Playing to the crowd

Nicola Macdonald explores the trend for crowdfunded festivals and what it could mean for the events industry.

It goes without saying that putting on a festival is not an easy task. It takes time, it takes patience and it takes money. Luckily for prospective festival organisers, there is a new way to fund events that has been growing in legitimacy and popularity in recent years.

Websites like Crowdfunder, Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Seedrs are being used to fund festivals and live events by providing a platform for businesses, investors and festivalgoers to contribute money.

Crowdfunding can be a way for organisers to create an event that’s different from what the mainstream has to offer; for others, it can be a way to boost or support a pre-existing festival.

For Samantha Asumadu, founder of Media Diversified, crowdfunding was a way to create a unique festival for an under-represented community. Bare Lit Festival, an event showcasing the work of writers of colour, was almost entirely funded through an online crowdfunding platform.

“People wanted a festival like this,” Asumadu tells Access. “They wanted to see authors of colour get a platform and to find authors that they hadn’t come across before.

The decision to fund the festival through crowdfunding was an easy one, as Media Diversified had used the platform for a previous project and recognised the huge reach and potential of the medium.

“When you use crowdfunding, you reach a wider audience and people share the aims of your project. Even the New York Times reported on it. This can happen exponentially.

Another benefit of crowdfunding is avoiding the corporate sponsorship that may directly or indirectly affect the content of the festival.

“Media Diversified doesn’t get grant funding, we’re not a charity,” says Asumadu. “We do have political messages and we’re quite outspoken. The articles we publish are quite challenging. Having corporate sponsors would be a challenge, and not something we would want to be tied to if it meant curtailing what we publish.”

A unique corporate image

LeeFest is another festival that has been careful to avoid letting corporate sponsors influence its image or output.

Beginning with 10 bands in festival director Lee Denny’s back garden while his parents were on holiday, LeeFest has grown from humble origins.

This modest start meant that the festival learnt to be self-sufficient long before it became large enough to need significant financial support, and Denny was reluctant to relinquish this freedom.

The festival didn’t turn to crowdfunding until 2013, seven years after it first began, and only after it became clear that it would need help to keep growing.

“It was getting a lot bigger and we needed to catch up organisationally and get some support in finding a new space,” Denny told Access. “We were supported by people who had previously been to the festival, who were invested in its spirit and wanted to help it grow.”

Rather than using traditional shareholders or signing up big sponsors, LeeFest was able to raise £50,000 through crowdfunding from more than 680 backers, and now has a capacity of 5,000 for this year’s festival.

Denny raised the money through Kickstarter, one of the platforms that will refund investor money if the crowdfunding target isn’t met. This gave backers the security of knowing their money would only be used if the fundraising effort was a success.

Supporters of LeeFest were also given the option of helping make decisions regarding the future of the festival as one of the campaign’s gifts to backers.

As many of the backers in a crowdfunding appeal are fans of the event in question, it’s possible for festivals to motivate investors with gifts such as VIP access, opportunities to meet artists and special deals on hotels and restaurants.

Electric Beach in Cornwall, which began in 2011 and didn’t start using crowdfunding until 2013, used the system to create unique experiences for loyal fans.

“We started with very little investment,” festival director Ben Hall tells Access. “You always start with a concept and then you take a risk. On the third year of the festival we decided to give it a go because we needed some extra funds to help boost it, just for a bit more investment into the festival itself.”

Hall used the crowdfunding platform to give back to the festival’s core fanbase, many of whom had attended every year and who contributed generously to the fundraising effort.

“It conjured up a lot more possibilities than we would have thought of otherwise,” says Hall. “It fuelled the fire for us to create these new experiences.”

Hall believes that using platforms like Kickstarter, with its failsafe refund system, allows backers to take risks and avoid making significant financial losses.

A miscalculated risk

It is often the success stories that make headlines when it comes to crowdfunded festivals. One notable exception is Alt-Fest, an alternative music festival that was scheduled to take place in August 2014 but which was cancelled barely a month before the event.

The failure of the festival has variously been attributed to bad planning, organiser ego, overspending and a fundamental lack of understanding with regards to its target audience.

Alt-Fest serves as a cautionary tale, as it was able to reach its Kickstarter target but unable to effectively budget for the event, with the owners announcing possible personal bankruptcy and the liquidation of Alt-Fest Ltd. Many of those who bought tickets for the event were never refunded the full amount and took to social media to protest.

The organisers released a statement soon after the announcement that the festival was cancelled, saying: “We realise this has severely damaged our personal and professional reputations. We can only sincerely apologise for any additional stress and upset this has caused. We were honestly looking to act in your best interests.

“It was never a scam or a con. We tried to do something new and different for you and the alternative scene, which was not easy.”

The one fact that most effective crowdfunders will agree on is that understanding your target audience is the key to success. A unique and interesting idea will come to nothing without the support of a community who believe in it.

“You need people to be invested in it, not just financially but also invested in its success,” says Asumadu.

But is it possible to fund a festival solely through crowdfunding? “It’s definitely possible,” says Hall. “The festivals that we’re involved in, we’ve always started with very little investment. You start with a concept and then you take a risk.”

The majority of festivals in the UK, crowdfunded or not, supplement their finances with ticket sales.

“I don’t think you could host a festival that was entirely crowdfunded,” argues Denny. “Ticket sales will always be the most important thing, with crowdfunding as an extra little bit around that.”

Crowdfunded festivals are growing in popularity because they are still seen as alternative, free from corporate sponsorship and oversight. The festivalgoers’ direct investment in the event makes for a sense of community and comradeship that mainstream festivals may struggle to emulate.

Many of the organisers of these festivals have been part of the crowd themselves, people who have attended festivals and thought to themselves, “I could do better.”

Sometimes, as with Alt-Fest, this can go spectacularly wrong. But at others, with the right combination of imagination, support and determination, it can be the start of something huge.