Tech Rap: Investing in Music, Part One
Posted on July 01 2020
Discovering and enjoying a new artist’s record, CD, or digital album is great fun, but what if you could enhance your experience with the satisfaction of knowing you helped make their music possible? Crowdfunding can facilitate that. What is crowdfunding? It involves financially backing a Creator’s campaign to help bring his or her project to market, and at the same time, usually earning yourself a “reward” or “perk” in the process. What crowdfunding is not is begging for money with sugar on top. It is a respectable way to earn funds while at the same time building relationships with backers whom, the Creators hope, will continue to follow and support them throughout their journey.
Being a backer does not require coughing up a boat load of money, though you can if you wish. The way it typically works is the Creator launches a campaign on a crowdfunding platform like Indiegogo or Kickstarter, both of which have been around for a decade. The Creator offers different financial tiers to prospective backers that are tied to various rewards. For instance, in the case of a music campaign, for $25 you might get an autographed CD before its official release date. If you back at a $100 level you might get an autographed CD, a digital album down load, and handwritten lyrics to one of the songs. For higher amounts some artists will even go to your house and put on a private live performance for you and your friends.
The “reward/perk” aspect is how crowdfunding differentiates itself from other fundraising platforms like “gofundme“, which does not offer any rewards in return for donations. Although gofundme can be used to raise money for projects like creating a new album, it was designed more for personal causes such as raising money for an operation, college tuition, relief to help re-open a business after the pandemic, etc. Some of gofundme’s top campaigns include We The People Built the Wall, which so far has raised over $25 million to build a border wall, Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which helps victims of sexual abuse and harassment, having raised over $22 million, and the George Floyd Memorial Fund which has amassed over $14 million to date.
“What crowdfunding is not is begging for money with sugar on top.”
If you back a music-related crowdfunding campaign, it is quite probable you will pay more than you normally would for a CD or an LP in a store or on line. Unlike a store, when you back a project through crowdfunding you are not actually buying anything. This is a very important distinction that is lost on many a backer. A backer’s financial contribution helps support an artist’s concept at a very early stage, and in return for that early adopter support, one is usually eligible for some type of a reward to be delivered at a future date (which could be weeks, months, or a year or more away). Before you consider backing any campaign regardless of the platform, be sure you understand you are not buying something from a web shop. Once the campaign ends, with few exceptions, you cannot get your money back.
I can’t believe it’s not blasphemy: Grilled Cheesus.
Crowdfunded campaigns can be created around all sorts of things…games, books, films, electronics, watches, clothing, and yes, music, to name just a few. There has also been a plethora of successful oddball (to say the least) campaigns such as the gigantic, inflatable Lionel Richie head that raised over $10,000. Then there was the dude who decided to make his first potato salad. Go ahead and laugh, but the genius raised over $55k for himself. Now that is a lot of salad, the green kind. There was the card game with the weird name “Exploding Kittens” which raised nearly $9 million. Speaking of kittens, you will forgive me for laughing, but how about an album of music made specifically for cats? Pet owners must have wanted their felines to get Jiggy with it because that campaign raised over $240,000. And let us not forget the sandwich press that toasted the image of Jesus’ face on your slice of bread. That campaign miraculously brought in over $25,000. Can I get an Amen?
Whatever the idea, Creators set a financial goal for their campaigns based on how much money they estimate they will need to successfully turn their concept into reality. That goal might be a few hundred dollars or a million or five million. Some Creators take whatever money they raise no matter how small (called “flexible funding”), while others opt not to take any money at all unless they meet or exceed their set goal (called “fixed funding”). In the latter case, if the goal is not met, the Creator gets no money and backers do not get charged for their pledge (nor do they earn any rewards).
The Coolest Cooler ended up giving many of its backers the cold shoulder.
