Success Stories

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I have been talking for some time about the virtues of kickstarter funding for music recording projects.  The indie album Move by Matt Phillips and the Philharmonic could not have been made without kickstarter funding.  But the more I learn about the world of music kickstarters, the more I see there is to learn.

The Set Chopin Free project reached its $75,000 goal scarcely two weeks into its seven week funding schedule.  It is already more than $5,000 above its funding goal, and could well surpass $100,000 by the time its funding window closes.  And the Open Well-Tempered Clavier project (launched by Robert Douglass) has already reached 50% of its $30,000 fundraising goal from more than 450 supporters in its first 5 days!  That kind of strong start virtually guarantees funding success, and leaves us only to wonder whether it will achieve 160% (like Open Goldberg Variations), 200% (like Fractal Journeys and the Twelve Tones of Bach), 350% (like the Well-Tempered Clavier Tour), 600% (like Musopen’s Set Music Free) or more than 1100% (like Amanda Palmer did in her amazing 2012 record).  The possibilities are quite wide open.  But real questions remain: how did this happen?  what does it mean?

A press release today invites the press itself to consider some more pointed questions:

If both Open Goldberg and Musopen succeed with their Kickstarter campaigns, collectively raising over $100,000 for new recordings of standard repertoire, it is probably worth asking “Who is holding classical music in shackles?” and “Why do so many people feel it is so important to set Bach and Chopin free?”

Those are pretty profound questions that go well beyond the typical questions business people ask when making recordings or typesetting music.  But it is becoming increasingly clear that they are among the questions that must be asked.  These questions do not imply that all artists not producing free music should fold up their tents henceforth–not at all!  But it does suggest that people increasingly reject the idea that all music in their libraries must be owned and controlled by corporate interests forever.  And it also suggests that people increasingly want a cultural foundation they can collectively claim as their own.  It suggests that the meaning of music goes beyond the imagination of the composer and beyond the interpretation of the artist.  The meaning of the music includes the experience of the audience, who are both individuals, but who become members of a community through shared experiences.

There is, of course, another explanation: Kickstarter is really just a kick-ass marketing platform, and the people who really know what they are doing are exploiting its novelty and its brand to more efficiently convert other people’s money into their own profit.  Under this interpretation, microeconomic theory prevails, and the success of Kickstarter is only due to creating a more efficient market between buyers and sellers than existed conventionally.  I would argue that eBay exemplifies such market efficiency.  After talking with Jeff Wenzel of Groove Box Studios, someone who was once responsible for more than 1% of all Kickstarter music projects, I think there is some microeconomic magic that can be explained, but it is not the true secret to his success, nor is it the true secret to the successes we’ve seen from Museopen and the Open Goldberg Project (the latter detailed by Robert Douglass here).

Jeff will tell you (as he does in his story) that the economics for indie bands making records is B-R-O-K-E-N.  Nothing works as it should, and nobody works as they should, either.  And in most cases, success cannot be achieved incrementally: make any one change and things only get worse.  But Jeff has discovered that there is a whole new way of doing things that does work.  And he’s taken hundreds of bands on that journey to success, which he conveniently lays out in his FAQ.  The most important thing he figured out is that the artist cannot be successful without their fans, and that Kickstarter (and his production techniques) are a heck of a way to get the fan engine revving.  A solid recording is merely the byproduct of creating a successful experience for a band’s fans.  Let me repeat that: a solid recording is merely the byproduct of creating a successful experience for a band’s fans.

OK…so microeconomics can no longer explain the production of recorded music, but surely it can still explain the transaction that contains the no-longer-economic transaction of a recorded song.  Which, presumably, is the audience’s instant experience of the live performance of the song that’s being recorded.  It turns out that is also incomplete, incorrect, or both.  If you have ever watched a professional golfer make a drive off the tee, you know that the ball’s trajectory is completely determined the instant it leaves the club-face.  Yet the best golfers will say that good “follow-through”, the action of the swing after the ball is completely unaffected by the club, is crucial to making a good shot.  The same is true in many sports: tennis, basketball, baseball, etc.  In the case of the Groovebox model, the recording is the “good shot,” but the delivery of the audience experience is the solid follow-through.  And most microeconomic theories don’t measure what happens after the transaction.

There are two economic theories that do pay attention to follow-through.  Amartya Sen’s  social choice theory. (which won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998) and Oliver Williamson’s work on transaction cost economics (which won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009).  Both these theories look toward long-term consequences of economics choices rather than the instant gratification of microeconomics.  And a theme that unifies both the work of Jeff Wenzel with indie bands in Detroit, Robert Douglass and Kimiko Ishizaka-Douglass with their classical piano recordings, and Museopen’s wide-ranging efforts to liberate classical music in general is that they have found a means to make the agency and choices of the audience a meaningful (and in some cases, tangible) aspect of the final product.  This is obvious to anyone who has read the Crafter Manifesto:, the first two points of which are:

  • People get satisfaction for being able to create/craft things because they can see themselves in the objects they make. This is not possible in purchased products.
  • The things that people have made themselves have magic powers. They have hidden meanings that other people can’t see.

The whole idea of The Miraverse is to be an environment where such crafting, such magic, can be created, experienced, communicated, and shared.  And it is why we are really excited to invite people to experience the magic of Kimiko’s performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier on November 3rd at 5pm EST.  Though in-person participation is extremely limited, online participation is not, so we invite you to reserve some time on a Sunday and share the experience.  With thousands of people backing the creation of newly shared (and shareable) works, we’d love to see thousands experience this creative process first-hand.

But even if you cannot make it, know that this new movement is gaining momentum and building strength.  Every project teaches us new lessons, and every lesson helps us successfully reach more artists and more audiences.  One thing is certain: the stronger the responses to these current projects, the more encouragement it gives to future projects.  By investing now, you will help “pay it forward” for projects that reach the top of your wish list.

I really should end this blog posting here, but I developed some other ideas while writing the above that I don’t want to throw away, so I’m writing it here in hopes that later I might update it as a blog posting of its own.  (Point #3 of the Crafter Manifesto is “The things people make they usually want to keep and update. Crafting is not against consumption. It is against throwing things away.”)  The idea concerns the relationship of products, brands, and customers (be they consumers or participants).

Brands such as Coca-cola, Budweiser, and Marlboro are recognized around the world.  Previously ignored by accountants because brands were intangible, we now understand that more than half the value of the Coca Cola company is attributed its brands and its marks, not its fixed assets.  And one of the great promises of these brands is that no matter how hapless, no matter how down-trodden they may be in real life, through the magic of advertising the buyer “becomes” the promise of the brand by consuming the product.  But for every scarecrow, every cowardly lion, every tin man who seek external validation for fulfillment, there is a Dorothy striving to find their family and their community from what lies within them.  Brands like IKEA, The Sierra Club, and open source projects such as Fedora create community through participation.  Shared struggles and shared triumphs are the shared experiences that create both the identity of the individual and the identity of the community.  The magic that only the crafter can see.  Chris Grams does a wonderful job explaining brand and brand positioning in his book The Ad-free Brand, which I commend to you.  Thanks for reading!

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