This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 10, 2013 - Greater Than Games' most recent Kickstarter was for a deluxe version of the comic book/game “Sentinels of the Multiverse: Shattered Timelines” and expansion-pack add-ons. In the game, three-to-five players assume superhero roles and work collaboratively to defeat a villain – which is the game. The core game lists for $40.
Singer/songwriter Marc Chechik of Melody Den says: “You invite people to become participants in (the project). You send out updates – here's what's going on with us, we're on this track – and what you're doing is becoming more collaborative with the backers, with the people who are providing the money.”
Rewards are limited only by a creator's imagination. Rough Shop's rewards were offered on amounts from $5 (backers get “our sincere thanks, plus a download of the first single from the album)” to $500 or more (“Rough Shop will play a private show in your living room”). One backer gave $500.
But rewards for $225 (“We will write and record a song for you and upload it to YouTube”) and $350 (“John Wendland [singer-songwriter of Rough Shop] and [fellow KDHX DJ] Roy Kasten will DJ a party for you”) went unclaimed.
Greater Than Games offered rewards at 17 levels ranging from out of print promotional game cards for $20 to an unclaimed day at the company's St. Louis headquarters, some game play, dinner and a free copy of the game – for $1,000.
Melody Den offered the usual range of rewards – a copy of the CD, T-shirts, concert tickets – as well as some special ones.
“I had one that was set at $250, you get to come in and play on a track,” Chechik says. “At $500, you not only play on a track, you come and play the show for the release. And I had a couple of contributions at that level, which I didn't expect to have happen.”
Rewards were more problematic for the Luminary Center for the Arts, which was created in 2007 and is in the process of rehabbing space in two storefronts at Cherokee Street and Ohio Avenue west of Jefferson Avenue. The center offers art, music and cultural projects, and studio space. It has exhibited artwork from world renowned institutions and has an international footprint.
James McAnally, who founded the art space and incubator with his wife, Brea, says that Luminary, which uses traditional grants and tax-deductible donations, tries to keep its fundraising small-scale to involve as many people as possible.
“We wanted some way where people could give us small amounts and still be involved and feel like they had ownership over the project,” he says.
However, it doesn't easily have items it can give away as rewards, other than concert tickets or art prints. So the McAnallys and their staff of one full-timer and two part-timers got creative, including this reward at the $100 and more level: “ 'A piece of the building.' During renovations, we will create one-of-a-kind sculptural pieces from the existing building. You own a piece of the building, too!”
For other items, though, McAnally had to spend some money.
“We had to create a lot of the rewards,” he says. “We definitely underestimated the amount of time that would go into it. Out of that $22,000 (raised via Kickstarter), we probably had $15,000 actually to spend after making the T-shirts and tote bags and that stuff, plus the percentages taken out by Kickstarter (and Amazon, 5 percent each).”
For that reason, McAnally says, his future involvement with Kickstarter is likely to be limited to contributing to other people's projects.
“I think (Kickstarter) is best served for products and bands and that type of thing,” says McAnally, who also performs electronic music with his wife as U.S. English. “You have a sort of sell-able endpoint. What we found is that what we were raising money for wasn't a product we were selling at the end.
Rough Shop used a chunk of its Kickstarter money to press vinyl records of “Under the South Side Bridge” last spring, tapping into a growing trend among young audiophiles. Nielsen Soundscan says sales of vinyl LPs in 2012 set a CD-era record of 4.6 million units sold in 2012, up 17.7 percent from 2011, according to Digital Music News. In 1993, only 300,000 vinyl albums were sold.
The band, which has toured in Europe and got some donations from overseas, was amazed by the response to their project.
“You find out that people are out there who like to support things that sound interesting to them in St. Louis,” Wendland says. “We were getting people we didn't know in any way, shape or form pledging money to our Kickstarter thing just because it sounded interesting to them, enough that they look at the project and go, this is kind of cool.”
Kickstarter sees value in the exchange.
“A good experience is getting access to the creative process,” Kickstarter spokesman Justin Kazmark says. “So the backer finds value in that. Along the way, the creator is offering a glimpse into how this thing is progressing: Here's the track we're recording, or a rough cut of the next scene, or early illustrations from the comic book.
Is it real?
Kickstarter urges each creator to produce a video or videos introducing themselves, playing a song or otherwise explaining their projects.
“That would be hard to fake,” the Kickstarter FAQ says of videos. “ 'Is it really U2?' Well, it is if Bono's talking about the project.”
“People pledge because they want to be part of that, they get a sense that they are part of it, that they're going along for the journey.”
What's in it for Kickstarter? The for-profit company charges a 5 percent fee under its “all-or-nothing” model. And that model is key.
“Even if a project is just one dollar short (of its goal), nobody's credit cards are charged, no money changes hands – and Kickstarter does not collect its fee,” Kazmark says. “That's what 'all-or-nothing' means. So it's free to post an idea and get a sense of whether it's feasible.”
So what happens if a project meets its goal, backers' credit cards are charged and, for whatever reason – divorce, the band breaks up, laziness or duplicity – a project creator fails to create?
Kickstarter's answer to that question is essentially: We're not the boss of you, you've all taken a leap of faith. Creators who fail to produce projects via this very public process risk their reputations and the ability to ever raise money again.
Backers who don't personally know creators or friends/family of creators are urged to use their Internet savvy to fully investigate creators using Kickstarter project and bio pages and creators' related social media links such as Facebook to judge whether projects are viable and creators are who they say they are.
However Kickstarter does not make or get involved with refunds to backers. That's between backers and creators.
Wendland says he would use Kickstarter again.
“The only thing I'm worried about is going to the well too often or too soon,” he says. “We're making (the band's second) Christmas record this year and, in addition to the CD, we were talking about doing a limited-edition single on green vinyl. While it would be really great to go through Kickstarter again, I don't want it to feel like I'm taking advantage of the generosity of friends. But would I do it again? Oh yeah, if I had the right kind of project.”
Greater Than Games' Christopher Badell has a tip for would-be crowdfunded creators, based on his success with his pre-existing product: Prime the pump first.
“My advice is, don't let Kickstarter be the first way people find out about (a project),” he says. “Most (potential backers have) the idea in their head for a while before they're willing to throw money at it. A guy told me he wants to make a documentary, I said before you go to Kickstarter, spend six months doing a blog about it, put up info on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, get people aware of it. By the time (crowdfunding is begun), people will be eager for it.”
Barry Gilbert is a freelance writer.