Last updated: November 30, 2012 10:50 pm

The band plays on, the fans pay up

Singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright is the latest performer to use crowdfunding to help with her next tour
Martha Wainwright in concert in New York©Wireimage

Martha Wainwright in concert in New York in June

On Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving – most people in the US are either camping out for a chance to buy cut-price electronics or preparing enough turkey sandwiches to nourish them through three solid days of American football. Canadian-American singer Martha Wainwright is spending her last day at home in New York signing CDs before an 11-date European tour to support her new album Come Home To Mama.

Signing things is not such an unusual activity for a musician but in this case the discs are going to fans who have supported Wainwright’s fundraising campaign on Pledgemusic.com, a direct-to-fan site started by Benji Rogers in 2009.

Wainwright’s campaign succeeded in raising the $25,000 she needed to bring a band along with her when she tours the US in March 2013. Her label, Cooperative, is not providing any support for either her European or American tours, even though they will benefit from additional album sales generated from the increased exposure. She expects to break even while touring in Europe but it’s the less-certain American market (she’s always been more popular in Europe) where the top-up is needed.

“If I didn’t raise the money,” she says, “I would have to go out on my own, which is fine but sometimes it’s not the best representation of the music. Also, it’s very hard for me to justify going out by myself for an extended period of time because I have a child. I can’t put him in the car for five hours a day and leave him in crappy backstages until I finish.”

Crowdfunding is all the rage these days, with artists as varied as B.B. King, Ben Folds, Emmy the Great and the Libertines all using the platform to fund special projects. In a nutshell, bands post their idea and fans get out their credit cards to help make it happen. Fans are rewarded for their support, with the value and format of the rewards determined by the artist. It can be anything from a download or a special release to a private concert, depending on the scale of the donation.

At the moment, most artists raise funds to make an album but, as smaller record labels struggle to remain profitable, soliciting funds for touring is becoming more and more popular.

“Previously, when album sales were the lion’s share of income, touring wasn’t designed to make money, it was designed to sell albums that would make money,” says Rogers, of Pledgemusic. “That’s one of the big shifts that’s happening now.”

In theory, it seems like an easy way to raise capital. Make a video, post your project and then watch the money roll in. In practice, it takes time to publicise the campaign – an engaged social media audience doesn’t appear overnight – and then, afterwards, to fulfil all the rewards.

Wainwright has previously received no-strings grants from the Canada Council for the Arts. What, then, is the benefit of raising funds from fans instead?

“There is a connection that’s been made,” says Wainwright. “I feel now that there’s an exchange. [Signing CDs] is the least I can do for people that have coughed up $25. It’s like homework. I’m happy to sit here in the sunshine and do this. Perhaps in five years [crowdfunding] will be standard. It’s a very American concept in a way.”

Rogers says: “Fans have traditionally been left out of the music experience until the very last minute. Access to artists [used to be either] at gigs or buying an album in a shop. Now with social networking being what it is, artists have to share as the process happens.”

Rogers’ parents and stepfather were all in the music business and he toured as a musician for years before turning his attention to Pledgemusic. “Unless some miracle happens and albums begin to sell again in the tonnage they used to sell, artists are going to have to look at different ways to monetise their business,” he says. For stadium bands such as the Rolling Stones or Coldplay, this means high ticket prices and merchandise. Artists such as Wainwright, who have a small but highly engaged fan base, find the best way is by offering access to fans.

But there can be pitfalls. When former Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer scored an astonishing $1.2m from a crowd-sourcing appeal in August this year, she came under heavy attack when it became known that for her American tour she had recruited volunteer musicians paid only with “beer, merchandise and hugs”. Palmer discovered that thousands of backers also meant thousands of opinions on how you should spend the money.

So, for Wainwright, is the money worth giving up some control? “I don’t feel like the fans that have donated want a stake in my career as much as they want me to be more visible. I’ve always been a little bit of an underdog and been surrounded by people that are more successful – even within my own family.”

Indeed, Martha is the sister of Rufus and daughter of folk singer Loudon Wainwright III and Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle. “More people probably know my name than my music,” she adds.

Wainwright admits to a certain level of panic among her colleagues as money seems tight for everyone but the likes of Justin Bieber. Yet even a quick glance at music history will show that for most artists who are happy to exist outside the mainstream, it was always like this.

“My father put his kids through school by getting in his car, going to the gig, selling two or three records at the end of the night and checking into a cheap motel and then going on to the next gig,” she says. “What gets you through and allows you go keep going, even when you’re just playing for 10 people, is the music. I know that sounds tacky but honestly it’s true.”

Martha Wainwright plays at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, tomorrow. For further tour details, www.marthawainwright.com

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