Crowdfunding Campaigns, Social Telethons, And Vinyl: Vulfpeck Pulls Off The Ultra-Modern Album Drop
When Jack Stratton of Vulfpeck closed out his Kickstarter campaign to fund the album The Beautiful Game on October 17 at more than $104,000 he wasn’t particularly surprised. Never mind that the funding goal was set at a less-than-ambitious $1. This is not the first time Stratton has used the crowdfunding platform to raise money for a project, nor is it likely to be the last. And he knew exactly what he was doing.
For those unfamiliar with Vulfpeck, the band is comprised of four founding members who met at the University of Michigan music school, as well as a rotating cast of collaborators on vocals. “It was always part of the plan,” says Stratton, “Being a Motown-esque rhythm section featuring lead vocalists.” On each record they introduce new blood. “It really ignites our recording sessions. We steal their life force and use it,” he says with a sly chuckle.
Vulfpeck’s sound is most often described as minimalist funk; the specificity of the genre referring to the ambition to create an intricate funk sound relying on only a limited number of instruments (see Wardell Quezergue for inspiration). The creativity isn’t limited to their music however, over the past few years Vulfpeck have made a name for themselves with what many would consider out-of-the-box strategies to spread the word about their work.
It all started with what is known as the Sleepify project a few years back.
Uploading an entirely silent album to Spotify, Stratton caused a media frenzy when listeners streamed the album for hours on end, racking up a hefty sum in royalties for the band, and underpinning his muted protest against what he then considered to be unfair compensation of rights holders for their work by streaming services.”It was the easiest album I have ever made,” says Stratton, taking little more than a minute to record, “And then it totally organically caught on as a headline.” The band used the money to subsidize their 2014 Sleepify tour, choosing not to charge fans for admission.
Stratton does say that he has since changed his tune about streaming platforms, seeing a drastic difference in compensation between free and paid tiers, and has come to appreciate the value of marketing amplification the platforms can provide. He also cautions that being at the center of a “clickbait” story is very different from releasing a successful album, despite the recognition it might bring. “But if people get into the band because they think we’re clever in some way, that’s great.”
The formula for Stratton’s 2016 Kickstarter campaign was incredibly straightforward, offering backers just three reward tiers: a digital version of the album, a copy of the vinyl, or the most expensive “Patron” level that includes a credit in the full album video on YouTube. A veteran of Kickstarter campaigns (this is the fourth project the band has successfully funded on the platform), Stratton was well aware that projects are only funded in the event that the full campaign pledge goal is reached. So he gamed the system, set that goal at just a single dollar, and gave fans 60 days to go nuts.
In his mind, the simpler the campaign is, the easier it is to manage. “Just trying to keep that scroll length to less than a mile,” Stratton jokes.
Kickstarter is not the only option for artists and bands looking to crowd-source funds for their projects — other platforms include Indiegogo, GoFundMe, Crowdrise, and Crowdfunder — just to name a few. Though some, such as the music-focused service Pledgemusic, are more appropriate for creative projects than other companies aimed at charity or venture capital. And while the crowd-funding craze perhaps reached its peak in the media a while back, these companies continue to help creators raise millions of dollars in funds every year. In fact, Kickstarter is known for being extremely transparent with those numbers, publicly displaying a raw count of the data behind what is now close to $3 billion dollars in funding, across more than 115,000 successful projects, updated on a daily basis.
But it doesn’t end there. A creator or artist doesn’t just launch a Kickstarter or Pledgemusic campaign and call it a day. The reason that a band like Vulfpeck has been so successful in taking advantage of this alternative approach to funding their artistry is a high level of engagement with fans, and a commitment to trying new things.
“It really depends on what you are trying to accomplish,” says Hayley Rosenblum, a former music campaign specialist at Kickstarter and part of the team that worked on Amanda Palmer’s famed $1 million fundraising project (note that this is still the most successful music project on Kickstarter to date). There is no secret key that will ensure a successful crowdfunding campaign, but there are basics to keep in mind.
Rosenblum has now rejoined Palmer’s management team, but collaborated with Stratton over the course of several projects during her tenure at Kickstarter, and is well familiar with his approach. “Jack is one of those artists that didn’t require a lot of handholding from the Kickstarter team,” she says. “He knew what worked for him and what he was trying to accomplish.”
