The Big Ask

There have been almost 300 Kickstarter campaigns out of the Moldy Pueblo, but success takes social media skills and a willingness to bug the crap out of people to give, give, give

When the story recently came out about a 9-year-old who asked people for $829 to learn how to build her own role-playing game despite the fact her mother is a millionaire, you patted yourself on the back, right? After all, you've never responded to Facebook posts from friends pleading support for their Kickstarter campaigns.

The kid got some nice press and a supportive tweet from a well-known game designer, and the end result was 1,149 backers and $21,000, which eventually led to accusations that the mother was scamming the crowd-source funding site.

According to the folks at Kickstarter, almost 300 campaigns have been started in Tucson. What is it that makes folks open their wallets to them? Maybe the chance to be part of a more altruistic form of capitalism and become a do-gooder desert Rockefeller in their own small way.

Or perhaps there's an art to crowd-source funding, a method that has those Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe messages that flood your Facebook and Twitter feeds turning you from friend to backer. What seems to work is bugging people to give, give, give. But not just any people—the right people, those who care about your project.

'Charmed Life'

Anyone in Tucson who is familiar with legendary musician Billy Sedlmayr knows he's faced a lot of challenges in life, including addiction and serving time in prison. No one captured Sedlmayr's life and times better than musician-journalist Brian Smith in a story he did for the Phoenix New Times in 1998 called "Billy's Blues."

The father of Taraf de Tucson frontman Gabriel Sullivan gave Gabriel a copy of that story and some of Sedlmayr's music. That was three years ago, when Sullivan was booking gigs for the Red Room, and he wanted Sedlmayr.

"My dad told me about his music and I listened to it, and I read the 'Billy's Blues' article," Sullivan says. "I said, 'Oh shit, I have to find this guy.'"

Sedlmayr finally agreed to perform at the Red Room and recalls the night fondly. From there, a friendship developed between Sullivan and Sedlmayr, and they began performing more frequently.

Last year, Sullivan decided he wanted to make a record with Sedlmayr, but to get the funds to pay for a recording studio and musicians, Sullivan turned to Kickstarter.

They kicked off the campaign in mid-October and it ended on Nov. 17. They worked with a videographer who had already started working with Sullivan on a documentary about Billy. Carl Hanni was recruited to do the narration, which has a lot of heart because Hanni knows Sedlmayr's story and he loves Tucson. "It showed," Sullivan says.

Sullivan asked for $10,000 and they ended up collecting $10,143. The first $5,000 came easily, but as with many crowd-source funding campaigns, they hit a slump and Sullivan began to worry they might not make it.

"I was nervous and so uptight about it," he says. "Those 30 days were nerve-racking. I almost felt embarrassed thinking this is going to be so humiliating if we only get $5,000."

He was also thinking that if the campaign didn't reach its goal, it was going to "fuck with Billy's motivation for this project and mine. I was pushing it every day."

A campaign for artist Daniel Diaz was also in progress at the time, and Sullivan says that probably didn't help. He called a meeting with the folks involved to kick around how they could recover from a failed Kickstarter effort, and he had a backup plan to go to Indiegogo.

But things changed when two people put $700 each into Sullivan's effort, bringing it to within $1,200 of the goal. "I thought I could find a family member who could front the cash, but decided to see if we could do this the right way," Sullivan says. "I kept pushing it."

Sullivan had a show to do on the last night of the campaign, and tried not think about making the goal. The campaign ended at 3 a.m., and when he woke up the next morning he had received about 20 text messages. "Congratulations" was the common thread.

In December, Sullivan put together a band and they spent a week at Waterworks recording enough songs to fill a record, plus two cover songs. Each session was filmed, and a documentary is being pulled together.

Both Sedlmayr and Sullivan admit that they had to climb a couple of mountains during the week in the studio. But there was also a "full circle" moment for Sullivan when he realized how relatively easy it had been to record the album.

"That was kind of the vibe of the record. We never forced anything, (we) let it happen," he says.

And maybe that's why it worked. "Don't push it," Sullivan says, smiling.

Only two songs now remain to be mixed before the album is complete. Sullivan says the Kickstarter campaign was never intended to raise the money needed to press an album. But he believes so strongly in what they recorded that he wants to find a label interested in releasing it. They're calling the record Charmed Life.