Make no mistake, there is some inherent risk as a backer. I regret to report the crowdfunding landscape is littered with bodies. Projects get delayed by months or even years, and sometimes backers never get the rewards they were eligible for. A few companies have even gone out of business before fulfilling rewards to their backers. One of the more spectacular failures was the Coolest Cooler which raised $13 million for a colorful cooler that looked a bit like the cute drones in the sci-fi flick “Silent Running”. The Coolest Cooler was exactly what its name implied…a cooler tricked out with an ice crushing blender, removable, waterproof Bluetooth speaker, cutting board, USB charger, dedicated storage for the included colored plastic plates and straight edge knife, magnetic bottle opener, and LED lights under the lid. Time Magazine listed the Coolest Cooler as one of the Best Inventions of 2104. As George Costanza might exclaim, sign me up, baby! But wait, there is more, unfortunately. The company officially shut its doors last December leaving 1/3 of its backers out in the cold, in a manner of speaking, without getting their coolers (which the company was selling on Amazon before many of their backers received theirs). Frosted backers brought the Coolest Cooler Creator to court and were awarded $20 each (the pledge for one cooler was $185), yet it remains to be seen if any of them will ever see that cold cash.
Pebble: The first smart watch, born from crowdfunding.
Turn that frown upside down because crowdfunding is not all doom and gloom. There is no shortage of crowdfunding success stories. Many products would not exist today without crowdfunding. Como Audio conducted two successful crowdfunding campaigns raising a combined 1/2 million dollars which helped launch our company nearly five years ago. The Pebble Time smart watch raised over $20 million. Pebble was eventually snapped up by Fitbit. Rockstar Neil Young created a high-end, portable MP3 player, “Pono”, that raised over $6 million (the company folded three years later, but the players are still usable). The wildly popular PBS children’s TV Series “Reading Rainbow” went off the air, but host LeVar Burton, formerly of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame, resurrected it through an app he crowdfunded. He met his $1 million funding goal in just eleven hours. By the time his campaign ended he had accumulated more than five times that amount, including a $1 million contribution from “Family Guy” and “The Orville” creator Seth MacFarlane.
Como Audio held two very successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns.
Why would a musician or a band embark on a crowdfunding campaign? One great advantage is it allows the artist(s) to get in front of a ton of people and build a loyal following. But the main reason is if you do not have a record label ponying up the money, making a new record can turn into a very expensive proposition with costs easily running into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. A recording studio has to be reserved, a producer, mixing, and mastering engineers hired, session musicians must be paid, music videos must be produced, CDs and/or records must be pressed and attractively packaged, all to be followed by an expensive marketing campaign and a live tour to support the new record. For many struggling musicians a crowdfunding campaign is a make or break proposition. Frankly, most of these campaigns are by musicians/singers you have never heard of before, but more recognizable names have also turned to crowdfunding like TLC, De La Soul, Presidents of the United States of America, and Amanda Palmer, who raised over $1 million for her Theatre Is Evil record.
“Many products would not exist today without crowdfunding.”
To date, I have personally (not on behalf of Como Audio) backed almost thirty different campaigns across two different platforms. The following are a few select examples of music-related reward crowdfunding campaigns I have backed.
1. King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard, Polygondwanaland
The very first crowdfunded music-related campaign I ever backed was via Kickstarter for a premium edition, colored vinyl release of Australian psychedelic rock band King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard’s Polygondwanaland. The band actually gave away their fourth album as a free download, so if you wanted it in physical form, you had to turn to folks like David Wolfson who started a Kickstarter campaign to make the record, which is reminiscent of Pink Floyd.
As a backer of Wolfson’s campaign, I received two copies of the album along with a couple of test pressings, a custom glow-in-the-dark record mat, got my name etched in the trail off groove of the record, attended the mastering session at Sterling Sound in New York City, and got to witness the Apollo Master lacquer discs being cut. The cost of travel to New York was at my own expense, but since I was coming from Massachusetts, it was not a budget-buster. Face masks and social distancing were not in our vocabulary when I made my trip.
