Jazz Musicians Find Support Through Kickstarter

Jazz Musicians Find Support Through Kickstarter
Johnny O'Neal performing at Smalls jazz club, which has a new Indiegogo fundraising campaign.
(Photo by John Rogers)

Kickstarter now funds more arts-related projects than the National Endowment for the Arts. So reported Katherine Boyle in a recent Washington Post article.

According to Perry Chen, founder of Kickstarter, the site had funded more than $600 million in arts projects. (For 2012, the NEA had a total federal appropriation of $146 million, of which 80 percent went toward grants.)


As Boyle noted:

Individuals have always been the backbone of arts funding. The NEA has never tried to compete with individual donors, and that’s the premise of Kickstarter—it’s a platform that allows individual donors to fund projects. In 2011, individuals contributed $13 billion to arts and cultural charities. According to the NEA, individuals make up 75 percent of all private giving, much more than corporations or foundations. Kickstarter, in essence, simplifies the long-held American tradition of individual private donors giving to the arts.

Hardly a week goes by without my hearing of a new and worthy “fan funded” project. I just got word of a Kickstarter campaign to support “Nuestra Tango,” for which brothers Luques and Zaccai Curtis, bassist and pianist respectively, will reunite their Hartford, Connecticut-based band, Insight, and collaborate with Argentine singer Natalie Fernandez. (You can find that one here.)

Right now, I’m listening to dazzling tracks of a two-CD set due in September from pianist Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba ensemble. When this group debuted in New York 30 years ago, it was startling for its balance of unfettered improvisation and undiluted Cuban folklore within a complex and often grand structure.

As I reported for ARTINFO in April, in performance at Brooklyn’s roulette, “Rosewoman’s concept sounded every bit as fresh as it did three decades ago, and yet more developed and exalted.” A few days later, Rosewoman brought the group into the studio; she’d raised more than $23,000 via Kickstarter to seed her budget. I predict that the results will awaken a wider audience to the unique beauty and depth of music that New Yorkers in the know have admired for decades.

In an interview on the website of Chamber Music America (a nonprofit that has supported her work with grants over the years), Rosewoman said the following:

The Kickstarter process is very nerve-wracking and time-consuming, but it’s also very effective and exciting, and it really helped get the word out. Without it, the project would have been unfeasible—though the amount we asked for did by no means cover the total cost. In the past, we all had to wait for everything; we had to wait for a journalist to give us any visibility; we had to wait for a record label to give us a chance; we had to hope that somebody would do something for us. Today, you can promote yourself in every way; you can get visibility; you can project things most important to yourself, your career, what you’re doing, what you’ve done, and what you’re going to do through the media yourself.

Of course, Kickstarter is hardly the only game in town.

Maria Schneider’s recent project, “Winter Morning Walks” — two CDs featuring the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Dawn Upshaw — was funded through the ArtistShare site.

Now, Smalls, a tiny Greenwich Village jazz club that has had a big impact on the New York scene, is making use of the Indiegogo site (click here) to raise funds to help subsidize the club; increase wages for musicians; create a nonprofit foundation for musicians in need; and for this interesting proposition:

The Smalls Audio/Video Archive:

The Smalls archive library began in September of 2007 and since then more than 7000 shows at Smalls have been recorded & cataloged. This includes two years of video and more than 500 musicians represented in the archive. In addition, Smalls Jazz Club live-streams every show at the club and rebroadcasts the show once until the next live broadcast. This 60 seat club often sees internet viewership in the 10,000’s nightly.

Smalls organizers state their objective as such:

Our goal is to build a website for our subscription-based revenue sharing system. For a small subscription fee, fans will have unlimited access to an ever growing library of audio & video (approximately 21 shows per week). Revenue will be pooled and distributed to all of the artists in the archive based on the number of minutes they get listened to quarterly. All musicians on a date get credited — in this way popular sidemen can earn as much as leaders. Direct download of specific dates will also be available. If a fan chooses to directly download a date then the revenue will go directly to the artist rather than the pool. As long as the artist’s content stays in the archive then the artist will continue to collect revenue. The Smalls nightly live-video stream will be made available for free with a valid email registration.

Will this strategy grow into a viable long-term path? Will these platforms crowd one another out down the line? Will potential funders weary of repeated appeals or just run dry of will and funds? It’s too soon to tell how crowd-sourced and fan-funded projects will affect the careers of musicians and the arc of jazz and other genres. It’s clear that for musicians such as Schneider and Rosewoman, fan funding has enabled the kinds of large-scale and expensive projects that music labels often shy away from or at least scale back.

At this point, fan-funded projects amount to experiments that sidestep not just the turmoil of a recording industry in crisis, but also the long-established gatekeeper roles of music label A&R executives and foundation grant administrators. I don’t think that necessarily means we’re witnessing a revolution — savvy and creative musicians, especially in jazz, have long blazed their own paths and found their own supporters. But this is one more wrinkle, both fascinating and promising, of a music business in transition.