The Way of the Backer: Kickstarter and the Power of Artistic Failure
by Eiren Caffall
“You know,” I told my friend when I called her, “Kickstarter is kicking my ass. I have no idea how to talk about why I make art.”
I was trying to finish funding my new record, managing a Kickstarter campaign with a $4,000 goal, when the freakout kicked in and I started calling people until I found someone who would let me lose it on the phone.
I had just realized that the pitches I was making every day were pointing out a horrible truth: when it comes to justifying myself as an artist, I am incoherent. It had suddenly become clear to me that I had no idea how to tell family, friends and strangers that they should back my music or my writing when, by every cultural measure we use (grants, sales, press coverage, earnings) I have been a spectacular failure.
Away from Kickstarter I am proud of what I make, I remember that I have shared stages and bandmates and radio airwaves with some celebrated musicians, a few legit places have published my writing. I am part of a community of artists who work under the radar of a culture that may, once in a while, pick one of us out of the pack and move us higher up the ladder. I am email-friendly with people who have been picked like that, they return my calls sometimes.
But as far as mass culture is concerned, me, down here, below the radar, spending over a decade making work that few people see, I’m failing.
I am third-generation art Boho, and kind of used to seeing artists struggle. I am sometimes the whiniest one in the room about that failure, since I’ve seen the generational toll it takes. No one else bitches out loud if they can help it. The soup we all swim in sucks, we’re all frustrated, and we try to keep that to ourselves, if only to preserve our dignity.
“The music business is a toilet,” my drummer said to me this summer. Yup.
But he said this to me in a quiet room, and I was the only one who heard him. Because admitting how hard this is might, itself, look like failure. So we say that things are going fine, talk about good gigs and small successes and ignore the big picture and the fear that comes with it.
All that changed as soon as I pressed the “launch” button on my Kickstarter campaign and admitted that I couldn’t make it on my own anymore, that no label was coming to the aid of my career, that I couldn’t pay for the record I had just finished.
Kickstarter is huge these days, and it can be problematic for so many reasons. It is marketing disguised as grassroots grant-making, and backlashes towards artists that game the system are legendary. Issues of access and need come in at every door that Kickstarter opens. But it is also so ubiquitous in the arts community that people talk about it in an offhand manner: “Well, if no one wants to put the record out, we’ll just do a Kickstarter for it,” we say to each other.
Since grants and government programs for the arts (not to mention the revenue streams that used to come with putting out records) have dried up, we dive towards crowdfunding as if it is the last crumb on an empty table. And it kind of is. Last year Kickstarter famously gave more money to artists than the NEA.
And Kickstarter’s grey-market economy genius is that it lets people feel like, when they pledge, they are not only validating someone’s work, but supporting them person to person. The pledge makes one part of the work, you are a backer.
But that’s where my trouble started, because to be good at Kickstarter, I was finding, you had to be able to stand in front of what you’d made and invite people to back you, personally, as if what you make matters, as if you had never thought of failure for one moment, at any step of the process.
And I was not good at that.
With five days to go the campaign was only at 30%; it was failing.
“You never even said your name in the video,” my friend pointed out to me on that fateful day when I called.
And in my head I answered, “I know, I was ashamed.” My Kickstarter campaign launched me into a shame spiral so deep that for a while there, though I continued to spew cheerful boosterism at the internet, dripping with thinly-veiled panic, I could barely answer the phone when friends called, because I didn’t want to admit that all this hustle was making my confidence fall apart.
This year, I have been thinking about failure, a lot.
This year I lost my house to foreclosure. This year I finally worked again after a long time without work. This year my ex-husband moved in with his younger girlfriend, and my older boyfriend decided that, no, he would not like to move in with me.
At the beginning of that phone call, when she asked me how I was, I’d said, trying to sound offhand and light, “Enjoying my exercise in public failure.”
“You can’t talk about it like that. Confidence breeds confidence, success breeds success,” she’d said back. A veteran of the Kickstarter wars herself, my friend was not agreeing with the system per se, just doing her best to remind me of its limitations. “I mean,” she said, sensing she was losing me, “the process is about letting people experience how much you love the record, the system asks for that. And you love your record, let people see it.” I knew she was right, but I wanted to tell her that I might be a lost cause.
The whole time I was pitching and pitching, thanking backers and asking for more, teaching myself Mail Chimp and updating Twitter and posting new content and sending new videos out into the world I was also thinking about a last conversation I had with my father.
He had a genetic kidney disease, Polycystic Kidney Disease, PKD, and in my family it hits early and often, like those proverbial Chicago voting scams. Until my father had two kidney transplants, ten additional years of dialysis, and made it to the ripe old age of 64, every member of my family for generations beyond counting, was dead by 40.
At 22 I was diagnosed with the same thing.
