Archive for the “The Business” Category

Maura Lafferty is one of the most astute and social media savvy publicists of classical music around. Since several of her clients have used Kickstarter as part of fundraising campaigns, we asked her to write a guest blog about the platform. Maura’s been kind enough to share some tips for our readers about how to best employ Kickstarter to fund their next project.

Maura Lafferty

I get a lot of questions about Kickstarter and funding commissions through this tool, and have chimed in on a number of Twitter conversations about its effectiveness.

Kickstarter is a threshold giving system: for those unfamiliar with it, an artist or small organization can set up a fundraising campaign through the tool. Kickstarter provides a unique web portal for the giving, and takes a percentage of the fees. No 501(c)(3) tax deduction is offered, rather, the user sets up a series of giving benefits at different levels. For a new music project, this can boil down to basically fronting the money for a CD to make the project possible. The threshold offers a double safety valve to reduce the risk on a project driven by independent artists: the donor’s money won’t be wasted on an unsuccessful project, and the artist won’t be forced to work with insufficient resources.

Despite a number of successfully funded Kickstarter projects, many people are starting to resent seeing a link or request from the site, and this conversation is not unique to the new music community. Theater and other performing arts folks are also debating the challenges and usefulness of a site like Kickstarter. My response to these concerns is that you can’t blame the tool: blame the people whose behavior reflects a lack of understanding, and poor implementation, and, if you’re afraid you might be one of those people, try and figure out how to use it well.

A successful Kickstarter campaign – i.e., one that raises the money needed for the project (whether this is the threshold or a higher goal) – is the end product of successful communicating the value of one’s project, and converting that value into a dollar transaction on the part of the audience. This type of conversion is not unique to this platform: ticket and CD sales also require the same diligence when it comes to reaching audiences. Traditional marketing wisdom says that it takes 10 impressions/interactions with your product or brand before a new audience member reaches that point of conversion.

The advertising, promotion, and fundraising behavior that people resent comes from people who can’t think beyond their immediate circle of friends, colleagues and potential supporters, and just corner them or ask them repeatedly until they wear down. Christian Carey has likened composers sending him a Kickstarter link to the kid knocking on doors selling candy bars to his neighbors (“Well, only after I’d gotten twelve Kickstarter requests in a single day!” – CC).

Let’s be really honest: we all HATE that kid. He’s cute, the money goes to a cause that sounds good at the time, and you basically can’t say no when he’s standing on your doorstep. When you close the door, there’s a good chance you think to yourself: “Now what the HECK am I going to do with a box of 20 chocolate bars?” (Or, if it was my brother on your doorstep, you could basically kiss the money goodbye, because there was a chance that the envelope of money disappeared into the bowels of his completely disorganized desk.) This is why my mother always made me write a note to my neighbors, which I distributed in mailboxes, informing them that I had a school fundraiser, what it supported, and the deadline, and then I had to wait for the neighbors to call me.

This begs the all-important question: how do you find that audience, and how do you accumulate the 10 impressions needed per donor, without driving everyone around you completely insane? Like any good communication, advertising, or traditional fundraising campaign (some might say there is no difference from this latter), accomplishing a Kickstarter goal requires answering some key questions.

Identifying your audience requires thinking beyond your immediate circle and understanding what will motivate the target group of donors. The answer to what makes a YouTube or other Internet video go viral is identical: finding a point of resonance with something the audience already values, and providing something that taps into those values. This doesn’t mean “spinning” your pitch or changing anything you do artistically, but it does require some awareness and thoughtfulness at the outset.

I’ve worked on promoting three Kickstarter campaigns for new music projects, two of which were over-funded, and the most recent doubled its goal.  My very first engagement as an independent publicist resulted in Meerenai Shim and Daniel Felsenfeld anchoring Chloe Veltman’s New York Times article about evolving models of commissioning in January.

In Meerenai Shim’s case, her first Kickstarter campaign was successful because the concept of the project was something that everyone in her new music community on Twitter could get behind: an independent musician was undertaking a big fancy commission purely because she’s passionate about new music, and wanted to pay Daniel Felsenfeld a fair price for his work. The underlying values made this an easy project for the community to get behind. Meerenai had already done a lot of work building up this community online, and translated that work into her promotional pieces to drive the campaign: videos, reward swag like t-shirts, and even engaging a publicist to amplify the message beyond her immediate circle.

Dale Trumbore’s most recent campaign tapped into the communities of family and friends who had known her, soprano Gillian Hollis, and the other members of the project team. We reached out to personal circles that had known us growing up, attended the musicians’ high school and college recitals, which wanted to see the local girls accomplish something great. The video and other promotional materials focused on the members of the team, their talent, and the opportunity that this project represented.

An interesting side-note about Dale’s project: when she set her threshold, Kickstarter asks the artist to “ask for the minimum needed to make the project successful.” This is good advice: I’ve seen users set overly-ambitious threshold goals, which they then struggled to meet by the deadline. Dale took it to an extreme, setting her Kickstarter goal at $15, which meant that everything over that went directly to the project. The threshold does not have to be the fundraising goal: Dale’s real goal was $2,000.

