If nothing else, the online fundraising service Kickstarter is perfectly named. Before electronic ignition, a kick start was the only way to fire up that Honda 175cc. Have you ever tried that? A high hop and a hard heel stroke. Sublime. Sometimes it took more than one. The feel of the engine bursting to life between your legs was worth it. It was the same kind of body buzz artists describe having after they make a cash goal with Kickstarter.
Just ask ukulele diva and sometime Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer. Earlier this month she became Kickstarter's poster child by shattering previous fundraising records. Her initial goal for her new recording project was $100,000 for a 31-day campaign. She raised that amount in seven hours. Prince Fielder money! Four days later she had chalked up almost half a million dollars from nearly 9,000 backers.
It better be a good record.
Kickstarter was kick-started in Brooklyn in 2009. It's now the preeminent place where commerce and vanity intersect. An artist posts a project, with background information on the effort and a dollar goal. Online pledges, managed by Amazon, run for 31 days. If the project falls short of the goal, donors are not charged for their pledges.
Kickstarter gets a 5% cut of the total funds for projects that successfully meet their goal. The company calls it a "fee." Amazon's fee for managing the commerce is between 3% and 5%. According to Justin Kazmark, a Kickstarter spokesman, 44% of projects reach their goal. That means 56% don't.
The total number of creators and dollars to date is impressive. Since April 2009, over a million and a half people have pledged over $200 million to creators who, Kazmark says, "always maintain full ownership and complete creative control of their work."
But I wondered about creators who may be not be as motivated in the creation of their work as they were in the creation of their Kickstarter campaign. Sure, if you pledge $500 to a filmmaker, you're only on the hook if he makes his goal.
The thing is, there are no mechanisms in place requiring the filmmaker who does make the goal to carry out the project. He could propose a documentary about the oldest living gardener in Kyoto, but there's nothing stopping him from taking the cash and making a film about a cat hoarder in Indianapolis.
There's also nothing stopping him from taking the cash and buying a houseboat.
I asked Kazmark about this. Here's what he said: "Fulfillment and communicating how the project is progressing is the responsibility of the creator."
I like the idea of Kickstarter, and I've been excited to pledge to several projects. I'm also not smart enough to imagine how a business of this sort could bring the hammer down on the filmmaker with the houseboat. And I guess there's no sense dwelling on a concern that's basically a distraction.
Kickstarter hasn't changed the way creators create. Artists have always approached their work and income on a wing and a prayer. They've relied on the benevolence of patrons.
What Kickstarter has changed is the way consumers approach art. For better or worse, we can now pay in advance. On faith. For the pre-Kickstarter consumer, supporting a musician meant paying for a download or buying a CD. For the pre-Kickstarter musician, touring in support of a record meant raising money to pay for the record, as often as not.
Music fans can now pay on trust, and this new trust in artistic endeavors is the best thing about Kickstarter, better even, in the long run, than the 22,000 and counting projects that have successfully been funded in the last three years. Kickstarter has done artists a far more valuable and everlasting favor than helping them get bread. By letting non-artists view pitches online - the stories and background on individual projects - it helps them understand that art isn't a magical thing gifted visionaries pull from thin air. Kickstarter is bringing the creative act down to the street level.