The Sadness of Crowds

Marillion’s 2001 release, Anoraknophobia, was a pun for a different age. Singer Steve Hogarth told the BBC in May of that year, “In those days everyone was pointing and laughing and calling us nerds. Now it’s the trendy thing to do.”

They were getting laughed at because in the mid 1990s they had staked their future on the Internet, and ‘anorak’ was shorthand used by ordinary people to describe those showing a weird obsession with computers and websites. And the reason the album was noteworthy for the BBC pop-tech journalists was that the band had emailed its fans asking them to buy it before it was even made, and had financed recording and production with the proceeds. In other words, they had introduced ‘crowdfunding’ to the recorded music industry.

The band and their manager explain the deal on their website in an archived news item. Two things stand out from the perspective of 15 years of technical and market development. The first is that the deal was extraordinarily simple. The band set a price, the fans paid, the band made the CD and sent it to them. As a thank you, all the supporters names were printed in the booklet. The second thing is that this was a small part of the release plan, with the fans only expected to account for 5% of total sales. Marillion was just as innovative with their deal with EMI, which seemed happy to pick up the other 95%. Access to finance meant that Marillion could keep ownership of the copyright.

From Marillion’s news archive:

EMI Liberty’s co-director Peter Duckworth added: “We were very impressed with this venture which we believe breaks new ground in the industry. We are all in a win, win situation, EMI are happy, retail is happy, the band are happy and the fans are extremely happy.”

For all the excitement Marillion were far from being the inventors of crowdfunding. The London Gazette of 24th May 1683 caries an advertisement from Henry Purcell to his crowdfunders letting them know that the Sonatas of three Parts were ready and that the price would go up for people who wanted to wait and buy them from the booksellers.

Serialisation, which really hit the big time with Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, was another form of crowdfunding, with episodes being sold monthly for a shilling and sandwiched between pages of advertising. A popular story added readers month by month, with the advantage that a writer could extend the plot until the public tired of it. Buyers of the first instalment of Pickwick in March 1836 had to wait until October 1837 to read the last chapter. The deadlines could be gruelling even for a writer of Dickens’ facility, but the rewards could be great.

The demographics of the literate public changed dramatically between the 1830s and the 1930s, but the subscription business model proved resilient. Reader’s Digest started in 1920 as a monthly collection of condensed articles from other publications, one for each day of the month. It succeeded without advertising until rising production costs forced a change in 1954, and its readers choose ads rather than a higher price. Charging its readers in advance for writing yet to be created had gained the brand independence, credibility, and authority. In 1954 the Reader’s Digest was first to publish on the connection between smoking and lung cancer, something tobacco companies had much success in suppressing elsewhere.

Fast forward to 2016 and both the subscription and advertising models for funding new writing seem to be under stress, while in music, where advertising was only ever an adjunct, the risk capital provided by record labels has mostly retreated to the top of the charts. And Marillion is once again going to their fans to get the money to make a new album, but this time on a commercial crowdfunding platform. And what a difference that makes to the scope and nature of the project!

Far from being a single exclusive product, at a high price, with a sponsors list as the only way to say thank you for pre-ordering, Marillion now feel they have to deliver 17 different product bundles, many thousands of them signed, all exclusive. Even while they are making the album they are delivering even more exclusive content to the platform in the form of updates, photos and video clips. Sample tracks are there for free streaming. It looks like a lot of extra work. And who knows, with so much effort and exclusivity gone into this campaign, whether a record label would feel the residual sales are worth picking up, the way EMI did back in 2000?

But are the fans happier? A glance through the comments reveals some very telling whinges. The album is taking a long time. People bought one package and now they want to change their order. Limited editions have been made slightly less limited, so the value feels less. One set of signatures is not enough! Someone even wants the buyers to come up with the album title.

Customers are right to be demanding of course, but it is hard to ignore the impact of the platform in setting the rules, controlling the environment, and creating an entirely artificial competition between the projects on offer. Artists are understandably driven to create super-premium products and bundles, and work harder to attract attention as each week another tempting new project appears on the platform.

There is no harm in hard work, but what are they working on? Signing, for a start. Writing booklets, having more photographs taken, commissioning more artwork, even driving around the country to perform private gigs, and cooking dinners for buyers. It might seem like fun at the planning meeting, but probably palls after a while, as you become a combination of cottage industry and minimum wage domestic servant, chasing the crowdfunding dollar. And none of this makes a jot of difference to the record, even if some of it improves the product. Perhaps the budgets will stretch to strings and horns, and an extra few days in the studio to capture the elusive perfect performance, but perhaps they will be spent on thicker card for the record sleeves instead.

In what became both poster child and the first big scandal for music crowdfunding, some of the musicians were given a different kind of deal when Amanda Palmer raised over $1.2m dollars for her 2012 album, and offered love instead of money. An informed view of the costs of fulfilling all the various offers Palmer made suggests that actually $1.2m was not a huge lot, and she has since confirmed that she just broke even on it. But that did not wash with the public who just saw the money and thought it hypocritical. Crowdfunders are not buying art, it seems. They are patrons of their own particular definition of virtue. Palmer is crowdfunding again, this time on a platform called Patreon, and has again found herself criticised not for her art but for having a baby. Some patrons don’t want to be short changed, and don’t want such direct funding to be spent on childcare.

So what appears as freedom can turn out to be a behaviourist straightjacket. Platforms manage extreme competition between supplicants in such a way as to push artists to offer super-premium products and personal services. They choke off opportunities for other forms of finance. They divert time and money from the core – surely a great recording in music’s case – to the periphery of packaging and merchandise. And even many of the fans don’t even seem very happy. Music industry funding platforms should acknowledge and seek to address these pressures, otherwise artists risk becoming the Uber drivers of the crowdfunding economy. Perhaps the risk capital business model of the record labels, along with the ‘take it or leave it’ nature of markets was not so bad after all.

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