Male bowerbirds build ornate nests, or bowers, to attract potential mates. They use flowers and mosses and most anything else they can find to add color and allure to their lair.
Phil Moore and Beth Tacular aren't trying to attract anyone—they've been dating for most of the last decade. But as the folk-romantic band Bowerbirds, which they started while observing birds in the South Carolina wilds, they have manifest some of the same nesting inclinations as their namesake: Since 2007, they've been sporadically building their own home, a small log cabin in the expanse of woods between Pittsboro and Raleigh. At last, it is nearly finished.
"The whole cabin itself is 29' by 17' with a loft in it, so it's a small place," explains guitarist and vocalist Moore. He and Tacular, who plays accordion and sings in Bowerbirds, sit in a back corner of Pittsboro's City Tap. As a blues band plays, they detail the cabin's ground-up construction process. They even built the bottom story without the aid of power tools.
The last touch to the cozy interior will be a home studio, an addition the couple is funding with an ambitious Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $35,000 in less than a month—thousands of dollars beyond the band's $28,000 goal.
Bowerbirds aren't the only group to seek and earn tens of thousands of dollars toward a project through the crowdfunding website: Locally, both Raleigh country-rockers American Aquarium and Durham folk-pop act Delta Rae raised $24,000 and $28,000, respectively, to fund their 2012 LPs. As far as local and large-sum Kickstarter campaigns go, the only real difference for Bowerbirds is that they are not only cutting a record but building a studio for future records as well.
Bowerbirds reached their goal well before their fund drive ends later this week, a fact that they will celebrate with a free Kickstarter party at the Pinhook this weekend. Later in January, post-rock-educated Raleigh band Gray Young will release its Kickstarter-funded third album, Bonfire. And Fiction Kitchen, a vegetarian-centric Raleigh restaurant that purchased its equipment through Kickstarter contributions, launches this week. But not all campaigns succeed: Last week, Uncool—a potential long-form, ad-free music magazine—failed dramatically, raising only $9,300 of its $54,000 goal.
Kickstarter, after all, is a crowded place today: For every critically acclaimed or radio-ready band asking for help, there are Doctor Who-themed "Gangnam Style" parodies (goal: $700) or projects to build a Sasquatch-seeking aerial drone (goal: $355,000). Is such crowd funding destined to hit critical mass and implode, or will the crowdsourcing model enter and sustain itself within the larger cultural dialogue, which happened with social media within the last decade?
"The most negative thing about Kickstarter now is the overwhelming prevalence of it everywhere," opines Dan Grinder, who plays bass in the Kickstarter-funded Gray Young. While Grinder is overall positive about the crowdsourcing platform, he feels the system has limits—and, perhaps, an expiration date.
"Everyone has a Kickstarter," he says. "Everyone's asking for five, ten, fifteen thousand dollars, and I feel it's a limited pool that's potentially going to get tapped out. You're going to run into the same problem that the traditional sources of funding—labels and backers in general—ran into. There's a limited amount of funds out there."
Over burgers at MoJoe's, in downtown Raleigh, Grinder compares Kickstarter's potential arc with what happened with Myspace: While the social networking site enabled the popular rise of many bands, including Valient Thorr locally, the site eventually withered under its own weight as everybody hopped online. As the signal-to-noise ratio falls, Grinder reckons, so does the ability for anyone to use the system for much good.
"You have an increased ability to reach more and more folks. You get more opportunities to get in front of people. But it means that anyone can do it," explains Grinder. "You're going to have thousands and thousands of people asking what ultimately ends up being a similar group—the same pool of folks—for money."
Moore disagrees. He doesn't think the group of Kickstarter backers is finite, at least in a way that it will quickly reach the same critical and crippling mass as Myspace. Each new project begets more publicity for the model, a cycle that expands the audience for subsequent campaigns. Moore had assumed Bowerbirds' backers would only be existing fans, but he found that many who pledged had already backed dozens of other projects and were inspired by their intentions.
"Every time somebody makes a new project, where they're actually doing marketing outside of the Kickstarter community, that does grow the amount of people who are actually aware of Kickstarter," Moore says.
Still, one element of Kickstarter initially turned off both Bowerbirds and Gray Young: asking people to pay for something months before they could have or hear it. That, of course, is Kickstarter's defining characteristic—investors fund projects into existence, rather than paying for something that's already been made.
"We knew we had to basically spam people," says Grinder. "We knew how that could be annoying."
Moore admits it could be a bit much, bordering on an NPR pledge drive at times. He and Tacular tried to lower the guilt factor by having "dollar Mondays," where they encouraged donations of that denomination. They also worked to make their communications about Kickstarter more interesting than irksome. "I kept on having to stop myself from quoting exact things that I'd heard on NPR," Tacular says, laughing. "'How much does it mean to you? How much do you listen to Bowerbirds music? Is that worth $5 to you?'"
The reasons both Bowerbirds and Gray Young were willing to hold a pledge drive are almost identical: Both wanted to make new music without cutting corners and without sacrificing creative control, working around a music industry characterized by declining record sales.
Gray Young's first album, Firmament, was self-funded and self-released; the band had to cut corners even to afford it. Durham label 307 Knox released the follow-up, staysail, fronting money that the band had to pay back. For their third album, Gray Young wanted to record properly without going into more debt. But after losing money every time they went on the road, Gray Young couldn't afford to self-fund the recording and release again, not on the scale of Firmament. If not for Kickstarter, Grinder says, there would be no Bonfire.
"We live in a different world now, musically and creatively," he offers. "Labels and gigantic sources of funding just aren't readily available."
Dead Oceans, a reputable independent label whose other acts include Akron/Family and The Tallest Man on Earth, released Bowerbirds' last two LPs. But lots of financial support from such a label can come at a cost, they say.
"Our label spent a lot of money on our last album. The thing about that is that we take a lot longer to make any money for ourselves," Tacular says. "The ones that we spent less money on didn't sound as good, but we could make money quicker touring." The middle ground couples the sound quality of a label-funded session with the low overhead of a home recording. In the interests of creating a sustainable model, Moore and Tacular want to build their own space with some quality equipment.
"Once we get it all together, it's going to be a very capable little studio," Moore says. "We want just a very small amount of really nice things."
Not all money pledged through Kickstarter campaigns goes to the artists: The site itself takes a 5 percent cut, while web giant Amazon.com, which handles the payments, gets 3–5 percent.
"There's a significant amount that comes out as overhead that goes to these groups," says Grinder of Kickstarter's corporate element. "I think a lot of people feel hesitant or they feel a little angry when they find out."
That cut, which contrasts with Kickstarter's surface-level DIY ideology, underlines that there are no easy answers when it comes to crowdsourcing. For some, the entire crowdsourcing model feels bogus.
"When we were first working on the idea, we had one friend who told us she doesn't like Kickstarter," says Tacular. The friend felt more comfortable with sites like Etsy, say, where artists and craftspeople sell existing work, not future ones.
"She thinks we should get the money elsewhere, but the only other options we have are finding a job that we would work for a year and raise that much money," Tacular explains. "That's another year that the music would wait."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Bubble trouble."