Mike Doughty Talks the Joys of Crowd-Funding

My song “I Hear the Bells” was on the soundtrack of the original series of Veronica Mars. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.

My song “I Hear the Bells” was on the soundtrack of the original series of Veronica Mars. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me. A number of tracks from the album it was on, Haughty Melodic, were on TV shows — for instance, Grey’s Anatomy, culturally dominant at the time — but none had the impact of the Veronica Mars soundtrack. Nearly a decade later, I still get emails from people who heard me for the very first time on that show; nobody emails me about Grey’s Anatomy.

Yet Grey’s Anatomy was the hit; Veronica Mars was canceled after three seasons. It’s impossible to point to a single factor as the reason that a song would connect with an audience, but the famous intensity of Veronica’s cult appears to be significant; maybe their intensity extends to the other culture and media they absorb. I myself serve at the pleasure of a small, thoroughly dedicated fanbase; I’m very happy to have been exposed to another one.

So, fittingly, both Veronica Mars and I have recently taken the crowd-funding route. In fact, I’m currently in the middle of a crowd-funded project as we speak. As for me, I knew it would be successful, but I had no idea how explosively. People who are intensely dedicated to an artist want to be part of the team.

In fact, I’d say that the idea of crowd-funding — that you go to the audience to get the budget to make something — is a primitive step in the evolution of audience-as-team. In my case, the pledgers got mini-documentaries of the record being made as it progressed — all you had to do to see them twice a week was to buy the album in advance, but many people pledged to have their names printed in the album’s credits, to see shows I played for them personally over Skype, to get personalized songs I played for them on micro-cassette recorders (recorder included!), and fun art-prank stuff. One guy, for instance, pledged so he could destroy, onstage, a guitar of mine. It was so, so fun.

Some of the most satisfying stuff came from the single-listener (well, usually double-listener) personal shows I played for people. A guy flew me to Rochester to play some songs, as a surprise, at his daughter’s birthday party. (It made a great Vine!) A woman shrieked when she knocked on the door and I opened it — her husband had gotten her a private show, for their anniversary, and she had no idea why he’d insisted they fly to New York and go to some weird industrial building in Greenpoint.

It has been a deep bonding experience. And it’s been tremendous fun; for the ardent fan, it’s way better than just buying an album or going to a show. For all those reasons, it’s been a quantum leap in my career. That’s why you would do this thing which is, currently, inadequately called crowd-funding.

There are a number of questions that get asked by people who are skeptical of crowd-funding:

What if you’re just not that outgoing of a performer?

If you really don’t want to do anything but make a record, that is absolutely valid; still, I would urge any artist to take a look at what she or he could possibly offer a fan who wants more than just an album. There has to be some way that you can invite a passionate listener to get closer.

Don’t you then owe them exactly the piece of art they demand?

Just to the degree that you already do. I’ve taken some cues, over the years, from my audience about what they like and don’t like. Ultimately, I keep a roof over my head just as long as they’re happy.

However, it’s not really possible. There is likely somebody out there who thought that, quite obviously, what the world needed was Veronica Mars Goes to the South Pole, and is outraged. In other words, you can’t make everybody happy, and you will likely make nobody happy if you try too hard. People who want to support an artist usually want actual artistry.

What if you don’t have that much of a fanbase — at least, yet?

There, alas, is the rub. This is a great environment for artists who already have an audience. The real crisis, in music — which I see as being desperately misunderstood — is that a young artist doesn’t have somebody to front some dough for a van, to tour.

Somebody will always bring up the very few artists who have hit it out of the park with one thing on YouTube. I would suggest catching up with them in three years, and see if they still have to have a day job.

It would take a thorough walk-through of the economics of making a living as a musician for me to truly demonstrate this, so, hopefully, you will just believe me when I say: it takes extensive, expensive touring, at a club level, for years, to become a professional artist playing her or his own music. Period. So who pays for three years of van rental? Your two hundred hometown fans?

I would prefer that all the young, brilliant artists I know, who don’t have the shot that I had under the old, moneyed system, be making music, were not bartending.

Isn’t doing all this incentive stuff hard work?

Yeah, it’s hard work. Personally, I haven’t found it to interfere with music-making, and I’ve generally made it really fun. Ultimately, I would just say that it probably beats working in the salt mines. That’s glib, but very true.

I’ve never done handwritten lyric sheets, but other people who have done so tell me it hurts the hell out of your wrist if you have to do 100 of them. I’m looking for an old typewriter, so this time around I can maybe do weird-looking typewritten lyric sheets. Which I acknowledge to be thoroughly hipsterish.

What if you end up alone with some weirdo?

This hasn’t happened to me, though I know it’s happened to some people. Short answer: bring somebody, provide your own transportation, be ready to jet if the vibe is bad.

