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On Jazz, My Record, and Kickstarter

So, I just ran this Kickstarter campaign. It went well. I asked for $29k to make a jazz record, and I raised over $60k. I had nearly 1300 backers, many of whom were brand new listeners, who discovered me via the campaign. A huge number of these backers were international (holla, Aussies!). After hitting my “true goal” of $34k (that’s how much I was looking for to fully fund the record), I added “stretch goals” to fund a PR campaign, a national full-band tour, and a solo tour in Australia.

In short, it was nuts. The likelihood of somebody in my position raising that amount of money on Kickstarter is quite slim. Thus, people have been asking me how I think it happened. Here are my thoughts.

1) I found an audience for my record, and I spoke to them directly.

Part I, The Record: This is a record I’ve been wanting to make for most of my life. I’m extremely passionate about jazz music, and relatedly, about the plight of jazz in contemporary America. Although it’s hard to pin down accurate and up-to-date numbers (you can’t believe everything you read on the internet), jazz currently holds around 3-5% of the American music market share. At the same time jazz has been losing listeners, its listeners are aging. The average age of a jazz fan in the US is around 50.

In short, jazz is going the way of classical music. It’s becoming a genre for well-educated, high-class, mostly old, mostly white people to listen to in concert halls.

Now, obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Two of them are notable, considering the crowd that is probably reading this post: if you’re a swing dancer, you probably love jazz. If you live in New Orleans, you probably listen to live jazz regularly. But let me gently burst the tiny bubble that we’re all living in: if you took every swing dancer in the US, and put them in a room with every single man, woman and child in New Orleans, you’d have maybe 400,000 people. That’s less than .2% of the US population. Add in every working jazz musician in the rest of the US, and you’d have - maybe - the population of Omaha, Nebraska.

So, regardless of your personal feelings about jazz, the amount of passion you have for it, or the amount of time you spend listening to it, dancing to it or playing it, you have to admit that it’s got a problem.

As a songwriter and song-geek, I have a big fear that the art of songwriting is going the way of, say, basket-weaving. Like, within a generation or two, it will be a quaint craftsy thing that kids do at summer camp; and popular music will be written exclusively by machines and committees. The folks who are currently lauded as the “great songwriters of my generation” do not move me even 1/100th as much as a Gershwin, or a Dylan, or even a Costello. I think songs are getting worse, and I think the waning of jazz in contemporary culture is partly to blame. In other words, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Dylan and Costello have both listened to plenty of Gershwin.

Every time I meet a young songwriter who’s never heard of Billie Holiday (this happens more than you think), or who compliments me at a show on “that great new song of yours”, and means “Sweet Lorraine”, the fear grows.

So, the kind of jazz revival that I’m most interested in is not of the Esparanza Spalding variety (although I think she’s great), nor is it of the swing danceable trad jazz variety (although I am a dancer myself, and I love a lot of the dance bands who are currently out there). Neither is it of the Norah Jones variety (which is accessible, clearly, but is not quite up to the Gershwin bar in terms of songwriting).

The jazz revival I want to see is of the tasteful pop variety (side note: I firmly believe that those two words are not mutually exclusive). I want to hear more jazz that meets a high standard in terms of songwriting, performance and production quality, BUT that anybody, from any background, can appreciate, enjoy, and get stuck in their head. The kind of record that your average thirteen-year-old girl might pick up, put on, and feel moved by. That way, when that girl starts writing songs, she’ll have some Gershwin knocking around in her brain, along with Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.

Whew. It feels good to get that off my chest.

Part II, The Audience: So, the way this all relates to the Kickstarter campaign is this: there’s a demand for what I’m doing. Many of the backers I heard from said things like, “I’ve always thought that jazz was too complicated for me.” or, “My Grandparents listened to this music, I haven’t listened to it since I was a kid.”

When I put my campaign together, I made a conscious decision to speak directly to the people who I am making this record for. I wasn’t speaking to jazz musicians, or dancers, or anyone who’s already part of the “jazz scene”. I wasn’t even speaking to the fans I already had - at least, not primarily.

I was speaking to non-jazz-geeks, who want an entry into the world of jazz. As it turns out, a lot of those people were listening.

2) I kept people involved.

I sent updates to my backers every single day. I made them videos, I recorded songs for them, and I wrote epic essays about each song I’ll be including on the record (I plan to post some of those on this blog). I also answered every comment and email that I got over the course of the 30-day campaign. Thus, the people who backed my project felt like I was talking to them, and I was.  At the same time, I posted on Facebook and twitter every day, and did my best to provide new content and/or information every time I posted. I had my friends make cute support videos. I tweeted at people with large fan bases who were also involved in Kickstarter (like Amanda Palmer (who tweeted the project) and Spike Lee (who backed it)). I ran silly contests on Facebook like “if we hit 1000 backers by 12pm I will make a video of myself rolling around like a kitten in a yarn factory.”  

 The risk of all this involvement was wearing people out, and I think some people did get worn out (sorry if you were one of them!). I was willing to take that risk because the advantage was huge: the people who did support what I was doing got really invested in the project. They became super-fans, shared my project with their friends, and made important suggestions about how I could better manage the campaign.  In other words, I was working to make fans, not just money. 

3) I prepared. A lot.

Before launching my campaign, I spent about two weeks reading everything I could find about running a Kickstarter campaign. I also stalked other people’s campaigns relentlessly and stole their ideas. Here are the best resources I found:

Launch and Release - This is a brilliant blog written by two musicians who also happen to smart, down-to-earth, mathy-type guys. They introduce a novel concept to the world of crowdfunding: statistics. In addition to a bunch of really helpful “case studies”, this site offers a “fundability calculator”, which tells you how much you can reasonably expect to raise on Kickstarter (as determined by the number of fans/friends/family you currently have access to.) Do yourself a favor and read this post. *Full disclosure: after reading their blog, I actually hired these guys to help me with my campaign.*

This TED Talk from Amanda Palmer - If you have any feelings of guilt, shame, or hesitancy about asking people for money in exchange for your art, watch this video. OR if you have any inner conflict about asking for gigs, or help, or places to stay. OR if it makes you mad that people steal music and other digital content. Amanda has a revolutionary and brilliant grasp on what it means to be an artist in the 21st century. What she says in this video is absolutely profound.

Here are my favorite Kickstarter campaigns:

4) I am really, really lucky.

That’s just a fact. I can’t explain it, but I am extremely grateful for it. I’m extremely grateful to have friends like Vienna Teng (see below). I’m extremely grateful to have so many outstandingly caring, enthusiastic, and generous fans. Thanks for your support, with this project and all the others.

Post by Vienna Teng.


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  1. carsieblanton posted this