Hello all! This week I’m delighted to feature a guest piece by my dear friend Freddie Alexander on this site. I met Freddie the first time I moved to Edinburgh, in 2012, and was blown away by his tight writing and his energetic, intense performance style. Freddie currently organises the monthly Edinburgh Open Mic Inky Fingers, and has previously been an organiser for the University of Edinburgh’s Soapbox and the 2014 National University Poetry Slam. He has been a live performer at several nights in Edinburgh, and will be featured in the Loud Poets 2016 Prague Fringe Festival tour.
Previously on this site I’ve shared my own experiences with crowdfunding and offered some tips for artists who are considering crowdfunding projects. However, I’ve never posted on the controversy that surrounds crowdfunding in the arts—and boy is it a big one. The concept of asking for money for art (or to support an art-making life) has ignited massive debates particularly in the past five or ten years. The publication of texts like Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking (which I highly recommend) advocating crowdfunding, and the production of massive-scale projects such as Zach Braff’s film “Wish I Was Here” have brought attention to the use of this tool by major artists. In his post below, Freddie teases out some of the controversies associated with crowdfunding, offering a balanced consideration of crowdfunding’s potential benefits and pitfalls. This can be a tricky subject to navigate, and I admire the thought and attention Freddie brings to it. Hope you enjoy! – K
As disclosure, I am currently a Patreon of Jason Inman, Laura K Buzz, Dan Carlin, and Harry Giles. I have also previously donated to the gofundme for the University of Edinburgh 2016 CUPSI’16 Slam Team.
Imagine a situation with me. You are a judge on the panel of the University of Edinburgh’s Sloan Prize, a competition with the hefty cash reward of £1500. You and your fellow judges have narrowed the submissions down to three finalists, each excellent pieces of dynamic, interesting writing. However, something is bothering you. One of the pieces contains a turn of phrase that is strikingly familiar. You excuse yourself for a moment, and check the Patreon app on your phone. With a sigh of realisation, you discover that an artist to whom you pledge £20 per month recently posted about submitting to the Sloan prize. You have been a fan of this particular artist’s work for about a year now, totalling to approximately £240 in supporting pledges, to which this artist acknowledges you in their recent chapbook, engages with you and other patrons in a private social media space, and sends you a monthly tray-bake. You pocket your phone and return to the judging panel, somewhat concerned. On the table remains three pieces, only one of which can win the £1500 prize. What do you do?
Crowdsourcing is an exciting new answer to the original sin in artistic communities, that of money. How might we, as artists and organisers of artistic spaces, dedicate time and resources to our work while footing the costs of enjoying food? All the more so, how might we establish regular sources of income that allow for the flexibility in creating new projects that might stray from the immediate gratification of a safer production? How can artists with physical or mental disabilities create a windfall should there be a period of time in which they cannot travel, or perform at live events?
There are many benefits to Patreon, and other crowdfunding sites, that address these problems. A monthly income is provided to artists for the production of their art, allowing them to dedicate more time to create more work. Not only this, but also most crowdfunding sites allow for a transparency between artists and their community – as a result, it would raise eyebrows if I established a £500 kickstarter campaign for a tour of the Brighton Fringe if my Patreon is regularly gathering £1,000 per month (I wish).
On top of this, we finally get to put our money where our mouths are and financially support the artists that are creating work we want to see in our cultural landscape. We can belly-ache all we like about ‘slam style corrupting the children,’ or ‘boring Oxbridge navel gazing dominating the Edwin Morgan Prize’ – neither of which, I will add, are necessarily untrue – but there is a real difference between subtweeting and providing regular financial support to artists who are transforming our community. This can be invaluable for artists who are institutionally excluded from the artistic in-crowd, whether these are working class, POC, queer, or disabled persons. Because god-forbid Craig Raine publishes his ‘Heathrow’ poem.
And yet there is a danger in treating crowfunding as a silver bullet, while not properly addressing the unique problems it raises for our community. In this regard I am largely speaking to the poetry and live performance scene in Scotland, and I recognise that other communities might have their own specific issues.
At this point, let us turn back to the hypothetical situation I raised at the beginning of this article. Now admittedly this was somewhat fanciful, and the optimist in me is confident in the professional integrity of judges at this calibre. However, by adjusting the situation slightly, we can see how this becomes pertinent to our community. Whether this be guest judging at a poetry slam, inviting a feature performer for an Open Mic, or curating an anthology, is it a conflict of interest to prioritise artists if we have a financial commitment to their success? Perhaps not. But you can be sure as all hell that some people will see it as a conflict of interest. And from my own personal experience, this is not a community that deals well with grudges.
There is an equal problem of the relationship between artists and their patrons. Very few people who decide to set up monthly donations to an artist have the gall to claim some sort of ‘ownership’ of that artist’s work; however, how much flexibility is an artist allowed? The success of many crowdfunding sites is dependant upon a catalogue of prior work (“if you like this, help me make more!”). An artist who wants to radically change their styles and themes has the added pressure of losing income for experimenting with their work, or even creating work that is not at a standard they imagine their patrons desire. Artists might need the financial security to create art, but they really need the financial security to create shit art.
Finally, I want to ask what is it that crowdfunding achieves, in the way it is currently manifesting in the Scottish live poetry community? There have been some stunning successes recently, to which I will include Kevin Mclean’s Learning to Write, and the University of Edinburgh’s fund to compete in CUPSI 2016. And yet, both of these projects gained financial support from other artists within the community. It is important for artists to be engaged with their local community; however, if all we are doing is shifting funds around a table in an online rendition of pass-the-parcel, how are we drawing in new money to our landscape? What are the new frontiers of income that are allowing for growth within the scene, and not stagnation?
I don’t have answers to these questions, but I hope we able to balance the enormous potential of crowdfunding with the specific problems it poses to our community. The ability of artists to have economic stability while dedicating time to their craft is more important than the petty squabbles we can have over who ‘deserves’ financial support. It is likely that crowdfunding will not be the magical one-size-fits-all that fixes the problem of income in our profession, but as we see it used more often we should be attentive to the ways in which it is transforming our community.
Big thanks to Freddie for sharing his perspective. Do you have something you’d like to discuss or share in this space? I’m always interested in featuring different perspectives on contemporary art-making, particularly those focused on Scottish art and/or contemporary performance poetry. If you have an idea for a post, please the Contact form on this site to get in touch! -K