Sedlmayr acknowledges that his past dealings with record companies included many disappointments. He's nervous about the process, but after he played the album for friend and fellow musician Van Christian, who pronounced it great, Sedlmayr is thinking it could happen this time.

"We could never have gotten this far without Gabriel's vision," he said. "This is basically a rockin' record. It has a certain poignancy, but it moves. It swings."

Mariachi Transforms Tucson

Daniel Buckley has been to the Kickstarter fiesta before. Last year, he put together a 30-day campaign to help with his documentary on El Casino Ballroom. Then Buckley got sick for three weeks—and while he got close to his $5,000 goal—he wasn't able to campaign enough on Facebook to push it through.

So Buckley feels a sense of urgency about his latest Kickstarter effort, for a documentary about the transformational power of mariachi music. He's had it in mind for the past 30 years, since his days running a record store that catered to Mexican-American musicians, and his long stint covering music for the Tucson Citizen, especially the mariachi scene and what Buckley describes as Tucson's world music—waila and tejano.

His new Kickstarter campaign is expected to start the middle of next week. He's asking for $15,000.

"I really need to do it to keep rolling this summer because this is going to have to be a full-time job for a year. This is the most complex film I've ever made and it will involve hundreds of interviews. I need the time to do it and the time to work on other grants," Buckley says.

One of the biggest costs, besides travel, will be transcription fees. All interviews will be transcribed and sent electronically to the Arizona Historical Society to be used in a searchable database. Transcripts will also be part of the payback for his Kickstarter backers, some of whom will also be offered the chance to accompany him on interviews as well as be credited in the film.

While Buckley has a list of people to interview, he already has about 10 years' worth of footage on the topic. One interview that Buckley says is crucial to the story of mariachi and folklorico in Tucson is one he did with educator Hank Oyama, who died recently.

"Hank is the man who hired the first real folklorico teacher that Tucson ever had—Angel Hernandez. "Every folklorico student you see in the city is a child of Angel Hernandez in one way or another," Buckley says.

To fully understand the impact of mariachi, Buckley says, you have to go back half a century or more. "Let me set the stage for you. Fifty years ago, the city was in the middle of its urban renewal plans to eradicate Mexican culture in downtown, getting ready to level all of the barrio that became the convention center. They were tearing up what existed of the Spanish presidio, which was still visible in some parts of town, and bulldozing it and putting it in the dump," Buckley says.

This is the climate that existed when groups such as the Changitos Feos youth mariachi began. "All of a sudden ... the kids are beginning to realize that their culture isn't something bad, but actually something good," Buckley says.

"We went from a city that doesn't want Mexicans whatsoever to a city that proudly embraces them and sees it as an economic driver and as an educational driver."

The education factor was huge. "The thing is that mariachi teaches you teamwork and self-reliance. For you to be able to get up in front of a bunch of people and express yourself. ... That is real power. That is what this film is about."

There was also what Buckley calls the Linda Ronstadt Factor. The Tucson native showed up with her father at one of the first international mariachi conferences held in Tucson. It planted the seeds for Canciones de mi Padre, her popular mariachi album dedicated to her father, Gilbert.

"Tucson was a major crucible and still is," Buckley says. "What we do at our conference spreads to the other conferences. It's also the longest continuously running (mariachi) conference in the world."

If Buckley is able to achieve his Kickstarter campaign, he expects it will help secure other funding, such as a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He also now has the social media part of the campaign down pat. A Facebook page is set up for the documentary and is already generating lots of traffic.

"This is not a film I can do half-ass," Buckley says. "This is a do-or-die project. If I don't get it done, either I go bankrupt or take a day job."

'Backers will be my users'

Greg Albers is the founder of Hol Art Books, which publishes visual art books. For the past two years, he's been speaking and writing a lot about how specialty books can push boundaries electronically in the form of ebooks.

It seems, considering the success of his Kickstarter campaign, that there's a niche for visually inspiring books in an electronic format. Albers' goal was $10,000. His campaign attracted 920 backers and he ended up raising $28,872.

Albers launched his effort with a video describing the project and the potential rewards. He met his campaign goal in the first week. Albers credits Kickstarter, which featured his project in its newsletter, for pushing things along.

