THE BLOG
05/02/2016 07:54 GMT | Updated 02/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Please Support Your Local Millionaire

So a successful craft beer company sells out to the corporates. Shock horror - the Camden Town Brewery, a fledgling, for-the-love-of-it startup just half a decade ago, has done so well that it's now being sold off to a major. The sum, as you may have guessed, is no small beer.

There's nothing all that unusual about majors swallowing up minnows of course - and nothing unusual about plucky startup entrepreneurs suddenly finding themselves rich. It's the spirit of our age after all. But there's an added twist to this one. Camden Town Brewery may have made great craft beer, but they had more than a little help along the way.

"We think there's a real appetite for a company that can grow while staying true to its roots," the company said on the pitch for its 2014 crowdfunding campaign, which included a zippy video hosted on Crowdcube. "There's something special about drinking great beer here that originated in Camden."

Keep it local, do something for the community - this was a David vs Goliath campaign that appealed to the Little Guy in the face of all the nasty corporates. And it worked: CBT would smash their total and go on to raise £2.75 million. Hooray for community spirit!

So it was perhaps a little bit of a surprise to the people who helped fund the company's growth that CBT has turned round and used that growth to help sell out to a rather less community-minded outfit: drinks global megacorp Anheuser-Busch InBev. David might have thrown a few rocks at Goliath, but the hostilities are apparently over. Now they're having dinner together.

It's not the first time a crowdfunding campaign premised on beating the faceless corporates ended up joining those very same faceless corporate once the chequebook came out. But the CBT sale is interesting because it tells us about something more than just crowdfunding. It's an example of a growing business trend: to employ the language of creativity, community and collaboration to give a more caring sheen to the profit motive.

Look at the example of Tidal, an "artist-owned" streaming service set up by powerful industry players in late 2014. "If you want to hear the most beautiful song, then support the artist," gushed Jay-Z to the New York Times in a promotion for the company, which was established by sixteen celebrity stakeholders to challenge the likes of Spotify and Pandora and charged higher fees in order to return more to the musician (75% of revenues go back to the industry in comparison to the usual 50%). Sounds good - right?

Well, maybe. But there was something a little odd about the press announcements. The celebrities involved must have owed substantial repeat fees themselves on the number of times they spat the phrase "artist owned" in interviews - as if to suggest that Tidal was somehow grassroots, of the people. Kind of like a co-op, yeah?

Ah, but wait. Like United Artists last century, Tidal was actually a for-profit venture by multi-millionaires with massive industry clout who'd come together to get a better deal for themselves (together with some unseemly bleating about how their vast fortunes are being eroded by streaming sites). It wasn't owned by the vast majority of the artists getting streamed. It was owned by a board of millionaire celebrities and entrepreneurs. You'd have to work hard to spin that as a co-op.

Tidal was hardly an isolated example, though it's one of the better known ones. Back in 2012 crowdfunding poster-girl Amanda Palmer appealed to her fans to help fund an album. On the face of it this seems fair enough: in a world determined to get music for free, it seems only reasonable for musicians to monetize in other ways.

Palmer smashed her target and went on to raise over $1 million from her backers, releasing her album and setting off on tour. Thanks, community! One thing though: the million dollars wouldn't actually go on anything as prosaic as actually paying guest musicians. It had apparently all gone on "airfare, mailing costs, and personal debt". Palmer may have turned community spirit into her own handy loan repayments, but the musicians invited would be getting paid in hugs.

"I'll feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily," she chirped on her website as she attempted to crowdsource a little free labour - or rather artists sufficiently motivated by community spirit that they were prepared to work for free. Because after all, isn't that what artists do these days?

We should beware words like "community" and "artist owned" when they come up in business contexts. In our mediated age, they're the verbal window-dressing of the moneymaking process - a handy way to airbrush personal gain. That's how a private craft beer company can justify making millions from a product part funded by donors; how Tidal can call itself "a place for connection between artists and fans" that "promotes the health and sustainability of our art". The idea of crowdfunding was that it would unleash the creativity of artists and innovators; to pay the way for creative work in a world that's bypassed paywalls. But spinning business-as-usual as community collaboration? That's perhaps the most creative act of all.

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