Improbably, though in a number of ways a fan would have remarkable access to me, I’ve gotten better at maintaining boundaries — I stopped reading comments (online, absolutely anywhere) for instance. Here’s the thing: at least in my experience, the people who want to say mean stuff to you aren’t the ones who want to pledge for a private show. In fact, the people you encounter often wouldn’t even tweet at you. In my experience, it’s a whole other population.

What if you don’t really need the money? I mean, like, Melissa Joan Hart or Zach Braff?

Firstly, they might need the money more than we think they do. However famous someone is, that might not mean a studio or a label is willing to give them the budget they need. I enjoyed the documentary Seduced and Abandoned, in which James Toback and Alec Baldwin go around Cannes failing to convince producers and distributors to fund a movie. (I would add a caveat to that, however: Toback and Baldwin were offered money, just not as much as they were asking for.) My belief is that, before being an artist was a vaunted social role, it was a trade. We need to make art; we need to use the tools available to us. The means of production are ever cheaper, ever more accessible. We may have to use more lo-fi methods, but it’s the song, or the story, or the idea that is central. You just may not be able to afford the orchestra, or to shoot on 35mm film, in Morocco. My opinion is that if you aren’t willing to create from whatever you can, you are having a crisis of artistry.

Secondly, let me return to my point of join-the-team versus obtain-the-budget. The latter, I think, will seem more and more dated, and more and more like an imposition, as this world shapes up. If a Garden State fan gets something she or he feels extremely satisfied with, something above and beyond just knowing a movie gets made, it will be well worth it to her or him.

Increasingly, it’s unlikely to work if you don’t treat your pledgers like they’re the most special thing in the world. For instance, there’s an artist, established in the ’90s, whose campaign I pledged on, most enthusiastically; a few weeks later, their face appeared in my Facebook feed, advertising that you could preorder on iTunes and get a download — which was unavailable to pledgers. If you want the advance download, you would have to buy the album a second time, on iTunes, for the full $9.99. Note that, when the ad was set up, the targeting was likely those who had “liked” this artist’s page — i.e., pretty much everybody who’d heard about the campaign, and pledged. In 1999, that was standard treatment of fans; in 2014, it’s playing dirty pool.

Those fans may still enjoy the record, but I’ll bet they won’t pledge next time; a chance to really, really bond with them, in a meaningful way that is both joyful and professionally advantageous, has been lost; the momentum of their enthusiasm has been squandered.

Musicians, remember what Del Close said: Treat your audience as poets and geniuses. There is a version of that relevant to our careers. Two decades ago, we worked with labels who could simply make sure your CDs were in the pipeline, and an unseen mass would gobble them up. They got sick of being treated like that, and that’s a key reason we’re in the boat we’re in today.

We actually have a chance to make more personal art, have a more fulfilling experience with our fans, and be genuinely more successful with far, far, fewer people participating. About 5,000 people pledged to my last campaign; I sold about 400,000 CDs in 1998. I make more money now than I did then.

I should note that I work with PledgeMusic, not Kickstarter. I think they’re the best at the join-the-team thing. Benji Rogers, Pledge’s founder, got the attention of artists by meeting their managers, and asking if there was an album in the works. When the answer was yes, he’d whip out his credit card and say, “Great! I’m in! I’d like a poster and a t-shirt, too, right now, and I’ll pay extra for a handwritten lyric sheet, and the chance to attend a soundcheck.” The artists and managers got the point. His company is doing fabulously. I keep meeting people that PledgeMusic just hired. Yeah, a music company (Pledge only does music) out there is actually hiring people.

Setting up my next record is like putting together a reality show. I’ve got a bunch of rappers, and other instrumentalists, playing on the album; the recording process will be such that you’ll meet everybody, and watch them write their verses, or their parts. It’s logistically complex — as mentioned earlier, there is indeed more work, more organization, more effort involved when you do it this way.

In fact, I’m working with a producer, DJ Good Goose, with whom I’ve developed a process in which I improvise guitar parts, which he then organizes into song form, then I improvise nonsense syllables, and work in lyrical fragments from my notebook, which he cuts-and-pastes over that song form. Then I go home with that collage version and scratch them out into full tunes. This will all be in the videos. What I’d like the pledger to get is a window on the actual writing of the songs.

I’m trying to figure out other stuff, art-pranky stuff, to do, as well. There’s the aforementioned typewritten-lyric thing; Goose and I usually use a Telecaster and a Precision bass to record, and I’m gonna obtain one of each, and you can pledge for the guitars that actually created the record; I’m thinking about doing a shout-out track, where a fan can get thanked, verbally, over a musical bed. That would be based on the London pirate radio stations I heard in the ‘90s — so the idea is to be interesting, weird and arty — fun listening — not a cold quid pro quo.

I’m hoping that my audience finds this to be above and beyond, in a fabulous way. I want this to be not just something that facilitates the art, but a part of the art itself. That’s why I do this.

Mike Doughty is a songwriter and performer. You can follow him on Twitter here.