Reginald Cyntje leads flock of D.C. musicians turning to Kickstarter.com

Trombonist Reginald Cyntje, like many D.C.-area musicians, is raising money through the pledge-drive website Kickstarter.com.

by Giovanni Russonello
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Reginald Cyntje knew he wanted to make an album. He knew that the process would cost thousands of dollars. And he knew – from experience – that finding funding without having to compromise his artistic vision would be difficult.

“It’s hard for you to say, ‘Well, I want to do it my way’ when someone is offering you five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 thousand dollars,” said the D.C.-based trombone player, recalling an episode years ago when he turned down the opportunity to record an album because his benefactor wanted to dictate the music.

But when Cyntje found out about the pledge-drive website Kickstarter.com, he realized he’d found the solution. On Kickstarter, Cyntje dictates the terms of his own project and finds small-time donors who specifically want to support the goal he has defined.

Cyntje said that people who donate to his CD project are essentially telling him, “Okay, we believe in what you’re doing, we understand what you’re doing [and] we want it to happen, so we’re going to back it. We’re going to support it.”

The Virgin Islands native is in the midst of a funding drive on Kickstarter, a site meant specifically for arts-related projects. All of the money he raises will go toward recording his debut album, Freedom’s Children – The Celebration, which will use instrumental jazz and spoken word to convey the maturation of a human being into a fully-grown adult, one with awareness, compassion and – most important – a sense of social responsibility.

“At some point, we get upset with the atrocities that’re going on in our world, and when we pass that point we start to feel free and we start saying, ‘Okay, this is what’s happening to the world and this is what we can do to change it,’” Cyntje said.

For the pledge drive, he has set a goal of $6,500 – that high threshold is notably ambitious, because if Cyntje doesn’t reach it he gets nothing. Those are the ways of the Kickstarter world, in which people’s incentive to donate – and, even more so, the artist’s incentive to actively seek supporters – stems largely from knowing that it’s an all-or-nothing game.

In the campaign’s first week, Cyntje has raised over $1,000 and has 58 days to go. He also pointed out that if he doesn’t make the goal, he will have already done meaningful outreach and promotion for the CD through the fund drive, and he can always call on the would-be Kickstarter donors independently.

As more and more musicians turn to Kickstarter, at least one local campaign last year fell flat because it did not reach its goal.

“I think maybe the amount was too high for that stage in our development,” said saxophonist Brad Linde, the co-leader of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra who started a Kickstarter drive last summer on behalf of the big band. He set the goal at $2,500, but by the Sep. 15 deadline, just over $500 had been pledged. “I also think that maybe we needed a more narrow project in mind, maybe even a better reward system.”

Such is the strategic nature of raising money on Kickstarter – your idea ought to grab people’s attention, the thinking goes, and you should have enticing prizes to dish out to donors. Kickstarter’s information page explains this philosophy, saying that people support projects for two reasons – “rewards” given in exchange for donations and “stories” explaining why the project is singular.

To that end, every project must have a list of graduated rewards ($5 or more will get you a copy of the CD, $20 or more will get you a t-shirt, etc.) and a prominently displayed video that indicates what the project is all about.

Shannon Gunn, a trombonist in the BCJO and a teacher, successfully led a $1,500 campaign to partially fund the recording of a demo CD for her newly formed D.C. All-Women’s All-Star Jazz Band. big band, Sharon Gunn and the Bullettes. She’s expecting the first 500 copies of the disc to arrive in the mail today.

Her video was sparky and original – and it featured an adorable dog with a rambunctious tail and a knack for the head-turned-to-the-side move, that old trump card. Moreover, the video made clear what exactly Gunn’s novel idea was: She had assembled a tag team of the metro region’s greatest female jazz players and they needed to record some music before they could convince venues to hire them.

Now that she’s got the CD, Gunn said, “I’m going to be sending it out to all the major venues in the area and all the clubs,” as well as “different people that might be interested in the performance.”

Gunn’s project just squeaked by, earning $1,500 on the dot by the deadline. But some projects far exceed their goals.

D.C.’s Sonic Circuits Festival of Experimental Music set a low, $1,000 threshold but ended up raking in $2,782 by its Aug. 2 deadline. “It made sense to set it low to ensure we didn’t lose the donations,” Sonic Circuits Executive Director Jeff Surak said.

He’s been recommending Kickstarter to fellow musicians who want to start projects, and he says the site serves a necessary purpose. “It fills a need for [members of] the artistic community that aren’t big institutions [and] who don’t need millions of dollars to achieve their goals,” Surak said. “I think community-funded small projects is the wave of the future, especially considering how funding for the arts from government sources is nearing extinction.”

Perhaps the jazz world’s highest-profile Kickstarter campaign was Adam Schatz’s $75,000 drive to fund a yearlong video project documenting progressive jazz performances in New York City. Schatz described the process to CapitalBop as being so stressful that at times he “couldn’t take it,” but ultimately he walked away with almost $77,000 in the coffers of his organization, Search & Restore.

Linde, inspired in part by Schatz’s success, is poised to try again on behalf of the BCJO. “I set up another account, I’m ready to go,” he said. But this time, he’s going “to wait until we have a specific project that we’d really like to do and we’d really like to get off the ground – more of a special reason to donate.”

To learn more about Reginald Cyntje’s Kickstarter drive, or to donate, click here.

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