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29 June 2015

Kickstarter

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On June 5th, I celebrated my 45th birthday by launching a Kickstarter for my next recording project. The first two days were VERY busy: I launched on a Friday and hit my $10K objective on Saturday in the early evening. Obviously, I should have been more ambitious! The original plan was to ask for $15K of the ~$25K it will take to make the record, but Kickstarter is all or nothing and I wanted to make sure I didn’t get nothing. I’m close to $15K as I write this, but contributions have slowed to a trickle. If you haven’t contributed, consider heading over to Kickstarter now. Don’t worry, I can wait! Once you’ve spent some time with the campaign, come back here and read about “the making of.”

Research
Like many aspiring supplicants, I started by reading about Kickstarter—there’s a ton of “literature” out there—talking to experienced friends, and breaking down successful campaigns. I still have a ton of bookmarks from this meditative period, including “9 Tips for Launching a Successful Kickstarter Campaign” and “How Successful Kickstarter Videos Are Made.” Then, there was extensive back and forth with Mike Clem of Eddie From Ohio, who had just funded solo album, and Ken Hamm, who was planning to crowdfund a new company, Props Creators Marketplace. Finally, I reviewed eighteen campaigns by artists who occupy approximately the same musical space. From these examples, I was able to get a sense for how the rules of thumb I’d heard/read about played out in real life. This was the most intimidating aspect of the pre-work, since all eighteen exceeded their goals, some of them by a lot. That said, it wasn’t like the nuts and bolts of their campaigns—the project description, the video, and the rewards—were beyond me. Far from it: I came out of the research period with the realization that it was compelling stories—rather than, say professional-quality videos—that won the day.

Project Description
I wrote the project description first, which helped crystallize my thinking. Why, really, do I want to make another record? What, specifically, do I have in mind? Who’s involved and how much is it going to cost? I tried to answer all these questions, and also—gently—make the case for why you might want to lend your support. I don’t know if anyone ever gets to the end of these things—especially those which, like mine, are a little on the long side—but I wanted to put everything out there just in case. At very least, I didn’t want someone to cite a lackluster project description as the reason for failure.

Video
The most time-consuming component was the video, which is mandatory: according to Kickstarter’s creator handbook, 50% of projects with videos succeed vs. 30% of projects without. Here’s what I came up with:

I shot the footage with the help of my brother-in-law, Thomas Rogers, who is handy with a camera. He is known more for stills – especially sidewalk typos in San Francisco – but his Canon Rebel T3i is preferable to the iPhone 6 for video and audio as well.

We chose three locations in and around my house in San Francisco: the shack in the backyard, the dining room, and the office. I’ve worked in the shack and office before. The shack has a nice aesthetic, with the orange-on-white window frame and bamboo backdrop. I like the office because of the book shelves, although—I might as well admit—I had to remove the business books that lived right behind the chair and replace them with something more purely intellectual. For example, you can see the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace over my left shoulder.

I worked from a script, which was problematic at first, because the camera caught me reading. I mean, obviously reading. I tried to live with it, but eventually broke down and re-shot the first section on my own with an iPhone 6. The other two sections were OK, because by then I’d internalized the text, and also figured out that I could tape the script to the base of the tripod.

The reading problem provided the original impetus for inserting the cutaway images in the first section. That problem went away, but I kept the cutaways, because of their “show don’t tell” quality. They also help introduce Peter Case, who will be producing the album. (I asked Peter to participate in the video, but we couldn’t make it happen on my timeline. You can, however, check out his recent Kickstarter video to get a sense for how he thinks about music and the music business.) My favorite images are two ticket stubs I saved from my first Peter Case shows, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in September 1990. Those shows are an important enough part of the story that I discuss them in the video, and also in a recent blog post about my history with Peter. 

The other big thing is the music. I started and ended with the intro to my song “Valentine’s Day” because (1) it’s my best-known song, (2) it features a catchy, memorable hook line, and (3) it has the words “here we go again,” which allude to my making a new album after a long hiatus. Then, I recorded acoustic instrumentals of two of the songs that are contenders for the project—Big Sur and Artificial Light—and dropped them in under some dialogue. Incidentally, guitar/vocal demos of those and the 23 other candidate songs can be found on a SoundCloud playlist if you feel like checking them out. You can even tell me which ones you like best by hearting/liking!

I also used two songs by other artists. First, a snippet of “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls, to remind you that you’re actually aware of Peter Case, even if you don’t know his solo work. “A Million Miles Away” was a minor hit on the national scene – #82 on the Billboard charts – but extremely popular in Los Angeles in the early 80s. If you don’t believe me, consider that the song and the band were featured prominently in what may be the ultimate 80s/L.A. film, Nicholas Cage’s Valley Girl.

Second, I used Suzanne Vega’s 99.9F°. This is the title track from Suzanne’s fourth album, which is probably best known for “Blood Makes Noise,” which reached #1 on the Modern Rock chart. The album has been described as “experimental,” and its electronic vibe represented a major departure from the folk and folk-rock of her early career. As I say in the second segment of the video, I too wish to make a departure from the sound of my first three albums.

