Kickstarter as a Path to Grammy Nominations, Far Beyond the Indie Scene


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Molly Neuman, a veteran of the indie music scene who is Kickstarter’s head of music, at the company’s headquarters in Brooklyn.

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Richard Perry/The New York Times

Three years ago, the Nashville Symphony was in austerity mode as it recovered from the financial crisis and a flood that caused $40 million in damage to its building. To help finance an album of works by the composer Joan Tower, the orchestra turned for the first time to a source more associated with indie rock than with classical music: Kickstarter.

The orchestra’s campaign raised $15,585 from 86 backers, and this month, “Stroke,” one of Ms. Tower’s pieces from the resulting album, is up for a Grammy Award for best contemporary classical composition.

“This project could not have happened were it not for the Kickstarter campaign,” said Alan D. Valentine, president of the Nashville Symphony.

Once viewed as a fringe area where baby bands make earnest pleas for help, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites like it have become part of the standard financial circuit for musicians of all types, with releases that are edging closer to the mainstream. This year, four albums connected to Kickstarter campaigns are up for Grammy Awards; in previous years, four have won.

Since its founding in 2009, Kickstarter — where artists, inventors and other creative types solicit early payments from supporters — has raised $1.9 billion for nearly 100,000 projects of various kinds. Music has been the most popular category, with 22,000 successful campaigns that have raised $149 million, although creators in areas like technology and film have raised larger sums for fewer projects. (Kickstarter campaigns are completed, and supporters charged, only if pledges reach a minimum level set by the artist.) Amanda Palmer holds the record for the most money raised for a music project, $1.2 million for her 2012 album, “Theatre Is Evil.”

At any given time, around 500 music-related campaigns are underway on Kickstarter, and a scan shows plenty that fit the site’s stereotype of indie strivers in boho capitals: a solo ukulele album from a performer in Seattle, a Brooklyn band working on its first live release.

But the Grammy nominations this year also show the site’s breadth. The composer Andrew Norman’s “Play” is also up for contemporary composition, on an album by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Miguel Zenón’s “Identities Are Changeable” has a nod for best Latin jazz album; and the Cedric Burnside Project’s “Descendants of Hill Country” is up for best blues album.

Other crowdfunding outlets have become familiar sights in the Grammy catalog. ArtistShare, a company founded in 2003 that has a partnership with the Blue Note label, is represented in three jazz nominations: the Gil Evans Project’s “Lines of Color” and the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s “The Thompson Fields” are up for best large ensemble album, while a saxophone performance by Donny McCaslin on “The Thompson Fields” is a contender for best improvised solo. Three of Ms. Schneider’s albums that she made using ArtistShare won Grammys.

Now, to extend Kickstarter’s reach in music, the company has hired Molly Neuman, a veteran of the indie scene, as its head of music. In a recent interview at the company’s spacious headquarters in a former pencil factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Ms. Neuman described a loose but ambitious mandate to make Kickstarter more useful for listeners seeking new music, and more responsive to the musicians who sign up for it.

“We’ve established ourselves as a way for creators to get their music kicked off and engage with a community,” said Ms. Neuman, who started her career playing drums for the riot grrrl band Bratmobile and was most recently interim president for the American Association of Independent Music, a trade organization for small labels. “When we’re thinking about the future, it’s really about how we can help artists give fans what they want in a more seamless and helpful way.”

One example of how this might work, particularly for onetime stars who retain sizable followings, is a campaign started last week by Naughty by Nature. After campaigns last year by the hip-hop trio De La Soul and the R&B group TLC, two other 1990s giants, Naughty by Nature is looking to raise $100,000 for a 25th-anniversary EP, and offering perks for generous fans, such as being in a music video (for $5,000) or getting a private concert by the group ($10,000).

“Thank God for technology and a loyal fan base,” said Vin Rock, a member of Naughty by Nature, whose song “O.P.P.” went to No. 6 in 1991. “Because we feel like we don’t need to be dependent on a record label anymore.”

The group worked closely with Kickstarter in lining up its campaign and reward plans, Ms. Neuman said, and the company wants to make its coaching and promotion expertise available to more musicians, of any size.

For now, however, the most valuable asset that Kickstarter offers to artists may be its position as a conduit for money. Gil Rose, the leader of Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its label, BMOP/sound, which has used Kickstarter for four albums, said that the site is most useful as a supplement to other forms of fund-raising, and functions best when the composers or artists involved activate their own networks online.

Mr. Valentine, of the Nashville Symphony, was more blunt in his assessment of the need for alternative funding types like Kickstarter. “You have to be innovative,” he said, “or you die.”



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