Crowdfunding and the Future of New Musical Theatre in London and Beyond

In my last post I discussed the current state of commercial musicals in the West End, and how commercialism by its very nature presents challenges to those writing and producing new material. Without an established benefactor behind a show, or dozens of experienced ‘angels’ willing to open their chequebooks, exactly how are new musicals funded? We are all familiar with the structure of readings, workshops and backers auditions that are used to help get a new piece off the ground, but for those without access to such vital lifelines the prospect of raising funds is obviously daunting.

“Times have changed” belts Patti, and so has investing. As the internet and social media continue to take over the world, shrewd producers and production companies have latched onto current trends in order to kick start creativity.  The terms ‘Crowdsourcing’ and ‘Crowdfunding’ are now commonplace across all different walks of life, and have crossed over into the theatrical community, especially in London. Defined by Wikipedia as “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers,” it’s an idea that first came to light around 2006. The role of the consumer, or in this case the ‘audience,’ is not only to pay to absorb the art but also to pay for, and take part in, its creation.

Kickstarter vs. Indiegogo

The eternal question.

This concept, however simple, certainly had me baffled. Who would be silly enough to pay for something to be made, if only to then be asked to pay for it once it has been created? I could understand the likes of Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga tweeting their millions of Twitter followers who would most likely pay through the nose if it meant being ‘involved’ in a project, but would ordinary people be prepared to pay money upfront for a new musical, especially one from authors they know nothing about?

Whilst the London fringe is currently producing some of the most creative musical productions, very few venues are set up for commercial achievement. It is a regularly reported issue in London about experienced performers and creatives working for no pay or ‘profit share’ on the fringe, often to the detriment of greedy venues demanding over the odds for two square meters of performing space over a sceptic tank in one of the city’s ‘up-and-coming’ venues. It’s a prospect that thoroughly baffles my American friends. With budgets squeezed so tightly and no serious investment, the fringe easily becomes saturated and shows, and as one American producer recently said to me “may as well be performed in your mother’s front room.”

Making money on the London fringe assumes you have already managed to front the initial investment in order to mount the production in the first place. It is this problem that is currently being solved by crowdfunding, and to great effect.

Anyone who has ever used a website such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo will have no doubt noticed the various theatrical endeavours that are listed. In many cases these are linked to schools or colleges and are mainly used as a way of raising a few extra bucks to pay for a professional band or a specific prop. Rather than expecting worldwide donors to contribute, these have somewhat replaced the old ‘sponsorship form’ and are more of an electronic way for parents, friends and relatives to raise money in one organised place.

American Psycho, featuring Matt Smith.

American Psycho, featuring Matt Smith.

The first time I noticed this method being used for wider effect was for the new musical American Psycho based on the iconic novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Featuring music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and direction by Rupert Goold, this project was described as a ‘labour of love’ for the creative team. Although the Almeida Theatre had already programmed this new musical for December 2013, the mounting production costs resulted in the producers asking the public to fund an extra $150,000.

The north London venue is already part funded by tax payers money, although it is seeing the money it receives from the Arts Council reduced by 30% to just £700,000 by 2015. As a producing house, the small yet imitable venue has had recent commercial successes with West End transfers of Ibsen’s Ghosts and the most exciting new play of 2013 Chimerica that have both boosted its incoming.

American Psycho was one of the hottest tickets of the year, even before casting Doctor Who Matt Smith in the lead role of Patrick Bateman, after which tickets to the entire run vanished. The production clearly has commercial potential, thanks to the renowned creative team and fans of the source material, so why then did it turn to the public to foot part of the bill?

Their Kickstarter campaign talked of their need for an extra two weeks of rehearsal, as well as money for a live band and expensive treads for the lead characters. Donations from $1 to $10,000 were available with rewards offered to those who pledged money, from small pieces of exclusive memorabilia to invites to special events and meet the cast opportunities.

In this case, crowd funding wasn’t the be all and end all of the production happening. Whilst the show certainly benefited from the extra capital, it would have succeeded without it. Another fringe production, albeit on a much smaller scale, has shown how the same method can be used to make a show possible.

Ushers: The Front Of House Musical.

Ushers: The Front of House Musical came to fruition thanks to West End Producer’s Search for a Twitter Musical, in which the elusive online personality hosted a live competition to help writers of new musicals. Ushers is written by newcomers Yiannis Koutsakos, James Rottger and James Oban, all of whom were involved with the shows Kickstarter campaign, which proved that trial and error is certainly necessary. The team first attempted to raise £10,000 to mount the production – a target they fell spectacularly short of. Although they had secured close to £1000, if the full target is not met the money is returned to the investors. Undeterred, they learnt from their mistakes and came back with a new campaign, looking to raise just £1000 – something they managed to do and the production went ahead at the aptly named Hope Theatre in Islington.

The UK premiere of Happy Days the Musical has also had a rocky road to fruition, but thanks to the determination of first time producer Amy Anzel this new musical is about to open in London ahead of an extensive UK tour. Rather than using the above method to gain funds, Anzel used a different organisation, Seeders, which allows supporters to invest in the project rather than the rewards based method, employed by Kickstarter. Members of the public were asked to stake a claim in the production with a total of 25% equity available to anyone willing to spend the money.

Happy Days: The MusicalI recently interviewed Anzel ahead of the London opening of Happy Days the Musical and she spoke fondly of the crowdsourcing method. Unlike Kickstarter, she chose Seeders in order to allow theatre fans a chance to take ownership of the project and feel personally invested in the journey. Whilst many donations were between the £10-20 mark Anzel didn’t appreciated this level of support, saying it’s like we have 345 Ambassadors for the show around the country! They write to me all the time! A lot of them ask for leaflets to put in their office and ask me what is happening with the show! It’s like we have an army of press people. I love it. We appreciate everyone and really feel the support.” [read the full interview here]

Whilst Happy Days is already up and running, another new musical has recently announced it is allowing the general public to invest in it, building the trend further. The Wind in the Willows features a book by Julian Fellowes (‘Downton Abbey’) and score by the multi-award winning duo Stiles and Drewe (Mary Poppins, Honk!). With such an established creative team and recognizable brand name, producer Jamie Henry has reserved 10% of Capitalisation for subscribers in sums from as little as £1,000 to £5,000. Arguing that such a British story belongs to the people, this is an exciting investment opportunity for theatre fans looking for an exciting opportunity.

Watch this video on YouTube.

The future of this new musical, like American Psycho, does not depend on crowdsourcing investment – the production is likely to happen when the time is right, but this additional ‘interactive’ method certainly increases awareness and allows the public to feel involved. Crowd funding is certainly here to stay, and is being used on both sides of the Atlantic in order to enhance and represent new musicals, either in developing a brand new production of allowing a cast recording to be created. These modern methods are vital to the lifeblood of new musical theatre writing, and it is exciting to see the overwhelming public support for projects on very different scales.

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