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For The People, By The People

Young bands are going the Amanda Palmer way. But will they find success with crowdfunding?

Megha Mahindru Jan 07, 2013
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Over 600 people showed up for Control Alt Delete in September 2012. Photo: Gautam Ruparel

Young Indian artists need crowdfunding, besides relevant lyrics, a distinct sound and a reality check, but this is a great place to start. Whether it’s for a gig or a new album, a growing number of music enthusiasts are willing to lend voice and support. Says Subir Malik of veteran rock band Parikrama, “When Wishberry approached us to raise funds, we weren’t sure how we could use it. It didn’t make sense for an established band that didn’t need the people’s money for a project. Crowdfunding is a brilliant idea to boost talent, especially for struggling bands that need the money.”

Last September, close to 10 promising bands, mostly from Mumbai, took to the stage for their debut show at Control Alt Delete, an event that was completely funded by its 600-member audience. Rishu Singh, manager of bands such as BLEK, who coorganized the gig, claims to have raised a sum of Rs 95,613 on the crowdfunding platform Wishberry within a month, posting a daily update on the day’s collections on Facebook. In fact, the Mumbai gig managed to get online contributions from Chennai, Gurgaon and even Washington. “We needed about Rs 90,000 to make the gig happen excluding the bands’ fee,” says Singh, “We finally raised Rs 1,64,000 including contributions at the gate and each of the 10 artists got a fat, princely sum of Rs 7,000 .”

A crowd of contributors placing their money and faith in events like Control Alt Delete is in stark contrast to the other side of the coin: the frustrating reality where organizers and venues find it tough to draw audiences to gigs across the country. Says Anshulika Dubey, COO of Wishberry, “Crowdfunding gives sponsors a sense of power, ownership, freedom to listen to who they want to, where they want to, and recognition to have brought down artists for a gig and make it happen.” The novelty of crowdfunding may be just another reason why both artists and audiences are hooked. Shreya Mendiratta, who attends
one gig in two months, contributed Rs 300 towards Singh’s crowdfunded gig for the experience. “I wanted to see how it works. It was a new thing and sounded cool, but it was so packed that I secretly wished they’d collected an entry charge,” she says.

From mailing their sponsors an album before its official release to having a band play in their living room, organizers and bands offer incentives like free merchandise to build the crowdfunding network. “At Control Alt Delete, one of the rewards was
having the names of contributors on a large board at the gig. At a traditional gig, one would see a board with sponsor logos, but here was a gig that featured names of regular people. People loved the fact that this was a truly democratic, truly DIY gig of the people, by the people and for the people,” adds Dubey. 

American performer Amanda Palmer, who is one of the biggest success stories on international crowdfunding site Kickstarter [she raised $1.2 million within a month] wooed the crowd by offering everything from digital downloads to CDs, vinyl and even dinner and private performances alongwith a photoshoot with her band and an art sitting that could get as adventurous as the contributor wanted it to ”“ this could mean the contributor stripping down for a nude portrait painted by Palmer or keep the clothes on for a more traditional art project. However, the online affluence deflated when Palmer later asked volunteers to play and be “paid only in hugs, high-fives, and beer” rather than money when she went on tour with her band, Grand Theft Orchestra. In an open letter to her detractors, Palmer wrote a long piece saying “I’ve built my life as a musician, like many many people in rock and roll, playing for free”¦ a LOT, or playing for beer. playing for exposure, playing for fun”¦ You don’t have to play for free. But I hope you won’t criticize me for wanting to.” The cabaret-punk crowdsourced millionaire, who had earlier stated that she simply “couldn’t afford” paying a sum of $35,000 to the musicians she needed, later ended up retracting and finally paying them. What led to Palmer’s fall was the lack of transparency in her project, with her initial supporters turning against her.

Filmmaker Kotoky with bluesman Lou Majaw

Though Palmer finally got off the hook easily, most artists who’ve used crowdfunding platforms know better than to jeopardize the goodwill of their fans. “Crowdfunding works on the basis of people involved, not the project. People want to make sure the person is genuine,” feels Assamese filmmaker Bidyut Kotoky. Kotoky is testing the concept for the release of his upcoming film, Guns & Guitars, which chronicles his musical journey across eight states of North East India. He hopes to raise Rs 10 lakhs to help distribute the film which has now been shot and edited, and even pay people who worked on this project pro bono. With Kotoky’s hefty minimum contribution, which starts at Rs 5,000, his campaign is yet to gain momentum. Other independent filmmakers such as Scribe bassist Srinivas Sunderrajan, who recently raised over Rs 5,26,000 to screen his second film Greater Elephant, have been successful at raising funds via Wishberry.