In reference to Stratton’s dollar strategy she says it is clear that “he’s not prioritizing the money, he’s engaging his audience. It’s about trying to figure out what your personal goals are for the project and for your voice as an artist, and being creative with how you interact with your audience as you build it.” Rosenblum doubts that Stratton would have been able to raise $100,000 without finding creative ways to engage his audience throughout the campaign.
She repeatedly stresses the value of fan engagement for artists that aim to leverage this type of platform. “It’s for the fan first and foremost, and the value is going to lay in what you’re giving them as part of the project.” Signed exclusives, updates on the recording process, behind-the-scenes footage, these are just some of the great tools that artists can leverage. “Now, more than ever, people have access to share and create content, but you need to funnel it into a story and that is what these platforms are great for.”
“Backers are part of an exclusive, special group, and they need to feel like they are part of an exclusive, special group,” Rosenblum explains.
She also cautions that artists need to be prepared for what is a major commitment. For smaller artists these platforms can provide a straightforward marketing tool. “But if you’re an artist with a reasonable fan base, it’s challenging to do a full-fledged release like [Palmer] did, because now you have thousands of pre-orders you have to fulfill. It’s a lot of work, not just to promote the project, but also to massively fulfill it.”
Not every tack is going to be successful. While they were able to capitalize to a certain extent on the Sleepify project, Stratton quickly learned that buzz does not equal sustained success and attention, and that despite that long list of reporters who had been interested in taking his calls when the story was hot, these same reporters were less interested in covering new projects that were coming down the pipeline. They had to try a different approach to getting the word out.
The traditional strategy would be to get fans excited with singles leading up to a release, and then promote the album with a tour. Vulfpeck played most of their live shows during the preorder, as opposed to after the album release. “That’s when people are spending money on the group,” says Stratton. “Might as well go play some shows.”
He also says their most valuable platform for reaching fans is probably Facebook, particularly the live feature that launched earlier this year. The data is there to back up his hunch.
For instance, music analytics provider Next Big Sound (acquired by Pandora in 2015) classifies Vulfpeck’s level of social engagement, a measure of the relationship between the total number of fans and daily activity for a band, as “strong” given that it falls in the 87th percentile for all artists. With an audience of about 125,000 fans on Facebook, Vulfpeck seeing an average of 21,600 “talking about this” each week (a platform-specific metric that covers stories shared about a particular page) is about 23x the expected amount of activity for a band of their size.
In other words, it’s not necessarily the number of fans the band has on the platform that matters, but more the level of engagement they are seeing from each of those fans.
In order to capitalize on this engagement on Facebook, Stratton chose to run a social telethon of sorts on the final day of the The Beautiful Game campaign. He already uses the live feature to record tutorials for fans, and wanted to try something different. “Our whole thing is so rooted in parody, I thought ‘let’s do a really brutal, PBS-style telethon, going on and on and on and on…’ It would be nostalgic for people my age.”
They live-streamed for about seven hours straight, having a go at activities ranging from roasting a chicken, to artist performances, to a comedy set. “We were supposed to have sunset yoga, but she didn’t show up, so that fell through.” Stratton was pleased to learn that they raised almost as much in funding during the telethon, as they had on the initial launch day (Note that Kickstarter has since launched a similar live feature available to all creators).
But again, not every strategy works. “Last year we did a release show,” says Statton about the strategy for the final day of the campaign, “It was one of the most stressful days of my life, and it wasn’t effective. We didn’t even have the vinyl there because it takes months to get it.”
Luckily Stratton seems to have no shortage of crazy ideas to try out. This time around on release day, he performed an album-length interpretive dance reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite that he recorded with a drone. More than 200,000 fans have since tuned in across platforms.
Following the album release, Vulfpeck debuted at #2 on the Pandora Predictions chart — which ranks artists and bands by the likelihood that they will hit the Billboard 200 albums chart within a year — and have now spent nine weeks on the chart in total. Without the support of the traditional record label, this small, not-so-mainstream, minimalist funk band from Ann Arbor, Michigan has been able to build enough of a fan base to sustain roughly 25,000 spins on Pandora per week and close to 20 million YouTube views in total, ultimately pulling off what should be considered the quintessential, ultra-modern album drop.