So what to do?
Well, it looks like we're going to have to start thinking outside the box. There are other disciplines/industries where funds are just as scarce. Arts budgets aren't exactly doing well out of the current economic situation. And the music industry has been having to adapt to the digital world for quite some time.
Actually, it's all my dabblings in new music via the science-music phenomenon that is Geek Pop that have got me thinking about innovative funding schemes and how they might be adapted to suit science communicators' needs. In August this year, one of our Geek Pop 2010 artists, Martin Austwick (masquerading as his alter-ego The Sound of the Ladies), released his album We Went to the Bottom of the Ocean on Bandcamp. I'd already noticed other artists selling their wares on the site. But this was the first time I'd really appreciated its benefits. Artists sell their music directly to fans, retaining complete ownership over their material, and BandCamp only pinches 15% for itself (much less than iTunes, for example). Seems like an okay deal.
The interesting thing is that Martin was marketing his album as "pay-what-you-like", without a minimum spend - the album could effectively be downloaded for free. Now, I've exchanged a couple of emails with Martin on the subject and although, understandably, he didn't want me to divulge the exact figures on my blog, he's hinted that people stumped up enough cash to keep him in biscuits for a while.
"As an artist who doesn't live from their music, I would consider anybody listening to my music a minor success, anyone paying for my music an adequate success, the money I make covering costs a great success, and the money covering my time investment (or what I think it's worth) an incredible success. Let's just say I'm somewhere between "great" and "incredible", where I suspect most musicians are nowadays..."He also sent me some rather geeky back-of-the-envelope statistics:
- 20% of people paid
- The average price paid (for those who paid at all) was £4.40, standard deviation £3
- Including unpaid downloads, the average price paid was £1.20
What does all this tell us? Some people will pay/donate for music online, even if they can get the same music for free, but possibly Martin was undervaluing himself. Interestingly, people were very happy to pay a tenner for his limited edition physical albums, but it's perhaps understandable given that digital goods generally come without all the lovely artwork. And a download is never going to be quite as pleasing as adding a sparkly new CD to your shelf.
So that's music downloads. What about other digital wares? Well, publishers of online news sites are still very much testing the water when it comes to charging for content. We all know the Times paywall story but here's an update - it looks like subscriber figures have dropped by more than 90% with the introduction of paid content but more than 200,000 people are paying. But that's news, and it's news that you can only get by paying (unless, of course, you decide to go elsewhere). So how about a blog or, let's see, a podcast...
Well, as it happens, we've done our own little experiment where podcasts are concerned and whaddya know? It worked. We asked Geek Pop listeners for £107 to pay for our PRS podcasting licence, and they gave it to us. Just like that. I mean, I won't pretend it wasn't a bit scary. You're basically setting yourself up for rejection. "What if no one donates?" and "Are we kidding ourselves if we think people will actually pay for this?" were both thoughts that went through my head. As it turned out, people were more than happy not only to donate the odd pound here and there, but to donate in *double figures*. I nearly cried. So we are now officially "Geek Pop - Funded by You".
That, however, is nothing compared to what sci-rap star Baba Brinkman is trying to do. Bear in mind that Baba has already secured a sizeable grant from the Wellcome Trust to run this project:
which will produce a series of videos to accompany his Rap Guide to Evolution. Now he's trying to source another £10k (£10k!) to make them even better.
"I have partnered with a website called "Crowdfunder" to run a campaign to raise an additional £10,000 to increase the production value of these videos. If we can hit our target in 60 days, the end result will be something amazing. If we fail to hit the target, the money is all returned to the funders and we fall back on the Wellcome Trust grant, which will still be enough to complete a good finished product, just one with a lot less mojo."Well, I thought, this is mighty ambitious! And he wants to give it back if he makes a penny less? Blimey. But people are donating - oh yes they are, and not in insubstantial amounts. After sending along a tenner yesterday, I did a double-take on the counter and it was up to £2,181 after just 74 donations, which - hang on, another quick bit of maths - means people are donating nearly £30 each on average. Go Baba!
Clearly, this super-ambitious level of crowdfunding is not going to work for all of us. Would people pay for a blog, for example? I don't know - maybe if they believed they couldn't get that content anywhere else. (I would definitely pay for this or this, for instance, but they're not exactly filled to the brim with science. They're just nuts.) And it goes without saying that you can't just set up an online donations page and expect people to throw money at you for any old rubbish. Baba's got some considerable credits to his name, and Geek Pop has been churning out podcasts for over a year, so people know - approximately - what they're paying for.
And as we've seen, people will pay for what they believe to be good content. The obvious difficulty is that if every blog, podcast and science communication project under the sun starts asking its fans to put their hands in their pockets "pay-what-you-can" could very swiftly become tiresome. But for now, it's at least an option to explore.
Anyway, I'm certainly no expert on all of this, but from what I've learned so far, these are some things to think about when considering crowdfunding:
- Give something in exchange: pay-what-you-can works for BandCamp because fans are getting an album or a single that they've probably already heard via streaming. Paying for a podcast or a future sci comm project is slightly different in that you're asking to pay people for something that hasn't happened yet... and might be crap. So give something back immediately. We gave some unheard excerpts from the podcast; not much, but a gesture. Baba has a clever tiered strategy of offering digital downloads, physical DVDs, or even inclusion in his videos, depending on how much you donate.
- Set a target and show your progress: you need to show people that others are already donating. Plus, who'd be cruel enough to leave you dangling at 95% if you only had a fiver left to go? We saw donations to our podcasting fund flood in after we reached the half-way point, perhaps because our fans saw that the finish line was in sight and wanted to help us get there.
- Be grateful! Always remember to say thank you - it's only polite!