And when I was 29, and had just finished a record, my father finally started to die. An infection gained from his first transplant had morphed over years in his system, and by the end he was riddled with a weirdo cancer that was invading his body cavities, eating up his lungs one day, bloating his stomach the next.
My parents had divorced seven years earlier and my father’s family was all dead and I have no siblings, so it was me in the hospital room with him, holding him steady when they took a twelve-inch-long needle and inserted it into his belly to get samples of the pale, eerie liquid that was filling him up. It was me sleeping next to his hospital bed on a cot when he hallucinated and tore off all his clothes in the middle of the night.
And it was me sitting next to him when he said to me one lucid afternoon, “I wish I hadn’t been such a failure.”
I argued with him, can’t remember what I said now, but I told him I’d always admired his life.
An autodidact and bohemian from his teens, he’d been at jazz clubs in the Village before he could legally drink, lived in a loft in Soho with a swing in the main room, dated waitresses at Max’s Kansas City. He’d married my pretty mother, worked with her on blue movies, and been a camera man on a Yoko Ono picture. He had hung out at the Factory, been friends with Alice Brock of Alice’s Restaurant fame, taught himself to make flawless Shaker furniture and fly-fish and track pheasants.
I’d always thought he’d been remarkable. I’d always thought he’d lived the life he’d meant to.
Sure, we were dirt poor, and we moved all the time, always at the mercy of landlords. Sure, my mother had left him, and he’d always undersold his work. Sure, at 64 he rented a shitty room from a creepy guy and worked as a museum guard and was about to die and leave his only child holding the bag.
But he’d seen things, he’d done things, and I thought he didn’t regret anything.
When I told him he’d had an amazing life he said, “Thanks, Kid, but I never did know how to make anything out of that.”
I’ve had an amazing life, too. I’ve mothered a remarkable son, been well-loved, and I’ve made songs I feel so damn proud of I can’t believe they are mine sometimes. This last year I’ve been writing a novel, and it hasn’t felt like writing, but like being held in someone’s hand and told a story that I get to take down. I spent my high school years with remarkably safe and kind and smart people, then stumbled into a music scene so devoid of negative competition that I have come out of my years of playing in Chicago with collaborators and colleagues that I both adore and trust, people who were, at the moment of my crisis, falling all over themselves to tweet and Facebook and shill my record, my little record, because, they believed in it, in me, and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t doing better.
But I could.
Somewhere in the heart of every ask I made was a core of shame so deep that I couldn’t get around it in the pitch.
I don’t know why I am here, and making things, and other people are not.
Kickstarter structures itself as if you, the artist, are talking to a potential backer. This person, the avatar for your audience, sits behind the imaginary shell of the crowdfunding forum, and according to the Kickstarter language, they are silently sitting out there asking, Why, why do you need the money, why do you make the stuff, tell me what is it for?
And if I am being honest I want to say this to the imaginary backer behind the shell:
It is because I am not dead yet. I am 42 and I am not dead yet, and I can’t think of anything else to do with myself to cope with that. I went through horrible things, and I do not trust the world, and I cannot pretend that I am confident in it, or myself, or you, or the possibility that we will make it, or that what I am doing matters. I would make this art if no one was watching at all, because I don’t know how else to survive, and if you want to be a part of it, fine, but I will do it either way.
Putting out your art is always a trick of walking on water, proclaiming your human frailty, using your body, your spirit, your talent to convince people that telling your own naked story matters, that it makes people more whole.
But in my heart, I remain dubious, worried that, though I know I have felt saved by art during dark hours, there are people, sometimes including myself, for whom art is not nearly enough.
All that beauty and joy he’d found in art didn’t matter to my father completely at the end. It didn’t make his last months much better. And although all that I can do with my own life is play music, write things down, try to make something beautiful and scary and true, I do not know how to do a dance that will convince you on the open stage of public opinion and competition that it matters.
I personally don’t like competition, it freaks me out, and I have grave doubts that it has any place in the creation of good work. Competition in its platonic ideal can make people work harder, sure, but in the real world, the failure that comes with it can do more than make artists tongue-tied, like me; it can cripple people so they stop producing at all.
For some of us, when we fail at art, even if that failure is only in the marketplace, we feel that failure as a deep failure of self. We all have a list of our art heros that seemed to crumble under the pressures of the marketplace. It is a trope as old as time, right? The Artist, Too Sensitive for This World.
Which I generally think is crap.
Artists are some of the most fucking tough people you will ever meet. The arts require an exceptionally high level of vulnerability if you want to do them well, and the emotionally sensitive people who are drawn to that – or compelled or called or forced by fate – have a better chance of coming with some other baggage that makes the vulnerability really tricky. Most of us get tougher through handling that dichotomy. Some of us can’t.
Kickstarter asks artists to subvert just that cultural assumption. It asks us to present ourselves not as different from the mainstream culture, not as subversive to it, but as part of something: a community of people who want us to succeed.
