Who’s to blame when crowdfunded projects don’t deliver?

By Keidra Chaneyimgres-5

I’ve written about my enthusiasm for the Best Music Writing series a couple of times for TLF. When DeCapo Press discontinued the project I was excited to hear that a Kickstarter campaign to revive the project was underway. The project was being helmed by Daphne Carr, a respected music journalist and the editor of the series for a number of years, and the Kickstarter campaign raised an impressive $17,337.* The Best Music Writing series was scheduled for return in fall of 2012, but never materialized. Nearly a year later, Vice Media music blog Noisey looked into the status of the project – and things didn’t look good. While most of the discoveries were evident to anyone with internet access – the Best Music Writing Twitter feed and website have not been updated since last year – the big news was that writer H. Drew Blackburn’s initial inquires to Carr were meet with a terse “no comment” via e-mail.

A couple of days later after a (nasty) social media mob was beginning to develop on Twitter, she resurfaced, explaining on both Kickstarter and to Poytner that the project was dead. Carr had grossly underestimated the budget for the project – $17k was not nearly enough. She apologized for her silence and vowed to personally pay back every contributor to the project out of her own pocket, saying that the effort would likely continue through 2016. The social media mob eased up a bit in response and a list of contributors that didn’t want to be paid back by Carr was created as well.

Personally, this whole situation was fascinating to me as an interested bystander. Having contributed to the project and being a fan of the book series, I was one of the people temporarily angered by Carr’s initial silence. I was actually OK with the long wait for the project – book publishing isn’t an easy endeavor and I assumed it would take more time than projected, but the “no comment” comment set off my alarms. I was annoyed at Carr for her silence, I was annoyed at Kickstarter for their silence on a fairly high-profile situation. I was even annoyed at the idea of crowdfunding – so now, in order for audiences to see interesting ideas come to fruition, we have to back them ourselves – and still run the risk of said project never being completed?

And as a backer, is there anything that can really be done if a Kickstarter project goes belly up? Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve ever given anything larger than $50 for a project but what kind of responsibility is there to those who have backed with a larger amount, similar to a more traditional investor in a business project? I don’t have any answers to this, with my limited Kickstarter experience (I’ve backed less than 10 projects) so I went to two friends that I think of as Kickstarter experts.

Anne Petersen has backed 182 projects on Kickstarter and even did a talk about her Kickstarter insights at ORD Camp, and I asked for her thoughts on the topic via e-mail:

“Kickstarter is a platform. It’s a wonderful platform, and provides the possibility of fantastic new projects that normally would never see the light of day, but it’s just a platform,” she wrote. “Kickstarter takes their cut but they don’t actually ever control the money that flows through the site: that money goes directly from backers’ credit cards into the Amazon Payments account of the project creator. The first two projects I backed — in September and November of 2010 — have still not completed the projects they intended to create. It doesn’t make me lose faith in the platform, though it does reinforce that Kickstarter isn’t a pre-order system.”

Sarah Best has a blog about Kickstarter on her personal website and experience as a backer and a project creator. “I think the tact to take is don’t hate on Kickstarter, try to do it out of a charitable place in your heart, but have realistic expectations.” ‎she wrote. “It is much more common for project rewards to be delivered late (like a year) and much less common for people to go missing.”

And these are excellent points: Kickstarter is not Amazon, I wasn’t paying for a copy of the book itself, I was investing in its creation. And these aren’t pros, but regular people with jobs and lives doing a project out of love, which I totally get. When Carr explained what happened to the project, I was sympathetic. I’m a writer, and I can tell you I’m not a publisher by nature. Most writers are not. So the project going off the rails with a first-time book publisher is sad, but not at all unexpected. More than even the money itself, I mourn the second death of the Best Music Writing series. I still want to see its return, and maybe I’m crazy, but I’d probably still contribute to a new Kickstarter project (helmed by a different publisher) to see it revived.

And I’ll come in with altered expectations: “The bottom line is: approach Kickstarter projects as if the creator is running a bake sale type of fundraiser, with the baked goods scheduled to arrive months or maybe even years in the future,” Anne wrote. “Expect delays, but also demand communication. Be understanding when reasonable—a lot of these creators get in way over their heads—but don’t be afraid to pester if all you’re getting is radio silence.”

Comments (3)

I get that point of view, but in donating, people ARE entering into a contract of sorts with the creators. They might not donate because of the object they are slated to receive, but they did pay assuming they would get that object. For those who get an email, then they get an email and that’s easily done, whether the project succeeds or fails. However, for those who donate, say, $50 instead of $40 because of a promised product, there is a very real and legitimate expectation of receiving said object.

Life does happen, and projects get delayed (less of an issue, in my opinion) and die, sometimes beyond the power of the creators, but they are still engaged in a contract with their backers. Does this mean that backers should be mean and extortionist? No, of course not, but it should be up to creators to be as responsible as they possibly can, first, in setting up realistic goals, and, second, in making sure they follow through – whether with apologies and refunds, with communication about delays, or by (hopefully) getting their stuff done on time.

yes! I see what you mean. follow through (even if it is to say that for what ever reason the project is delated or cancelled) is essential. I don’t like the idea necessarily of backing a project with the expectation that it will fail, but I do think a level of expectation management of the backers part (and responsibility on the funders part) needs to be more explicitly defined.

[…] my own writing, my posts on fandom and identity and the pitfalls of Kickstarter are the ones that sparked a personal interest in broader themes of online culture and community […]

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