to be a drama, but it would work better as a comedy and if you change it, we'll let you on.' No aesthetic judgments. Just, does this meet our guidelines? If it does, it's fine."

Even that is too much restriction for some, who complain in online forums that they don't like to jump through hoops or get approval or be limited to accepting payments only through Amazon.

And the company's format -- set a dollar goal, set a deadline, take pledges, and if you don't reach your goal, no money changes hands -- has fans and detractors. Some say the "all or nothing" urgency helps spur more donations, while others who have ongoing projects would rather get some money than no money at all.

But whatever its plusses and minuses, Kickstarter so far seems to be the most popular crowd funding resource in Humboldt, fueling everything from pinups to El Pulpo.




Molly and Tyson Ritter dreamed up their Pissed Off Pinups Calendar after browsing through a coffee table book with 1950s-era pinup art by Gil Elvgren. One image showed a woman being splashed by a passing truck. She coyly raises her skirt and puckers her lips. It was sexy, but, Molly figured, unrealistic. "She'd be irritated and maybe shake her fist at the truck."

She wanted to create an alternative pinup calendar, to show women as actual people. Since she's a model (See "Crossing the Line from Model to Muse," Nov. 1) and her husband Tyson is a professional photographer, they had a good start.

They began shooting photos early in 2012 while trying to figure out where they'd get around $3,500 for props, costumes and printing. Tyson had seen some Kickstarter projects online; he showed Molly, and they launched their fundraising campaign in late May.

Thirty days later they'd hit their goal -- plus a little extra -- taking in $3,603. Most of the backers were local or friends they contacted on the web, but Molly was happy to find supporters she did not know who'd discovered their project via Kickstarter's own network.

The Ritters had 500 copies of their calendar printed and rolled it out at Arts Alive in October, along with placing it in book stores, vintage shops and even a food truck, The Wandering Wienie Wagon. You can also track the project down through its Kickstarter page (successful or not, the pitch pages are eternal). The Ritters have sold about half already and are hoping the rest move over the holidays.

And even artists with plenty of name recognition find uses for crowd funding. Pretty much everyone in Humboldt is familiar with Duane Flatmo. His murals are everywhere you look in Eureka and Arcata, and his Kinetic Sculptures -- giant lobsters and fire-breathing dragons and the like -- are always among the stars of the Kinetic Grand Championship.

Flatmo also has become a major presence at Burning Man, the annual art fest in Northern Nevada. Look at the photo spreads on the event in Time or The Atlantic and you'll see his work. After a couple of years of wheeling around the playa on his Kinetic Sculptures, Flatmo assembled a local crew to craft an elaborate "art car" on the back of a flatbed truck and took it to Burning Man in 2011. The fire-spouting octopus El Pulpo Mecanico was a big hit.

"It took around $15 grand to build it and get it down there," said Flatmo, noting, "a lot of people pitched in."

When it was time to return for Burning Man 2012, he needed money again, specifically to ship the machine to Nevada and to pay for propane.

He didn't want to put the bill on a credit card. Instead, with help from an actor friend, Joshua Levine, who had experience using Kickstarter for film financing, he set up a project. The goal: raise $4,000 in less than a month to support taking El Pulpo back to Burning Man.

"We ended up getting $6,700 in pledges," with half that coming from just three backers inspired by a special reward. Flatmo explained, "We said for $1,000 we'll pick you up at your camp with four of your friends and take you out on the playa for a ride. We even supplied a bottle of champagne."

His team limited the offer to just three backers since, he said, "We didn't want to spend all of our time at Burning Man giving people rides."

Among the takers was Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, who paid for a ride for some friends. Cohen actually suggested something bigger for El Pulpo. He's involved in the Occupy movement and saw the fire-spewing octopus as some sort of metaphor for voracious corporate greed (think Sinclair Lewis). Flatmo declined. "I didn't want to be seen as the bad guy, the bad octopus," he said.

His Kickstarter campaign ended up covering the whole trip, including the propane, shipping and some incidentals. "We had something like 250 backers who gave $25. A few friends put in $1 or $5 just because they wanted to be part of it."

Everywhere they went on the playa, people would come up and tell them they were Kickstarter supporters -- they'd contributed to bring the machine back -- and they were happy to be part of something so cool.




Of course, not all campaigns are successful. More than half of the projects begun on Kickstarter fail to receive any funding at all, because they fall short of their dollar goal.

Among those was a school lunch guide written by members of Locally Delicious, a group that promotes local, healthy foods. 

The authors launched a Kickstarter project in June seeking $15,000 to pay for printing their next book, Lunchbox Envy, "a how-to guide for creating healthy, sustainable, affordable lunches for kids and families of all income levels." (See Table Talk page xxx.)

They collected pledges from 100 backers, but it only added up to $5,706 -- so they got nothing.

What went wrong? "For one thing, I think we asked for too much money," said Suzanne Simpson, one of the authors. "The other thing was, well, we're social media luddites. We all friended everyone we knew, but personally, I don't really like Facebook that much. It takes so much time."

Simpson figured Facebook was about telling people what you had for breakfast, something she wasn't ready to do -- even if her breakfasts are amazingly good, full of fresh local food.

The Locally Delicious crew felt good about getting those pledges for more than $5,000, even though the money didn't materialize. They found other funding, including advance sales money from the California Center for Rural Policy in association with CalFresh.

And in the end, they got much of the money pledged via Kickstarter by following up outside the system, said Simpson. "We contacted the donors who pitched in on Kickstarter directly and asked if they'd contribute to Locally Delicious Inc. Most of them did. It all worked out."

Among other Humboldters who've tried but failed with Kickstarter are a Fortuna natural food store, Humboldt Healthy Food. In January, the proprietor started a campaign seeking $23,000 to expand operations with an in-house kitchen. While the project garnered $1,286 in pledges, it failed to meet its goal and the store got nothing.

