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Opinion: Why Crowdfunding Art Matters - And Works

22 Jan 2024

Putting your hand out for support isn't something everyone is comfortable with - but after spending a couple of years in Aotearoa, an experienced crowdfunded creative explains that it's an eco-system that can work wonders.

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A Big idea contributor

Amanda Palmer is a fully-crowdfunded singer-songwriter (and one-half of the internationally-acclaimed punk cabaret band The Dresden Dolls). She has recently collected five songs she wrote while waylaid in Aotearoa into a digital EP called “New Zealand Survival Songs,” - which she is touring around Aotearoa.

She tells The Big Idea why crowdfunding - both the creatives and those who take it is - is the art medicine we need right now.

 

Let's Talk about Art and Money! 

Everybody's least favourite topic, but I'm happy to roll up my sleeves and go there...so let's go.

There’s a weird, hard-to-address problem all over the world when it comes to art and funding, and New Zealand is hardly an exception. Everyone I know is feeling a lot of emotional discomfort right now; everyone is trying - and often failing, it feels like - to get back onto sane footing after a very rocky few years of pandemic madness, political tumult, news of war and instability, and general economic and cultural fritz. 

When this happens: we need art more than ever. 

We need art to comfort us, reflect for us, give us a feeling of togetherness and safety, and make larger sense of our heavyhearted situations. If we need art (go figure), we need artists to make it. And artists - if they’re going to do the weird job of reflecting the world and telling the stories we need to hear - need funding.

We often want to believe that art happens by magic, but art costs money - artists need rent. And funding for art is disappearing quickly, especially for musicians, in a cloud of algorithmically-punishing confusion and debris. 

Nobody buys much physical music, and Spotify pays us pennies.

But there’s hope.

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Photo: Duncan Innes.

I’m an American songwriter and musician who settled by accident in this country for over two years, 2020 through 2022; I spent 10 months in Havelock North, then about a year and half on Waiheke. I was a solo mother for a lot of that time, and, like many parents who were musicians and writers during that period, my artistic output fell off a cliff.

But, I could pay the bills without having to tour or “monetise” my Instagram following by selling makeup, soda or sneakers to my audience. 

Why? 

I am one of the lucky ones (though you could argue that my luck was self-made): I managed to keep my business going, pay my rent, and feed my kid with the money I earned via Patreon.com, a crowdfunding app (like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Indiegogo) that I set up for myself back in 2015. I have about 10,000 patrons, and they all give me an average of a few bucks a month. It pays for my life costs, my staff, my musical output, my food, my piano tuning, my plane tickets, everything. 

It’s magic. 

But it’s not “magic”. It’s the opposite of magic: it’s a salary that I pull from a community that trusts me.

I put out tiny pieces of art, podcasting and video, and I blog constantly, and it all keeps me afloat. Over the course of the pandemic, I didn’t have time to make a big record or do a big tour. I was alone with my kid, lockdowns were coming and going, and touring (even in this lucky country with its lack of restrictions) was almost impossible to organise. 

But I had my Patreon. I wrote songs from the heart about my experiences, recorded them as I wrote them (in various recording studios in New Zealand), and then delivered them straight (via SoundCloud usually) to my patrons.

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Photo: Duncan Innes.

There was something bigger than just the money, though. I needed the rent money, but also knowing that my patrons (who are all over the globe) were there to catch the art, listen to the music, hear my strange message-in-a-bottle songs from a little country at the bottom of the world - that emotional support from my audience of patrons was worth more than the money. It kept me vital.

As I settled into New Zealand life and started meeting more and more musicians, there was a recurring theme I kept hearing: artists leave this place. 

The music business is hard enough all over the world right now—venues everywhere are shutting down, streaming pays very little, gas and hotel and crew prices are up. Touring is becoming too expensive, plus the general cost of living has risen. The centre isn’t holding for many artists as these realities collide.

The old-fashioned, semi-realistic dream of being a touring musician who can just hit the road and make ends meet is quickly vanishing. 

Then there’s New Zealand, which has its own obvious constraints: only so many places to play, only so many people going out to shows, a tiny ecosystem where there are only so many paying jobs for songwriters and musicians.

Add one more problem: tall poppy syndrome. (You’re screwed, kid! Success comes with a badge of shame and embarrassment when you head back home, and the prospect of failure is just as dismal.) So? Musicians leave town, and many leave the country. For many, it’s the only way to make a living in the music business.

It does not have to be so binary. 

As I’ve travelled the world, I’ve found that crowdfunding etiquette and acceptance vary greatly from country to country. The artists from Commonwealth countries, with their baked-in resistance to asking for help and 'stiff upper lip/keep calm and carry on' attitude, tend to hit a stumbling block when it comes to asking the immediate community around them for direct support.

These past few years have been a struggle for everybody - and this is when we need artists’ voices the most. 

Art that springs out of the now—the immediate moment—is the crutch we all need to amble through the landscape of these post-pandemic ruins. We need a soundtrack, and musicians are getting fewer gigs and lower paychecks than ever before.

Our hearts are also open to new and more honest stories and this is the time to get them the mic. 

We need to hear songs that speak to our own shock, confusion, loneliness and fear. Music helps us digest the news of the world, however painful. Good art is medicine for our sore and broken hearts.

The question is: how do we create a system where these voices can find a living wage? How do we give artists paid time to reflect, to incubate the music that helps humanity?

There are ways. Here’s a few. 

GO OUT. 

Support your local galleries and music venues as much as you can. 

I know you’re tired, but don’t just Netflix and chill if you can make it out to a friend’s show. 

Jamie Macphail, whom I met in Havelock North, is leading the way in Aotearoa with a fabulous concept called the Small Hall Sessions. His undertaking - to pair great musicians with small community halls in NZ - is a perfect blueprint and proof-of-concept for incubating talent in local spaces that have been abandoned and underused.

Got to start somewhere

 If you’re a songwriter or artist with any kind of following, don’t be afraid to start a small, humble crowdfunding system (use Patreon, or Substack, or whatever you can). 

Even if it’s just 5 to 100 folks in your local village circle giving you $3 a month, that money can help. It will shore up the feeling around your work, and it also sends a wider message to your country that this system of direct support for an artist is truly valid, and beautiful. 

It helps break down the stigma that crowdfunding is “begging,” which it’s not. It’s a legitimate mutual transaction between artist and audience.

Put your money where your mouth is

Lastly and most importantly, if you’re a person who loves art and listens to music: don’t leave it all up to RNZ, the festivals, the government and the venues! 

Put your actual money where your heart is and fund a musician or artist directly. It may feel somewhat dorky - or even insignificant - to you, but if you see an artist with a Patreon QR code at their show or on their website, your monthly contribution can add up to a lot when it comes to an artist making a living and still having time for song-making. 

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There’s no shame in giving directly. 

Do it. 

The thousands of micro-donations that constitute my own Patreon made it possible for me to stay and work in this country during COVID; without it, there would have been no way. Many little bits add up, and every time you fund an artist directly, you normalise the concept and give the slip to the streaming services and corporate structures.

God knows we need artists’ voices right now, especially the stranger, less commercial voices who aren’t just making music to achieve stardom but to reach the core of our human experience. 

Think hard about how you can support the voices and stories you want New Zealand - and the wider world - to hear: it’s up to us collectively to make it happen.