What is the relationship between musician and fan? Increasingly (and I’d argue disturbingly), the line seems to be crossed. Fans want all the access. They want to know the lives of their heroes. They want to have their every question answered immediately. The musician exists to appease them, which makes little to no sense. The best relationships are give and take, and that’s true across the board. We’re all people here…we the fans need the artist’s music as much as they need our support. That said, of course, when a musician can cross that bridge and bring the fan a little closer, it’s a special moment.
It is here that we discuss the world of Kickstarter. The whole concept is crowdfunding: having other people invest money in your idea. It’s a site that is pretty amazing to exist in such a big-business-centric world, but it’s a concept that feels like a no-brainer. Numerous artists of all stripes have used the site to great success: visual artists, graphic artists, videogame producers, filmmakers, authors, developers of new products, and of course musicians. By bringing their ideas to their fans, and offering rewards for helping them fund them, it allows a direct interaction. The fan is directly funding their favorite things, and the people creating them are offering unique experiences for these people. Sometimes it’s a matter of asking a fan to spend $30 to get an autographed CD, but for the uber fan, it could be a phone call, or special tickets at a show, or a walk-on part in a film, or their name as the name of a minor character. Stuff that costs nothing, but is meaningful for the person pledging their money. It’s an intimate secret between you and the person you’re a fan of. Even if you jump in on a tiny reward, you get to feel like you personally helped this distant entity whose work may well have helped you.
Given that intimacy, it makes sense that an artist with a similar sense of intimacy in their work would get the biggest return on investment. Even so, the latest funding gambit by singer/songwriter Vienna Teng has been impressive, netting her well over twice the reasonably hefty 20K goal in only three days (money she aims to use to make a video). I found out about it through her facebook feed; at time of writing, the average donation was around $70 per person, although some free time and boredom let me in on the fact that, even if you take away all the people who claimed a prize over $20, the average donation still ranged around $22. People are giving more than they’re getting. That’s something special. I cannot imagine my work touching someone enough for them to not only help me fund a project, but to give me more money than I am asking for a product. It would be like having a yard sale where everyone haggles up.
Vienna Teng does, however, have that potential in her fans, despite being far from a household name. At first blush, she does the sort of adult-contemporary songwriting that probably has gotten her featured on countless TV dramas, but the thing that I find intriguing about her is not just her sometimes jazzy forays into experimentation or her deep, brooding approaches on some tracks, but her sheer literacy. She picks up details in her songstories that many writers, let alone lyricists, might not think to add. Take “Recessional,” the last song off her album Dreaming Through the Noise. It contains a number of interesting turns of phrase, including the origin of the album title, but for me, it will always be three lines toward the end. She asks “who are you?” as if trying to understand a stranger, find out about them, naming them only by their habits. It’s such precise, small details that it has always struck me how beautiful it is to have my attention called. In Teng’s case, it seems to be trying to find the identity of a “stranger” she knows, either through her own actions, or the actions of those surrounding them. It truly is a small story.
The musical literacy is perhaps no less important. The song breaks in out of breathy nowhere, the verses building musically, tension building with it, and the lead-out from the verses echoing in different forms, from the sparse intonation of four notes after the equally sparse first verse to the vocalization of them through the outro. In that music, however, is also an emotional literacy. It’s composed in fragility. The song’s narrator takes on the role of support, quite literally and physically, while being torn apart inside. “There’s a reason not to want this, but I forgot.” It shudders off Teng’s lips, and shudders in our ears. A resignation that masks a passion. A passion that is restrained by distance, of some sort. A story that comes alive through her details while remaining vague through what she deftly chooses not to tell, and music that propels you through the emotions.
In other words, if you can connect with your story like Teng does, you sure as hell can connect with the sort of fans who will believe in what you do, and support it en masse. Her Kickstarter success story not only strikes a blow for the little guy who seems increasingly more and more screwed-over in the age of Corporate Music Dickishness, but also reminds us, if we care to learn a bit more about the artist, exactly why people would be willing to spend $5,000 to meet their idol. When they’re crafting their music with that much care, especially in a climate where musicians seem to be adding more flash and social media without backing it up with great songs, a 15-buck CD suddenly seems like a bargain.