Up Close and Personal: Sybarite5 and Confessions of a New Kickstarter Junkie

Posted by Marete Wester On August - 16 - 2011 Sybarite5 has a dream—to change the face of chamber music across the globe. They want to be the first string quintet to perform in all 50 states.

They have a strategy to make it real. Like many artists across the country, they are seeking potential investors around the world by launching their “play in 50 states” campaign on Kickstarter.


Sybarite5—Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violin; Angela Pickett, viola; Laura Metcalf, cello, and Louis Levitt, bass—recently shared what it is like to be emerging artists seeking support through innovative ways, with the 20+ philanthropic leaders at the Americans for the Arts Seminar for Leadership in the Arts at the Aspen Institute last week.

The concept is simple: they create a short video about the project; people watch it; if they like it, a couple of clicks and they can pledge their support. If pledges reach $9,000 or more within 30 days, the project is funded—if not, $0.

As the emerging artists on the block (literally, since one of their core performing venues has been in front of a hometown bakery in Aspen for the past 14 years), the challenges they face are not insignificant. They are unabashed about pushing the innovation envelope—the least of which is being a string quintet (versus the more traditional “quartet”)

What they may lack in available repertoire, they make up for by having commissioned over 20 pieces of new work—such as “The Rebel” by Piotr Szewczyk (2003), or by adapting popular genres, like Paul Kim’s arrangement of “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box” by Radiohead—both of which were performed for the opening night of the Seminar.

It shouldn’t be surprising then, that an entrepreneurially-bent musical group would find their way to the Kickstarter online platform, which touts itself as “the largest platform for creative projects in the world”. Projects on the site are pre-screened. There is no limit to the number of backers—even a $1 contribution comes with a reward. The group has the opportunity to involve their fans across the globe (Sybarite5 has over 4,000 fans from Jakarta, Indonesia alone.)

Sybarite5’s sojourn into Kickstarter was discussed as Seminar participants were exploring solutions to a burning question for everyone watching private sector giving trends in the arts: “… how can we grow the universe of philanthropic leaders who will ensure ongoing support for the arts now and in the future?” (Hint: the arrow isn’t exactly pointing to where we’d like it to be—more on that in later blogs)

We looked at uber-trends first with an overview of findings from the National Arts Index, followed by reactions from the Artist’s P.O.V. with veteran photojournalist, artist, writer, and storyteller, Susan Meiselas, president of the Magnum Foundation, and Sybarite5.

Is Kickstarter a major funding strategy or a fad? The jury is still out— new advances in technology may make the platform ultimately obsolete. Though for now, consider that in 2010 pledges totaling $27.6 million were raised for 3,910 projects for artists and creators. While comparing public sector contributions with private may be apples and oranges, during the same year the National Endowment for the Arts granted $1.4 million to 2,700 projects.

I admit it—I got sucked in and made my first pledge ever on Kickstarter to Sybarite5. I watched the video. I thought it was cool. I’m sort of ashamed to admit that what finally got me hooked was the rewards. I liked the idea of getting digital downloads, and backstage passes, not to mention drinks with the band. I’m no millennial, but it doesn’t mean I can’t be seduced by the notion of having a more personal connection with artists whose music I can really get excited about (see every recent study that tracks why millennials give).

No matter what, in the end it really isn’t the mechanism that makes the difference. It’s still about the relationship between art, artist and audience.

I’m living, if not anecdotal, proof.