Sterling Sound has been around since the 1960’s, and according to landr.com, 30% of the music on the US charts at any given time is likely to include Sterling masters. Sterling was tucked away in a hidden corner of New York’s Chelsea Market, which was an experience in itself, and I had a difficult time locating the entrance hidden among the myriad of food and curio vendors. The Senior Mastering Engineer for the project was one of the best in the business, Ryan Smith, who had mastered albums for Adele, Coldplay, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Beyonce, Keith Richards, Greta Van Fleet, Macy Gray, and James Taylor…exactly the kind of resume you want for your Mastering Engineer.
Sterling Sound’s Mastering Engineer, Ryan Smith, at the mastering console for Polygondwanaland. Photos by Peter Skiera
Smith carefully checking the freshly-cut grooves in the lacquer with the built-in microscope.
Carefully packing the lacquers for shipment to be plated.
I recall the tiny clear tube that hoovered up the vinyl shavings as the grooves were cut by the lathe became clogged. Smith had to stop the lathe to manually wash out the tube and start all over again with a new disc. Lacquers (also called master discs) are cut single-sided and are softer than the records consumers buy. Lacquers are not intended to be played since they are too soft, but are used to ultimately create the stampers that press the records sold in record stores. Strict temperature and humidity conditions must be observed with lacquers. Ideally, they should be plated as soon as possible after cutting before the grooves begin to decay.
I asked Wolfson, who is also the founding CEO of Aural Pleasure Records, for his recollections of that day at Sterling Sound:
“What I really liked is that Ryan K. Smith shared in that excitement, he was incredibly gracious towards us and seemed genuinely glad to involve an appreciative client in his working process. I was also really impressed with his listening abilities; the way he was able to immediately pick up on elements of the mix and the performance upon first listen. Mastering is equal parts art/science, and he really knows what he’s doing!
“I’ve seen some recent RCA Living Stereo classical reissues put out by Analogue Productions, that Ryan not only mastered but also mixed live while mastering directly from original 3-track tapes. That’s insane! I believe those were done at Sterling’s new facility in Nashville, which they partially relocated to (with another new studio in Edgewater, NJ). There are very few engineers in the world I can think of who’d even be capable of performing something like that. Very cool.”
Since I am a huge Beatles fan, I figured I would maximize my time in NYC by visiting The Dakota apartment building where John Lennon lived (and tragically died) and the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park just across the street. The whole thing was a great experience and one I only would have found through reward-based crowdfunding.
2. Stefania Patane: New Focus, Orange Home Records
I had never heard of Italy’s Stefania Patane before, and I do not speak Italian, but her passion along with the snippet of music from her CD, New Focus, in her Indiegogo campaign’s video was enough to draw me to support her project. In describing her music, Patane stated: “New Focus is a place where Afro-American and Mediterranean sounds and rhythms blend together, generating a crowd of emotions and stories that tell about transformation, truth, resilience, passion and freedom. The lyrics are mainly written in Sicilian language, that is the core of my roots. In some songs, the lyrics are written also in Italian, that is my native language and in English, that is a universal idiom.”
Patane has a degree in medicine and is also a graduate of the Arcangelo Corelli Conservatory. She has performed in many jazz festivals and clubs. She began playing guitar at the age of twelve but within a few years, opted to pursue singing. She hails from a family of classical musicians including orchestral conductors Francesco and Giuseppe Patanè. Currently she is the Voice Department Director at iMusic School Rome where she works as a vocal instructor.
Besides Patane on vocals, New Focus features Seby Burgio on piano, synth bass, and keyboards and Francesco de Rubeis on drums and percussion, along with special guests Kyungmi Lee (cello), Enrico Bracco (guitar), and Javier Girotto (saxophones, flute).
Pantane’s campaign raised just under half of her $4,320 goal, but since it was a flexible goal, she received all of the funds. Not surprisingly, most of her backers are from Italy. Unfortunately, the coronavirus had other plans for her project. As she wrote me last month: “…everything was stopped and postponed in the close future. We are not able to set the new date of release so far because it depends on how the Phase 2 with partial lockdown, that started May 4, will be. Many activities, like printing, are restarting now; others like shipping, are still slower, they currently occur for a daily partial time and they have not completely [gotten] back again.”
