“Using crowdfunding to pay for an album felt a little like going out hat in hand,” said Bill Janovitz, a member of the Boston rock band Buffalo Tom. “In some way I have the attitude that I have the money to make an album, so why ask for it?”
Janovitz has watched the music industry shift from a straightforward business model to one where there is no one set path for bands to follow. When Buffalo Tom started, the group followed the then typical road of signing a record deal. In this scenario, a label advances money to make an album which the band must pay back from the royalty it earns on every copy sold before it gets paid another dime.
This system has largely fallen apart as overall US music industry revenues have fallen from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $7.1 billion in 2012, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. As consumers switch from buying full-length CDs to pirating music, subscribing to “all you can eat” services like Spotify, and purchasing individual songs on iTunes, musicians have had to find new models to support the costs associated with making an album.
Those changes have led to new kinds of record deals, and Janovitz has experienced the evolution both with his band and as a solo artist. In 2007, Buffalo Tom made its first album in nine years, “Three Easy Pieces.” And, rather than signing a traditional label deal with an advance, the group chose to produce the album on its own and make a deal with Ammal/New West, an independent record label.
“That was a 50 percent deal where we owned the masters and we got 50 percent of the sale and the label got 50 percent,” Janovitz said. “By the time it got to the post-Napster era, those traditional record deals were not the same. Most deals – if you signed a deal at all—have the artists financing the recordings and not taking advances.”
Those first baby steps of paying for its own production costs led Buffalo Tom to make and release its next album, 2011’s “Skins,” without a record label. The band fronted all the costs for the album, hired its own publicist, and partnered with Orchard, a distribution/production company, to get the CD into stores.
Still, it was not until 2013 and his recently-released solo “Walt Whitman Mall” project that Janovitz decided to turn to his fans to fund an album before its release.
“I wish I had gotten to it sooner,” Janovitz said. “It makes people feel like they are a part of the process of making the album.”
To pay for the recording, Janovitz turned to Pledge Music, a crowdfunding site aimed specifically at musicians.
According to Maynard resident Jayce Varden, a Pledge Music co-founder, the company is “a direct-to-fan tool that artists use to engage fans in releasing their creative projects. Usually it’s an album, but it could be an EP, a video, or a tour.”
Pledge Music not only facilitates the fund-raising, it has a team of music industry professionals that helps artists set realistic goals. The company uses an algorithm that takes into account an artist’s e-mail database, his number of Facebook likes, and his Twitter followers to project a fan conversion rate.
Setting realistic goals is important, because like general interest crowdfunding companies including Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, the artist only receives the money if he reaches his goal in the chosen time. Pledge Music also lets artists donate a portion of funds raised to a charity of their choosing.
“We think of it as artists, fans, and charities working together for a common musical release” Harden said.
Ed Valauskas, a producer at Q Division Studios in Somerville, has worked on a variety of Pledge Music-funded projects including playing bass on two albums for Boston stalwart Juliana Hatfield and producing a record for Haverhill’s Todd Thibaud. Velaskus said that Pledge Music has allowed artists with a following to produce projects that would never have happened in the traditional label system. Crowdfunding, he added, has also been good for the studio business.
“We have had a handful of projects come through the studio that were crowdfunded, which in some cases would have either never happened at all, or would have done at a home studio” he said. “We’ve also hosted special private concerts/recording sessions that have been part of an artist’s crowdfunding campaign.”
Still, despite the many successes of this model, many artists remain hesitant.
“I was scared to death of using a crowd-funded option. It’s nerve-wracking because it’s all or nothing,” Thibaud said.
Having self-funded albums as part of Courage Brothers in the early 1990s, Thibaud worked on various labels as a solo artist until 2006. He then paid for an album out of his own pocket before reluctantly deciding to use Pledge Music for his new album “Waterfall,” which came out April 19.
Fans who contribute to a Pledge Music campaign do not receive a financial interest in the album. Instead, they can buy various premiums which generally range from a digital download of the album to guitar lessons or a concert in your backyard by the artist. Thibaud offered his fans a number of choices in exchange for their contributions.
“The things that resonated with people were content driven – like I offered a compilation CD of unreleased tracks. Songwriting lessons was also really popular,” Thibaud said.
Thibaud and Janovitz have been around since the early ’90s, so, to them, the current environment marked a change in how business was done. Naseem Khuri, vocalist/guitarist/songwriter for Kinglsey Flood, which has multiple members from Boston, self-funded his group’s first two records, so using Pledge Music to crowdfund an album was less of a leap.
“Basically, we’ve tried to play shows to try to earn money so we could self-finance a record,” he said of how the group paid for its first two albums.
This time, however, before the group recorded its latest album “Battles,” Khuri wanted to up the production values and work with a producer it could not afford out of its own pockets. Though the band considered going to a label, Khuri said he “would rather be in debt to his fans than to a label.”
To do that, Kingsley Flood offered the traditional premiums on Pledge Music including album downloads, but the band also tried something a little different.
“We made a cookbook for the fans,” he said. “We sometimes cook on the road things that are not ramen and people find that interesting.”
Kingsley Flood had set out to raise $17,500 and ultimately raised just under $20,000.
“Our fans wanted to support our creative process” Khuri said. “Everything raised is going into direct support of the music on this album.”
All three albums are currently available on Amazon.com.