A Detailed Interview With One of the Most Successful Kickstarter Artists Yet

If you’ve never heard of Murder by Death, then maybe that’s the point.

The band recently raised a hefty $187,000 through Kickstarter for an upcoming vinyl release, from just 2,618 die-hard fans.  That is the third most successful Kickstarter result for any musical artist, behind Five Iron Frenzy (which raised $207,980) and Amanda Palmer (with a record $1,192,793).

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So, what’s the secret?  After talking with guitarist and vocalist Adam Turla while traveling through Nebraska, it became obvious that a major ingredient for success was the presence of a pre-existing, dedicated fanbase.  Beyond that, a major focus on fan engagement and the presence of highly-creative, exclusive products were also critical.


Digital Music News (Paul): When your team called me and told me that you had the third most successful Kickstarter campaign ever for a band, I was floored.  And when I checked out the campaign, it seemed like there were a lot of smart business ideas at work.  So was Kickstarter just obvious, did you have a fantastic feeling about it given your fanbase, or were there other considerations?

Adam Turla: A little bit of both.  We started talking about doing it in August of last year, and I’d been thinking about doing it for awhile.  We were waiting for the next record, and we didn’t know when it was going to come out.  Back in September, I’d created this massive list of all the potential pledges that we wanted to do, and it was all based on this idea that it’s a social media generation right now, and everyone is so used to having access to the artists, or celebrities, or musicians they like.

Kickstarter happened three years ago because it was just something that people were already starting to do.  And, with us, we’ve always actually had an extremely direct relationship with our fans.

We always respond to people’s emails. Last night, someone got engaged at our show in Denver, because the guy emailed me a month ago and we’ve been plotting the way we were going to do it – for a month via email.  It’s a combination of the accessibility, but also we have the backend set up for it.  I’ve put out all of our vinyl myself on minor releases: I do the mail order with a friend of mine, we sit there and package up the boxes.

So when we looked at Kickstarter, we said, ‘okay, we can either run this through our merch store like we always do, and pre-sell this album and just put out another physical thing to sell.  Or, we can do something more fun, and kick some of the ideas that people have been emailing us about.  We get a lot of people asking us to play their weddings, probably hundreds of requests for that.  And we get people saying, ‘oh I wish you could cover this song…’

And so the idea was, well, if you really feel strongly about that, here’s your chance.   And Kickstarter had such a great backend and was a trusted site, so it seemed like the natural place to go, rather than write all the code ourselves and create this massive system.

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Digital Music News: I’ve seen a lot of threads on building your own Kickstarter functionality.  There’s a band based in the UK, Uniform Motion, that’s written a plan about how to do it all yourself.  But what you’re telling me is this is a ‘just add water’ sort of thing, and you weren’t worried about the fees or other downsides of going to an already-established platform.

Adam: I think we were confident that we were going to sell a certain amount of stuff, and because there was demand, it worked.

The top two Kickstarter music campaigns were established groups with loyal fanbases – Amanda Palmer and Five Iron Frenzy.  I think Amanda Palmer hit it at the perfect time.  I was hoping to have ours going by March, and she came out in May.  And when I saw hers come out I was said, ‘oh man…’

Frankly, I was a little frustrated because I hadn’t seen anyone else in our same circle or world of music, and I was a little disappointed that she beat us to the punch.  But I knew that she was going to do it bigger and better than us, just because of her massive internet presence.

And that’s the thing: plenty of small bands have tried to use Kickstarter for the most basic idea, which is, we want to make this record and we need money. And, nobody is giving us money.  Maybe that makes sense, that’s one way to do it if you just want a couple thousand bucks.  But if you look at the success stories, there’s a lot more potential for this type of crowdsourcing.  You can take it a lot farther than just basic funding, because it’s a way of interacting with people.  And for a band known for interacting with our fans, I have never responded to so many emails as I did when we were working on this project.

But I will say, a band that works directly on its Kickstarter campaign will have a much better project. People are hoping that they’re interacting with you, they don’t want it to be some label that has set up the thing and is pretending to be you.

Digital Music News: Last year, Uniform Motion did a highly-detailed breakdown of how much money they were making from every single format they released.  Everything from vinyl all the way down to the Spotify stream.  And what really impressed me is that vinyl was the biggest breadwinner, pound-for-pound, for every unit of vinyl they sold.  Is that the thought process that you had walking into this?

Adam:  Sort of.  I’ve always put our vinyl, but we tend to approach these things from a slightly different standpoint.  It’s not about profit margin, it’s about creating something interesting.  For example, with our vinyl there are so many other things that come with it. This special edition is essentially only available through Kickstarter; it comes with this globe lantern and a zoetrope (which turned out to be way more expensive than we were quoted).  And, it’s not the awesome markup that I would love to have, but the point was I wanted to keep the price at a place where I thought it was reasonable, but I also wanted to give people value.  And that’s the equation I chose to use with this Kickstarter campaign, rather than just ask people for money.  I wanted you to get plenty of physical goods and something for the money that you spend, so it wasn’t just a donation.

