Oct. 9 2013 12:00 AM

How crowdfunding is helping Lansing area projects


I first heard the term crowdfunding in 2010 while listening to a scenester discuss his efforts to get people to pay for the release of his experimental new banjosludge-punk EP. If you first heard about it some other way, then lucky you. Crowdfunding is online, self-run fundraising that’s done wonders for the way creators can connect with their audiences. It has given rise to whole new set of possibilities for artists, scientists and businesses trying to complete their projects — and it’s really catching on locally.

The most well-known crowdfunding websites are Indiegogo and Kickstarter, which popped up in 2008 and 2009, respectively. The concept has been around for as long as people have been asking others to donate money to their projects, but only recently has crowdfunding come to have a definition almost exclusive to online activity. (The website ArtistShare, which launched in 2000, is considered the first major crowdfunding sites for artists.) As of 2012, there were at least 450 crowdfunding platforms. While a large portion are geared toward artistic projects, there are plenty of platforms like Fundable that cater to small business funding, or sites like CrowdRise for charities Because of these sites, not only can projects and businesses be funded without the leaving home, but anyone can set up an account to do it. A search of the Lansing tag on Kickstarter shows 12 successfully funded local projects in 2013 alone.

What´s impressive is that Kickstarter is an all-ornothing model, meaning that if your project doesn´t meet your determined monetary goal by your set deadline, you don´t see a penny. And with only two of those 12 projects having goals under $1,000, that´s a lot of effort from Lansing residents.

Lansing blues veterans Root Doctor recently used Kickstarter to raise $10,210 in 29 days, fully covering the recording costs for their recent album, “New Attitude.” In the band´s 20-plus year history, this is the first time they´ve relied on a crowdfunding platform to help them kick out the jams. Root Doctor keyboardist Mike Skory said he saw it not just as a way to finance the record, but to expand the band into brand new territories.

“I didn´t realize it at first, but it became a promotional tool,” Skory said. “It forced us to go beyond our comfort zone, beyond the tight-knit community of the blues genre. We had to reach out to people who might not know us.”

Crowdsourcing also provides a way for artists to better connect with their fanbase.

“We would see that our drummer from six years ago donated, or someone we didn´t even know would give some money,” Skory said. “It´s cool that people were rooting for us. They´re not coming down to the local bar, but they jumped all over this.”

That type of inclusion is something that Philip Rice, a doctorate student in music composition at Michigan State University, has noticed with his Kickstarter campaign, “Chrysalis.” Rice´s project also supports a musical endeavor, but his work is a little more unusual: It involves controlling glittering lights inside giant cocoons on stage. You can imagine his difficulty finding funds.

“My stuff is pretty esoteric — my friends don´t even know what´s going on,” Rice said. His project was successfully funded, and he will perform at the MSU School of Music on Tuesday. “Most of my backers aren´t from the area and won´t be able to attend the performance, but still want to help make this happen. The rewards make it so that they can be connected to the experience.”

The rewards are an aspect of the Kickstarter model that lets artists offer prizes for backers that contribute at certain monetary levels. Rice has found a way to connect these rewards to his performance, making replica paper cocoons that resemble the eventual full-scale version, an idea he says would not have happened if he hadn´t had the option of offering prizes on the site. And if you pledge $50 or more, the “levels of enigma at this donation point are near the threshold of sacred mystery.” If that doesn´t get your curiosity, keep scrolling.

However, crowdfunding sites are not the easy way out by a long shot. That might be argued about Zach Braff ´s campaign earlier this year (which raised $3.1 million for his new movie), but Lansing filmmaker Michael McCallum will tell you that it´s a bit more work for someone outside Hollywood.

McCallum is just coming off of a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $7,200 for his short film “Sure Thing.” He´s no stranger to traditional fundraising campaigns, having done them for all of his past feature films, but his entrance into the online crowdfunding world showed him it can be just as timeconsuming to run things from behind a computer screen.

“The Kickstarter project is a full-time job, and a lot of people don´t realize that going in,” McCallum said. “They think they´ll just set the site up and the money will flow in. It doesn´t.”

“Sure Thing” passed its original goal of $6,500, allowing McCallum´s Rebel Pictures to cover final production costs, including entry fees into festivals and the creation of a compilation DVD that includes all his short films. But that donation comes with a certain amount of responsibility, McCallum said. Between the backer prizes, communication from artist to public and the successful completion of the promised project, there is a relationship built with each new backer to the campaign.

“I don´t care if it´s the person who donates the lowest amount or the highest, they´re still putting their hardearned money in,” McCallum said. “And they should feel like they´re important and be able to communicate with you and be part of the team.”

It’s not just artistic projects that benefit from the concept. Katherine Jones and Elisa Kim Fromboluti at MSU´s Timing, Attention, and Perception Lab are using the scientific crowdfunding site Microryza to fund their research project, called “How do we learn words from speech?” The project sits at just $1,385 of its $10,000 goal that has to be met by Oct. 17 in order to be funded. Despite having a considerable gap to close, Fromboluti remains confident about the benefits of using a crowdfunding platform for her research.

“The way that science is usually funded, we have to submit to peer-reviewed journals that the public doesn´t usually get to see,” Fromboluti says. “I like this crowdfunding method because the public helps to fund the research, and there´s an immediate link between funders and the output.”

And if Kickstarter can help a guy enter his jockstrap into the Guinness Book of World Records (yes that´s real, look it up), it might be a good idea to keep an eye on what crowdfunding can continue to do in the Lansing area.