If you talk with Kickstarter alums, many will confess that their biggest backers were the families that still can’t quite understand why they make the art in the first place. They love them, so they help them, and Kickstarter facilitates that by showing these artists as successful, proud marketers of themselves. They are not subversive in their promotional online videos; they are confident. Kickstarter’s shiny website confers legitimacy and glow.
Kickstarter asked me to set my art up as separate from myself, to profess confidence in the project and store vulnerability away, as buried as I could make it behind the spin I was putting on the work itself. I couldn’t let anyone in on my fear of failure or I’d spook the herd.
My one random concession to trying to draw the herd closer was a mid-campaign video ramble I posted to my Kickstarter page as a remedy. This one about Ernest Shakleton, the slog of the epic quest, the importance of holding on to art in the face of great loss. Not particularly cheerful spin, and, as my friend later pointed out, it might have been a good idea if at least one of my video appeals hadn’t mentioned death.
Shame tugged at me when I sat down to write, and it came out through my fingers in the words I typed for every social media post and email. People could smell it, the herd spooked, the pledges dried up. I started to consider finding a straw backer, just to get me out of the whole thing.
Then, the Friday before the close of the campaign, a huge pledge came in from distant family friends that closed part of the gap. A total surprise. A deus ex machina. And, just like that, the campaign was 80% funded.
Suddenly, it had momentum.
People wanted in.
Within days, the rest of the money followed. Success bred success. Confidence bred confidence. People wanted to be a part of something that looked like it wasn’t failing. By the last day, nearly the last hour, me and my whole band and all my friends flogging Facebook like it was an NPR pledge drive, we made it to 101% of the goal.
“See,” my friend told me, “it worked. You just had to show people that the project was already a success.”
We had a great rock show, we thanked our backers from the stage, and people went home happy with the end of the story.
Then I stopped answering the phone again. Because telling people how happy I was that the campaign was funded was almost worse than asking them to pledge. Because in every conversation I managed not to avoid, I had to pretend that the funding let everybody participate in validating my work.
But, you know, it didn’t. Kickstarter didn’t validate a thing.
The hole in my heart, and the shame in my gut were still there.
Winning by those standards at first felt like another kind of failure. I couldn’t make my peace with a simple idea: for most of us that use Kickstarter, getting to a funding goal has nothing to do with the art, and everything to do with the community we are part of.
I can stand in the spotlight of Kickstarter, honestly invisible, maybe failing, as an artist, and still let it work its backer magic on me, validating what I do because, mostly, I am loved by a circle of human beings who know me well enough, and love me deep enough, to pony up money for my project, not because they love the work, though some do, but because, at bottom, they love me.
That’s what Kickstarter doesn’t tell you when you start. That for the majority of us asking for help to fund our work, the process becomes a referendum not on the work, but on us.
At first, that made me feel much more shame, the kind that comes with realizing you that your fan base is mostly made up of people who have bought you a drink at one time or another. But now, now I think I’m OK with learning what Kickstarter had to teach me—that being loved by people who will back you when you are invisible is probably better then being funded by adoring strangers who know you not at all.
Or, it may not be better for your art, but it probably is better for your soul.
Because the long game that making art requires is a highwire act of letting yourself be seen. Spin rarely belongs in that work, the work it takes to be messy and true and alive in front of people and allow them to judge you and what you have made. You must court shame every day to do that work well, always hoping to be backed just as you are.
When I told my dad on his deathbed that he hadn’t failed, I had believed it to the core of my being, and there wasn’t a hole in my heart when I said it or a lick of dishonesty.
I was immersed in love for him, love that was there to drive past his shame. He told me he was a failure, stood emotionally naked in front of me, showing me that he was afraid, and human and devastated, and I responded with love. I told him that he was enough, that I wanted him to keep going.
I was backing him, imperfect as he was. I was seeing him.
Eiren Caffall is a musician and writer living in Chicago. The great-granddaughter of an Episcopal Bishop, she is the daughter of a geophysicist and a Beatnik Shaker Acolyte. She has always dwelled in the places where art, spirit, aesthetics and science meet. She writes songs, fiction, personal essays and meditations on spiritual life during global climate change, focusing on heartbreak and grace – the tricks of memory that help us survive and the wisdom that comes whether we like it or not.
You can purchase her latest record, Slipping the Holdfast, on bandcamp, and see examples of her writing on Tikkun Daily, on her blog The Civil Twilight Project and at her website www.eirencaffall.com. Her essay “And Now Witness the Ending, Beautiful and Terrible” was published in Doug Fogelson’s book The Time After alongside the work of Derrick Jensen. She is currently at work on her fourth album and first novel. She lives with her son Dexter, where they spend most of their time articulating skeletons and beach combing.
Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Modern Loss, xojane, among others. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen’s leading a weekend retreat in May to Ojai, Calif as well as 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing for all levels. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is Seattle and London July 6. (London sells out fast so book soon if you plan on attending!)