On Kickstarter and Dreams

"What if Kickstarter is more about the experience of kickstarting than it is about the finished products?" asks Ian Bogost in a recent piece for Fast Company. Well, that's precisely what Kickstarter (and any other crowdfunding site, for that matter) is about. As Felix Salmon writes in a response to Bogost's piece:

I funded Tomorrow magazine, for instance, to the tune of $15. […] If some as-yet nonexistent magazine had sent me a piece of direct mail, asking $15 for its launch issue, I would never have paid that. Even if an existing magazine looked really good on the newsstand, and had a cover price of $15, I would similarly never pay that. But somehow the idea that by paying the $15 up front I was helping to create that magazine - that was enough to get me to pay. That, and the fact that the founders of Tomorrow magazine are in my social graph - I'm helping out friends as much as I'm buying a product.

Bogost, meanwhile, describes his relationship to "the Pen Type-A, a slick stainless-steel enclosure for Japanese gel ink pens that I first saw on Kickstarter but pre-ordered shortly after their campaign raised more than 100 times its goal in August of last year." He's now received the pen, and, "It's nice, I guess, but I'm still using a $2 roller-ball to sketch notes in my Moleskine. Yet the Pen Type-A is more than a $100 metal pen that never gets used, it's a memento of the excitement I felt after first seeing the product."

I guess the question that's raised when these two pieces are juxtaposed is: what does "the experience of kickstarting" involve? Bogost's conclusion is that "we don't really want the stuff. We're paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it." Salmon, on the other hand is "not paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, so much as paying to support the individuals whom I like and admire." Moreover, he writes, the product is still important: "while 'I'm buying a dream' makes a certain amount of sense for a $1 lottery ticket, it makes much less sense for $100 vaporware. […] If I'm spending $100, I want significantly more than just a dream."

It's this invocation of the word 'dream' that I find interesting. The title of Salmon's piece is "Is Kickstarter selling dreams?" I've been thinking and writing about this myself lately, for a chapter of my book. I'm looking at it through a particular lens, primarily examining the way that musicians (and, to a certain extent, other artists, including writers) use crowdfunding tools such as Kickstarter. And I think the answer is that yes, absolutely, Kickstarter is selling dreams. Only it's not selling dreams to consumers. Consumers, as both Bogost and Salmon indicate, are happy to pay more for a product on Kickstarter because they're buying the privilege of being part of that product's history. What 'being part of that product's history' actually means will probably differ depending on who the consumer is, what kind of product he's buying, what relationship (if any) he has to the maker of that product, how much money he's parting with, and a million other factors. But fundamentally, the consumer is buying some combination of experience + product. The dreams are being sold to the makers, the would-be artists and inventors.

The internet has created an environment in which any artist has the opportunity to connect directly with potential supporters. What this means is that, for instance, a band with no ties to the industry, no external support or other advantages, playing in their basement, can now theoretically harness the power of a community to build whatever it is they need to build: a fund for recording, an even bigger community, a road out of obscurity. The sky is ostensibly the limit, particularly because profit, if there is any, actually reaches the artist.

I think this is a good thing, for the most part. It's strengthened the connection between creators and consumers, allowed niche projects that might otherwise have gone unnoticed to flourish, and sparked necessary discussions about how we produce, pay for, and distribute creative output in a world where the internet exists.

But if we're going to talk about selling dreams, let's consider the possibility that this "do everything yourself" world is selling a dream that's just as powerful as the traditional "get discovered, sign to a major label, buy a Cribs-worthy mansion" rock 'n' roll myth it's trying to subvert. Now any monkey with a guitar has a chance to make a million bucks, just like Amanda Palmer did. Maybe Kickstarter isn't selling you a promise of fame and fortune (although there does seem to be some temptation to look at DIY as an alternative pathway to the same old version of commercial success - e.g. the young artist profiled in the Guardian a few months ago who'd dabbled with crowdfunding: “Getting her album made thanks to her fans is the first step, Miss Stylie says, on a path to world domination”). Maybe it’s just selling you the idea that you can make money - some money, any money, ten pounds, say, or a hundred - from your music (or your swanky pen, for that matter). But either way, it's almost certainly selling you the idea that you can change something, or be part of some change; there's a sense of infinite individual possibility tinged with worthiness. “People get excited about it, I suppose, because it’s new and it’s an opportunity - it’s like maybe this is how music could come out and it could level the field,” says Ben Folds (who recently announced the launch of a crowdfunded project). “Well, it’s not going to. Let’s say Kanye West decided to go do Kickstarter - he’d blow the Internet up. What good would that do? It wouldn’t mean that the band next door is going to have a better chance.”

This doesn't mean that crowdfunding is the enemy, any more than it means that crowdfunding is the answer. It just means that the narrative is complicated. I still like the idea that part of the appeal of crowdfunding is to pay not just for product but for process; from the perspective of the artist, I suppose, maybe the healthiest response is to enjoy the process too, just in case there isn't a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.