And Eureka artist Susan Fox found a few backers willing to help finance her expedition to Mongolia to paint wild horses, but she fell far short of her $5,000 goal, so Kickstarter wasn't any help. (Not that it stopped her from going.)  

Still, local Kickstarter successes keep on coming. Singer Joanne Rand collected just over $2,000 last year to mix, master and duplicate her 12th CD, and recently started another Kickstarter campaign to fund her 13th album.  

Actor/playwright Jacqueline Dandeneau raised $5,000 to take the show Women of the Northwest on the road after a run at the Arcata Playhouse. Chocolatier and baker Cassie Forrington, surpassed her $2,000 goal by more than 50 percent (she got $3,375) to help start Boujie Baking Company, making candies and desserts using, in part, local craft beers. And baker Rhonda Wiedenbeck raised money for a lightweight trailer to deliver her Beck's Bakery products, breads made from locally grown grains, stone milled on site.

FWiedenbeck, who hadn't been much of a social networker before she started her business, was surprised by the customer loyalty that can come from a crowd of financial supporters.

"Getting the money to buy the trailer was awesome," she said, "but it was so much more -- the marketing side floored me. Now people feel this ownership in my business. People feel like they're invested, so they want to help get my bread in new places."

And although some business advisers initially discouraged her from expecting much from Kickstarter, now the local Small Business Development Center is using Wiedenbeck's Kickstarter video in presentations it gives to help people looking for startup funding.




While Kickstarter seems to be the most popular here, some Humboldt musicians, cooks and other creative types have chosen different crowd funding sites.

Songwriter Melody Walker and her band AkaBella had used Kickstarter to fund a 2010 concert tour, but last year when Walker wanted to produce her first solo record, Gold Rush Goddess, she switched to Indiegogo for its financial flexibility.

"The main difference is the all or nothing part," said Walker. With an Indiegogo project, fundraisers can opt for "flexible funding," which allows them to keep any money they raise. That relieves some pressure, but there's another key difference.

 "With Kickstarter, they hold the money until the campaign is done," Walker explained, "but with Indiegogo you get the money as soon it comes in, so we were able to get right into our project."

Walker's switch was inspired in part by her friends The Bucky Walters, who used Indiegogo to gather funding for a 2011 tour. The band did not reach its $5,000 goal, but since the musicians opted for flexible funding, they still got to keep the $1,190 that came in.

Also on Indiegogo, chocolatier Elissa Verdillo raised $1,045 of the $4,000 she had wanted to rent a Victorian with a certified commercial kitchen to make her Cacao Cocoon Chocolates.

And Carrie Ferguson, born and raised in Arcata but now living on the East Coast, just completed an Indiegogo campaign to pay for her next record, The List of Whales. Among the rewards offered by Ferguson was a personal concert at your house, where she would hand deliver a cake she's made. ("I make great cakes!" she claims.) That reward was only available "within a two-hour radius of Northampton, Mass. or Arcata, Calif." since "cake does not travel so well."

Perhaps the most successful locally based crowd funding campaign also used Indiegogo. That was a project by the Move to Amend/Democracy Unlimited office in Eureka, conducted with anti-corporate ice cream magnate Ben Cohen. "Stampede to Amend: Fund the Amend-O-Matic," aimed to stage a national tour with a machine that would stamp messages on dollar bills, calling for a constitutional amendment to reduce the role of money in politics.

Move to Amend raised $36,738 -- far exceeding its $20,000 goal. But the national tour had to be scrapped because of problems with the van, organizer Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap explained in a Nov. 1 letter to supporters. What happens to the money raised? Move to Amend says there are plans in the works for a 2013 tour, and the group has dropped the price on its rubber stamps.

Indiegogo's website makes it clear there's no guarantee that any project will carry out its plans. Furthermore, "Any perks offered to you are between you and the project entity only, and Indiegogo does not guarantee that perks will be delivered or satisfactory to you."

Kickstarter uses similar "buyer beware" language.



Whichever site people use, all agree that it can be a challenge to get the word out, especially with a goal that looms just 30 days away. (Kickstarter recommends 30-day projects but allows up to 60 days.)

It wasn't easy for the Arcata Playhouse's Dandeneau, even though the Playhouse has an established social network and most of the actresses and creators involved in Women of the Northwest were on Facebook.

"The most important thing came toward the end when we still had a way to go to reach our goal," she said. "I got online every day and blogged about the project and told people what was going on and how exciting it was."

Her pitch was more focused on patronage than on rewards. "In the end I think people do it because they want to, not because they get something -- for a theatre show anyway," she said. "It worked for us."

Most of her backers did not even want the small rewards offered, things like faux campaign buttons and tote bags. She only offered tickets to the show to those who pledged $50 or more.

"We describe Kickstarter as an intersection of commerce and patronage," said Kazmark, emphasizing that it was never intended as a retail platform. While backers might get a CD or a book as a reward, that's not the point. As Kazmark put it, "You are joining a creator on their journey as they bring something new to life," and you become part of the process. "It's not too far from arts patronage, but it's a new way for people to come together and make things."

And while crowd funding sites add flexibility for people to pursue their passions, they haven't replaced any of the older, face-to-face options, from friends to shows to that day job. Caitlin Jemma has another pocketful of songs and is ready to make her second CD, but she's decided against using crowd funding. "It's too early after the other one," she figures, so she's putting on a series of shows at local clubs instead. Her first, early in November, took in $400, so she's well on her way. The prolific songwriter just might go back to crowd sourcing for her third album. 

And Sam Whitlach? He's been ramping up his Facebook activity and, yes, he's thinking about crowd funding to get some of his new songs out into the world.


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