Crowdfunding has been a huge shot in the arm for the arts, especially for musicians like myself. It emerged in a period of crisis for the industry and artists and it reflected a double movement. On the one hand, the large players (i.e. major labels) lost some of their leveraging power. As technology has made it more feasible to produce content from the confines of bedrooms and living rooms, and the capabilities afforded by social media has made content dissemination and promotion cheaper and easier, the artist was indeed liberated and empowered. On the other hand, because the artist did not have to rely on traditional (constraining) channels to finance creation, production, and dissemination, he or she had to look elsewhere. The emergence of crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo provided a good way for artists to fund their projects, however, the platforms nurtured and benefited from a dynamic between fan and artist that had the potential for progress and regress. Progress because the fan and artist could more easily build a productive relationship that further undermined the need for corporate involvement. Regress because crowdfunding facilitated a one-way relationship capable of exploiting fan support under the guise of egalitarian rhetoric that emphasized value over cost. What emerged was an environment with massive potential and great vulnerability.
I see these vulnerabilities being manifested in two ways. 1) Obvious wrong doing on the part of crowdfunders (e.g. not fulfilling promises, high price points, and general forms of exploitation that are readily recognizable); 2) The proliferation of crowdfunding into various segments of society reinforce the process of neoliberalism that has long been at work. A vulnerability less easy to recognize (or perhaps criticize), but much more influential in relation to the negotiations of cultural values.
Neoliberalism has become a buzzword, but it is not always clearly defined. As one article antagonistically claimed — “’Neoliberalism’ has now morphed into a vague concept loaded with everything the left dislikes about market economics.” Honestly, that’s fair. So, let me try to define neoliberalism before moving on. I take from David Harvey ’s summation – that neoliberalism seeks to “bring [coerce] all human action into the domain of the market,” or more specifically, we can draw from Christian Fuchs who characterizes neoliberalism as the “dispossession of the commons in order to generate new spaces of accumulation and an intensified dispossession of income and wealth in order to raise profits.” This is accomplished by the creation a “legal framework for flexible wages and flexible working times,” the activation of “entrepreneurial thinking of the individual by creating new forms of self-dependence and self-employment, reducing unemployment benefits and welfare.”
One of Neoliberalism’s strengths is that it allows for a favorable rearticulation of certain cultural values in the service of market logic (we see this being played out in the gig economy). The contemporary fetishism over entrepreneurism has all but made it into a principle good, a moral value. It draws upon long standing cultural notions of individualism and work ethic, underscored by a free market ideology that understands economic productivity as the main goal. Indeed, embedded in the language of the neoliberal economy is an emphasis on flexibility, entrepreneurialism, and self-dependence. These three terms inform the ideological power of neoliberalism, and at the same time, signal inroads towards a restructuration that increases influence within the private sphere at the expense of the public sphere. As Zygmunt Bauman has written: “Public power has lost much of its awesome and resented oppressive potency, but it also has lost a good part of its enabling capacity.”
So when we consider that crowdfunding is being increasingly relied upon to fund public school classrooms, higher education research, town/state civic projects, and even Smithsonian exhibits, it calls into question the economic or social environment that necessitates this type of fundraising, i.e. private expenditure for public projects. The successes of certain crowdfunding projects, its novelty, and the opportunities for new modes of engagement that are often publicized across various blogs or news sites serves to redirect a critical glance away from critical questions that ask why private fundraising on the behalf of public school teachers, for example, is even necessary? Or, what are the potential implications that might develop from crowdfunding academic research? Even if we charitably assume that these are isolated instances rather than a reflection of problematic structural patterns, the increased need to crowdfund, i.e. to compensate for a lack of funding typically provided by state resources, may very well lead to budgetary policy that justifies the further withdrawing of state or federal resources motivated in part by the reported successes of crowdfunding projects. This article from Huffington post exemplifies this concern. While it briefly acknowledges the reason crowdfunding is needed, it ends by positing crowdfunding as a fix: “Luckily, though, crowdfunding sites are well positioned to shift the focus toward equity. Recent endorsements from celebrities, including Sheryl Crow and Stephen Colbert, lend credibility and help increase the numbers of people who use these sites.”
Thus, when we read about the success of crowdfunding campaigns that were launched to cover school costs, when we read about the un-coerced financial contributions from private citizens, it is celebrated as way to solve a particular problem, but it still fails to address the larger problem. Further, it reinforces the socio-economic patterns that continue to aggravate the wound – a neoliberal practice in which market logic becomes an “entire way of life, a common sense in which every action – crime, marriage, higher education and so on, can be charted according to a calculus of maximum output and minimum expenditure” (Michel Foucault), and within this process, our bodies, our minds, and our work, are reduced commodities that are only justified through formulations of cost and productivity. Thus, it crowdfunding justifies itself through its successes while simultaneously furthering its own need.
Crowdfunding is a powerful and productive tool with the potential to substantially impact standard practice in a positive way, but what happens if it becomes the standard practice?