Coda: Voices from the Crowdfunding Crowd
Andrew Hiers, Mikayla Sager and Dominick Corbacio in Venture Opera’s Don Pasquale
© Marina Zarya 2015
It stands as a cautionary tale. In September 2013, New York City Opera immediately needed $7 million to stay solvent, so it did what it had always done: it turned to private donors. But it also tried something new — Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, through which it hoped to raise $1 million. Kickstarter had been launched four years earlier as a way for designers, developers, artists, artisans and other makers to reach their audiences directly, to find funding (in exchange for modest perks) from lots of people willing to give in small amounts — $5 here, $35 there — within a fixed time-frame. It had been used to raise more than $5 million for the Veronica Mars movie, more than $10 million for a smartwatch, but City Opera’s bid looked to many like a long shot; at the time, only forty-six of the tens of thousands of successfully funded efforts — an infinitesimal percentage — had raised $1 million or more, and none of those were theatrical. (Only one was musical — an album, book and tour by the ubersavvy cabaret-Goth Amanda Palmer; mostly they were video games and technology projects.) “Isn’t raising $1M via Kickstarter a gross over-estimation for an opera company?” Will Robin, a freelancer for The New YorkTimes and elsewhere, asked on Twitter.
The answer turned out to be yes. When the campaign ended, City Opera had raised $301,019 — a significant sum, maybe, but a mere 30 percent of its goal. The effort had flopped. The problems were myriad: funders typically like to build new things rather than save dying things, and to put on a show rather than underwrite an institution. Also, successful projects “tend to support anyone, anywhere,” Robinson Meyer wrote in The Atlantic. “Kickstarter’s advantage is its geographical distribution; it’s hard to benefit from that variance when you’re an arts organization [that] benefits one region and municipality in particular.” Most of all, the failed attempt underscored that Kickstarter can’t be used to bankroll major opera companies. That’s just not how crowdfunding works. (An exception that proves the rule, San Diego Opera raised $2.1 million through its own website last May as part of a broader fundraising campaign to keep that city’s only major company operational.)
Crowdfunding can be used, however, to get small shows and modest-scale companies off the ground, and in such a role Kickstarter has proved useful. In 2012, Opera Parallèle in San Francisco raised $9,200 to put on Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar; the same year, Minnesota Opera raised $20,000 to perform a new work, The Giver (based on Lois Lowry’s book),with its youth-ensemble program. The newly formed Cincinnati Chamber Opera raised $3,000 in 2013 for Acis and Galatea; Chelsea Opera raised the same amount in 2012 for a work-in-progress reading of a new chamber opera; and on and on. In the past few years, numerous opera projects have been brought to stages traditional and not, thanks to Kickstarter supporters from Park Slope, Brooklyn, to Boise, Idaho, and around the world.
One such successfully funded venture was the appropriately named Venture Opera, a new company of twenty-one- to twenty-five-year-olds that raised $5,608 from fifty-five backers in September 2014 to stage a production of Don Pasquale on two nights in November at the National Opera Center in New York City. “We didn’t want to start with anything too big, so we were under the radar of a lot of grants,” the company’s general director (and Dr. Malatesta), Jonathon Thierer, writes in an email. “The timing was a bit off for traditional fundraising as well, so crowdfunding was the best option.
“There are definitely benefits to using a Kickstarter,” he continues. “The biggest is that you establish a large piece of marketing and audience-creation right at the beginning of your project. More than half of the tickets sold to Don Pasquale were sold as rewards to people who supported our campaign. Disadvantages definitely exist, too. There are the costs associated with using the service, and it is definitely easy to get overfocused on fundraising…. Kickstarter is best used as a supplement for fundraising, rather than a primary source, and you are limiting future opportunities if you don’t continue networking and meeting traditional donors.
“Our donors were friends, family, colleagues, strangers and even other opera organizations. It’s really important in a Kickstarter campaign to get your friends, family and anyone you can reach to donate as early in the process as possible. Crowdfunding campaigns get more public attention as they get more successful, so a snowball effect is created.”
The show proved accessible, Thierer says — well-received by an audience that laughed throughout. In fact, one of the donors was so pleased that he commissioned Venture to bring the production to the Kay Meek Centre in Vancouver, for which Thierer was in tech rehearsals when we spoke. While dealing with that, he was also looking to the future, establishing the company as a 501(c)(3), planning two new productions, looking into new venues, finding new sources of fundraising and trying to come up with new ways to bring opera into people’s lives and break down the barriers to entry — the sorts of problems all ambitious young opera-makers have faced. What’s different is that he’s also planning the pitch for the next Kickstarter.
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