Musicians are reaching out to fans for upfront funding

| Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

By any measure, The Clarks are one of Western Pennsylvania's most successful bands. Over the past three decades, the quartet has achieved artistic and commercial success, toured regularly and earned a loyal fan base.

In 2014, when planning the album “Feathers & Bones,” the band realized it needed to adopt a new business paradigm to pay for recording costs. So, it turned to crowdfunding.

“It became pretty obvious to us that the old style of trying to fund a project had drastically changed,” says Clarks' bassist Greg Joseph. “And it changed in such a way that there's an uncertainty about how many units somebody was going to sell. After we put out a couple of CDs, there was a certain predictability about how many units we could sell. And now, that's a pretty big question mark in the industry.”

With support from record companies waning or nonexistent, crowdfunding — soliciting fans for donations to pay for recording or other costs associated with releasing an album — has become an accepted practice. In exchange for monetary contributions through platforms such as Indiegogo, PledgeMusic and Kickstarter, patrons are offered packages, ranging from signed CDs to private performances.

“It's a cool concept, and there are a lot of positives to it,” says Dave August, the lead singer for North of Mason Dixon (NoMAD). “But, to me, there's also a lot of pressure to it, to come up with the product, to come up with the packages.”

NoMAD is contemplating using a crowdfunding platform to finance at least part of the band's next studio recording. If the premier local country band signs on, it will join nationally touring bands and musicians such as Megadeth, Rob Zombie, Bernie Worrell, Cage the Elephant and Jukebox the Ghost, who are using crowdfunding.

Successful campaigns include Amanda Palmer, formerly of the Dresden Dolls, who raised more than $1.2 million to fund an album in 2012. Neil Young accrued more than $6 million in contributions over a mere 17 days for his music player, Pono, in 2014.

But many campaigns have failed. The late Scott Weiland, formerly of Stone Temple Pilots, was criticized in 2015 for not making good on the packages his campaign promised. Terry Roche, a Canadian singer best noted for her work with her sisters in The Roches, failed by more than half to meet her goal of $21,000 in 2012.

The Clarks took a conservative route, funding approximately half of their last two albums (“Feather & Bones” and “Rewind”) themselves, with the rest of the funds coming from donations via PledgeMusic.

Joseph admits that some fans were resistant.

“There was push back on it: ‘I can't believe these guys (are) making us pay for something up front; they're not starving artists; they all have nice houses and cars; and they want us to donate to their project,' ” Joseph says. “But wait. You're not donating something to us, you're getting something from us. In fact, you're getting something in return that other fans aren't getting.”

Money for marketing

Jim Donovan recorded his new album, “Sun King Warriors,” over a period of five years. Because it was done in increments, the drummer and percussionist, formerly of Rusted Root, was able to pay for the project himself. But in anticipation of the CD release in March, Donovan decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign to promote the album.

“When (Rusted Root) made records through a record company, we used to spend half of our advance on recording and the other half went to marketing,” Donovan says. “I know a lot of young bands don't realize that you need to have (marketing) after the project is finished to actually do something with it. Otherwise, you sell it at your shows, and it kind of sits there.”

Donovan is using the funds he raised to hire a national publicist and record promoter. Because he raised 200 percent of his goal — a little over $30,000 — he's able to increase his publicity campaign from three to six months.

Why was Donovan so successful? He says part of the reason was he had a physical CD available for fans who have not yet made the transition to digital music. He thoroughly researched crowdfunding platforms and came up with packages that transcended the usual T-shirts and signed CDs.

“I liked the idea of making them fun and some of them outrageous,” Donovan says. “So I sold a 30-minute jog with me with the thought that even if no one orders this, it will be funny. And two people bought it, so now I gotta go run. But everybody wins on this: We exercise, we have fun, we raise some money.”

One of the unintended consequences of crowdfunding is that fan bases become more invested in the music, especially when it's a work in progress. During recording sessions, The Clarks started posting music when new songs were mixed. That enabled fans to offer more immediate feedback.

“It's like serving one course at a time instead of offering a plate full of food,” Joseph says, “where you really don't taste any one thing, you taste it all together. I think that was really cool. There was a lot of feedback (from fans) digging in deeper than they ordinarily would.”

Donovan says money is necessary, but the support he received from fans was priceless.

“The crazy thing is, there are people who read the (campaign) story and anonymously donated and didn't want anything,” Donovan says. “I had somebody donate $500 out of the blue — I didn't even know them — just because they read the story, said they liked this and it was something they wanted to support. … I can't put a price on knowing that I've got this group of people who stands behind me and is ready to support me however they can.”

Fans have mixed reactions

Brewer's Row recently released “There Was a Time We Were Kids,” its second album in seven years. Part of the reason there was such a large gap between albums was the cost of recording new music. The band paid for the new release from its own funds, eschewing crowdfunding platforms.

“We didn't want to owe anybody anything,” says guitarist and vocalist Mark Hohman.

The prospect of “owing” fans for contributions weighs heavily on NoMAD, August admits. The band has approached fans to see if they would be receptive to a crowdfunding campaign. The responses were mixed.

“The folks who have been with us over the long haul are most willing to do it,” August says, “because they are most interested in our original material. But ... folks who mostly come to see us live — who aren't concerned about the original music — aren't as receptive.”

August thinks that NoMAD will eventually launch a crowdfunding campaign because of the necessity of releasing music that is of high quality. While advances have been made in home recording equipment, August believes there's no substitute for going into a studio and recording with professional producers and engineers.

“If your goal is to compare what you're doing to your peers, the professionals, you have to have the money to get that final product sounding that way,” August says.

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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