Fan-sourced funding site seeks followers


Staff Writer

Long before American musician Amanda Palmer made her million dollars through Kickstarter, Japanese metal band Electric Eel Shock was raising money from its fans. And now the band’s bassist, Kazuto Maekawa, wants to show the rest of Japan how it’s done.

In 2004, the Samurai 100 project, dreamed up by the band’s British then-manager Bob Slayer and inspired by British band Marillion’s fan-funding success seven years prior, plucked £10,000 (around ¥1.9 million at the time) from the pockets of EES supporters in the West by offering advance copies of its forthcoming album, a lifetime place on the guestlist to the band’s shows and other exclusive perks in exchange for a £100 (¥19,700) upfront payment. Only the most die-hard fans, the first 100, would be admitted.

The scheme worked so well that the band repeated it in 2007, and then in 2009 it signed up with the then-Dutch (now German) crowd-funding service SellaBand to raise a staggering $50,000 (around ¥4.8 million) from 3,000 fans in over 40 countries in order to record its sixth album, “Sugoi Indeed.”

This success led Maekawa and current EES manager Kana Endo to set up Fan-Bo, a crowd-funding site with a couple of twists. While the likes of Kickstarter are only available in English — and the Japanese sites Campfire and Readyfor are offered only in Japanese — Fan-Bo, which launched last month, is bilingual. The concept is that bands, filmmakers, authors and other creators in Japan can start a fundraising project, and fans residing in Japan and overseas can pledge money easily.

“A while ago, SellaBand launched a Japanese version and they asked EES to do another project with them as a way to introduce it to Japan,” explains Maekawa, who is in charge of Fan-Bo’s music projects. “But it was a totally different site from the original one, which meant that fans in Japan couldn’t support the same projects as those outside Japan. In that case, we decided we’d rather set up our own site.

“We were working on this before Campfire and Readyfor launched, but they beat us to it — I never thought it would take so long to set up!”

Just like other crowd-funding sites, Fan-Bo allows artists to create a project — record and release an album, go on tour, publish a book, produce a movie, and more — and then invite fans to pledge money, selecting from several donation packages. If the target amount is reached or exceeded within the time limit, the artist gets the money, minus a service charge. If the project fails, the supporters are refunded and the artist and Fan-Bo get nothing.

For example, Electric Eel Shock’s new project — which launched Fan-Bo — is to record a two-CD best-of and covers album. Pledge ¥1,000 and you get a download of the album; ¥3,000 gets you the physical two-CD set; for ¥4,000 you also get an exclusive T-shirt; while a pledge of ¥20,000 secures you a night drinking in Tokyo with drummer Tomoharu “Gian” Ito or a handmade fuzz pedal by frontman Akihito Morimoto. And so on. At the time of writing, the project had reached 64 percent of its target amount with 58 days to go.

“Like PledgeMusic and unlike Kickstarter, on Fan-Bo the user cannot see the target amount,” says Maekawa. “I think it’s uncool for bands to show that kind of information. Their fans pledge money because they want to support them; it shouldn’t feel like a business.”

Another thing that sets Fan-Bo apart is Maekawa’s determination to handpick which projects the site will accept. Tokyo band Molice is lined up to go next, and Maekawa drops several names of others that are close to signing up — a mix of well-established and newcomer independent rock bands, quirky synthetic pop icons and more.

“Anyone can submit an application to join Fan-Bo via our website, but we decide which ones to accept,” says Maekawa. “It’s about quality control. When Electric Eel Shock first joined SellaBand, I was so excited about it and I went through all the other projects on the site looking for some to pledge money to. But I didn’t find a single band I liked.

“On Fan-Bo, I want every project to be successful and I want each project to complement the others. For example, Electric Eel Shock and Molice have very different fan bases, but there is some crossover. I hope that the connections EES makes and the connections the other bands make can be beneficial to each other.”

Of course, Electric Eel Shock had lapped the world several times on tour before it started to dabble in crowd-funding; having a fan base in place made it possible to milk them for money. The same can be said for other successful fundraising acts — Japanese garage band Detroit7 with its Readyfor campaign in October (to release a new 7-inch single) and Western artists such as Palmer, Fightstar’s Charlie Simpson and Nine Inch Nails/Devo drummer Josh Freese, as well as video-game studio Double Fine and Scott Thomas, a design director on Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign. Such figures had already proved to their fans exactly what they can deliver before starting their fundraising campaigns.

Newcomers have a significantly lower chance of successfully crowd-funding a project, as the countless $0 projects on any such site attests. And in risk-averse Japan, failure can be a painful embarrassment — enough to put many bands off trying.

“That’s true,” concedes Maekawa. “That’s another reason why quality control is so important. We’ll also have ‘curators’ on the site to pick out recommended projects and highlight them.” [Disclosure: It Came From Japan, a company with which I am involved, will be one of these curators.]

Maekawa admits there will be a learning curve, both for Fan-Bo and for its users.

“Part of the problem is that in Japan there is a barrier between bands and the audience: Japanese record companies are very good at making their artists seem larger than life and somehow more ‘important’ than their fans. But when we play in the West, we always feel on the same level as our fans. That feels more comfortable to me and I’d like to show Japanese bands that there is a different way of doing things.

“Being independent means doing everything yourself. Not everyone can do what EES did: We wanted to try playing overseas, so we jumped on a plane and we didn’t come back to Japan for several years. Most independent bands can only go for a few weeks at a time, making a few contacts here or there but never connecting them properly. With Fan-Bo, I want to help them to connect the dots.”

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