Tales from the crowdfunding front lines

Finding an artist with a wallet that’s not always exclusively lined with sad moths is getting harder every day. As a result, many creative people are turning away from traditional income models and are instead looking to eke out a living through crowdfunding.

Kickstarter, one of the most widely recognized crowdfunding websites, lets users “back” projects by pledging to donate money if a reserve amount is met. The service often acts as a preorder for physical products or services. Reward tiers, which offer perks beyond the scope of the initial project, encourage donators to pledge more.

Valerie Asbell, a Portland State alumnus, recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her own stage production of Hamlet. If the Kickstarter is successful, Asbell will be staging the production through her own theatre company, Clever Enough.

Asbell said her production of Hamlet will focus on the political elements, an aspect of the play she said she feels is underrepresented. Asbell said she thinks theatre-goers will appreciate the parallels between the narrative of Hamlet and modern society.

“Ears are a theme throughout the play,” Asbell said. “Claudius even kills King Hamlet by pouring poison into his ear.”

“It’s like nobody’s listening, and maybe nobody’s talking either.”

Asbell said one of the hurdles she encountered during her Kickstarter was knowing how much information to disclose about her interpretation of Hamlet. Each staging of a play is different, and having a director’s take on the material revealed before opening night can be detrimental. But not revealing enough information can sometimes be worse.

“It presented a hurdle,” Asbell said. “How am I going to get people interested if they don’t think I have any original ideas?”

Asbell sought the feedback of theatre professionals. She reached out to former theatre professors and local actors.

“There’s a time to do the work yourself,” Asbell said. “But there’s a time to let other people in, give them your trust and let them help you.”

Asbell said she had been kicking around the idea to start a theatre company for five years before she finally set aside her own doubts.

“There was [this] little voice in my head that said ‘no, get real, come on,’” Asbell said. “I think a lot of people might have that little voice. I think it’s good to tell that voice to shut up.”

Asbell said her decision to start a theatre company stemmed from a desire for greater autonomy as a theatrical artist. She said that she found herself yearning to perform in plays that weren’t being staged locally. She reasoned that if she started her own company, she could act in whatever plays she wanted, whenever she wanted. Kickstarter was the best way to do that and stay independent.

Lucy Bellwood, a Portland-based cartoonist and illustrator, launched a campaign on Kickstarter in 2012, when the website was less ubiquitous. Bellwood asked for $1,500 to publish True Believer, a 36-page comic about having the courage to do what you love. The campaign was wildly successful. She received $11,658. Bellwood said the comic’s rampant success was due in large part to Kickstarter’s crowdfunding model.

“A lower initial goal vastly improves your chance of having a runaway campaign,” Bellwood said. “People like to know they’re making a difference.”

Bellwood said that when she was planning her Kickstarter campaign she made sure to consider her audience.

“It’s helpful to have a fanbase,” she said, “and links to various online networks in place before starting the campaign.”

“One person can’t generate enough buzz to fund a campaign without help,” Bellwood said. “The wider your net, the higher your chance of success.”

Kickstarter isn’t the only crowdfunding website around, though. Another site, Patreon, has recently been making waves. Patreon allows users to donate to creators on a recurring basis, rather than as a one-time lump sum.

“You can’t really compare Kickstarter with Patreon,” said Kory Bing, a Portland-based self-employed comic artist and creator of Skin Deep. “If Kickstarter is an easier way to do preorders, Patreon is an easier way to do a tip jar on your website.”

Like Kickstarter, Patreon also offers tiered rewards. Bing said the little extra goodies are more like the icing on the cake than the sole reason to donate.

Sfé R. Monster, a queer comics creator and illustrator from Halifax and creator of the ongoing comic Eth’s Skin, only just began using Patreon two months ago. It’s his first foray into crowdfunding.

Sfé said he chose Patreon because he has yet to embark on a project large enough to warrant a Kickstarter.

“Prior to Patreon I could only focus on one larger solo creative project [at] a time, while simultaneously juggling freelance and commission work in order to make ends meet,” Sfé said. “Now, with Patreon I’m now able to take on less freelance work and devote more of my time and energy to my own comics and projects that people want to see.”

While crowdfunding has made its mark on the artistic community, some concerns about the sustainability and longevity of the business model remain.

“It does feel like at any moment the bubble could pop and this could all fall apart,” Sfé said.
“But I’m really encouraged by conversations I’ve heard about people budgeting to support places like Patreon.”

“I really hope it sticks and continues to grow and we can see more people engaging with Patreon as both creators and supporters in the future.”