Backers are waiting to find out when they will receive their CDs and other rewards due to delays caused by the coronavirus. However, a stream of the entire CD via SoundCloud and the digital booklet were just emailed exclusively to all of her backers. The booklet includes track notes, printed lyrics, a plethora of pictures, and like her campaign, has text in both English and Italian. Patane also printed the names of every one of her backers in the booklet, including yours truly. Backers will receive signed copies of the printed booklet when the CD ships. Incidentally, New Focus’ interesting cover art is a painting by Marco Virzi. Of the painting, Patane says it “represents the concept of the album: we can always change [our] point of view, giving life to a new spark of creativity and generating pure love.”
As for the ten tracks on the CD, two are mostly in English while the rest are sung in Patane’s native language. This, along with the music itself, lends New Focus a kind of fresh Italian/Mediterranean/Global vibe, if that makes sense. Her voice is clear and strong without being overpowering…a breath of fresh air without the constraints of a face mask. The band is tight and plays as if they have been performing these songs for years. My favorite track is Grace and Light: “I'm growing with love / I'm growing with all of my might /and even if the space is tight / I'm growing with grace and light.” In the booklet, Patane remarks, ”I see Grace and Light on the shoots of a plant that is growing in a pot that is too small.” New Focus is the kind of upbeat jazz CD you can listen to over and over again without tiring of it. It will re-charge you with every listen.
Patane took some time out to answer my questions from Italy via email:
PS: Why did you decide to crowdfund your CD?
SP: I think that crowdfunding gives a great opportunity to spread your music, getting in touch with new people that could be happy to listen to it, and also sharing the project with people that already appreciate your music.
PS: What was the best part about your campaign (besides getting money!)?
SP: The best part was the campaign itself! All the promotions steps were like an exciting journey. I put all of my love and passion to create teasers, introducing the musicians of the band and the songs, talking about what this album means to me, and I was so grateful to share all of this contents through Indiegogo campaign and the socials. I felt that people have responded with enthusiasm to my joyful posts and updates, giving feedbacks full of interest and curiosity about the new album. Also, the collaboration with Raffaele Abbate (Orange Home Records) during all the process of creation and launching of the campaign was stimulating and positive.
PS: How has COVID-19 impacted your project?
SP: The album release was planned on the end of March, just some days after the deadline of the campaign. We had planned to tour in Rome and in Sicily for the release live concerts. Following the start of lockdown in Italy on March 10, all the live concerts were canceled. Most all the normal activities stopped.
We didn't have any choice: the release was stopped, waiting for better times. Generally, there was a lot of fear all over Italy and the atmosphere has enormously changed in few days: our “online-home lives” became slower.
As many of us, I had hard days at the beginning. I had to rearrange my personal and professional life and manage some familiar troubleshooting.
About my beloved project New Focus, the first thought was what would have been the best thing for our supporters. I prepared a preview video of the recording for them and then we decided, with Orange Home Records, to prepare a streaming preview of the entire album. I've worked on many details of the digital booklet, so that our backers could have a complete guide into the project, with translations of the lyrics and my personal thoughts about all the songs. Now we are arranging the new release date in the next September: we are close to arrange the release day. Then we will organize the shipping of the perks, in preview!
PS: Are you excited about your new music despite the challenges?
SP: Yes. I care about “New Focus” in a very special way. I feel that it strictly is a part of me and my life. I have worked on it for more than three years, writing the songs and the arrangements, putting on the band together, making the music grow in our live concerts and finally arranging everything for the recording. Every single thing was made with love, always believing in the strength of the music. So, despite the challenges, I keep on promoting it, trusting the Universe to create the perfect moment for the music to be spread and heard.
