Susan McKeown

How It’s New York: Many musicians in the city are using crowdfunding to support their projects.

How It’s Irish: This is all the more necessary for Irish trad which hasn’t the biggest appeal to grantors (compared, say, to health and education).

 Kickstarter, Gofundme and pledgemusic, oh my! 

Dan Neely on how crowdfunding can support artists and programs now that grants are drying up! He wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but the thoughts in it are just as fresh!

Originally published in the Irish Echo Online, August 2, 2012.

It’s a rich time of the year for trad music!  As you read this, the craic is carrying on mightily in Elkins, West Va. at the 30th anniversary of the Augusta Irish/Celtic Week.  Others out there might have had similar craic earlier this month at the CCÉ MAD Week in Bethesda, Md., and it’s entirely likely that many of you reading this right now are recovering from having spent all of last week in East Durham, N.Y., at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, one of the U.S.’s most important celebrations of Irish music and culture.  It’s a very busy time.

But despite all outward appearances, the last few years have been very tough on traditional music in America.  This is in large measure due to the economy.  Public grant and sponsorship sources that were once dependable are now either shrinking or delayed, which creates huge cash flow issues for the organizations that coordinate these weeks.  A bad economy also means lower enrollments.  People either find themselves unable to partake in these cultural weeks, or wait until the last minute to commit, both of which contribute to organizational uncertainty.  These weeks depend on direct support, and although for most the spirit is willing and the love is there, support has generally been an all or nothing proposition – you either pay and attend, or you don’t.

However, something important happened recently that not only changes this, but may have a great positive impact on the traditional music community writ large.  Faced with an austere budgetary outlook, CIAW’s artistic director Paul Keating launched a Kickstarter campaign that gave people who couldn’t attend – or who visit East Durham for the week but don’t enroll in any of CIAW’s programs – an opportunity to pledge their support.

Kickstarter is one of several “crowdfunding” platforms out there through which supporters of an artist or organization can pledge small amounts of money to help support independent artistic work.  Different pledge points yield different rewards – large or small – depending on amount.  Crowdfunding campaigns are generally promoted as major events, in that they have specific start and end dates and a funding goal, which if met, put the artist to work.  However, if the goal is not met, nobody gets anything – no one’s credit card is charged and it’s back to the drawing board.

Keating set a modest $10,000 goal (which is very modest for something on CIAW’s scale) and in less than a month, 272 backers pledged $22,500.  This money gave the Michael J. Quill Center (CIAW’s host organization) a much more certain operating base, but moreover, Keating reported, “it changed the dynamic from a potentially bad news situation into something good.”   People felt passionately about CIAW’s security and got involved; they passed news of the campaign on to their friends and in days CIAW’s story went viral and was ubiquitous on social media sites.  Keating was overwhelmed not only with the ensuing support, but the goodwill the campaign attracted.

Máirtín de Cógáin (@Cillian Kelly)

Crowdfunding is not a particularly new idea in traditional music.  Earlier this year, for example, Jem Moore turned to Kickstarter to finance his documentary on the flutemaker Patrick Olwell (which will premiere this fall), and right now singer, musician, storyteller and actor Máirtín de Cógáin is currently using it to raise money to produce a DVD musical travelogue of Cork.  A couple of months ago, used to produce “Ceili Drive: The Music of Irish Philadelphia,” a CD showcasing trad musicians in Philadelphia, and singer Susan McKeown used to finance her upcoming recording project, tentatively titled “Belong.”

But what is perhaps most remarkable in the CIAW’s effort (besides the support itself) is the number of people it introduced to the ease of crowdfunding.  In helping tighten the bonds of the traditional music community, a core part of it is now familiar with this new model of music patronage that supports artists and great projects in advance.  I expect (and hope) that the crowdfunding model will become more widespread, and musicians and arts organizations will use it as a way of developing broad, engaged support for what they do.  Done properly, it can be an amazingly effective and low risk way of financing independent music, both for funders and fundees.