The most challenging Kickstarter project that I worked on that was a challenge was Curtis Hughes’ campaign to fund his recording of “Say it Ain’t So, Joe,” which had premiered a few years prior to this project. I was initially enthusiastic: I could see a lot of potential tie-ins, and he mentioned the buzz that had surrounded the original production. Unfortunately, there were several things that added to the difficulty, and created stress that could have been avoided.

First, Curtis’ goal (and threshold) was significantly higher than any of the other projects I’ve worked on ($11,000). Second, the musicians engaged on the recording did not represent the full complement of the Boston-based Guerrilla Opera Company. Using part of an organization can present its own challenges. If only some are invited to participate, it may limit the rest of the organization’s drive to support the project and to spread the word among their audience. The intended audience I pitched was one that I really didn’t know very well (political writers), and I honestly didn’t know Curtis or the Guerrilla Opera community well enough before leaping into the project. Despite these initial challenges, we learned as we went and there’s a happy ending: the project ultimately did get funded, and I understand that the recording process went smoothly.

Audience awareness is the single biggest answer to any successful effort that an artist undertakes and converting those efforts into the bottom line that makes it possible to dedicate oneself to the project.  The more we know ourselves, the art at hand, and the target audience, the more effectively we can communicate and produce results.


Fundraising through Kickstarter: pitfalls to avoid:

–       Nagging your audience: whenever you post the link, make sure that there is always a new tidbit, fact, or supporting detail to offer your audience

–       Wasting your credit with your support network/audience: make sure this is the project that you want your supporters to devote their attention to

–       Setting an unreasonable goal/threshold for the scope of your support network and target audience: know how much your market is willing to give, and ask accordingly. If that means scaling back part of the project, or finding additional sources of funding from other arenas, adjust accordingly.

–       Desperate, last-minute begging to reach an absurdly high goal: set your threshold at a comfortable place, so you can accomplish something meaningful, and your efforts aren’t wasted on a goal that you miss.

–       Modeling your Kickstarter campaign too closely on others’: offer something distinctive

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In a recent piece for Slate , musicologist Jan Swafford took readers on a little tour of contemporary music that has yielded a fair share of controversy. Mind you, that Slate is publishing a piece on contemporary concert music (or, as Swafford puts it, “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it”) for a general readership is a very good thing. But I wonder if we couldn’t do better than Mr. Swafford’s myopic, narrow-minded and patronizing article.

For the record—and right off the bat—let me state that I agree with Mr. Swafford’s ultimate message that “(t)he archetypal avant-garde sensibility was captured in the dictum ‘Make it good or make it bad, but make it new.’ I suggest that it’s time to take that attitude out behind the barn and shoot it. (Emphasis mine.) Standing in the middle of the sometimes interesting chaos and anarchy that is the scene in all the arts, I suggest in its place: Make it old or make it new, but for chrissake (sic) make it good.”

Let’s, by all means, stop worrying about categories and just care about the quality of the work presented. Categories will sort themselves out. This is something for future musicologists to do, not present ones. But Mr. Swafford spends the bulk of his article before this point doing precisely the hair splitting he is decrying (or have I missed the point? Is he really decrying the fact that none of the music he samples—save perhaps his own – is any good?).

Fine, you might say; he’s splitting hairs. Isn’t that his prerogative as a musicologist? Sure, I would say; if only he’d bothered doing more than just cursory research for examples that prove his point.

For example: in his definition of “academic brutalism” he cites an excerpt from Jefferson Friedman’s Eight Songs, a “real colonoscopy of a piece” that consists of transcriptions of songs by “the noise band Crom-Tech” which Friedman made for the Yesaroun’ Duo in 2004. On the basis of this piece alone, Mr. Swafford catalogs Friedman as an “academic brutalist.” While Friedman doesn’t appear to be associated with a university at the present time (shouldn’t an “academic” anything be involved primarily in academia?), a quick glance at Mr. Friedman’s music page on his website quickly reveals that he is far from an academic anything and not merely a “brutalist.” Sure, the particular example of Eight Songs Mr. Swafford cites is pretty brutal, but, from what I can gleam in a quick excursion into Crom-Tech’s work via YouTube, it’s a pretty faithful evocation of the original source material. Given that “aesthetic brutalists” (by way of Xenakis) “want to hurt you” one might be surprised, when one samples, say, Friedman’s 78 or his haunting (and rightly revered) String Quartet no. 2. Mr. Friedman, if anything, would fit in what Kyle Gann would call a totalist style (a problematic label as well, to be sure, but one which I increasingly find useful for music that has roots traceable to minimalism but also welcoming higher degrees of rhythmic and harmonic dissonance as well as influences from rock, pop as well as other “classical” genres), but mostly one is struck by its shear pleasantness. This is incredibly rewarding music to listen to that is far from hurtful and straying far from the pandering banality that can trap all but the most skilled composers of what Swafford calls the “new niceness” (seriously, what about the term Neo-Romanticism fails to apply here?).

