Photo by TattooGoddess via Wikimedia Commons
Last week when I logged on to Facebook to catch up on political Willy Wonka pictures and my friends’ general bellyaching about the weather, the terms musical prodigy and Kickstarter jumped out at me. Being a sucker for a good oxymoron and already having mixed feelings about Kickstarter, the website that many artists, but mainly sad-ass, aging musicians, have increasingly used to raise funds from fans for creative projects, I investigated further.
This time, the sad-ass, aging musician is some guy called Reggie and the Full Effect. I had never listened to the band growing up, but I remembered seeing the band’s T-shirts on girls who looked like they could yank their pensive Winona Ryder expressions off of their translucent faces with one tug of their lip ring. After I factored in that the band (which is a solo project of emo auteur and former Get Up Kid James Dewees) had been around 15 years ago and now had a Kickstarter campaign going, it was pretty easy to deduce that Reggie was dipping into the reserves of his fan base to resurrect his career. No big deal.
Then I read the pitch. After finding himself living in Hollywood as a down-on-his-luck musician well into his 30s, Reggie started writing new songs about how he just couldn't relate to the kids these days, and before he knew it, he had a new record. However, with no real explanation or record label given, it was going to cost $50,000 to record, and he was asking for his fans to foot the bill. Fifty-thousand fucking dollars. Ten years ago, Reggie recorded an LP for $1,300 called Under the Tray, which actually charted well on Billboard. The album was released by Interscope-backed Vagrant Records, an indie label launched mainly off of the success of the Get Up Kids that went on to release many other successful food-court emo records in the early aughts. Apparently now aware that kids eventually grow up and out of the mall (unless they land a plum job at Hot Topic) and after alluding to a possibly unpleasant breakup from Vagrant in an interview last year, here was some guy a decade later now asking his fans for the equivalent of a teacher's salary.
Kickstarter has funded all kinds of worthy and interesting and innovative projects. But old musicians re-collecting on their past fame seems to me a loathsome and un-DIY usage of the crowd-funded model. Why not just make another record for $1,300 and then sell it? In an age when nobody actually buys records anymore and artists and labels have come up with fan-favored strategies to soften the hit, it really makes no sense why a label-free indie artist would present a grassroots idea with a major-label price tag. As I read a bit more about Reggie, that figure began to become even more of a head scratcher. For starters, Reggie's first recording was a self-recorded tape that he originally passed around himself, which was the norm for bands in the various veins of the DIY scene to do—and is, in fact, still as popular and common today.
The do-it-yourself way of life for bands that myself and Dewees have both played in (eschewing cash-grabbing, greedy record labels, agents, producers etc. in favor of writing, recording, designing, and releasing their music and merchandise themselves) was pioneered almost simultaneously on both coasts in the late 1970s by Black Flag/SST Records founder Greg Ginn and his sibling, the seminal hardcore artist, Raymond Pettibon in California, and Minor Threat/Fugazi Dischord Records founder Ian Mackaye and his friend Henry Rollins in Washington, DC. While it is said that the 10,000 people who bought a copy of the Velvet Underground's major-label debut formed their own bands, countless more kids not only started their own bands upon hearing Minor Threat's self-released debut (myself included), they also were inspired start to their own labels and distros and release music by themselves and then to their friends, resulting in the underground network inevitably growing large enough to break into and start to resemble the same industry it had started in defiance and contempt of.
That is not to say that traditional and inspiring aesthetic has gone the way of the laser disc. Artists and musicians such as Jacob Bannon and Kurt Ballou of Converge and Deathwish Records/God City Studios (respectively) and ® of American Nightmare/Cold Cave/Heartworm Press, have carried the torch from over 30 years ago and lit up corners of the DIY community and beyond that had been before unseen or unimagined. Eisold, himself a veteran of the underground scene and also contract free, announced this week on his Cold Cave website that he is quite happy recording and releasing his own music to his fans “convention free,” as he successfully soldiers on.
This makes Reggie's plea all the more confusing, since he cites "fun" as a main drive behind the band, yet he appears to have gone from the unquestionably fun stage of releasing his own music and enjoying a flourishing run in the fertile circuit of the independent music scene, to battling through the always un-fun bouts with personal demons, drugs, divorce, and having to ask for the same amount of money from his fans that Drake just personally dropped at a strip club a few weeks ago. (Seriously.)
It is important for me to note that I don't see Kickstarter as a necessarily shameful or evil thing, especially for a country where the arts aren't as celebrated or encouraged, financially or otherwise, nearly as much as in other parts of the world. For film especially, there is a higher hurdle to clear if you did not go to college, which makes the idea of funding a film online a great one, for example. Although, I guess I would also be more inclined to want to help the project of a young upstart and not, say, Ed Begley Jr., who also used Kickstarter to fund a web series for $25,000, or half of what it is going to cost Reggie and the Full Effect to make his first record in five years. It is even more important to note that nobody is forcing anyone to spend their money unless they want to and with Kickstarter, one of the requirements is to have several levels where you can "back" a project monetarily like some sort of Fisher Price Donald Trump and get something out of it.
Again, these usually offer very cool things for fans backing their artist, from something like a "Thx Bud!" winky-face text for a dollar, to essentially cool stuff like downloads, records, merchandise or "free" tickets to a show. However, the higher the levels, the sillier and more insane they can become, and Reggie did not skimp on the silliness. That’s right, for $7,000 or roughly the cost of two Reggie And the Full Effect songs, Reginald F. Effect will "personally officiate" your wedding to that girl in the cargo shorts and Avail hoodie you dry humped for the first time when you were 22 and are still with. Of course that seven grand is not including travel expenses.
As Kickstarter continues to reinvent how the arts get cash to exist, the division between those who feel they are personally helping out an artist in need versus personally helping out an artist in need of an ego stroke and an excuse to not work for it anymore. Or maybe the idea of fleecing fans for cash will usher in a new era for punk bands ditching the classic, (but not revenue generating) band logoed leather in favor of renting out space for sponsors and supporters like a studded NASCAR jacket. Remember back in the day when you scoured thank-you lists on album inserts in search of new bands to check out? Now you can find the names of people who will give you money to release a record! Since a Kickstarter project is only actually funded if you can raise every cent of your projected goal, here's hoping that Dewees can shake the coffee cup along the information superhighway with success.
However, for a guy obviously hurting for money but going about it in such a shameful way, I would even suggest for him to at least pass that cup down to all the people who weasel their way into his shows without paying and onto the side of the stage with an armful of free merch. Who knows? Maybe it is finally time for some sort of guest-list sequestration. Whether the true blame for this trend is due to the inflation of the dollar or an aging ego, it must be rough living in Reggie’s world, where $1,300 won't even buy you a single fucking Reggie and the Full Effect song in 2013.