The art of asking: crowdfunding and Malta

Could the phenomenon of crowdfunding – already a contested concept on an international scale – catch on in Malta? We look into whether asking people to fund your idea on the internet is a relevant and viable plan.

‘Cabaret-punk’ musician Amanda Palmer (in)famously funded her second solo album through Kickstarter, and has since argued passionately in favour of crowdfunding, most notably in a now-viral TED talk, The Art of Asking.
‘Cabaret-punk’ musician Amanda Palmer (in)famously funded her second solo album through Kickstarter, and has since argued passionately in favour of crowdfunding, most notably in a now-viral TED talk, The Art of Asking.

It's always difficult to suss out when, exactly, certain internet phenomena first appeared on the scene. How do you pinpoint, for example, the historical moment when social media became the norm (or, to focus on it more finely, the point at which MySpace almost completely ceded to Facebook on this front)?

One of the most recent online talking points is the burgeoning phenomenon of crowdfunding - in short, asking the general internet-using populace to fund a project you've come up with and that you need help realising. Though the establishment of go-to crowdfunding websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter went some way towards bringing it more to the forefront, the basic concept of crowdfunding has arguably been around for a very long time... at least for as long as people have been asking for financial aid to bring a project of their own to fruition.

By its very nature, however, the internet has the power to organise this process to an unprecedented degree, and to do away with geographical boundaries.

The Maltese film production of Simshar tried its hand at raising additional funds through Indiegogo, and currently, the locally based fashion and pop culture magazine Platinum Love is raising funds for a deluxe print edition via Kickstarter.

But though it's a good idea in theory, its idealistic aura seems to be dissipating fairly quickly, as established artists and celebrities are jumping on the crowdfunding bandwagon too.

With properties like Veronica Mars - a cancelled teen detective television show that managed to successfully gather funds for a feature length film from fans within a matter of days thanks to a Kickstarter campaign - and even acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee using their influence to fund projects outside 'the system', many are concerned that what was initially emancipatory about crowdfunding may disappear altogether, after it becomes just another playground for celebrities to pimp their vanity projects in.

The first step is the hardest

But back to Malta. 'Funding' being an essential part of 'crowdfunding', it may perhaps be beneficial to consider how anybody embarking on a new project would go about it in the conventional, pre-crowdfunding boom way.

Claudine Cassar, Managing Director of Alert Group - an ICT and marketing services group of companies - is instantly protective of any up-and-coming entrepreneurs, warning that Maltese culture isn't particularly accommodating to any kind of start-up.

"Getting venture capital in Malta is a nightmare," she says. "The only real options seem to be to dig into your own funds or to borrow money from a relative," she adds, listing yet another - and far less desirable - option: putting down your mortgage as a guarantee.

Complaining about the lack of viable venture capital and business angels - despite there being talk of proper implementation of this over the years - Cassar contends that crowdfunding may be a good way forward even for Malta, given how up-and-coming businessmen sometimes risk the livelihood of their own families before being able to start up a business.
Perhaps another advantage to crowdfunding is that it allows for experimentation, and for projects that would cater to a particular niche. And if your funding campaign fails to generate the necessary funds - as a result of either the project itself or the way it was promoted - you can always try again.

Not so on the local business front, according to Cassar.

"If your first business fails, getting a loan from a bank for a second try is very difficult because in Malta, this makes you out to be a pariah. In the States, for example, you're not penalised if your business fails: if anything, it's a sign that you've been there, done that and possibly have learned from the experience."

Keeping the momentum going

Crowdfunding arguably puts you in touch with your prospective 'investors' in a way that conventional methods of generating funds may not. If you put a project up to be funded - generally giving your patrons-to-be a funding scale to choose from - you have to be proactive about generating enough buzz for the project, and ensure that whoever donates feels that they're part of something special (notwithstanding any tangible 'rewards' that backers may also receive, depending on how much they contribute).

It was a lack of commitment to this particular necessity of the crowdfunding experience that prevented the Simshar Indiegogo campaign from achieving its goal, according to director Rebecca Cremona.

Cremona's film, based on the titular boating tragedy and set for a January-February 2014 release, was largely funded thanks to the Malta Film Fund and a number of private sponsors. But in late 2012, its production team decided to turn to Indiegogo in an attempt to ease costs related to set dressing, costumes, music rights fees, "and an avalanche of other elements which will allow 'Simshar' the film to come into being".

Sadly the campaign - which ran from December 2012 to February 2013 - only managed to collect €3,819 of its €50,000 goal.

"I think with more involvement from us in the campaign - for example by posting frequent videos and operating with a more thorough strategy - the campaign would have been more successful," Cremona says.

"However we had to decide where to put our energies since our team and resources were already stretched, and we decided to focus on the film itself," she adds.

Simshar's campaign was also, perhaps, hampered by the fact that the film - despite having international production partners - is mainly of local interest. Matthew Attard Navarro, the Malta-born, London-based Creative Director of Platinum Love Magazine, is luckier in this regard: the fashion-pop culture publication, seeking to fund a deluxe 'coffee table' print edition through Kickstarter, arguably has a more wide-ranging appeal (albeit emphasising a 'Mediterranean' angle for this particular edition).

"We decided to go for Kickstarter because it reached out to an international audience, and would also potentially help us to score more international readers.

"This was only possible because we're based in London - if we had no relative London account it would have been very difficult for us," Attard Navarro says, adding that whatever happens, "we can use this as a training exercise to determine what our readership wants, or doesn't want".

Both Attard Navarro and Rebecca Cremona question whether the Maltese may not be culturally receptive to the idea of crowdfunding in general.

"I think Maltese are not used to this platform at all, feel it is very unprofessional and in some people's eyes, it actually tarnished the film's reputation. I saw a very big difference to the reaction to the Simshar campaign and to the campaigns of some of my foreign friends.

"In the US and UK, it is a very accepted medium, not only for creative projects but even, for example, the construction of a museum," Cremona says. And in an attempt to determine why the response to Platinum Love's campaign "isn't amazing yet", Attard Navarro says that "it might be due to a lack of interest, or simply the fact the a majority of Maltese readers may not be used to the idea of crowdfunding".

We've been doing it for a while, actually

But Creative Economy Advisor Caldon Mercieca begs to differ, in fact claiming that crowdfunding is "ingrained in Malta's cultural soul".

"In Malta's case, we can say that when it comes to culture at community level, crowdfunding has been the norm in terms of financing and building projects for decades, if not for centuries," Mercieca says, listing a series of staple events that make regular use of what could broadly be referred to as 'crowdfunding', which includes most activity that takes place at locality or community level, in villages and towns, in parish feasts, fireworks, band clubs, Holy Week festivities, as well as infrastructural work related to the premises of community clubs.

"What we need to develop in Malta are the links between the grass-roots manifestations of crowdsourcing and the technological tools that have made it such an influential phenomenon internationally when it comes to creative projects. Both community initiatives as well as the more daring creative ideas stand to gain from this," Mercieca adds.

With even cult American film director Spike Lee struggling to finance his next film through Kickstarter - the reasons for which are still being hotly debated online as I write this - it's clear that nobody really knows where this whole thing will be headed. Could this aura of uncertainty be just the ticket for small creatives and entrepreneurs from Malta to take full advantage of the crowdfunding craze?