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The business of begging: Kickstarter

Got a bright idea for a film, a comic or even a hi-tech watch? For many, Kickstarter could be the answer – and now it’s launched in Britain.

Time was, in the olden days, that in order to create a video game, or fund a film or album, or make a comic, you needed a generous and deep-pocketed patron, or a corporation behind you which thought there was something – profit, in other words – in it for them. There might have even been a grant from an arts body somewhere. Remember them?

Crowdfunding, where large numbers of people donate small sums of money to a project, has changed that. Kickstarter is not the first online funding site for creative projects – ArtistShare was launched in 2003 to enable musicians to bypass record labels, and was followed by other sites such as IndieGogo – but it has gained the most traction and attention.

Since the site launched in April 2009, more than 2.5 million people have helped to successfully back more than 30,000 creative projects. It has helped fund Oscar-nominated short films and put new products on the market. Earlier this year, the creators of a watch that can wirelessly connect to a smartphone raised more than $10m (£6m) on the site after being turned down by traditional investors.

The singer Amanda Palmer raised $1.2m (£745,000) to record her album and tour; this week, the film director David Fincher reached his goal to fund part of an animated film. In October, a role-playing game developer raised nearly $4m (£2.5m) from more than 73,000 backers. The site estimates that around 10% of the films accepted into the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals this year were funded by Kickstarter.

Until recently, British projects have been hosted on the site, but the funds have needed to go through a US bank account and so they needed a US resident as a co-creator. In November, the site launched properly in the UK, and in the first week, 171 projects were put on the site, raising more than £500,000.

“From the beginning, the philosophy and the motivation behind this has been to be a platform for people to create things and put more art and creative work out into the world,” says Yancey Strickler, head of community and one of the site’s three co-founders. “The economy for funding creativity is one that is driven by profit and there really isn’t a lot of space for people who want to make art for art’s sake.

“Each project is judged solely by its own ambitions and not by the ambitions of gatekeepers or the broader market. It’s communities of individuals deciding what they want to see exist.”

Projects are chosen, he says, according to the rules of the site. “It has to have a finite goal. It’s not open-ended, it’s not funding a career; it’s making a record or a film. There are things we don’t allow, such as a lot of product-type things.” They have to fit one of the 13 creative categories, which include art, technology, dance, film, music and food (the site has helped fund new food products and pop-up restaurants). There is a time limit – if the creators don’t reach their goal, money is returned to the backers. If they do reach their goal, backers are given rewards – anything from an executive producer credit on a film to first copies of a comic.

Launching a project is far from a guaranteed success – less than half of the Kickstarter projects reach their funding goal, and around 12% don’t receive a single pledge. For those projects that are wildly successful and far exceed their target, it brings new problems as creators are left fulfilling a far larger number of orders for a product than they expected.

According to a study of design and technology projects on Kickstarter by Ethan Mollick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, only a quarter delivered their rewards on time. The famous Pebble watch has missed its delivery deadline, and last weekend its creators admitted it still hadn’t even gone into mass production. Because many of the tech products funded by the site do not exist – the point of the funding is to create them and bring them to market – Kickstarter has been criticised for “selling” a “hypothetical future product” that may never materialise.

For artists, there is a danger that backers expecting a finished product can put pressure on the creative process. People who funded one musician, Josh Dibb from Animal Collective, to go on a trip to Mali in 2009 have complained they have not received their side of the deal – photographs and a CD of music inspired by the trip; Dibb has said he wasn’t happy with the music he wrote.

The flipside of fans becoming directly involved in the funding of a project is that they rightly have an interest in where and how the money is spent. Amanda Palmer posted a breakdown of how the money she raised would be spent, and some people criticised her for the amount allocated to pay off debts ($250,000) and produce art books for backers. She faced further criticism after, having raised more than 10 times what she had asked for in the first place, she asked local musicians to play with her band for free on her tour (she soon agreed to pay them).

Creators, and the site, are clearly still feeling their way through the implications of crowdfunding (in September, for instance, Kickstarter introduced new guidelines for design and technology projects to avoid disappointed backers. “The internet has created the opportunity for people to express what they want and Kickstarter gives them the tool to follow it through,” says Strickler. “When I’m supporting some band [through the site] I love, I’m not ‘shopping’ in the record store, I’m creating alongside them. I get to see the thing happen and be part of the process and know that I made a contribution. I think the emotional resonance that comes with that is huge.”

This article first appeared in the Guardian

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