When Jeff Bowen's off-Broadway musical "Now. Here. This." closed last year, he and his collaborators were left with some great things — plenty of good reviews, some new fans and memories.
That was great, but what they really wanted was a cast album.
A recording would be both a great marketing tool and a souvenir. But "Now. Here. This." wasn't a blockbuster Broadway show and it had already ended its run. Major record labels weren't exactly beating a path to his door to get it recorded.
So Bowen, who starred in the show as well as wrote the songs and lyrics, turned to the show's fans via crowdfunding, an idea that more people in the theater community are embracing.
Crowdfunding is a tool in which donors contribute small sums of money to get a project off the ground. Usually, the contributors get something in return — like a ticket to a concert or a programmable watch. In this case, they would get a CD or a download of the album.
Bowen went to Kickstarter — a popular website where people can finance all sorts of projects, from an animated Web series to a volunteer mission to leather wallets — and asked for $75,000, the bulk of which was to be spent on musicians, studio time, engineers and to get the CDs made.
A month later he got more than he asked for — $89,833. Elated, the team went to work.
"There was really no other choice. I don't have a rich aunt who's like, 'Here, baby. Here's $80,000,'" says Bowen. "I don't have that. None of us do. There was nobody we could call and say, 'Will you give us $80,000?'"
At a Times Square restaurant with the finished CD sitting beside his cup of decaf, Bowen offered a peek at how his experience with crowdfunding went.
"It was a great adventure. I'm so proud of it," he says. "I think anyone can really do it. It just depends on what scale you're trying to do it."
"Now. Here. This." represented the second time Bowen teamed up with fellow performers and writers Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff. They had previously taken their Obie-winning "(title of show)" on a Tony-nominated Broadway run in 2008.
The new musical, a bubbly exploration of self-realization, friendship and evolution, ran during March and April last year at the Vineyard Theatre and the team hopes to further develop and license it. If folks could actually hear the songs, those hopes would get a boost.
"Without a cast album, a show is forgotten. It's as if it didn't exist," says Kurt Deutsch, who co-founded Sh-K-Boom Records and Ghostlight Records and has been a pioneer in nurturing theater talent and giving them an outlet.
Deutsch, who says the cost of recording these days is out of whack, has also embraced crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, RocketHub and Indiegogo. He helped Bowen get the "Now. Here. This." cast album made.
"If there are enough people who care about these recordings and who love this community and love these artists and will pay whatever it takes to get these things recorded, and there are tools to do that, then why not use them?" he says. "It's a blessing."
Crowdfunding has been previously used to create cast albums for artists with strong if small fan bases, including one for Ryan Scott Oliver's "35mm" and for Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk's "Our First Mistake."
The technique has also been used to raise funds to mount the actual show itself, including $67,000 successfully pledged to create a workshop production of the musical "One for My Baby" that spotlights songs by Harold Arlen and a $50,000 pledge drive to get "Coffee: The Musical" off the ground.
Requests for funding just in New York range from rapper Baba Brinkman asking for $20,000 to rent out the 200-seat Player's Theater in Manhattan, to the Brooklyn theater company Colloquy Collective hoping to raise $8,000 to mount a revival of "Wine in the Wilderness" by Alice Childress.
The power of the new social tool was revealed when Kickstarter said it was on course to fund $150 million in 2012, or $4 million more than the National Endowment for the Arts' 2012 operating budget. Of course, not all Kickstarter projects are arts-based, but the message has been received: Crowdfunding is a new way to finance theater projects.
Bowen decided he wanted to handle the "Now. Here. This." request by the book: All the musicians and engineers would be paid their usual union wages and everyone from producers to interns who brought back doughnuts would get a cut.
Biding online lasted from Aug. 3-30 and was all-or-nothing, meaning if the team failed to reach its $75,000 goal, it got no money at all. Bowen booked the studio and crossed his fingers.
Two things helped: Bowen and his collaborators are heavily into social media and they had a cult following after "(title of show)." Those were key to attracting what turned out to be 1,248 backers who pledged everything from $10 for the digital download to three people who bid $5,000 for the album, autographed memorabilia, attendance at the launch party and executive producer credits.
"There's a trust that came onboard with us with '(title of show),'" says Bowen. "We sort of tapped into that trust. It wasn't easy because we didn't want to exploit it and we didn't want to take advantage of it."
Pledges came from as far away as Australia, Japan, India and Morocco. Bowen would nervously check the updated numbers every morning, but the team reached its goal a few days before pledges had to stop.
"The campaign ended on my birthday so it was very nice to have it succeed right before," he says. "It was good to have it done. Then we were like, 'OK, now we have to make this thing.'"
Once they'd reached their fundraising goal, credit card orders were processed — a small amount were eventually declined — and fees were paid to Kickstarter and Amazon, where the CD is also available.
The album was recorded in a single day — the singers were in the studio from 9 a.m. to midnight, some of the engineers for longer — and then Bowen himself later put together a lush booklet with lyrics and photos.
The album came out Dec. 18 and Bowen dutifully began mailing each CD to the fans. Though it was a lot of work, Bowen says he'd do it all again. For him, it's a win-win.
"It gives the fans what they want, which is to see more of the artist's work. And you get to do your work," he says. "There's no middleman. There's no rich lady in the middle who just took 75 percent of it. That's a huge thing."