Some folks complain that success at raising Kickstarter funds has its downside. It means lots of time spent getting rewards together and sending them out, and making sure to thank backers and keep them informed.

"It's sort of an administrative job, a full-time job in and of itself," Albers says. "But I look at those 920 backers as my future users. They weren't just paying some money to get a reward. Most of the donations were small. These people are important to me and the project."

Albers is now putting together a team to help him develop the electronic publishing tool, which he wants to use for his own business but would also be available for anyone thinking about putting out an art book.

"If there's the right tool available," it can happen, he says. "My interest is not re-creating existing art books or replacing fine, printed books, but seeing what can be born in digital and what interesting things can happen digitally."

'I even got my grandmother to donate'

Kylie Walzak, coordinator of the recent Cyclovia bicycling event, says that part of the reason her group's March Kickstarter campaign went so well—surpassing the $8,000 goal by nearly $600—is that she got up the gumption to be really annoying. "I was on Facebook all the time ... I never let up with putting up posts and kept working the social media.

"I was impressed and humbled by how many people donated that I didn't know. I recognized half the people that donated, but many were not from the biking community but supported the project," she says.

Still, no one was safe from Walzak's "ask"—friends and family received the request and she even got her grandmother to donate.

The funds from the Kickstarter were used to help increase Cyclovia's visibility on the Internet and to expand this year's Cyclovia to two events in different parts of town. "Our intention has been to always expand the event and ideally get to a point that we have four or five well-established events that rotate," Walzak says. "We've been able to work with an incredible graphic design artist and rebrand our image to something that is bigger, fresher and better and more impactful.

When the Fandom Rises

Liz Danforth has a group of friends she met in college in the late 1970s, just as games like the role-playing Dungeons and Dragons were rising in popularity. She loved board games while growing up in Tucson, so when she joined her college friends every Friday night to play games, it was a natural fit.

From that same group of friends, Ken St. Andre developed a role-playing game called Tunnels and Trolls. Eventually, another friend Rick Loomis started a company called Flying Buffalo, based in Scottsdale, and bought the publishing rights to Tunnels and Trolls.

Most of Danforth's friends worked together at Flying Buffalo at one time, but eventually moved on to other projects, although Loomis kept the doors of the business open. Last year, someone contacted him to ask permission to produce an updated version of the game in French.

"It felt like bringing back the glory days," Danforth says. "He poured his heart and soul into this project, and making it look really good. I was having fun doing new artwork. When it came out, it blew our minds. We decided it was time to pick up where we left off and do a deluxe version. It was Steve's enthusiasm and dedication to the French edition that was the genesis of getting the team excited about making a new English edition."

Danforth says she knew Kickstarter was a powerful tool, especially for projects that had a strong fan base—a strong geek fandom, to be precise.

Which is probably why the Tunnels and Trolls campaign blew past its goal of $26,000 in less than two days.

When the campaign ended 33 days later, they had raised $125,440.

"We wanted to set the bar as low as possible to make sure we got funded," Danforth says. "We figured this is a basic book we could print ourselves and the $26,000 would be enough to simply revisit, re-edit and put in things from the French addition and the art work and nothing more," she says.

"But overfunding means a lot more material content than the bare-bones edition we originally envisioned. The book itself will be more pages, giving us more room to talk about the game world, improved explanations of new game mechanics, and elaborations to the basic game. The rules will have 16 new pages of color plates of artwork to augment the text. We are writing new adventures, and bringing back a number of our classic (but out of print) modules, for both solitaire and group play, and making them available in print and as pdf downloads. ... All this comes about because we overfunded. A good bit of the extra money simply is buying time for us to concentrate on doing it thoroughly and right."

More than 1,600 people gave to the campaign, with no mention of it in the Kickstarter newsletter. The majority of the people who gave had played Tunnels and Trolls as kids and still had a connection to the game through Flying Buffalo's website, blog or extensive mailing list.

Danforth thinks the donor rewards also helped. The first was a magnet that was limited to those who gave in the first week. But it was access to the fan base that made the campaign wildly successful. "It's really, really important," she says.

