Crowd-sourcing a brand

By Melissa Bell
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 7:04 PM

Johann Sebastian Bach may not be the most obvious Internet sensation, and classical pianist Evan Shinners knows that. But Shinners thinks that too many classical musicians do not leverage the tools available to them. He's pretty certain the Internet is just as ready to embrace Bach as it is Justin Bieber.

"If you want to sell a record, you have to use the technology that's selling records," Shinners says in a phone interview from New York City, where he lives and works. One tool the 24-year-old Juilliard School graduate used this year was RocketHub, an online fundraising site that helped him raise $6,355 to print a 70-minute CD of his live performances of Bach's music.

He's now back at RocketHub for a new venture: He has signed up for a contest run by the site and Gibson guitars. He's competing against 17 bands, and the group with the most votes will win a week at Gibson's studios, $1,000 from RocketHub and a visit from industry insiders.

While Internet crowd-sourced funding for artistic projects has been helping independent, creative folks jump-start their endeavors for the past few years, partnerships with companies such as Gibson open up new possibilities: They directly connect young artists to big brand names.

Crowd-funding sites have flourished in the past year. RocketHub joined a field of companies such as KickStarter, IndieGoGo and CrowdRise, which help small businesses, entrepreneurs and artists advertise their needs and find money to support new ventures.

Anyone looking to raise money can sign up, create a profile page to pitch an idea, and then market that idea to fans or others via social media or in person. Some sites allow contributors the option of investing in the project and receiving a return on their money.

Other times, artists will offer rewards depending on the donation. Shinners, for example, offered a living room concert to anyone willing to donate $2,000. (This June, he'll be going to Chicago to fulfill that promise.) With most of the sites, groups only get the funding if the full amount is raised.

Shinners said it's a model set up like the olden-day system of patronage, in which wealthy funders paid musicians to create. "Crowd sourcing is just extending that to a more immediate and wider group," he says.

It subverts the need for the backing of a record label - at least for a time. And RocketHub's partnership with Gibson is another disruption of the old model: It unites brands with artists without the need for a middle man.

The contest works as a trifecta of branding opportunities: RocketHub keeps its artists on site using its services. Gibson aligns with young musicians who promote the brand to their fan base. And the bands get a showcase for their work.

Crowd sourcing also has the potential to one day "revolutionize how talent is picked," says Brian Meece, co-founder of RocketHub. Commercials could find actors on such sites, designers could be hand-picked to create corporate logos, and publishing houses could source writers.

Shinners has his own vision of the future.

"If we had a top Billboard hit, sure, we could say, 'Hey, we've got a new album coming out, and we want someone to design the cover,' '' he says. No longer would a musician need to hire a fixed team. "You're extending your team to your entire fan base."

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