Indie Rockers Use Kickstarter’s Customer Rewards Model to Fund Second Album

Published October 21, 2010
Last modified October 21, 2010

Have you ever tried to send Madonna a fan letter? Or pinged Justin Timberlake to buy a band t-shirt? Did you expect an actual response? Probably not.

Mainstream artists are swaddled in layers of PR reps, managers, handlers, and promoters dedicated to creating a buffer between fans and celebrities. The independent music scene tells a much different story: Indie bands on shoestring budgets often spend almost as much time creating and performing their music as they do selling their albums, booking and promoting shows, and interacting with fans at the merch table and online. For most of these bands, direct communication with their fans - either in person or through e-mail or social media pages - often walks the thin line between fan service and customer service.

My First Earthquake is no exception. Founded in 2008, the San Francisco-based quartet have cultivated a loyal fan base for their cheeky electro-pop, which references equal parts Blondie and Mates of State. The band has self-released two EPs (including this summer's Crush) and one full-length album and play a steady stream of local gigs. But when faced with the daunting prospect of self-financing their second record, the band decided to get creative. Using the Kickstarter funding platform, which allows creative projects to solicit funds based on an all-or-nothing principle (think eBay meets PBS telethon), My First Earthquake began appealing to their friends, family, and fans to support the band's next studio album.

Instead of treating their fans as mere consumers and customers of their work, My First Earthquake invited their fans to become investors in the band - by contributing anything from $1 to millions. High-level donors cashed in on special rewards, such as recognition in the forthcoming record's liner notes. It was a calculated risk. The band knew they had a small but strong fan base, but asking them to contribute cash towards an album that didn't even exist? That seemed a bit dicey. So the band set its budget and sights within reason, and hit the "launch" button.

The response was overwhelming.

"We made it to the $5,000 goal in three days, but people kept donating money," says lead singer Rebecca Bortman. "Since [Kickstarter's fundraising window allows] 30 days to work our magic, why not up the ante and keep it exciting? So we came up with this second level of what we are willing to do for this project: if we hit $15,000, we will make an indie rock opera. Sure, it's pie in the sky, but if our fans are into it, we'd be up for it!"

Customer rewards programs for fans

[caption id="attachment_8475" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="On their Kickstarter page, the band is able to make a video that helps explain their fundraising project as well as outline its goals."]Kickstarter fundraising program [/caption]

Not anyone can use Kickstarter. Rather, it selects projects based on a number of factors, including the creativity of the "rewards" offered to investors who buy-in at various monetary levels. This chance to, in effect, design their own fan club rewards, especially appealed to the band, whose members include a couple of designers, an art director, and an engineer.

"We focused on making unique and relevant rewards to encourage fans to get involved," Bortman says, hinting at goodies such as a super-limited run of silkscreened iPhone cases. "We had to develop all these rewards before we launched the project and we weren't sure exactly how they would be received. But we are so happy that people are into them, and also that so many fans got involved to make the project a quick success!"

Knowing your fan base is also vital

"We know we have some local die-hard fans that would love to be on our guest list for every show we play in the next year, so we made the Local Patron ($250) package," Bortman says. "And since we don't play as many shows in other places, since we all work full-time, we made the Benefactor From Afar ($175) package—whether the fan is in LA or New Zealand, we'll send them a care package of San Francisco's finest treats and they can video chat with the whole band."

My First Earthquake's top 5 lessons learned from Kickstarter

1. We have more fans that we thought, and from all over the world!

2. You need to be careful about keeping backer rewards "exclusive."

3. Maintaining our artistic integrity and creative process while allowing our investors to gain a sense of ownership and engagement in the project is a tricky balance.

4. How to ask for money. Seriously, that is a scary thing, but I think we've found the language to talk about giving money without sounding sleazy or guilt-inducing or needy.

5. The blissful feeling of people believing in our project. What amazing support!

For a band used to selling more conventional merch - CDs, t-shirts, and stickers - injecting some personal flair into unique goodies to reward their biggest investors was a welcome challenge.

But the flood of support has its caveats, especially surrounding each investor's sense of ownership over the end product (the new album) as well as the artistic process of recording an bum.

"There is definitely a sense of responsibility to account for the money that people are giving us," Bortman says. "Whether the backer has contributed $1 or $100, we want them to feel a part of the project. That's actually the best part: we love that backers feel involved to the point of partial ownership over the project. [But] as we start recording, [we must strike] a balance of exposing our new content to investors without giving the impression that we are asking for their approval. But as designers that have to solicit feedback quite a bit, I think we are up for the challenge. I'm optimistic that the record will be even better with more people involved, and when the album comes out, we have 100+ people that want to promote it like its theirs!"