• Cover illustration by Greg Clarke.
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Illustration by Greg Clarke.

In early June 2012, Chris Cruz, guitar and keyboard player for the San Diego band Through the Roots, locked himself in his room for a weekend to study up on Kickstarter, a crowd-funding site for creative projects. He’d heard of Kickstarter in passing but didn’t think much of it until a music-industry mentor told him it was gaining a lot of buzz in creative circles and might be worth looking into.

Cruz, 25, and his band of 20-somethings were on the brink of their fourth national tour, and their green bus (“Betsy”) needed work. They also needed studio time to put together their first full-length album. If they were going to do it all, they’d need more money than their various odd jobs (fast-food service, neighborhood handyman, screen-printing) could generate.

On its website, Kickstarter defines itself as “a funding platform for creative projects.” Users create fundraising campaigns for one-time projects in 13 categories: art, comics, dance, design, fashion, film and video, food, games, music, photography, publishing, technology, and theater. Kickstarter processes pledges through Amazon Payments, which holds the money until a campaign’s funding goal is reached. If the goal is not reached, all funds are returned to those who pledged.

For the uninitiated and others who aren’t familiar with crowdfunding, it’s not a hunt for investors; it’s more like a KPBS pledge drive. Project creators offer incentives for your pledge. These rewards can be anything from your name mentioned on Twitter to a private movie screening in your back yard.

“We realized Kickstarter was probably the best option to keep us on track for meeting all the goals we want to accomplish this year,” Cruz tells me over the phone from somewhere near Cedar City, Utah.

Local band Through the Roots needed $10,000 to get their tour bus running. They raised $11,160.

On September 13, Through the Roots began their West Coast tour along with Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds, another reggae/rock band out of Hermosa Beach. During our conversation, Cruz informs me that, tomorrow night, they’ll play the 17th show of the tour in Vegas. Then, next week, they’ll head to the East Coast for a tour with Rebelution and Passafire.

For the moment, the band members are resting at the home of bassist Bryan Jackson’s uncle. He’s given them beds, showers, and biscuits and gravy for breakfast.

I can hear a bird in the background.

“I’m in the middle of a field right now,” Cruz says. His voice sounds young, his manner easygoing. “It’s kind of amazing. I’m not gonna lie.”

The weekend Cruz locked himself in his room, the first thing he did was read Kickstarter’s rules and guidelines. He also studied other campaigns (which the site leaves up even after they’ve ended).

“I asked myself every time, Would I donate to this project? Do I believe them? Then I decided to turn the camera on us and asked, ‘If I were to see these guys’ story on the website or see their video or listen to their music, would I care? Would I want to help?’”

In the end, what the band came up with was a one-minute, fifty-second video (including concert and pushing-the-broken-bus footage), a written 1000-word appeal, and prizes for every pledge level.

On September 4, just before they headed out for the tour, they launched a campaign asking for $10,000.

“We put a lot of time into figuring out what to ask for, what’s a good goal,” Cruz says. “I was arguing for a little less. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money for a start-up band, an up-and-coming band like us. It’s a little out there. We just had confidence, and we knew that, even if this Kickstarter plan was unsuccessful, we were determined to find plan B.”

After 25 days of what Cruz calls “a roller coaster” of a campaign, Through the Roots met their goal. By the end of the 30th, they had $11,160.

“You should have something better to do than pick on a baby butterfly.”

On the same day I speak to Chris Cruz, Connie Hines sits on the brown chenille loveseat in her small, Rancho Peñasquitos living room, hoping for magic. It’s Day 12 of her 30-day Kickstarter campaign and, so far, she has raised only $55 — out of $20,000.

“I don’t think it’s going so good,” she tells me from her perch. “I’m not sure why.”

A Shih Tzu named Max has squeezed himself under the loveseat. Only his nose and paws show. Sheba, an 11-week-old Rottweiler puppy, lounges in a large kennel against one wall of the living room.

In 2010, Hines, a 46-year-old underemployed registered nurse, conceptualized a children’s character she calls “Whisper the Baby Butterfly.” Her original plan, as stated in her Kickstarter video, was “to market the butterfly on clothes and bedding and towels, everything that is little-girl friendly — school supplies, shoes, hair accessories, glasses, costumes — you know, stuffed toys, everything.”

On the advice of an artist she hired to design the character, Hines eventually decided to write a children’s book. It was, the artist said, the best way to get people interested in Whisper.

Hines searched for a self-publishing company that would allow her to use her chosen illustrator and eventually settled on Tate Publishing. The publishing package she selected cost $4000. The other $16,000 she’s asking for is to create and produce the everything referred to in her campaign video: clothes, bedding, and so on.

“I’m trying to start a business and market it like Hello Kitty is marketed. It’s time for Hello Kitty to have some healthy competition.”

The first of three Kickstarter guidelines reads: “Funding for projects only… A project is not open-ended. Starting a business, for example, does not qualify as a project.”

But Hines’s project survived the application process. Now she’s hoping that something big will happen.

She tries to stay away from checking up on the campaign too much. “If you get any more backers, they’ll send you an email,” she says. “I don’t hover over it. I don’t want to jinx it.”

Earlier in the campaign, she received an email from someone who criticized her for creating a baby butterfly character.

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