Overall, developing the campaign "was a positive experience," Danforth says. But "it is also kind of sad in some ways that this is ... necessary. If people care about specific projects, this may be the only way to go. There isn't a corporate venue anymore that would publish this. It's sad, but at least we can do something that means a lot to us, and do it the right way. It's a gift."

Kickstarter is king when it comes to crowd-source funding, but some Tucsonans went a different route for their big ask

Oscar Jimenez is a week into a monthlong campaign to raise money for his first feature-length film, Arizona Nevada. His goal is $8,000 and he's taken in more than $1,000 so far.

But rather than go with Kickstarter, Jimenez chose Indiegogo because he felt there was a focus on filmmakers. Plus, he felt like it was easier to use.

Jimenez starts a series of house parties this week to spur donations. Most of what he's doing now is calling on people who have supported his projects in the past, using email, Facebook and Twitter.

One difference between Indiegogo and Kickstarter is that with Indiegogo, you don't have to reach your goal in order to collect part of the donations, after a 9 percent administrative fee is assessed.

Jimenez said his film isn't important to him just because it's his first feature-length movie. There's also a message he wants to get out about what he's experienced working as a social worker for two decades.

"People are on a constant search for happiness, and equate unhappiness with suffering, but without it we are not really human. There are three characters in this film that go on a trip to Las Vegas to reclaim themselves," he says.

Like Kickstarter, Indiegogo campaigns offer rewards for donors. Jimenez says he's offering backers an opportunity to be part of the film in a walk-on role. An album of production stills is also available, as are items from the filming, such as props with photos showing how they were used.

Last summer, Leslie Epperson kicked off an Indiegogo campaign for her documentary on the All Souls Procession called Many Bones, One Heart. She met her $7,000 goal, but is still working on the film and on getting rewards to her backers.

"I've seen a couple of campaigns not succeed because they weren't working hard to get the word out. Some people think it just happens, but the reality is that I worked hard. I had a consultant give me some advice, and I followed it religiously," Epperson says.

Epperson credits the All Souls Procession staff and volunteers with helping her meet her goal. They put out a special call on their website and Facebook pages, which helped a lot as the campaign came to a close.

Her advice for anyone looking at crowd-source funding is to make your campaign short and to push hard. Longer campaigns, she says, drive people crazy.

Epperson hopes to finish her film by the end of the year and host a screening at the Loft.

"It's taken me a little longer to do what I want to do. I want to do this right, and I have high hopes that this will be seen on public TV," she says.

"When it's done, I hope to actually have multiple screenings in town, but first I have to finish it."

Tucson photographer and UA optical sciences graduate student Chris Summitt says he researched what would be the best crowd-source funding for him to use. But Summitt—whose community work has involved documenting the fight over Mexican-American studies and the impact of SB 1070 on his Tumblr blog, Protesting Arizona—doesn't have a specific project in mind.

What Summitt wants right now is to make a better living doing what he loves. In order to do that, he needs better equipment. So Kickstarter and Indiegogo were not going to work for him. Instead, he chose GoFundMe.

"When I first did my research I looked at the three most popular ones," based on reviews on Google, he explains.

"I read about Kickstarter, but found out it's not for me but really only for projects, for people who want to accomplish a specific goal. I just want the money to keep doing what I am doing."

Indiegogo is a good site, Summitt says, but it still takes a cut when you don't reach the goal, and it also uses PayPal and WePay, which also take cuts. "I didn't like that."

"GoFundMe also takes a cut, so I wrote a lengthy email asking them why I should pay them to help me raise money when I could create a Web page," Summitt says. "What baffled me was that they took the time to respond, and in the end I agreed with them.

"They explained that people need a destination and a Web page won't get the kind of traffic they do. They also do a nice integration on Twitter and Facebook. I had some other questions and it took them only five minutes to get back to me. I thought, 'Wow, that's incredible customer service.'"

Summitt kicks off his campaign this month and he says he's a bit nervous. But he hopes people believe in his work and feel they are getting something. On GoFundMe, perks are also offered to donors and Summitt is doing everything from prints to portrait sessions.

"I really have no choice. If I want to continue doing this to support myself, I need better equipment to get better jobs and do the free work that I do in the community. I need to be able to get those paying gigs," he says.

"I figure this is just an ask for help. If no one donates I don't lose anything, but I hope that people will want to support me."