I won’t even get into Swafford’s description of a “lecture by a young academic brutalist” whom he refused to name, but who has identified himself to his friends on Facebook (I’ll try to extend some respect to Mr. Swafford by continuing to keep our “young academic brutalist” anonymous in this forum, though I really hope he comes out with a more formal reply to the Slate article than a brief discussion on Facebook).

I’m writing for an audience of connoisseurs here, so it’s a little redundant of me to say that “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it” is a LOT of things far beyond the limited and limiting list of malformed categories Mr. Swafford has devised. And, to be fair to Mr. Swafford, I don’t think he’s suggesting that his list is exhaustive or representative of even a majority of the styles of concert music today. But it is disingenuous, patronizing and ridiculous to frame your explanation of the “new noises” in a tone that barely hides your contempt for this music. If this is advocacy, please, stop doing us any favors!

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The latest vendor to wade into the online sales arena is Sony’s Ariama. The site’s “public beta” version was recently unveiled. That means that the store is up and running, although they’re still tweaking things and making additions.

More than fifty major and indie classical labels have already signed up to sell their catalogs on Ariama. There are several purchasing options available, including MP3, lossless digital (at a higher price), CDs, and SACDs. This past week, I went on to the site to “kick the tires,” making a few purchases and checking on its search engine and offerings. A few observations:

The interface is attractive and updated regularly. Andriessen’s Grawemeyer win is currently featured on the splash page.

Reviews and artist data are provided by one of my favorite database sites: Allmusic.

Searches ran easily and quickly. You can search through a variety of categories: Conductors, Performers, Orchestras, Periods, etc. A label search, like you find on Naxos, might be a nice addition.

There is also a consumer-friendly “Recommendations” section. It includes listings for the BBC Music Magazine Awards, Gramophone’s Basic Library, and even “Classical for Kids.” I was impressed with the way that Ariama incorporated features like this, which will help the classical neophyte to get started building a collection, with lots of other detailed information.

Downloading MP3s went smoothly: the Ariama tool is similar to the downloader one uses on Amazon or eMusic. It’s very straightforward to set up and use.

As an aside, I’m not quite sure why labels insist on charging a higher price for lossless. When the industry is still struggling to convert classical music buffs and audiophiles to the digital domain, it seems like a pennywise pound foolish decision.

There’s a very good selection of contemporary music. On my visit, I got a contemporary recital disc by pianist Mario Formenti, a Marco Stroppa disc, and Yvar Mikhashoff’s Tango album as a download.

Some imprints, like Kairos and Mode, only offer physical recordings (CD, SACD). While I love having physical copies of recordings, it’s best for vendors to be versatile and have both on offer. Hopefully, as Ariama gets more established, it will be able to offer downloads by more of the participating labels.

Pricing is fair. Most searches I ran side by side with Amazon ended up with identical prices. Ariama is currently offering free shipping as an introductory offer, which is a nice perk.

One aspect of the site’s searches that may prove vexsome to Sequenza 21 readers is its categorization of contemporary classical. In addition to the aforementioned search categories, the site divides music into periods, with more recent music being categorized as either Modern (1900-2000) or Contemporary (1975-present) categories. While one can already see a conflict in dating, the pages for each of these eras reveal some quirks. A CD of Chopin Waltzes recorded by Ingrid Fliter has inexplicably made its way onto the featured selections in the “Modern” category.

Over on the “Contemporary” side, the list of “Essential Works” leads off with Bernstein’s West Side Story (1957) and Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (1948). The first of its featured releases is Yo-Yo Ma’s Songs of Joy recording. Released in 2008, this ecumenical holiday album is certainly of recent vintage, but it seems strange to be billing it as “contemporary music.” There is a separate category for crossover albums; seems this one was inadvertently placed in the wrong bin! They might consider getting some curatorial help on the this side of the site.

But how can contemporary classical buffs complain when Ariama is offering Sequenza 21 readers a special coupon good for 10% off your order? Here’s how it works:

To mark the launch of Ariama, Sequenza 21 readers in North America can receive 10% off any purchase by using the code SEQUENZA21-1 (the offer expires on December 31, 2010). To visit the store click this link:

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The consistently thought-provoking Kyle Gann has a complaint: “I think young composers might want to think about diversifying the composers they base their styles on beyond John Coolidge Adams.”   He gets a lot more promotional CDs than I do from record labels and young composers hoping to lure him out of music-critic retirement to provide that coveted Kyle Gann pull-quote for their bios.  (Can I do the heist-movie thing and say they want to get him out of retirement for “one last score”?  Too late, I already did.)  As I said, I don’t get the same recordings that Kyle gets, but let’s take him at his word and stipulate that an awful lot of the postminimalist composers out there–especially the more successful ones–are writing warmed-over John Adams.  I like John Adams as much as the next guy, and I’ve written my share of ersatz Adams, but too many composers hewing too closely to a single model could be cause for concern.  When I followed up with Kyle over e-mail, he did say that “a lot of young composers I know don’t sound like Adams at all, but they’re by far the less successful ones,” so what we’re seeing may be more of a skew in economic outcomes than a skew in total underlying populations, but that skew would also be troubling.

I wonder if part of what we’re seeing here is the wages of the stylistic tunnel-vision of the music higher-education system.  Read the rest of this entry »

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