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How To Raise $25,000 For Your CD

Stringband playing in front of liquor store

Last year, I went back into the recording studio for the first time in 15 years. I felt like an old gunslinger digging in the feed bin for the six-gun he stashed years before. I was none too confident. In fact, confidence seemed downright foolish. At the best of times, the market for Old Canadian Folkies is er, specialized. Would there be an audience? gigs? air play? Would I sell enough CDs to break even? Who the hell knew?

Like all of us who record folk music, I was not doing it for the money. Though money - indeed a lot of money - is involved. I figured, if I cut corners, I could bring in an album for $20,000. I had $15,000. So I set out to raise $5000. What happened astonished me. Some 200 people subscribed, donated, invested or othewise chipped in - to the tune of $25,000. It was the single most gratifying experience of my working life. It felt like winning the Academy Award.

Others, I am convinced, could do the same thing. Sure, much of the support I received came from the friends and fans I've met over 25 years of playing. But there was something else going on too: I think people pitched in because they saw a chance to fight back - against mainstream culture; against the censorship of the marketplace; against a music industry that ignores folk music or bleaches it out or hypes it to death. Helping my project was a little (and sometimes not so little) contribution to the fight to recapture a corner of our culture.

If I am right about that, it means there should be solid support out there for your CD too. So here is how I raised $25,000, with no grants or record company money, and here is how you can do it yourself.

When to record: Somebody once asked Woody Guthrie how you get to be a musician. Woody replied,"Throw your hat on the road, lean your ass against a post and start practising. When somebody drops a coin in the hat, you're a musician." If it is time for you to record, people who know you will think so too. Let them put money in the hat.

"If you don't ask, you won't get," as Grandma used to say. If you want money, you've got to ask for it. It is the most effective form of alchemy. Many people shy away from fundraising because they fear that the people they approach will resent it (and will be too tapped-out to give anyway.) This is hardly ever true. People don't mind being asked, they just mind asking. Well, get over it. If it helps, remember this: you are not trying to get money from those who don't have it, you are offering an opportunity to those who do.

Know exactly what you want to do, before you ask for the money to do it. Nobody wants to buy a pig in a poke. What do you want to record and with whom? How much do you need and how will you spend it? How many CDs or cassettes will you press and when will they be ready? Even if the questions never come up, knowing the answers will make your pitch more effective.

Where to start: Insurance companies tell their rookie salespeople, "Start with the your relatives and friends." The companies know what they are talking about. Who better to turn to first than the people you know best? You really do have something important to discuss with them, so do. Approach them personally - the more personal the approach, the better: talking over coffee is better than talking over the phone; a phone call is better than a personal letter; a personal letter is better than a form letter. 

What to say: How about, "Uncle Jim, I have started a new project, a big one and I'm pretty excited about it. I hope you will be too and I also hope you will contribute to it. Here's what I am doing and here's how I am hoping you can help." 

Always suggest an amount, or a range. This may feel awkward, but it essential for you and helpful to your potential supporter. Be gentle about it, be funny, embarrassed, whatever, but you must let them know how much money you are asking for.

Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it. If you only ask for $10 for an advance purchase, that is all you will get. You want to accommodate people's generosity at every level. In my case, I offered a "subscription" (an advance purchase with a few perks thrown in) at $50, and a special poor person's subscription at $25. "Donations" began at $100 (with a few more perks), and "investment" began at $300. At $500, you became a "partner". Professional fundraisers say, "Always set your top category high" because some people automatically opt for the second highest level, no matter what it is. And a few will go for the highest. I received contributions from $25 up to $2000.

Perks: Offering perks is a good trick of the fundraiser's trade, but keep it in perspective: people are giving you money because they believe in what you are doing, not because of the fridge magnet. That being said, decide what perks might appeal to your supporters, and at what level of support to offer them. The list is limited only by your imagination: a baseball cap; one of your early "collecter's item" albums; an invitation to a performance. I offered my subscribers: an advance copy of the CD, their name on the cover, a chance to sing in the chorus, an invitation to the release party, my lasting gratitude and the opportunity to make an effective contribution to the arts. 

Make it easy. The more your supporters need to do (or think about) to make the donation, the more they will put it off. So make it simple, from the choice of amount to mailing the cheque. Prepare a kit with information on the project, a form ready to fill out, boxes to check off and a pre-addressed return envelope. And be sure to include a date by which you need the money (which should be as soon as is reasonable after your contact).

Collect names and addresses. Next to your friends, your best supporters will be the people who have heard and liked your music. So have forms or a sign-up sheet available at every gig. 

Investors: Donors do not get paid back, investors do, at least if the record makes money. Some people will want that, others won't care. Some of my biggest contributions came as donations, not investment.

If you decide to seek investors, you will need to write a prospectus, however simple or informal. Your investors will want to know at what point repayment will begin and at what rate. They will want to know what interest you will offer, if any, and so on. This is a complex business, but here is a simple tip: repay your investors a fixed amount of money for each unit sold after a specific number of sales -- enough to recoup your costs. There are other ways to repay your investors, but unless you have a secret desire to be an accountant, avoid them.

Offering a tax receipt: You may know a charitable organization that will take on your project, at least on paper, thus allowing you to offer contributors a tax deduction. This is worth pursuing, but only so far - your supporters are looking for an album not a tax shelter.

In-kind contributions: People are used to asking musicians for in-kind contributions (God knows!), but others can be approached too. In return for some recognition, businesses may be happy to contribute, or at least discount, goods or services. What the hell: the dollar you collect and the dollar you save on sushi for the band are each worth a dollar.

So that is how to do it. In my case, I wound up spending $40,000 (my original $15,000 plus the $25,000 I raised). I think, if you hear the album, you will agree that it was money well spent. Two years later, I have effectively broken even. I don't know what people in the music business would think of that, but in the folk business, it seems like a pretty good deal.

I wrote this article for Sing Out! Magazine, where it appeared in
slightly different form. It is reprinted with their kind permission.

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