It's time to get real about crowdfunding on Kickstarter. Instead of being an indie-business utopia, it's become the de-facto way to scam the masses into buying invisible products and getting free marketing for ideas with a short sell-by date -- and we've had enough.
I remember when crowdfunding was going to change the world of manufacturing for the better. We wanted democracy to decide what products were made, and get them at awesome prices by paying in part with our goodwill and faith.
Then reality set in, and the very worst of humanity set upon crowdfunding to suck the blood from it like a hoard of hipster mosquitos.
Kickstarter has so many problems that it's hard to know where to start. At one end of the scale you've got independent folk with great ideas who lack the ability to deliver, and at the other end you've got savvy business folk who simply use it to stir up promotion and easy finance. Between those extremes, there's so much vapourware and headline-grabbing crap that the international Gizmodo fleet have pretty much banned Kickstarter from entering its pages. Our UK editor Kat is blunt on her view of Kickstarter: "Most of the news tip-offs I receive nowadays are about Kickstarter projects, all of which get binned instantly."
I'm not saying that good things haven't come from Kickstarter, but sometimes a startup doesn't know how to cash in the faith that backers paid alongside their hard-earned cash. Take the Pebble watch; a defining moment for Kickstarter for how quickly it smashed its $100,000 goal (it raised $10 million by the time funding closed) and for proving demand for the smart watch concept -- a moment that will reverberate for years now that the majors like Apple and Google are exploring the idea. And we totally applaud that.
But for Pebble backers, the story was less rosy. Our own Chris Mills ordered a Pebble over a year ago in spring while the campaign ran, but found himself at the back of the queue when US retail chain Best Buy took an interest in the company.
"After waiting for half a year to be shipped a Pebble, I found out that Pebble had decided to put their smart watch on sale in Best Buy before fulfilling their pre-orders," he said. "Sure, having their product on shelf in a major electronics chain is a coup for Pebble, and one that'll no doubt bring them a tonne of cash -- but it's also a kick in the teeth for anyone who's had the faith to support them for months on end."
Sometimes a Kickstarter product is a disaster simply because its technology goes out of fashion before it has a chance to launch.
The Ouya was one such product. When this £99 console was announce, we swooned at how smartphone gaming would have a chance to take over the living room. How naive we were. By the time it launched, both Microsoft and Sony had revealed their next-gen console offerings, and interest in playing small-screen games on a TV with pixels the size of bricks had somewhat dwindled. My review of the Ouya would have been more forgiving of the product if the controller wasn't so laggy, or if the user experience was better refined -- but what do you expect when you order something without trying it out first? The final Gizrank on this "cutting-edge" console: a revolutionary 2/5.
The biggest problem with Kickstarter (and any crowdfunding site) is that there's no guarantee your product will materialise, leaving the founder to skip off with your cash. As much as I'd like independent business folk to succeed, sometimes their ambitions are bigger than their abilit,y and they just can't deliver.
A prime example of this is with my first Kickstarter backing in late 2011. I was impressed by a series called Best Music Writing which the blurb calls "a beloved annual publication of the best English-language music writing." I figured that a series that has been running since 2000 with praise like "a soulful anthem to the vibrancy of music writing today" from Publishers Weekly would be a good read, and I love the idea of supporting other great music journalists.
But the 2012 edition didn't happen. Months later, I remembered that little book and thought I'd check up on it. It seemed that Daphene Carr who started the project, had gone radio-silent on us. The comments section was full of disappointed backers, many asking for a refund, or simply bemused by Daphene's offensive lack of communication. Backer Jon Szanto sums it up best: "Over a year and nothing. Not much in the way of expense out of my pocket, but a pretty good hit to my centre of goodwill. What happened?"
Checking back today, I see there's a new update by Daphene. It doesn't explain why she failed to produce the book, or explain what happened to the $17,337 she raised. Instead, she offers a discount voucher to the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in criticism by Ellen Willis. I don't know if is has anything to do with music, but I do know that I didn't intend to buy a voucher to an obscure book. I wasn't even sent an email with this update -- it's almost as if Daphene doesn't want everyone to cash in their voucher.
I've had enough of Kickstarter and its ability to fail time and time again. Have you?
Updated: Just as this article went to press, Daphene Carr from the Best Music Writing project emailed backers with a final update on the campaign. She explains how she underestimated the task of producing this book with a limited budget, and has pledged to pay back every penny to backers over the next three years from her own pocket.
"That does not necessarily explain why it has taken additional time to write to you, but I hope you understand that this was due to a sort of panic about how to save the title," she says. "It is something I love and have held dear to me for my entire adult life. It is my profound sadness to have failed with it."
It's not clear what happened to the original $17,337 that she raised.