Let’s say you have an in-progress creative project (a film, music album, graphic novel, etc.) and you want funding so you can realize your vision.
Or let’s say you have a steady output of work (a bi-weekly publication or a new song a week) requiring resources to continue making and sharing.
Traditional grant programs (such as our Artist Fellowships or Local Cultural Council grants) may or may not match up with your timeline and your needs. So maybe you’re thinking of using an online funding platform as part of your financial strategy.
Now all you have to do is decide: Do you use a crowdfunding platform, like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, or a membership platform, like Patreon?
Let’s go over the basics.*
If you’ve got a specific project with a distinct end goal in mind – for example Laura Christensen’s (Photography Finalist ’21) campaign to complete and publish her art book Then Again – you want to use a crowdfunding platform. Artists crowdfund by soliciting donations from many individual supporters, usually offering rewards. There are a number of crowdfunding sites for artists to choose from, which generally have these things in common:
- They ask artists to set a fundraising goal.
- They make it easy for individuals to make contributions.
- They provide helpful and novel ways to interact with contributors, including the ability to offer rewards.
- And a certain percentage of the funds go to the crowdfunding site to pay for the service.
What sites are out there, and what differentiates them?
Anyone from tech entrepreneurs to working artists can use Kickstarter to create campaigns to reach a fundraising goal for their project. Kickstarter campaigners then offer creative rewards (say, a digital download of an album or a personalized portrait) to donors, generally increasing the appeal of the reward based on the contribution amount.
Things to keep in mind about Kickstarter: if campaigns don’t meet their fundraising goal, the artist gets nothing, so the incentive is high to drum up support. Also, project campaigns need to be approved by Kickstarter to launch.
Let’s return to Laura Christensen’s campaign for Then Again, her book of photography with contributions by poets and writers, which exceeded its fundraising goal of $30,000. If you go to her Kickstarter page, it’s easy to see why the campaign was successful. Not only is the book intriguing, but it’s clear the artist invested a great deal of energy and creativity into the campaign, which has an excellent video pitch, well thought-out rewards, and Laura’s updates throughout the process. Interestingly, the artist learned so much from the experience that she actually now teaches workshops on crowdfunding through MASS MoCA’s Assets for Artists Program.
Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx creators launching Kickstarter campaigns can apply for support from the Creative Capital x Skoll Foundation Fund.
Another crowdfunding site is IndieGoGo. The big difference is that, unlike the all-or-nothing approach of Kickstarter, you can elect to keep all of the money you raise (minus site fees), even if you don’t meet your goal.
Check out the campaign for Circle Up by Julie Mallozzi (Film & Video Finalist ’15, ’07), which very successfully conveyed the impact of the project and its appeal to both targeted communities (like anti-violence activists) and a wider audience. That film, which was in progress during the campaign, has gone on to screen at GlobeDocs Film Festival and on PBS’ America ReFramed.
At some point or other you’ve probably received a request to donate to a GoFundMe campaign. In general, people use GoFundMe for charitable functions or in cases of emergency – medical or funeral costs or disaster relief, for example. An artistic project or ongoing creative work wouldn’t be a great fit for GoFundMe (though a campaign for donations after, say, a studio fire or touring accident, likely would be).
What are best practices in crowdfunding? Successful campaigns tend to…
- Tell a compelling story. The campaign, through its video, description, and updates, successfully conveys why this project is essential to support.
- Target and cultivate an interested community, including those already in your network and those outside of it.
- Incentivize support. Rewards are part of that incentive, but so is the feeling of being part of something special.
- Be well-planned. The most successful campaigns include not just great storytelling but plenty of preparation and a strong plan for building interest and engagement.
- Have a clear goal. You’re more likely to draw support for your campaign if the project has a very clear and specific goal and endpoint. If you’re looking for more ongoing support, you should consider a membership platform (continue reading!).
But what if you create a steady output of work rather than one, deadline-driven, months-in-the-making project? You might instead consider a membership platform.
A YouTube creator who publishes daily content, a producer of a weekly podcast about theatre, a ceramicist who regularly produces pots and shares pottery tutorials, a singer/songwriter who writes and shares music on a regular basis – all examples of creative individuals who may be drawn to a membership platform model. As with crowdfunding, memberships would likely include rewards for contributors/subscribers. But since membership is about subscribing to support an artist in an ongoing way, the rewards are likely to be more ongoing, too – like early access or something extra for subscribers with each new work.
Patreon allows artists to offer membership subscriptions so they can create work in an ongoing way. (That name, you might notice, invites comparisons to “patron,” calling to mind wealthy individuals bankrolling Shakespeare or Matisse so they could create new masterpieces.)
For a concise and entertaining (and, fair warning, f-bomb strewn) explanation of why an artist might use Patreon, watch musician and multidisciplinary artist Amanda Palmer’s video about it.
Some examples of creative individuals in Massachusetts using Patreon are Art Prof, a free website for teaching visual art founded by Clara Lieu (Drawing & Printmaking Fellow ’18), and Wonderland, the periodic online arts journal created by Greg Cook.
There are other platforms that can help make it easier for fans to support artists in an ongoing way, and each has its own unique facets. Ko-Fi allows artists to set up membership subscriptions but also includes some other options, including one-time donations, commissions, or a low pressure “tip jar” on your site. Unlike Patreon, many of Ko-Fi’s services are free for the artist. Substack is another membership/subscription site; more generally, it’s centered around newsletters and is often used by writers. Podia is often associated with online teaching.
Honestly, the best way to figure out which to use is to think deeply about what your needs are and then spend time with different sites to see which is the most natural fit.
- Before launching your own, spend time with other artists’ membership pages to see what resonates.
- Remember that members/subscribers will have expectations. That’s good motivation, but it could also provide stress, so you want to make certain you want that pressure before launching.
- Even though membership isn’t driven by one project or deadline, it’s still good to set goals for yourself and make them achievable.
- Make membership special by offering exclusive content and early access.
- When creating membership reward tiers, give each a distinctive name.
- Same with crowdfunding, tell a compelling story – but focus on your ongoing work rather than a single project.
- Engage with members consistently and frequently.
Patreon’s resources for users
Whatever your practice, online platforms can make it easier for your audience to connect with and support your work. But essential to each platform – and indeed, to any relationship with your audience – is trust. You will reach more supporters as you build trust in your work and your practice as an artist. And the only way to do that is to produce work in your unique creative voice, in a consistent way. So keep reaching, keep deepening, keep sharing, and keep creating.
Images: Laura Christensen (Photography Finalist ’21), SILHOUETTES, NEW BEDFORD, MA (2020), acrylic paint on vintage photograph, 7.5x5in; still image from CIRCLE UP by Julie Mallozzi (Film & Video Finalist ’15, ’07) which crowdfunded through IndieGoGo.
* Please note that as a state agency, Mass Cultural Council does not endorse any particular site or service. All sites mentioned in this article are shared for informational purposes only. Also, we’d appreciate your understanding about details that have changed or become outdated since the article was written – the online landscape evolves swiftly!