Don't be surprised if you hear someday that Justin Bieber is trying to get off a major label so he can join the Kickstarter generation.
After all, indie-rocker Amanda Palmer just announced that she's raised more than $1 million for her forthcoming album release via Kickstarter, where artists can directly appeal to their fans for funding. And Palmer's not shy about admitting that her previous major-label album only sold a paltry 35,000 copies. So if someone with that limited a record of commercial success can drum up a million bucks from her fans in a "crowdsourcing" campaign, you have to figure that bona fide superstars are dreaming of the massive paydays that might come their way if they tried the same gambit.
But is it possible that you have to be as "small" as Palmer to earn such a hugely passionate Kickstarter response?
Palmer's fans aren't just in "like." They're in love — the kind of infatuation that's usually only possible when you believe you're among a limited, somewhat exclusive group of suitors — and they're willing to pay to prove it.
On her Kickstarter page, Palmer offers her upcoming album in 24 different configurations, ranging from $1 for a basic digital download to $10,000 for a package that includes Palmer creating a painting of you after a private dinner. In between are options that include $1,000 for the chance to eat donuts privately with Palmer backstage at one of her shows; $5,000 for a house party that may include her band showing up with ukeleles; $500-1000 for packages that include a turntable custom-painted by Palmer; and a mere $50 for the inevitable vinyl double-album.
You may have guessed that the $10K packages aren't Palmer's biggest sellers... but neither are the bargain-basement digital downloads. Her fans don't just want a virtual version of her album to stick on their iPhones. They want something they can get their hands on and covet, the way music fans did in the vinyl era, even if it's not actually an LP they crave. And so at press time she had pre-sold about 4600 $1 basic downloads and roughly 6000 of the $5 deluxe downloads, her most popular item, with 9000 sold, is a $25 hardbound edition of the CD.
But her two biggest profit generators are on the pricier side. As of this writing, 34 out of 35 available house parties had been sold, at $5,000 each. Her top-grossing tactile product, meanwhile, is a photobook package with text by her husband, esteemed author Neil Gaiman. That one sold 70 copies at $1,000 each.
Palmer isn't the first musician to successfully Kickstart an album, or to offer a huge variety of packages that range from elaborate art pieces to bizarro meet-'n'-greet opportunities. But hers is the most shocking — and to many, hopeful — example of how to mobilize a seemingly tiny fan base into big numbers.
Surely the thought is crossing every artist's mind, from Philip Phillips to Bono to your local bar band: Who do I have to bribe to get off my label so I can go crowdfund, too?
A word of caution, then, to prospective Kickstartees: It sounds like Palmer couldn't have gotten to this point without being one of the world's most "social" artists and/or drinking a lot of Red Bull.
"This Kickstart is the culmination of YEARS AND YEARS AND YEARS of connecting with my fanbase and my community," Palmer wrote recently on her blog. "I have a connect-at-all-costs policy 24/7." She wrote about how her former band, the Dresden Dolls, stayed to sign after every show, "and the Internet is an extension of that. The 12 years of blogging I've done and the 25,000 tweets haven't been for strangers. They've been ways of connecting with my crowd… Every city I've ever played a free show in, every house I've crashed in, every band I've hand-selected to open up for us on the road because I refuse to let the promotors have control over our night. Every night off tour that I didn't go out to see a show, or hang out with my friends, or bother with a love because i was up to my eyeballs in emails with fans and bands about our next tour... You know that 10,000 hours theory?" she added, alluding to a figure made popular by Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers book. "I've spent more than 10,000 hours connecting with my fans, figuring out how to be with them. So I'm an expert in them."
Palmer also cautioned that she's not getting loaded off this -- unless you count "loaded with awesomeness," as she proudly put it. By the time all the recording and elaborate packaging costs, the 5% claimed by Kickstarter, and various other payouts are accounted for, she expects to have less than $100,000 left over. "I might just be close to zero as I head off on tour this fall. And you know what? ... That's FINE with me. it's almost even THE PLAN. If I break even on this project, I still see this as a massive win."
But in a subsequent blog post, she admitted there was a danger to her victory.
"I'm now famous for my Kickstarter," she wrote. "Which is a little depressing. I wish that I could steal all that enthusiasm and high-fiving I'm getting from strangers in the street (literally) and re-route it to the album when comes out. I don't want this album to be remembered as 'the Kickstarter record.' I do want this record to explode. And i want this record to explode because it is awesome. Anyway…. Jesus, I'm not complaining."
In any case, it got us to thinking: What Kickstarter packages could better known artists offer? Like...
* Justin Bieber: $100,000 for a private pre-show Brillcream application lesson... plus one digital download
* One Direction: $75,000 to hear your name sung in five-part harmony at a VIP reception... plus the album on 180-gram vinyl
* Adele: $600,000 for her to stop by your ex-boyfriend's house and tell him he's a loser, during her next tour stop... plus hardbound CD digibook