Too Giant To Fail

Over 11 days, $7,761 are pledged by 162 different backers. The pledges aren’t rushing a fraternity, the money isn’t for a natural disaster and the backers aren’t University trustees. No one’s even giving away any free food, yet.

The solution to this riddle is the “Plume Giant Makes a Record!” Kickstarter page. Welcome to crowdfunding: it might be the future of music, or at least for a bit, of theirs.

With over a million dollars passing through its virtual coffers every day, Kickstarter — an online funding space for artists — has become the largest platform for funding creative projects in the world. The website operates on a deadline-sensitive pledge system: if the target amount is not met by the deadline, no funds are collected and no one is charged. (For Plume Giant, $7500 must be raised in 30 days.)

Listed under Kickstarter’s “Popular This Week” music tab, Plume Giant is now set to receive $7500, well above their target goal — and only a third of the way towards the deadline.

So how did these “three friends who love to make music together” do it?

“They say that I’m the businessman, which isn’t necessarily true,” Nolan Green ’12, the group’s economics major, said.

“But always that I’m not the businessman,” Eliza Bagg ’12, not the group’s economics major, quickly added.

FROM EP TO FINISHED PROJECT

As the trio conversed in an off-campus apartment, they debated about the smell of the new Apple Store, music, wasabi, neti pots and painted cars. But it was clear that Bagg, Green and Oliver Hill ’12 agreed on at least two things: raising a large amount of money for their first album through Kickstarter was the obvious, organic and necessary choice. And, this new album would be really special.

Whereas they attributed the sound quality of their first project to a combination of luck, trial and error, and a lot of hard work, Plume Giant said that they want these next recordings to be a professional project, if not product, that will be out there in the world forever.

“The EP was our first product, and before the EP we didn’t have any product. We just needed a product so it was pretty necessary to get anything out there,” Bagg said. The EP raised the bar, and their next endeavor is going to be even better, Green added.

“We’re not recording an ‘Abbey Road,’” he said.

“But we’re somewhere in between,” Hill qualified, which is where fundraising becomes a necessity. The costs are high for specialization, recording equipment technique, lyric book artwork, promotion, an engineer from New York, professional mixing …

“For example, when your record’s done, you send it to a mastering house,” Hill said with a laugh. “And you pay them $1000 or whatever, and they send it back to you sounding very similar.”

“But to trained ears, it makes all the difference,” Green interjected.

“Or people listening to it on $5000 speakers. They can tell,” Bagg said.

“Right, so there are these layers, that sort of each cost money,” Hill summarized, “and if you’re gonna to make something that you really want — you know, something that’s forever — and if you want to stand behind it forever, you just have to do it.”

YOU KNOW SEAL?

Using his hands and pointing to his phone, Jules Terrien ’12, co-founder of the Paris-based Moonkeys Music label and executive manager/producer of the band Namaste, speaks about the sound quality and cost problem independent artists often face.

“Anyone can take a mic and record in their room and put a full album out there. But if you’re Seal — you know Seal?” he asks. “Seal has that sound because of studio and sound engineers that cost thousands of dollars. To get that kind of sound and production company … you just can’t do it at home.”

Terrien has spent the past five years discovering new websites and bands because he is passionate about music technology.

“But a band’s main goal,” he contends, “shouldn’t be the business of music, but to make music. Your best act is to make music and ours is to manage. It’s hard to be both.”

(Which was another motivation Plume Giant cited for using Kickstarter.)

“If you want my whole metaphysical theory about why music industry f-ed up 10 years ago, I can give it to you too,” Terrien offers.

When the music industry reached its prime, he explains, executives began to focus even more on the technology rather than on the product itself: “‘We’re not making an entertaining experience, but we’re making CDs. We’re not making music labels, but record labels.’”

Terrien says that the end goal — making music — should be supported, rather than subsumed, by its means.

He offers some examples: Bjork’s latest album, “Biophilia,” is an iPad application, Moby’s new album was released on Instagram and Ok Go markets itself through videos.

