Dear Boosted: Surprise Me and Succeed

March 20, 2013 – 3:49 pm

The NZ Arts Foundation has launched Boosted, a way to crowdfund arts projects. Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering “don’t we already have several ways of doing that? I mean, Kiwi artists have already used Kickstarter and PledgeMe to fund projects.”

Boosted’s key point of difference is that, being operated by a charitable non-profit, your donations are eligible for 33% tax rebate. So everyday punters like us can enjoy the tax advantages of philanthropic donation, the same way that the millionaires do. To get that tax rebate, however, you can’t receive anything for that donation: no tickets, no hip flask, no signed postcard, no posters, no “flown to Austin for lunch at a fancy hotel with me and my artist friends”, and all the other rewards that Kickstarter and Pledgeme and other crowdfunding sites are built around. Your only reward, so far as I can tell from careful study of Boosted site, is the inner glow of donation and a tax rebate of 33% of the donated amount.

I think there will be fewer projects listed on Boosted than on Kickstarter or PledgeMe, and that Boosted projects will raise less money than equivalent Kickstarter/PledgeMe projects.

These sites live in different worlds. Kickstarter and PledgeMe are in the world of commerce and capitalism. What happens in that world? Artists and audience are in a conversation, exchanging art and money. Boosted lives in the world of entitled unprofitable art. What happens in that world? Artists acknowledge their works aren’t financially viable without someone (Arts Foundation, millionaire patrons, you or me) topping up the artist’s income.

There are more people in the world of commerce than in the world of charity. You might not like that fact, you might despise capitalism, but there it is. When you opt out of the world of commerce, you turn your back on a large audience and their money.

When you list on Kickstarter, you say “ok, I have to offer something tangible to those people who have money and want to support me.” Patrons on Kickstarter are always able to say “don’t send me anything, just take my money” but the rewards are what drive (and upsell) Kickstarter project funding. Sure, $1 gets me a thank-you on the website, but $10 gets me a postcard and $100 gets me two tickets to the show and for $5000 I could fly to Queenstown with the artist and her other famous artist friend, and we could have lunch in a fancy restaurant and talk about art and suddenly I’m getting angry emails from my wife asking what the hell I’m doing.

When you list on Boosted, you say “I’m not going to even TRY to offer you anything, just give me your money”. I’m sure traditional arts folk look at PledgeMe and go “ick, commerce!” but I can assure you there’s a mutual response of “ick, begging!” when I look at Boosted.

I get the idea that you want to free up artists to make art. I get that. But when I fund something on Kickstarter, I receive more than an automated “thank you!” email from the recipient and an eventual object. I get updates on the project’s success, backstage and early release videos and insight into how it’s going, and this is the medium through which I build a relationship with the artist. I see their struggle. I see their creation. I want them to succeed: not merely once, at the point when the sale is closed, but again and again. And this relationship isn’t public: They tell me (ME!) (and the other backers) how it’s going. I love that! And I’ll come back and support their next project if I build that relationship and love what they created.

My favourite musicians hang around after the show and talk to fans. That’s not making their art. But it’s building the relationships which enable the art. Those relationships, between audience and artist, are part of the conversation where money and art are exchanged. Both sides benefit: fans feel a stronger connection to the artist (so participate in their next work), and artists can learn what works (and increase probability of an audience coming along to their next project). Updates build that relationship.

When you list on Boosted, you opt out of the conversation with your audience. I couldn’t find the part of the Boosted site which builds the relationship between backer and artist. You say “I love this new technology, use it to give me money — but if you want to form a relationship with me, do so through other channels.” It’s not just a lost opportunity, it’s a rude signal to send.

It’s not like Boosted projects have opted out of commerce: a book, an album, a dance show. Those things won’t be given away. The artists are still playing by those commercial rules, but they’re excluding the Boosted donors from being a part of the conversation. By using Boosted they’ve run the risk of looking like they have one hand out and one finger up. I’m sure they don’t intend this.

There’s a related short-term problem for Boosted: their current project descriptions need work. The Kickstarter crew worked with the early projects to ensure descriptions were as appealing as possible. Some of that energy needs to happen on Boosted too. I’d love to support belters in bustiers and a poignant doco about middle-aged provincial rugby players and the Modern Maori Quartet but … what exactly am I funding? The Opera Risque will “workshop and improve”, the doco and quartet project videos and text don’t say one thing about what the money will be used for. Get on that, Boosted folk: make it concrete, make it real, make it specific.

How would these projects work on Kickstarter? Depends on what they’re actually trying to raise money for. Here are some hypotheticals. Modern Maori Quartet would be preselling tickets (“we want to play in Auckland! We need 500 people to justify booking the theatre for two nights”), lower tiers just merch (“we’ll mail you a t-shirt!”), higher tiers personalised love (“we’ll sing at your dinner party!”). Doco: we have footage but it has to be edited and mastered, so we’re pre-selling DVDs and you get your name in the credits; lower-tier is just thanks; higher tiers are merch and personalised attention like lunch with Colin Meads, director, and rugby team captain. Opera: we’ll sing into your answering machine, we’ll do 15m at your (Auckland) party, we have 10 people per day who can watch an hour of rehearsals, we’ll tie it into actual shows in a big city’s venue so we’ll presell tickets, you’ll get a signed photo from the cast, you’ll get a signed bustier, … Lots of possibilities: most Boosted projects could offer rewards, and pricing the rewards would have to take into account the overhead burden of fulfilling the rewards (printing postcards, time signing and mailing, etc.).

But this exchange is the point.

Would someone who gives $5,000 to a dance troupe be given a “thank you” mail and nothing else? No. I’m guessing you get backstage tours and VIP seats and a small performance at your next company do if you increase to $7,500. And they’ll listen to what you say and you’ll feel connected. But give $100 and you won’t get a small reward that would be the commensurately small token of gratitude. You’ll still pay for a ticket, nobody will know your name, you’ll still have to walk in the front door, you’ll see nothing that regular punters won’t see, and you’ll still be a stranger.

Ah, but you’ll get the option of doing paperwork to claim back $33. Great.

So I predict Boosted will limp along but never soar. And artists who care about building audience, about rewarding their patrons for patronage, will continue to use the online world to have that conversation with their audience. On Kickstarter and PledgeMe.

But I’d love to be wrong, because there are projects on Boosted that are awesome. Please, Boosted: surprise me and succeed. Discover a legion of people who love to donate again and again, and find a way to reward them for that. Wag the long tail of art philanthropy.

(I don’t wish Boosted or their projects ill. I want more people to understand why PledgeMe and Kickstarter work: rewards build relationships from reciprocation. They are a new source of income for independent artists, but it’s earned income and not charity. Don’t set Boosted up to fail by expecting PledgeMe or Kickstarter levels of success: their audiences are different because their value propositions are different. Boosted helps people who identify as selfless givers to The Arts, but who don’t have large sums to give. PledgeMe and Kickstarter have a framework for support that use relationships and exchange of value to extend the commerce around art and build a wider audience for artists)

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