I see it as being a way to market.  So what do you want?  It’s the digital age: people don’t buy CDs anymore, and some people buy vinyl, but it’s still a pretty small group of people.

Your listeners are used to being patrons of the bands they love by buying t-shirts and going to the shows, but there’s so much more possibility now.  I guess it’s the fun thing about the platform, you just ask them what they’re interested in.  It’s like the book club for us, that was the surprise hit – we sold about 110 through the book club, maybe more, and that was such a fun idea. I didn’t think that many people were willing to drop $250.

Digital Music News: It almost turns some of the thinking about direct-to-fan relationships on its head.  Because there’s the more negative thread that all of the work that goes into establishing a fan base can eat away time from core activities like songwriting.  But when I look at something like this – for example, a zoetrope – it seemed like it was a really fun, creative endeavor in and of itself.  Is that how you felt about it, or did you feel that it was taking time away from other things you wanted to do?

Adam: Well there are a couple of things in there.  The first thing is that this is not time we would have spent writing.  We spent all of last year writing the album, we recorded it earlier this year.  So the way that a musician’s process works is that – usually – you write for a year, then you play that music for a year, then you write for a year.  That’s pretty common, and I specifically like to take quite a bit of time off from writing because I just don’t want to overdo it.  I’d rather just focus on my task at hand, and in this case we had an album coming in a month, and I wanted to do this Kickstarter.  So that’s been my focus, so all of my creative energy I’d put into that.

That being said, are there other things I’d rather be doing?  I had no clue how much work this was going to be, I had no idea.  I started working on it – I started writing ideas for it, I started assembling the backend in April, creating something and just getting together the product and all that.  And I’ve really had a full-on other job just dealing with the Kickstarter ever since then.  And I won’t be done until we fulfill all the other orders in September.

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Then I still have to continue setting up the book club,  then we go back into the studio and record 15 songs,  then we have shows to support, private events, some of which are going to be a little ridiculous.   So there’s a lot of work to do, there’s a reason we chose to do this now, we weren’t planning on writing because there just wasn’t time to do that.


Digital Music News: Amanda Palmer gets nearly $1.2 million, you guys get $187,000.  What do you possibly do with all the extra money?

Adam: I think that’s where the confusion of Kickstarter comes in, because it depends on how you want to do it.  $100,000 is the manufacturing and all the expenses, and giving Kickstarter a fee, but depending on how people buy things, the costs are fluctuating constantly.  For example, if you’re doing a house show in LA, then you have to get to LA and pay for the flights and the backline rental.  And depending on how many people order, you have to buy more products and materials.  So the costs are actually always changing depending on how many people bid.

Also, this is just a pre-sale, so we’re just selling our album.  So the hope was that we’d make way more than $100,000, because we’d like to get paid for making music (because that’s what we do).

So this is one confusion that I don’t like about Kickstarter and one of the reasons I thought about not using it: a lot of people view this as a charity.  But this is really a more open way to do marketing, and I don’t think and definitely didn’t launch into this thinking, ‘I should just cover the cost of the goods.’   I was more focused on people wanting to buy our record, and this being a new vehicle for marketing it.  And also, more than anything else, this was a way of marketing the band in such a better way than just selling albums.


Digital Music News: I’m not going to ask you to predict the future, but do you think that crowdfunding on Kickstarter or any other vehicles can be a very serious, wide-scale funding and moneymaking machine for other bands in general?

Adam: I don’t know, that’s what I can’t tell.  I’ve been wanting to do this for about a year, and I was curious if this is going to dry up, or be the next big thing.  But that’s just a big question for our age: will Facebook become just another part of computing, or is there going to be another social media site that takes over?  Or, does social media itself just dry up?  With Kickstarter, I could see it going either way.

The main thing is that we live in a time where people have decided they don’t want to pay for music, or movies, for their own consumption.  Yet this is exactly what we’re asking people to do when you launch a music– or film-related Kickstarter campaign.  You are trying to get people involved in buying the product again.

So that’s what attracted me, which is that a huge section of musicians’ income was taken away when people started downloading music – it’s brutal, but it’s gone.  And it’s already hard being in a rock band, it’s a hard way to make money, especially with five band members and your agent, your manager, your crew, and all the other people that need to get paid.  There’s just not that much left over.

So with Kickstarter, you are going backwards and asking them to buy the product again, but also you’re giving them the opportunity to buy the experience.  It’s something different.


Digital Music News: Can you warn bands by giving them three pitfalls to avoid before starting their Kickstarter campaigns?