“Artists have a chance to connect on a much deeper level with their fans on digital platforms,” Spring Fling organizer Ethan Karetsky ’14 writes. “I think we’re headed to a place where fewer people will buy your music, but each person will be spending a lot more.”

This idea of an artist not so much as a musician but as a brand is evolving with tremendous speed. Artists making more money from touring and selling merchandise than from their records is nothing new. But think of Justin Bieber, the pure product of today’s social media world, Terrien suggests.

He pulls up a website of Bieber merchandise — “Who buys this stuff?” — gesturing specifically at a series of purple ribbons that look like prizes for show ponies.

“All of these people are thinking as entertainers,” he reiterates. “They’re thinking, how can we create entertaining experiences around our music?”

Plume Giant has just the idea.

“STEAK & CHAMPAGNE FOR BREAKFAST”

Supporters who pledge $1000 or more get a cooked supper and game of Bananagrams. Starting with donations of $5 or more (“COFFEE & TOAST”), a series of tiered rewards awaits backers.

This added dimension of customer loyalty programs in Kickstarter pages breeds a strange artist/patron relationship on the Web that is as commercial as it is personal.

Namaste, Terrien’s band, is funded by private investors, but he sees the switch to Kickstarter as a fundamental opportunity to create community and reward people in ways that selling CDs doesn’t.

“Every Facebook ‘like’ or new Twitter follower can turn into legitimate dollars if relationships are sustained and maintained,” Karetsky wrote. The other bonus is that raising a lot of money publicly is a good way to get other investors seriously interested.

Although Kickstarter and Amazon processing fees end up taking an approximately 10 percent cut off the profit, Hill acknowledges that the alternative — people mailing checks to their off-campus apartment — in addition to being “an absolute nightmare logistically,” would never have created the same visible and personal community around the project.

Patrons have ranged from people without jobs to adult piano students taught by Bagg’s mom to parents of Green’s former SAT tutees whose children showed “significant improvement.” Core fans, those who donated in the first hour of the campaign and who write on the band’s Facebook page asking for the new album, illustrate the intense interest in their new songs.

Yet even with supportive followers, there’s still the slight discomfort of getting people to pay for an idea.

“It feels great, and we trust it’s going to be good, but it’s just not there yet,” Hill said about the album. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re looking forward to hearing it also.’”

As the intricate puzzle of recording a full-length album takes more time than an EP, Plume Giant’s album will probably be released in April.

For now, Plume Giant has 18 days left in their fundraising campaign. They have met 105 percent of their goal. With the money in the bag, the larger question concerns their future.

If the album generates buzz online — which it will if postconcert record sales are any indication — it will cost some money. Unlike the EP’s objective to pick up fans, the idea behind this record is that people will want to buy it.
Although Plume Giant plans to spend the next year making music in New York, they made clear that they will not live in the back of a van in Brooklyn.

“We’re going to be pretty rigorous and set some kind of deadline and really try and make it happen,” Green said.

Though Plume Giant might not have “a business leader,” they also don’t seem to need one. Their story is not unlikely. Their success, not accidental. Their gestalt three-brains-are-better-than-one method of musical dedication and group deliberation is not just effective, it’s hypnotic.

Back in the apartment, they toss around the words “spreadsheet,” “productive,” “ambitious,” “delegate,” “buzz” and “goals” each in turn each to describe the others.

At one point Bagg exclaims, “We are all organizers,” and they nod in agreement.

The world of popular music is more communal and new, she says. They nod again.

What’s being described is a startup, of sorts.

“I like how you’re thinking about it that way, good work.” Green says approvingly as Bagg sighs. “Eliza’s going to be managing our profit & loss sheets. Advising our risks now.”

“Okay,” she says. “That joke is done.”

Correction: October 11

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Eliza Bagg ’12. It also stated that Kickstarter took about a 10% cut of the profits for successful projects. Although 10% of profits do indeed dissapear, only 5% of the profit goes to Kickstarter, with the other 3-5% going to Amazon for the payments it processes.

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