Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Composers and Kickstarter, Part I (4 composer-based projects)

Kickstarter, the most popular online crowd funding resource, has come a long way in a very short amount of time. Created in 2009, the website has helped people raise $881 million dollars (and counting) in project pledges, with over 52,000 total projects funded. Over five million people have backed projects. Not bad for a company that’s only four years old! Most remarkable is how Kickstarter and other similar companies have revolutionized the way in people conceive of fundraising; anyone can raise money for a project, and anyone can fund one.

How can composers best utilize Kickstarter? After searching through a large number of composer-oriented projects, I found several common themes: composers raising money for professional recordings (or organizations who want to record composers’ works), performers wanting to commission a composer to write a piece, and organizations asking for money to fund a special concert or project featuring a composer. In a future blog, I’ll address some of the finer details of crafting a Kickstarter project, but I’d like to start the conversation by discussing four projects that I feel make great use of the Kickstarter format and were all successfully funded. The first two are composer-initiated, whereas the last two are ensemble-oriented that incorporated composer-based activities (click on the project titles to visit their Kickstarter pages):

• Eric Whitacre - Virtual Choir 4: Bliss (click title to view Kickstarter project)
This is the latest project in composer Eric Whitacre’s popular and innovative “Virtual Choir” series in which singers from around the world send in videos of themselves singing his piece Bliss, which Whitacre’s audio and visual teams then piece together into a single video renditionWhitacre’s creation of a worldwide, communal choir is not only helps to spread his music around the globe, but also excites singers about tackling new music. Whitacre has built a brand around his choral music, and choristers everywhere readily identify with it.

Most impressive about Whitacre’s project is his Kickstarter video.  He starts the video by looking directly into the camera and appealing for assistance. Whitacre then gives a brief history of the virtual choir concept and furthers why he needs support. His use of storytelling, facial close-ups, and direct gaze gives one the feeling that he’s having a personal conversation with the viewer.  While it takes hiring a professional crew to pull off the quality of video that he has put together, we can all learn tips from Whitacre’s successful project to incorporate into our own.

• Daniel Knaggs – 5 new choral works performed and recorded professionally!  (click title to view)
Knaggs’ video isn’t quite as shiny as Whitacre’s – indeed, there are several segments in which he talks while standing or walking in a parking lot, accompanied by background noise and some shaky camera work.  The pacing is also a bit slow in comparison to Whitacre’s video. But Knaggs’ approach pays off – he comes across as a young, genuine, and very likeable composer, and his choir music that accompanies the video is quite beautiful.  Knaggs’ video builds the case that this is someone who has great music to share and a plan to make it happen, and needs our support to help him achieve this.

For me, the strength in Knaggs’ project is in his concept: he wants to raise money to hire 20 professional singers to perform five of his choral works on his doctoral recital.  This is a project that any entrepreneurial-minded student composer can (and should) do.  Composers need good recordings to send to choirs for performance consideration.  In college, it can be especially challenging to build a choir of one’s own (it can be difficult to even get four student musicians together, let alone twenty!).  Knaggs figured out how to build is own professional-level choir, and without any expense to himself.

• Palisades Virtuosi – New American Masters, Volume 5   (click title to view)
Palisades Virtuosi consists of the unique instrumentation of flute, clarinet, and piano. In large part due to their instrumentation, the ensemble has a “mission to commission” composers for new works that the ensemble then premieres and records. They’ve successfully used Kickstarter twice to fund the making of recordings completely dedicated to recording new works.  This particular Kickstarter campaign raised money for the fifth volume in their “New American Masters” series.

Experience pays off. The ensemble’s video is effective and concise; you quickly understand the importance of the ensemble’s mission as well as of their proposed CD project. The video features various pictures of the ensemble posing with six of the seven composers featured on the CD; we can see the personal connections between the composers and musicians. Donors can feel comfortable that they’re supporting a well-organized and composer-friendly organization.

• Chicago Harp Quartet – Debut Album  (click title to view)
The Chicago Harp Quartet project’s goal was to raise $10,000 to cover production costs of their debut CD.  This project caught my eye for two reasons.  First, their video is very compact (2 minutes, 48 seconds) yet gets all pertinent information across clearly.  The ensemble also incorporated great footage of their hometown (Chicago) into the video, as well some humor via sped-up footage of the harpists as they comically try to figure out how to best arrange their harps on a concert stage. 

The second reason is an interesting challenge that they added to their campaign – if the Quartet could raise an extra $3,000, they would commission French composer and harpist Bernard AndrĂ©s to write a new piece that would be included on the CD.  The Quartet successfully raised the extra money and all backers benefitted by getting a preview digital download of the work. Having an extra challenge for donors to reach for is an intriguing strategy and it serves as additional motivation to support the project.

I’ll further the Kickstarter discussion in a future blog. In the meantime, if you have found a particularly effective Kickstarter composer-based campaign, or if you have started a Kickstarter campaign of your own and would like to share it, please post it in the comments below!