Ben Folds On Crowdfunding: “We don’t know what the f**k we’re doing”

Posted May 11

Monday, the recently reunited Ben Folds Five launched a crowdfunding campaign on PledgeMusic to garner the cash needed to produce their first album in 13 years. They heralded the whole deal with little fanfare: reaching out to fans instead of journalists, posting info about the hotly anticipated album to Facebook and Twitter in lieu of a newswire. Yes, like Trent Reznor and Amanda Palmer before them, Ben Folds Five has decided to go around the music industry in order to get their tunes directly to fans. However, the band’s decision to join PledgeMusic was by no means a calculated hit against what many consider to be a crumbling industry. No, it’s more an experiment — one that Folds admits the band is going into blind.

After stumbling upon the band’s campaign on Facebook, the O Music Blog hit up Folds to ask about the whole endeavor, his feelings about the traditional music industry, and, of course, the upcoming record. Check out our Q&A below and let us know in the comments: Do you think crowdfunding is the wave of the future, or just another instance of “meet the new boss”?

So you all turned to crowdfunding for this record. How did you decide to go that route?

It happened really last-minute. We really are making it up as we go along. We had been making this record that I’m excited about and it just seems weird to just sit on it. We’re not signed at the moment, so we can do anything we want. So I thought, ‘Let’s just put one of the songs out there.’ But not the normal way.

It was goofy, because the song ['Do It Anyway'] went out [via blog post] and then it crashed the server, because there were a lot of people coming to it and we didn’t except that many, honestly. So then all these other people who were successfully downloading it put it up on their sites and people went to those. My manager expected that night about 60,000 downloads happened. So then we realized we needed to put the album up for presale, because it’s kind of stupid to just be promoting a record that you’re not selling. So we’re just making it up.

So then you launched your crowdfunding campaign. How did you choose PledgeMusic to host your efforts?

I’m not morally against it, but I’m just not comfortable with making it like a telethon where there’s a number. Like you see a cash number come up on the site. [I don't like that] any more than I would if I went to eat at a restaurant and there was — next to the food grade — the amount of money that had come in that night while you’re eating. It doesn’t make any sense — it’s not really relevant. I liked that that site didn’t do that. That was one thing.

Another was that it’s hard to discipline yourself to do all the things you want to for any charities or causes that you’re behind. They have a good organized way of doing that. All those sites are fine. I think any way you can get music out there directly — it’s a good thing.

[Editor's note: A portion of money raised will be donated to music education and music therapy.]

Yeah, everyone seems to be doing that these days! Amanda Palmer launched her Kickstarter campaign not long before your crowdfunding effort went live.

Yeah, absolutely. And we hadn’t talked about that — a few texts back and forth. But that wasn’t timed that way for either one of us. I haven’t talked about it with her really, but she’s just come off of a not-very-pleasant label experience and I think she’s probably more on fire to do it this way then I am. I just knew that on this record we had a kind of different opportunity because there’s anticipation — the band hasn’t made a record in a long time. I thought that gave us a little wiggle room to do it a little differently. It all just kind of came at the right time.

But Amanda’s record is going to be great. I’ve heard bits and pieces of it. The real news on her record will be that the record’s good, not all that stuff about the way it’s sold. That’s not really what you remember when you’re on your death bed, ‘Wow, I remember that record — the way it was distributed. That was amazing…’ You remember the songs and how it affected you. That’s going to be the real story. So that will blow over — all this Kickstarter pledge stuff will blow over in moments and it will be about the music.

I think people are just excited about you guys going around the traditional system and doing it yourselves.

I think that’s good, but it’s complicated. People are excited, but I approach this area with the same sort of radical moderatism that I approach everything with. I’m cautious about it because I think these things are an interesting opportunity — maybe.

People get excited about it, I suppose, because it’s new and it’s an opportunity — it’s like maybe this is how music could come out and it could level the field. Well, it’s not going to. Let’s say Kanye West decided to go do Kickstarter — he’d blow the Internet up. What good would that do? It wouldn’t mean that the band next door is going to have a better chance. What it means is that if the band next door wants to have a chance, Kanye West just knocked the legs out from underneath the traditional music industry, and now is he going to sign their band? Because he’s now the one with the distribution.

When we step up front like this, we’re taking on the responsibility of getting talent out there. Because every time a band like me or Amanda does these things, it’s a kick in the ass to the traditional record-selling machinery — and I don’t necessarily have anything against them. But if you look at the way Amanda works, she does provide a lot of people with opportunities. She’s actually a responsible revolutionary. She’s not making careers for them; she’s just giving them the opportunity to have their voices heard, and I always thought that that was a really good approach.

It’s crazy stuff, but [the music business] will be the same. This is not different. This is just one set of douchebags going under, and another is going to rise. In the chaos, it’s exciting. There’s a moment for a certain class of musicians to get their stuff out there, but, again, back to the band next door: If they put something up on Kickstarter, what’s going to drive anyone to it? So it’s just now up to us — the bands that are stepping up and doing it in this way — we have a responsibility to reach out a hand and do something for the talent below. Because, like them or not, that’s what record companies used to do.

Yeah, I saw on your crowdfunding page that you’re planning to help pledgers out by linking to their projects. How will that work?

I think it’s going to be a mess, and I think that we’re going to have to make it up as we go along. But that’s our intention. If someone sends me a video to one of our songs — awesome, we’ll retweet it, we’ll put it up on Facebook, and then there’s a lot higher potential for people to see it.

So aside from the campaign itself, how has it been working on the new album with the whole band?

It’s great. This is a pretty good album — it really is. It’s got a thing. It just pops. It was effortless. We just got together and started playing. We probably put down eight hours of music in the first week that was just playing, arranging, trying things — I was bringing ideas in. Themes, variations and a lot of jazz, for some reason. But, yeah, it’s a neat album.

So what was the moment that convinced you guys to get back together?

When we did the MySpace ‘Front to Back’ show in 2008 we left that going, ‘Yeah, let’s get back together sometime soon and make a record.’ And so we did it as soon as we could and it was four years later.

One thing that I would like to get across in any article that comes out is that we don’t know what the f**k we’re doing. We don’t know what we’re doing [with regard to crowdfunding]. We’re not pretending like we know what we’re doing…. We can afford not to know what we’re doing. A lot of bands are not going to be able to do that. So, we’ll try it — maybe people will look at it, see what’s going on and it will be helpful in some way. We’ll learn something. But I’m definitely not trying to take a jab at the traditional way that things are set up — because the people who are left in the music business are pretty good. Those people who are doing like four jobs as one person because they love music and don’t get that paid much anymore — they definitely doesn’t deserve to have musicians shaking their fists at them and saying, ‘I hope you die.’ They’re just doing their best.

If that system comes back, that’s OK, but I don’t think there’s going to be a system for a while. I think it’s just time to take it easy and try not to do it like you’re looting a drugstore.

Image courtesy of Flickr, seitentasche