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or: how he should stop worrying and learn to love the bomb


I don’t really use Twitter; after 140 characters, I’m barely done taking my shoes off, but I do appreciate the value in musicians being able to communicate quickly and directly with their fans. Just the other day, Devin Townsend posted a series of Tweets canvassing opinion on crowd funding, and whether his fans think it is a route he should pursue.

I am a big Devin fan, by any measure, and as a London-based fan, I have been blessed with the opportunity to be present at all of Devin’s big events of recent years – the By A Thread series, Retinal Circus, the double header with Meshuggah and more.

I’m also a strong advocate of crowd-funding; I think it is one of the most exciting developments in the music industry since the widespread availability of broadband. As I have said previously, it is not for everyone, however, I do think it could well be right for Devin.

Devin’s tweets do rather neatly break my thinking down into a series of more easily digestible chunks, so I’m just going to quickly run through them.


The potential for crowd-funding to be used to exploit fans is possibly the most common objection I see against the practice. I do agree that the potential exists, but it is by no means inevitable. First and foremost, participation by fans at the pledging stage is entirely elective. The end product of any campaign would still be available to fans that did not contribute through the traditional means. I think the key here is for the artist to have a very clear idea of what they want to achieve, and to price that product and any associated perks fairly. Fans can tell when they’re being taken advantage of. I saw one campaign where a not exactly enormous band was offering to come and play a show at the home of a fan. Their fee? $5,000. It’s a bit much.

At its core, crowd-funding is simply a more elaborate form of pre-order. Any campaign must simply have an option to buy just the end product with no extra bells or whistles. Linking back to Devin specifically, I’ve bought literally everything he has released since City, either on release day itself, or within a week. I bought my Retinal Circus tickets eleven months in advance. I know I’m not alone in that behaviour. I know I’m going to be buying Casualties Of Cool and Z2 no matter what, so I wouldn’t mind at all paying for them six months in advance.

I think with this, Devin is slightly missing the point. Crowd-funding is not a route to new fans, nor should any campaign be structured to appeal to them. Crowd-funding is a way for artists to reward and more deeply connect with their established fan-base. There’s always the chance that new fans will be attracted by the end product, but it will reach them through other channels. Probably the single best campaign I have seen and contributed to was run by Dave McPherson of Inme for his latest solo album, Dreamoirs. Dave also supported Devin on his wonderfully intimate acoustic tour, so they should probably talk. Dave’s campaign provided a steady stream of updates and exclusives to pledgers that rewarded the fans prepared to contribute even at the lowest levels, and for those prepared to pay more, there was a long series of imaginative extras. That level of engagement seemed to me to be pleasurable for all concerned.

Under normal circumstances, pledges are used to fund the actual recording process of an album. Earthtone9, for example, may not have been able to afford to make their album IV at all without the support of their fans. The situation is somewhat different for Devin. He has the means to record, but maybe not to market as he would like. So, effectively, it becomes a capital raising exercise. I can certainly understand how this could feel a little mercenary, but the reality is that these types of costs are already factored into the price of music now. The only difference is that the expenses are fronted by the fans instead of a label, or even out of the artists own pockets. But this, in turn, liberates the artist from sales targets.

In this instance, the marketing budget is set by the amount paid in advance by fans who already know they want to hear it, not by assumptions and models hypothesising how many copies are likely to be sold. So, in effect, it reduces the risks involved, gives the artist a concrete budget to work with, and a much greater freedom to operate within that budget as a consequence. That sounds pretty sweet to me.

I absolutely understand Devin’s reticence here, and I agree that running two campaigns side-by-side would probably be a bad move. In the worst case, it could split his fan-base so neither project gets the funding or the attention it deserves.

So rather than running them in parallel, my suggestion to Devin would be to run them in series.

Casualties seems to me to be an ideal project with which Devin could test the crowd-funding waters. A relatively modest target figure, with an uncomplicated selection of perks and privileges, would suit the rather more reserved tone of the record that we have been led to expect.

Throughout Devin’s career he has earned a reputation that brand managers would offer up their firstborn as sacrifices to gain – consistent quality of product (like the truly incredible Contain Us boxset) first and foremost, but also honesty, integrity and sincerity. When Devin now says something, his fans trust and believe him absolutely.

Yes, there are a small but disproportionately vocal collection of stubborn dingbats that continue to bleat about the demise of Strapping Young Lad, but their number grows smaller every year. From my perspective, however important SYL was to my youth, the album I listen to most regularly now is the Unplugged one. Devin has grown past the need to shriek “Oh My Fucking God” at every available opportunity, and many of his fans have grown with him.

Devin has already told us about Casualties, and we trust him to deliver something worth hearing. Certainly, I’m ready to pay right now, and if that album could be bundled with an exclusive shirt, or a CD of B-sides, or even access to pledger-only acoustic shows in key markets, then I’m prepared to pay a premium for that. It doesn’t have to be a wildly complicated affair; just half a dozen options or so. While the campaign is live, momentum could be kept apace by a series of pledger-only video diaries or bonus songs.

Then, if that campaign is a success, Devin and his team could well have learned enough to take on a more ambitious campaign for Z2- and I can’t fail to agree that there is enormous scope for fun and games therein – personalised Ziltoid answerphone messages, maybe? Ziltoid for president flags? An ultimate coffee cup?

But I think both Devin and his fans would benefit from a lower-risk Casualties campaign first to make sure it works.

Devin has the best relationship with his fans that I have seen in twenty years of obsessing over music. Time and again, he has gone well beyond what could reasonably be expected of him – and his fans deeply appreciate that. If Devin gives them an opportunity to show that appreciation, I am sure they will do so.

This mutual loyalty and respect between artist and fan-base is the ideal environment for crowd-funding. So the bottom line is that if anyone can design and run a campaign that is both rewarding and entertaining, it is Devin Townsend.

What do you guys think? Do you agree? Which campaign would you contribute to? Sound off in the comments!

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