Prepaid art: it's all about the fans

Online pledging services are changing the relationship between bands and their followers.

Salim Nourallah says that being funded by online pledges from his fans makes him feel a stronger responsibility to deliver a good record.
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For many years the relationship between musicians and their fans was relatively simple. The artist would play some tracks, either on stage or in the studio, the fan would buy a ticket or an album, and everyone knew where they stood. Now, however, that dynamic has become more intense. "Have dinner with Salim: that was suggested to me as an incentive," says Salim Nourallah, a Syrian-American singer-songwriter. "But I didn't feel good about asking someone to pay money just to hang out with me. It felt a bit creepy."

Nourallah is recalling his early discussions with Pledgemusic, an online service that is threatening to revolutionise the way the music business operates. Record labels were once all-powerful benefactors when it came to an artist's career, but download services and social networking sites have redressed the balance, and now performers are taking full control. Pledgemusic is one of several sites that allow artists to acquire funds directly from their fans, in advance, and in this case it works as a sort of charity auction. A financial target is set and the artists attempt to reach it by selling a selection of "exclusives", which range from the traditional - a signed copy of the finished album - to more extreme, expensive options.

"One band said: 'Our bass player will get your name tattooed on him somewhere'," laughs Benji Rogers, who founded and runs the site. "Another artist said: 'I'll show up on your birthday with friends, play an acoustic set for you and do some interior decorating ?'" The performers involved in Pledgemusic vary from virtual unknowns to genuine legends - the likes of Jack Bruce, of the 1960s supergroup Cream - and the target sums differ wildly, one campaign raising "$98,000 (Dh360,000) from 13,000 pledges", according to Rogers. Nourallah's needs were modest, by comparison. The Texas-based songwriter amassed a healthy fan base over two decades in the business, but having diversified into other areas he couldn't afford to take several months off to work on a new record. Then a musician associate recommended Rogers' site, which seemed a no-lose opportunity to get his music back on track. Well, almost.

"One of the first friends I mentioned the pledge drive to said: 'So how are you going to feel if the only people who contribute are two or three of your friends?'" recalls Nourallah, who is of Syrian parentage but makes classic American guitar rock. "That struck a chord of self-doubt in me but I fought it off and tried to think of lots of pledges coming in, instead of none. "The past 60 days have been a roller-coaster ride," he continues. "My drive got off to a really strong start and by the halfway mark we'd just about reached the target amount. We had a couple of big house concert pledges come in at key moments; that was really exciting, having a $750 pledge push us over the target amount."

Playing a gig at a fan's house is one of the more popular - and lucrative - offers on many of the artists' pages, and selling such items is proving an effective method of acquiring funds. Several other sites offer a similar end product - prepayment for a new album - but a more formal financial process, and the results have been mixed. The fan-funded idea came to worldwide media attention in October last year when the US hip-hop legends Public Enemy tried to drum up support for a new album by working with Sellaband, which offered fans shares in the subsequent record. Their campaign soon made the wrong kind of headlines when it stalled with only around a third of the target reached, and Sellaband then filed for bankruptcy.

Both the site and the Public Enemy project are now back up and running, but the story was a PR disaster for the band. While a poorly-selling album can be blamed on bad reviews or a flawed publicity campaign, the failure of a fan-funded model suggests general uninterest, which isn't good for the image. More successful was a campaign by the British indie rock act Patrick Wolf, who decided to escape the record industry shackles and fund his next record via another share-issuing site, Bandstocks. His fans raised over £100,000 (Dh531,000) and became part-owners of the subsequent album, The Bachelor, which emerged last year.

While these share-based systems offer an alternative to record labels, Pledgemusic is happy to work alongside the traditional system, and Rogers has some useful contacts in this area. "My stepfather manages Genesis and Phil Collins," he says, "and when I took the idea to him and said: 'Will it work?' he chewed me on it for about three hours, really grilled me, and in the end said: 'You know what? I think it will.' I mean, he didn't get involved ?"

That may have been a wise decision, given Rogers' admission that "I haven't slept for about a year", a lifestyle that involves much transatlantic travel in order to liaise with the next wave of artists. "We've put 56 records through the system and we've got about 300 projects waiting," he says, with genuine enthusiasm despite the lack of rest. "We're actually making albums." His company makes money by taking a percentage of the total figure raised - a donation to charity is usually factored in too - after which the artist is free to take the finished album to a record label, if they wish. Interestingly, Rogers has now begun signing artists who already have major-label deals, like the young San Franciscan reggae star Natty, whose new EP will be Pledgemusic-funded. It's a useful option if you have more material than your label is able to market.

Smaller outfits could be forgiven for looking at these higher-profile campaigns with some envy, however. The Icelandic post-rock band For a Minor Reflection came to prominence after touring with their hugely popular compatriots Sigur Ros in 2008, and took out a loan in order to fund a new album. Their Pledgemusic fund was set up to pay off their debts and fund a promotional tour, but got off to a slow start.

"If you're Jack Bruce from Cream it's OK," says the band's manager, Gisli Thor. "But when you've only seen one article or heard three songs by a band, you're not going to pay for them to come to your house and play. That's the downside of the pledge thing." This campaign was very much Thor's idea and he admits that the band were "quite lazy" with it early on, and a bit reticent about some of his suggestions for exclusive offers. "I wanted them to play Stairway to Heaven and get someone to come up and sing it," he laughs, "but they weren't having it."

Thankfully Thor eventually got them in the mood. The Reykjavik-based band had acquired numerous e-mail addresses from new fans during that Sigur Ros tour, and as the pledge deadline loomed they put more effort into their updates. It worked, as the campaign enjoyed a sudden spurt and swiftly exceeded the target amount. "It all depends on how many people you've got on your e-mail list," says the manager. "They'll see an e-mail once, then again, and then they'll pledge."

Browse through the various fan-funded sites and there are numerous sad-looking projects still stuck at square one, although Pledgemusic actively avoids long-running strugglers as their campaigns only last for a limited period. The pledgers aren't charged until a suitable percentage of the target sum is reached, and the whole project will be cancelled if still deficient on the agreed deadline. That's rare though as "we continuously prod them", says Rogers. "If the band works hard then the pledges fly through."

Such advance-payment models may even lead to better music, suggest those who've tried it. Not only do the artists have full creative control, but they're more motivated due to the fan-funded studio sessions; something Rogers discovered firsthand. "I'm also a musician, and I demoed the system myself because I wanted to make sure it worked," he says. "I was absolutely stunned by that feeling of 'I've got to pull my bootstraps up here. I've got to get this done.'"

Nourallah, whose own project went on to greatly exceed its target, agrees. "I feel a stronger responsibility than ever before to deliver a really good record for all the people who supported me," he says. "This entire experience has been deeply inspiring. It's got me writing songs like crazy." Now he has to go and play those songs at some fans' houses, which should be interesting. Let's hope an encore is included in the price.