The first time I saw singer/songwriter Alexandra Niedzialkowski perform under the moniker Cumulus was six years ago at the small town artist space/venue where we both lived. It was an auspicious debut, highlighting her disarmingly intimate voice and a spark of charisma that more than outshone any beginners’ nervousness.
Since then it’s been a great pleasure to watch Cumulus build a small and loyal following over several years of playing local shows in the Northwest, putting demos up on Bandcamp and making CDRs one at a time. Over time, Alex has refined her skills as a songwriter, and eased into a new role as a confident, self-assured frontwoman, adding band members Lance Umble and Leah Julius to augment her amazingly catchy melodies with sturdy, well-crafted rock energy.
This year, when it came time to release their debut full-length album, the band decided they needed more help and more resources than they could muster on their own, and set about mounting a Kickstarter campaign to cover professional mixing, mastering, PR, and duplication costs. And it was a great success, surpassing its modest $7500 goal.
But just before the order to duplicate the CDs was placed, the record’s mix engineer played it for Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie, who was immediately taken with it and offered to release the debut full-length by Cumulus on his Trans- record label.
This story might come as a surprise to those who’ve bought into the narrative that Kickstarter and other crowdfunded platforms have essentially supplanted record labels as the preferred vehicle for young bands trying to get their music out into the world. For some, this is probably the case, but as we’re fond of pointing out, the music industry business isn’t “old model vs. new model”— it’s many models (and always has been).
It’s easy to be enthusiastic about the plethora of new digital tools available to musicians who go the DIY route. But it’s important to understand that these tools have their limits. Physical distribution, radio airplay, and national press can all be tough nuts to crack without the support of a larger team. And while some musicians are able to build and manage that team themselves, that path isn’t for everyone. (Check out this presentation from Kristin Thomson and Erin McKeown for more on this topic.)
Ultimately, crowdfunding isn’t about replacing record labels — it’s about making it possible for artists to make more empowered choices. There have always been a wide range of business approaches, and artists pick and choose the strategies that make sense for them, based on their unique goals, abilities and resources. Crowdfunding is simply one of the newer tools in a musicians’ arsenal.
And that tool can open the doors for new partnerships, which can be a very attractive proposition, particularly if it means working with a team of experienced people you know and trust. As Alex told The Stranger:
The biggest benefit is going to be that we now have a team on our side that is going to support us and believe in our dream. I can take a step back from all of the business and allow other people to help, so I can focus on what matters most to me, writing songs and playing with the band. We all get to prioritize our passion and put music first, which is amazing. It’s also really amazing to know that the distribution of Trans stretches way farther than our own resources ever could. My extended family in Syracuse will be able to pick up our record from their local record store, that seriously blows my mind.
Of course, this isn’t everyone’s dream. For Cumulus to acheive their goals, it made the most sense to work with a well-resourced label and reallocate their Kickstarter proceeds into buying a tour van. Some other artists might prefer to control all aspects of their business, and completely manage their own team. Ultimately, it’s important to create systems that work well for different kinds of artists to acheive their diverse goals at different stages in their careers.
Photo by Joseph Traina