In case you’re wondering, I asked for permission to use both songs, though I’m not sure if either artist actually owns the masters.

Rewards
If the project description required deep thinking and the video required technical known-how, the rewards demanded a decisiveness that eluded me. I spent a lot of time waffling: what will be meaningful to people? How many rewards should there be? How should I think about price? It was also necessary to model costs—how much does it cost to ship an LP-sized photographic print?—and explore logistics. For example, I had to find a venue for the private party/concert I wanted to offer. Thanks to everyone who provided information, including those of you who responded to my informal surveys!

In the end, I settled on twelve rewards, some of which are pretty standard. First, there’s the music. Like everyone else, I offered digital downloads of the new album and the other albums in my catalog. I tried to sweeten the pot at $25 by offering a project-related poster created by Misisipi Mike Wolf, who is also one of San Francisco’s great guitarist/songwriter/bandleaders.

I dug deep into my songwriting history for the $50 level, offering a huge trove of demos from every phase of my career. Now, this sort of thing is not for the faint of heart. Does anyone need to hear 100 of my songs, including the ones that didn’t make the records and quite a few that simply aren’t good? I hope it makes more sense when I tell you that I’m going to annotate these demos in such a way that you gain insight into process, state of mind, backstory, etc. There’s the origin story of Ian and Lydia, for example, which involves a failed attempt at matchmaking, and the late-night bus ride through the Midwest that inspired Killing Time. I’m always interested in that sort of background, and I’m betting some of you will be too.

I have to mention the $75 level, because it starts with an act of generosity. Louise Taylor is an accomplished singer/songwriter, who has released a number of albums for Signature Sounds. She also teaches voice via Skype from her bungalow on Oahu, and has helped at least two people I know—who were pretty good singers to begin with—realize their full potential. I hope I can someday add a third name to that list: my own. That’s right, Louise is also my voice teacher, and is helping me become a better singer just in time to make this new record. Because she’s an extremely kind, supportive person, she offered to extend her participation in the project by offering up a couple of hours of her time. Hours that she could spend writing songs, or surfing Pipeline!

Two other standard rewards in the singer/songwriter category are handwritten lyrics and house concerts. House concerts are a no-brainer; I’d love to play more gigs. Lyrics are trickier, however, because I’m no master of the visual arts. I mean, anyone can jot down the words to a song on a nice piece of paper, but I don’t know how to make it pretty, like with little flowers in the margin or whatever. A solution occurred to me when my in-laws were visiting from Texas. My mother-in-law, Karen Rogers, is a seriously talented artist, so one evening I asked her to illustrate my lyric sheets. Either she wants to do it, or I caught her at an opportune moment, but she agreed.

There are two rewards that actually aren’t that lucrative, at least from a profitability standpoint. I wanted to have some sort of event in San Francisco, to encourage contributions but also to have some good, old-fashioned fun. To that end, I looked for a venue that could hold 40-50 people for a private party/concert. It wasn’t easy! One promising spot was about to close, another held too few people, and a third was too expensive. Finally, I ended up with The Lost Church, which is a great space for music and isn’t closing. The other not-so-lucrative reward is a print of the cover photo, which doesn’t yet exist but will be taken by my old friend Danny Rothenberg. High-quality prints do not come cheap, especially if you only order a few of them. Still, I wanted to offer it up, because it’s unique and permanent.

Without a doubt, the best reward is the custom song at $500. Lots of songwriters offer custom songs, but not all of them have my unique gift. Now, we’re not talking timeless masterpieces. But, I have a knack for the very, very minor masterpiece: the kind of funny/serious number that comes out of left field with surprising rhymes, jargon never before used in song, etc. One of my all-time hits is “Arthur Rogers, Attorney At Law,” written for my father-in-law on the occasion of his 60th birthday. (Its sister song, “Karen Rogers, Mother-In-Law,” was not as successful, but you can’t win ‘em all.) One of my great subjects is corporate America, and I’ve taken town halls and off sites to the next level at no fewer than two Fortune 500 companies. It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true!

Finally, I want to mention one reward that didn’t make the cut. At one point, I was thinking of giving away my Gibson ES-335 from the late 1990s—which is in great condition except for a chip in the headstock—and a Danelectro re-issue for $1,500. Hell, for another $500, I could even throw in a perfectly serviceable Fender amplifier! I went through the motions, but eventually deleted it because I couldn’t determine how much the guitar was actually worth.

Execution
The execution wasn’t actually that hard, once I had all my ducks in a row. After formally launching the Kickstarter, the essential piece was an email to my 680-person list—which I recently re-activated—but there were also things to do at Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud, and the Bob Hillman Music website. I haven’t checked the analytics yet, but it will be interesting to see which elements generated the most activity. Future blog post?

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Lost Soul // Lost Soul
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  4. I Think I’ve Taken Enough Shit From You This Year // Lost Soul
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