Kickstarter in Motion

Why there's good cause to get revved up about crowdfunded projects.

Scott McDowell recommends making a good video.

Thanksgiving 2010: A broke, down-and-out local recording engineer named Scott McDowell came home to his parents’ house in Novato. His pitch went something like: “Listen, guys. I know I can’t sell coconuts in Dolores Park forever or keep coming here on the weekends to mow your lawn. I need to make real money, I know. But I need you guys to be patient with me, because there’s this new website that’s going to change everything.”

He was talking about Kickstarter, the site that lets users pledge to fund any project that achieves its donation goal in a certain number of days. McDowell had devised what he thought was a foolproof way to bring in work. Rather than convince his favorite musicians that he was the guy to work with, he would zero in on a band, offer to run its Kickstarter campaign to finance an entire album, and thereby secure himself a powerful spot in the booth.

McDowell’s scheme was both contrived and brilliant. He asked his roommate, a tech-savvy media junkie named Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, to teach him how to edit video, since most Kickstarter campaigns include a video plea for money. Suddenly, he was qualified.

Last week, Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, now editor of The Atlantic’s popular video blog, wrote: “Kickstarter is the new hipster home-shopping network,” implying that today’s independent music fans are no different than those lackadaisical couch potatoes who dazedly tune in at 3 a.m. to offload disposable income via 1-800-numbers. Though her commentary is cynical, it points to a new trend in impulse donorship. People are making serious money on this site — and you could, too.

In McDowell’s case, it was a viable new business. And, in a sense, it was too successful. Pretty soon more work started rolling in through other avenues, and McDowell realized that he couldn’t balance both a recording business and an underlying Kickstarter consulting firm. So he dumped the latter, but remains a Kickstarter evangelist. He’s worked on more than ten projects in the last two years. Some ask for up to $25,000 but most are in the $10,000 range. And, get this: Not one campaign has failed.

One supremely successful campaign was waged by Amanda Palmer, frontwoman of The Dresden Dolls and absolute social media freak. She started a campaign in April to raise $100,000 for an album, and next week when the campaign ends, it looks like she’s going to sail in at just under $1 million. Granted, Palmer’s audience is fanatical, but it’s still astonishing.

So if the money’s out there, just how do you get it? McDowell has a few tips.

“Transparency is important,” he said. That means don’t be greedy. People are much more likely to pony up if they know exactly what they’re paying for, he said. Don’t shoot too high or too low. Make sure you work closely with a budgeter — be it your tour manager, recording engineer, publicist, a fellow musician, or whoever else expects to get paid.

Once the finances are clearly charted, make a good video, he continued. McDowell mentioned the inspiring example of a San Francisco songwriter named Sonya Cotton. “A few terrible things happened in her life: her mother died, a friend died, and she almost gave up music entirely. But she came back, and she had a great concept for the album, and she’s very sensitive and good at articulating those sorts of things, so that really came through.”

McDowell pieced together Cotton’s Kickstarter video, which featured her sitting in front of Lake Merritt with her guitar, telling her story. Because of the sincerity and simplicity of her campaign, her LP It Is So achieved its goal ($10,000) in eleven days. However, not all of the videos McDowell has worked on have been as compelling. So what if your project doesn’t catch on immediately?

Promote the hell out of it, he said. Contrary to what you might think, though, this does not mean spamming everyone you know. This is the most crucial part of the campaign, and you must go about it methodically, deliberately, and with confidence.

McDowell sees both Twitter and Facebook as having their own advantages: Twitter works in higher volume, but Facebook makes for higher-quality views, if people see it. A popular video on YouTube, too, can be a great way to point fans to your fundraising efforts.

But McDowell insisted that promotion should also be carefully calculated: “You have to identify what am I selling, who are the people that are going to be receptive to it, and of those people, who is influential?” It sounds callous, but if you can get your popular friends to agree to help in advance, their promotion (an e-mail, tweet, Facebook share, or phone call) can expand the networks that you reach exponentially, he explained. “If you’re trying to raise $10,000, your friends alone are not enough,” McDowell laughed — unless your friends are all Google employees.

More tips: Give the project enough days to succeed, but if you make it too long, lots of credit cards will be declined (there are always some). Factor in that Kickstarter takes 5 percent, Amazon (which processes the payments) takes around 3 percent, and that’s before taxes. But if you play your cards right, it could be a windfall.