Fresh Inc 2014
Last week I returned to the Fresh Inc Festival to speak about arts entrepreneurship (and specifically crowdfunding) to a group of young composers and performers. I was a little worried about doing the same talk over again, but as I began preparing my notes for the talk, I realized that wasn’t going to be a problem.
The ecosystem of crowdfunding is still maturing rapidly. There’s even less need to talk about the mechanics of it than there was a year ago. In Kickstarter’s early days, a lot of the conversation was about what on earth Kickstarter is. Now, a lot of the most important advice about mechanics is common knowledge: budget for shipping; don’t expect the internet to just rise up and give you money; have a sincere video; maintain your relationships with backers; be transparent. Everyone knows this stuff now, and if you need a primer on the mechanics, check out Kickstarter’s new Creator Handbook. It’s fantastic.
A lot of my new thinking has come from meeting and learning from Gary Chou, who teaches a course at SVA in entrepreneurial design, and who recently launched Orbital in Kickstarter’s old offices on Rivington street. This summer he’s leading a boot camp at Orbital for all kinds of projects, including technology businesses as well as civic and artistic projects. Gary’s committed a huge amount of time and resources to helping people make their dreams come true, and that’s fantastic. If you have the money to spare, I highly recommend sponsoring a student for the Orbital Boot Camp.
One thing I learned from Gary was the importance of group learning in entrepreneurship. Gary challenges his students at SVA, and now at Orbital, to put themselves on the line in a variety of ways. Most famously this means a project that earns $1,000 over the course of the semester. That’s very hard, but doing it in a group helps manage the fear of launching something, and helps people learn from each other. At Orbital he’s focusing the process on reporting what you learned to the rest of your cohort, and to the internet. It’s a fantastic approach.
So I started my talk for Fresh Inc by asking the students who had run crowdfunding campaigns (some of them paid their tuition this way) what their experiences felt like. The details of how the campaigns went are far less important than the emotional experiences of crowdfunding. The benefits of that experience are tremendous. So the core of my talk didn’t change. I still think every young artist should run a Kickstarter campaign (only use another platform if you have a really good reason).
The most important reason that a young artist should run a Kickstarter campaign is to gain self-knowledge. “Arts Entrepreneurship” is a very fashionable phrase, but there’s very little in the life of an artist that is like the life of an entrepreneur – except a Kickstarter campaign. Those are like tiny MBAs for artists. You come up against budgets, forecasting, marketing, inventory, shipping, team management, customer service, and a host of other business challenges all very quickly and at the same time.
And it’s not a class. It’s not an exercise. You’re art is on the line. And that’s important. Because what you, as an artist, get out of this, is knowing what you’re like when the chips are down.
Poker with m&ms isn’t like poker with money, even if it’s just pennies and nickels. And entrepreneurship isn’t something you learn through study. It’s something you learn through action.
Everyone reacts differently to each of these different challenges. Budgets make some people nervous, and help other people face challenges with confidence. Some people are energized by marketing their art, and some people panic and hide when they have to talk to people about it. And all of those reactions are fine. But you won’t know how you’ll handle those pressures until you put yourself through them. It’s not a fun experience. So why bother?
Because in this generation your artistic career is going to collide with entrepreneurship over and over again. You can run everything yourself, or you can hire an agent, or a publisher, or an editor, or a marketing assistant, or an accountant, or any of a hundred other people to help. You can blog, or make videos, or tour, or do none of those things. But your career isn’t going to look like any of your teachers’ careers. And it’s not going to look like any of your colleagues’ careers either. It’s going to match your particular talents, and your particular weaknesses in just the same way that your art itself does.
That’s what makes running a crowdfunding campaign so important. It teaches you – very, very quickly – where your strengths and weaknesses are, and how to manage them. Maybe you should get better with budgets by practicing. Or maybe you should plan to ask for help from your budget-happy friend. Or maybe you do it yourself. Whatever works is great. And you learn what works for you by practicing.
So Kickstart something. Do it early. Do it when you’re just getting started. Just do it – you’ll learn a huge amount about yourself, and you’ll get better at every other decision you have to make in your career.
The second most important thing you’ll get from your Kickstarter is relationships. Both with your audience and with your collaborators. Your audience, as I’ve said before, are basically your retirement plan. They’re the best investment an artist can make, because they’ll keep buying stuff over the course of years. They’ll put you up in their house when you tour. They’ll make introductions, give you feedback, and sell your art to their friends. Their love is worth more than money. Not because it’s warm and fuzzy, but because it’s worth more money than money.
You also get relationships with your collaborators. You know how they work, what they’re like when the chips are down. You know whether you should call them ever again. Take my advice: if they don’t carry drums, don’t call them again. Knowing you who can’t count on is just as valuable as knowing who you can.
One of the last questions from the students was about paying yourself out of your own Kickstarter. It’s hard to ask your networks for money for your project and include paying yourself. It’s so tempting to show your own commitment by not taking a paypday. But don’t do it. Pay yourself. Really.
I feel strongly about this for ethical reasons. Our culture is pushing artists into a race to the bottom. Content allegedly “wants” to be free, art is something you’re supposed to do for free, on the side, and let Google make ad revenue off of. People don’t think art counts as real work, and funding for culture has shriveled in the last twenty years.
Artists are a leading indicator for society as a whole, and what’s happening to us is also happening to the middle class. Collective bargaining is getting weaker. Job protections are going away, and people are meant to love their jobs so much they never stop working and never complain. But people deserve better than that, and artists deserve to be paid for their work. So if you’re structuring your Kickstarter, please, I beg you, pay yourself. Don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t volunteer your time at the expense of your rent. It’s hard to look your friends and family in their collective eye and say “pay my salary”, I know. But you do deserve it. And leaving it out will hurt you, your art, and all artists. Every time you take no pay, you’re contributing to a culture that says that’s okay. It’s not. Paying yourself is how you fight back.