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Besides films, Wishberry recently opened up to music projects in October 2012 and has already supported six music initiatives. Former Something Relevant vocalist Aazin Printer is one of the newest endorsees of their site and hopes to raise Rs 300,000 in 60 days to record his solo debut album. Says Printer, “It [his attempt at crowdfunding] will also help other artists follow suit or maybe not, but we’ll know that there are new avenues/possibilities to raise funds to do what we love and hence make it happen.”

Aazin Printer

Like Printer, Mumbai alt rock band, Spook, was also banking on fan support to release their debut album Lyrical Cynic. Like most bands, Spook released their debut EP Underwaterseabird in 2010, using income from their gigs. Now, for their ninetrack full length album, the band turned to their fans. “Between Anis [Gandhi on keyboard] and I, the funding was almost impossible
to come up with, but we managed to cover the cost of tracking all the instruments. The mixing and mastering are an equally important part of the process for the album to sound good and we need funds for that,” say vocalist Akshay Deodhar, adding that
their upcoming album will see them collaborate with sought-after producer Zorran Mendonsa.

The success rate of a campaign also depends on the targets set by artists. The chances of lesser-known bands without the backing of an enterprising manager or that of a bigger band pushing their efforts are higher if they begin small. Two-year-old Mumbai hard rock band Spook is a case in example. Of their Rs 2,00,000 target, Spook managed to raise only Rs 62,000 in two months and Printer, a more established artist, has already raised Rs 98,000 in 20 days. “It’s all about setting realistic targets. If Spook had set a Rs 50,000 target, it would be easy to accomplish,” says Mumbai metaller Sahil Makhija aka Demonstealer, who speaks from experience. Last year, Makhija’s band, Demonic Resurrection, was one of the first Indian bands to have turned to their fans to pool in their resources to help finance a music video. “It was before websites like Wishberry came about,” he says, “I wanted to make a video, but didn’t have Rs 1 lakh to put in, so we thought of raising the funds through fans online,” he says. Though he managed to raise only Rs 70,000, Makhija later found out that he had underestimated the cost of making a video. In fact, he needed close to 4 lakhs, so Makhija decided to invest the fan funds into editing a recording of his band’s concert at UK’s Bloodstock Open Air Festival in 2012. “Our fans seemed excited and we are currently editing that footage,” he adds.

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With an uncertain success rate, many enterprising campaigners are testing the concept of crowdfunding by relying on it only to partially support a project. The third edition of multi-media festival UnBox, which is slated to take place between February
6th to 10th in New Delhi, will be partly crowdfunded. Babitha George, one of the founders of UnBox isn’t sure of pulling off a fully crowdfunded festival in India yet. She has chosen another crowdfunding platform, indiegogo, to raise funds. “Crowdfunded efforts have not yet reached the level that they have in other countries, but the concept is seeing a groundswell of support and interest. We think this can be linked, at least in part, to the rise of young entrepreneurs and creative practices in India; people are seeking out new and ”˜cool’ ideas, both in concept and the way they are communicated,” says George, “Also, people are getting more and more comfortable with spending money online. These two developments have made crowdsourcing platforms very appealing and popular.”

That crowdfunded events have won favor with Indian music fans is evident in the size of the audience at a crowdfunded gig. A regular multi-genre free gig at a club manages to get no more than 200 gig goers, in spite of aggressive promotions on social media, but Control Alt Delete drew thrice the number. Wishberry COO Dubey explains that the backing of fans goes beyond just money, “Ultimately, those who fund the event will also want to be a part of it.” Kotoky adds, “The contributors are not just important monetarily, they also comprise the audience.”

Something Relevant’s Stuart DaCosta, one of the organizers of Bandstand Revival concert series in Mumbai, too is considering taking the crowdfunding route by involving the community for his next series. Though many attribute the early success of crowdfunding to initial euphoria, others feel it could be the beginning of an alternative movement against the money minting
labels. Musicians, for their part, are only hopeful that this new online avenue will finally give them a voice. Whether crowdsourcing will help indie India is a matter that we will only find out in this coming year. For now, Sony Music India’s Jayesh Veralkar feels crowdfunding will only work for the deserving artists. “It all boils down to how creatively you invest in building loyal/hardcore fan base who would like to own some sort of notional or physical stake in your product. Having said that, it is also important to have quality product. Except for your family and close friends no one would pay for shitty product,” he adds.

 

The story was originally published in the January 2013 issue of Rolling Stone India.

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