3. The Awaz Trio: Nocturne
I am musically curious and not afraid to listen to something new if it speaks to me. Aakash Mittal’s description of his trio’s new CD, Nocturne, definitely piqued my interest: “Nocturne is a series of pieces that deconstruct five Hindustani evening and night ragas”, Mittal wrote on his Indiegogo campaign page. “The music paints a unique picture of the night, evoking the meditation of a world at rest, night terrors conjured by the imagination, and the slow cadence of blue light melting into darkness. I composed Nocturne while living in Kolkata, India as part of an American Institute of Indian Studies Performing Arts Fellowship from 2013-2014. This project weaves my experiences of studying evening and night ragas with Prattyush Banerjee with the vibrancy of nighttime festivals, marketplaces, and rituals I experienced in Kolkata. In this work I wanted to explore the intersection of my experiences with jazz and raga music as well as my experiences of physical and sonic density that occur at night in Indian cities.”
As with Patane, I had never heard of this trio before, but something about the music resonated with me. Mittal plays saxophone, Miles Okazaki handles the acoustic guitar, and Rajna Swaminathan plays mridangam- an ancient, two-headed, barrel-shaped drum originating in southern India. Like I said before, I am musically curious. The Denver Post said of Mittal, "...he's already arrived at his own place in the jazz community...", while the Minneapolis’ Star Tribune described him as “a fiery alto saxophonist and prolific composer.”
The Awaz Trio (left to right): Miles Okazaki, Aakash Mittal, and Rajna Swaminathan. Photo by Satychn Mital.
Earlier in this article I mentioned the various types of rewards artists offer their backers, limited only by their imaginations. In Mittal’s case, depending on your contribution level, backers could choose to receive a copy of the scores to all of the songs on the CD ($50), a “pie and cocktails” party in Mittal’s Brooklyn, NY home ($100), dinner at his house ($500), or a private solo concert at your house ($1,000). These creative rewards, in addition to pledging for a copy the CD, allowed his campaign to just surpass its ambitious $10,125 goal.
COVID-19 also impacted this project, along with a personal tragedy. As Mittal wrote me last month: “I am hoping to finish the album and send it out to the Indiegogo campaign supporters in June or July. I was hoping to release it in conjunction with a concert but at this point I think I need to release it to the Indiegogo supporters and do a public release later. I unfortunately cannot give you a specific date at this point. To be transparent there was a tragic death in my family right when the COVID lockdown happened. I ended up being "stuck" in Colorado living with my in-laws as we adjusted to the quarantine and loss of a loved one. That being said I just need to finish the master, write the liner notes, and get the designer to put the layout and everything together.”
The latest news from Mittal is that the mastering should be done this week if not by now. Hopefully the CD will be in my mailbox soon to enjoy this summer.
4. Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding with Strings: Last Flight Out; Self-released
The Como Audio Turntable loaded with my signed copy of Last Flight Out by Steve Dawson.
The firsts thing that caught my eye about this Chicago-based music project was the bizarre album artwork and the band’s equally strange name, Funeral Bonsai Wedding. Another was Steve Dawson’s description of the music: “a haunting and dreamlike collection of songs centered around loss and longing and aiming for love and kindness.” This seemed to fit right in with what we have all been going through with the virus.
Not that the music is bizarre. At times, Dawson sounds a bit like James Taylor; at other times like Don McLean. My favorite track is It’s Not What You Think, which turns out to be a good descriptive for the record. The music is contemplative. This is not the type of music you are likely to hear whilst social distance-sipping overpriced coffee at your favorite local bistro. I envision this music being performed at museums, art galleries, or historic, old theaters. Not that it is high-brow or complicated, just that it should be showcased in a venue that compliments the music.
Regarding the music on his album and the title track, Dawson wrote on his campaign page: “The phrase was a suggestion from an online songwriting group. I liked the sound of the words and the feeling of being stranded that it evoked. I never imagined that the song would resonate so much with the current pandemic. It was a fever dream, a metaphor, a sci-fi scenario that we now are all living. The song ends with the line, “God bless us, everyone.” and while I am not a religious person, I find myself making this wish every day now. The song begins the album and the album is a progression. Last Flight Out is the moment that the truth sinks in and the enormity of the situation takes hold. The album moves through, Mastodons, a song about slipping in and out of depression and listlessness as a reaction, and then into the centerpiece of the album, However Long It Takes, a song about choosing to see kindness and goodness in the world despite being fully aware of the darkness around us. “I will be filled with love,” is the chant-like refrain.