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  1. Avatar
    Lawrence McCullough / August 17, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    Terrific article. Kickstarter and its crowdfunder peers are excellent vehicles for short-term projects like CIAW and record albums, etc.
    But in the end, the crowdfunding mechanism veers toward robbing Peter to pay Paul (not literally Paul Keating, of course). We need a new paradigm for Arts funding that doesn’t deplete the donor base of fans and Artists who generously support the music year round.
    Just published a piece on this topic in a new book by the Hall Institute of Public Policy, “Public Affairs and Public Policy:  New Jersey and the Nation”.
    It’s on the web here:  “Dancing on Ice Floes: Survival Strategies for Artists in the Atlas Shrugged Era of Public Arts Funding”
    I’d love feedback, because the Arts funding conversation is one we need to be discussing all the time.
    L.E. McCullough

  2. Avatar
    newyorkirisharts / August 18, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Larry, thanks for the comment! And I’ve just read your article – it’s very good and hits on lots of important, major points – people should absolutely read it. I love the “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed” quote you used. But just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Paul *should* have had to turn to crowd funding to support his week. I think its a shanda that a) it was necessary and b) that the trend in politics is to cut already meager arts funding. Public arts funding should be increased, not decreased, especially now, for all the reasons you wrote about and more.

    However, I’m not sure I understand what you meant in your comment when you wrote that “the crowd funding mechanism veers toward robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Are you saying that giving money to a project like CIAW potentially takes funding away from other crowd funded projects, like the pledge drives of radio stations that depend on “contributions from listeners like you?” Or, are you suggesting that arts-funding critics will point to any success in private sector crowd funding as a free market justification for a continued draw down in public support? Either way, I’m not really convinced that public and private arts funding aren’t mutually exclusive, especially if one has faith that the moral argument you put forward in your article will prevail.

    What I was really trying to get across in this article (and maybe what I didn’t say effectively enough) was the idea that the CIAW’s crowd funding success might have a positive later effect on the prospects for *individual,* independent artists in the Irish music community. In most crowd funding projects, people are buying into a value proposition. The CIAW offered *many* layers of value. For some, there was value in simply supporting the week; others found value in physical form through the myriad rewards Paul offered. Either way, the person spending the money “got” something out of it.

    So, the most important thing I think Paul did was to introduce and legitimize a model of “artist-sympathetic” consumption that promises value *before* production rather than after, to a wide swath of the Irish-American community, many of whom never knew that an unevenly distributed future of music even existed. Now, an individual artist looking to record an album who offers layers of value similar to those Paul did (and who would likely require far less financial support to realize their project) won’t have to take on the double duty of peddling a value proposition *and* of convincing people that the system of providing support is trustworthy.

  3. Avatar
    Gwen Orel / August 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Hey just chiming in to say that Dan forgot to sign in as himself, but those are his comnents above. Dan I adore your use of the word “shanda,” making this post Jirish (“shanda” is Yiddish for “a shame, scandal,” it’s just proof that in NYC everybody’s a little Jewish, a little Irish, regarldess of heritage).

    In my wrap-up of Catskills Irish Arts Week ( I pointed out that one of the benefits of the crowdourcins is an incread sense of ownership and, for Paul, a strong vote of confidence. It buoyed him, he said.

    So basically, you are both right.

  4. Avatar
    Lawrence McCullough / August 18, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    You said what you said just fine, Dan.

    What I’m encouraging people to look toward: Public Arts funding is vanishing like Arctic ice. If everyone on the planet used CFL bulbs and rode only bikes starting today, Greenland would melt less quickly. But it’s still going to melt because the systemic forces that impact and define our climate have to be addressed at a higher level – at the level of national/international energy and resource policy. That’s a huge task, probably impossible given the reluctance of real policy deciders to take firm action … but you have to start by posing the challenge and shaping the path.

    To Save the Arts Funding Climate: in addition to the Arts support we all make at our individual local level, major changes have to occur at the next level “up” … changes in how major corporate and philanthropic users of the Arts fund and deploy the Arts in business, education, society.

    It’s a Big Picture Kind of Thing. Adjust your lenses accordingly and see what’s beyond the horizon.

    L.E. McCullough

  5. Avatar
    Fund it / August 20, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Great to see that Irish creativity is finding a crowdfunding audience in the US.

    I thought you’d be interested to know that ‘Fund it’, Ireland’s crowdfunding platform for creativity, although only 15 months young, is growing and developing, and is doing especially well for new music and other performance artforms. Irish group WeBanjo3 recently funded their trip to Milwaukee Irish Fest through the site.

    We hit €1million in pledges just a couple of weeks ago, and over 260 projects have been successfully funded by over 19,000 individuals from all over the world.

    Small beginnings, but our success rate is above a lot of other sites, and there’s a lot of buzz on the ground here in Ireland about it at local level.

    Rowena Neville
    Director of Marketing & PR
    Fund it (

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