Adam: The first thing I should say is that the most positive thing that has come out of this, aside from just seeing the dollar signs which is of course thrilling, is the interaction we’ve had with all the people that supported us and the thousands of statements and encouraging words.  It’s basically people just validating your art and your existence, it’s amazing, it’s so much more powerful than just putting out a record and having someone buy it in the store.  We had an amazing interaction with people that supported us and continue to interact with them either when they come to the shows, or they come to an event of ours. It’s just awesome.

You just get a positive encounter with people throught this, you just get injected with this optimism.  There are so many people writing to us saying, ‘we’re so happy for you guys, congratulations!’  There’s something just so amazing about that, it just charged us up.


Digital Music News: As you were going through this process, did you ever find yourself saying, ‘if I had only done this, this would have been so much simpler’?

Adam: Oh definitely, there are so many things you could do.  For example, we got the third-highest project so far.  But if I had bothered to look – I looked on the last day – if I had looked since the beginning, we could have gotten the second.  But that’s only interesting because as you are doing the project, it sort of becomes a game.  You’re trying to engage fans without annoying them, the trick is to be fun with it.

So you ask about pitfalls.  We had a very positive experience, but I’d say the most important thing to do is to interact with those that are pledging, and have a band member manage the whole thing.  Because what I predict is going to happen – or is already happening – is that some major label is just going to take some crappy band that kids listen to while getting the band minimally involved in order to get them to raise a bunch of money so they don’t have to pay the band.  And that’s where I see Kickstarter going in some degree, and I’m sure that’s already happening.

But I think as long as it’s artist created, you definitely have an advantage. As long as you are involved and it’s your voice, and as long as you’re able to get across the things that make your band unique, then people will support it and be into it.  So I’d say, don’t let someone else manage it for you.

I’d also say, don’t half-ass it: if you’re going to go for it, go for it.  Do something interesting, and put the time in.  I’ve seriously put more time than I can even fathom into this project, and it’s unreal how much work I’ve put into it, and it’s just me doing it.  I wish I’d have gotten more help with more basic stuff, I just thought I could handle it.  But then again, it was that much more special that the singer of the band was doing every mundane task involved.  The fact that we’ll do the packaging of all the physical goods ourselves, that we’re addressing them and sending them to fans, it translates.  So being as hands on as you can is certainly a way to do it.

The third thing is, don’t just offer stuff because you want money, try to give people extra value and something they want.  And give them good prices so you’re not just screwing people, give them some value out of it.


Digital Music News: Thanks for educating me, and I’m sure a lot of artists out there.  And, have a great show in Omaha tonight.


Murder by Death

7 Responses

  1. Jeff Robinson

    If the band isn’t playing shows and isn’t an ‘entity’, then this type of success won’t be attainable. Regional touring and college radio help a lot. With 73,000 albums coming out a year, people are getting money from somewhere, but the reality is, selling a significant amount of product for the indie act will come from meeting people face-to-face at venues and then using them later for fan-funding. It delineates between a more serious band and ‘closet-rockers’.

    The great thing about fan-funding at this level is the additional money that can now be spent on promotion- which is usually not accounted for in any indie record budget.

  2. Visitor

    Hey Paul, is there a particular reason you are avoiding to post anything about the shut down of Demonoid last week?

    • AnAmusedGeek

      I just don’t think anyone cared/was surprised by the demonoid shutdown ? Even slashdot ( http://yro.slashdot.org/story/12/08/06/1723234/demonoid-shut-by-ukrainian-authorities ) couldn’t be bothered to get its panties in a bunch over it.

      The fact that the demoniod domain is back up for sale generated almost twice as many comments as the shutdown 😛

      The only 2 things that stick out in my mind about this, are

      1.) Demoniod got hacked right before the take down

      Which supposedly was due to ‘malware containing ads’…

      Sounds like a stereo-typical spy movie plot 😛

      2.) Ukrainian cops actually did a decent job with the servers.

      In, Copy, Out – No ‘siezing servers’ or whatever….

      Which is actually a much more professional job then I’ve come to expect in the US

      3.) No one has been arrested / charged

      So servers are down, Colo decided to terminate contract…

      but no actual charges pressed ?

  3. @zoecello

    Great interview. Worth reading if you’re planning one.

  4. AnAmusedGeek

    The band started its own book club ? Thats a pretty cool idea…

    It was really interesting to see what they had up as incentives and how much of it actually sold ($750 to get the drummer a tattoo? ) The VIP club memberships were pretty slick too… I love the mention of on-going perks at future concerts. Lets you look at it from a long term perspective vs a 1 time big $$ purchase.

    I’m curious though, most of these incentives could be sold in the bands’ normal channels. Did offering them as incentives via kickstarter give it more of an ‘event’ type flair ? Was it easier to get hype around “check out our kickstarter” vs. “check out our web shop” ?

    Heh… Maybe kickstarter is becoming as important for its ability to help get acts in front of people and get noticed, as it is for it’s crowd sourcing functions ?