Dawson’s Indiegogo campaign raised almost $8,600, well surpassing his goal of $5k. He offered numerous perks for his backers at various monetary levels including signed CDs and LPs, original artwork, and a private performance in your home. As a backer, I was able to get the 180-gram vinyl record two months before its official release, and a signed copy at that.
The pandemic has halted live concerts, but for Dawson, it is not just business, it is personal. He lost his brother-in-law to COVID-19 in May after being on a ventilator for two weeks.
To end on a positive note, three months ago, Dawson was awarded a $10,000 grant as a “City of Chicago Esteemed Artist”. The Chicago Tribune said his songs were “reminiscent of “Astral Weeks”-era Van Morrison.” Popmatters.com called Last Flight Out “an achingly gorgeous album” and “a rare and wonderful thing”. The Riverfront Times called Dawson “one of the most underrated songwriters in American music.” Dawson is currently scheduled to perform live at Chicago’s Maurere Hall on September 20, COVID-19 permitting.
5. Dan Mulqueen: Real Life; Future Rust FUTURECD003
Dan Mulqueen’s crowdfunded Real Life CD.
Handpans are musical instruments that resemble left-over UFO props from a 1950’s sci-fi B movie. They sound quite a lot like steel drums often used in Caribbean music, but more ethereal, at least to my ear. Musician Dan Mulqueen conducted two successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaigns raising over $13,000 combined. A good portion of that was a result of a unique "lottery" he held as part of his campaign to win one of three handpans, which are actually quite expensive.
Real Life is his fourth album and was two years in the making. Although handpans are front and center on this album, other instruments are also featured. The original music is soothing and laid back, suitable for meditation or whenever you need to slow down and enjoy a little break. Mulqueen has toured the US, Europe, and Australia, but his current tour has been put on the backburner due to the pandemic.
I backed Mulqueen’s Real Life campaign on Indiegogo and received a copy of his CD and digital album download as my reward. The CD was delivered within a few short weeks of the campaign’s closure and I have been enjoying listening to it on my Como Audio Musica ever since.
Another crowdfunding variant is Equity Crowdfunding, an avenue for private companies to raise capital by selling securities. Equity crowdfunding was born out of the 2012 JOBS Act signed into law by President Obama. According to startups.com, equity crowdfunding has collectively raised over $2.5 billion dollars for businesses. Rather than earning rewards or perks, with equity crowdfunding an investor becomes part owner of the company or companies he invests in. Como Audio launched such a campaign just a few days ago by way of StartEngine. Thought you had to go through a stock broker to invest and needed a suitcase full of money? Think again. If you are 18 or older, believe in Como Audio, and want to help our little audio company, you can become an investor without having to completely empty your piggy bank. Our Founding CEO, Tom DeVesto, is hoping to raise enough money to start assembly right here in Massachusetts, thereby creating new jobs and reducing our dependence on China. This is a lot easier said than done and requires a huge investment in real estate, equipment, and manpower, but this is not Tom’s first rodeo. As co-Founder of Cambridge SoundWorks, many of those audio products Tom designed were made not very far from where Como Audio resides today. With China tariffs and significant coronavirus layoffs, if there was ever a time to bring back manufacturing to the USA, this is it. We invite you to join our exciting new mission by becoming an investor and supporting our campaign. Note: Equity crowdfunding carries risks, so please be sure to read all the information before investing.
In Part Two of Tech Rap: Investing in Music, I will report on a female retro-vocal trio campaign I backed that failed, an unorthodox harp music campaign, and a couple of cool new artists I discovered through crowdfunding sites as a browser, not as a backer. You will not want to miss it, so be sure to check back again in a few weeks!
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016. If you have a comment or would like to suggest a topic for a future Tech Rap, Peter can be reached directly at email@example.com