In March, a photo hit the web showing a musician holding a gold record in front of his face with the following note attached: "I am the former lead singer of a 60's band... I went from 1967 to 1994 before I saw my first royalty check... I am now 72, trying to live on $1,200 a month."
The picture went viral, and it was soon revealed that Lester Chambers, of the soul band The Chambers Brothers, was the man hidden in the picture. For a brief moment in the era of BuzzFeed and Reddit, Chambers became a symbol for those victimized by the music industry—long enough to catch the attention of Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, who today launched a Kickstarter page with Chambers to raise funds for the down-on-his-luck singer's new album. Ohanian, now the head of social-enterprise startup Breadpig, aims to prove that there are new, sustainable funding opportunities for artists now thanks to platforms like Kickstarter. It's part of a larger battle he's been waging as an advocate for the open Internet who fought against bills like SOPA and PIPA.
"It's been top of mind for me pretty much after his photo went viral," says Ohanian, who eventually tracked down Chambers and his son Dylan. "To their credit, they took a call with some random dude from the Internet and we pitched them on this idea."
On Kickstarter, the two are looking to raise $39,000 so Chambers can record a new album. But the larger impetus for Ohanian to get involved may date back to the Fast Company debate Ohanian had with professor Jonathan Taplin, director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and former tour manager of The Band, about copyright infringement and the principals behind failed legislation like SOPA. The debate, which addressed online piracy as well as free and paid business models in the music and film industries, spilled over onto the web where Ohanian and Taplin duked it out online.
Following the debate, Ohanian issued the first response to Taplin's arguments about The Band, whose members have run into financial difficulties due to the rocky state of the music industry. He argued crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter could be the answer to these issues.
Taplin soon responded vigorously to Ohanian's note, arguing that hardships faced by acts like Chambers and The Band are due not to the music industry but to "Pirate Bay and Kim Dotcom—bloodsuckers who made millions off the hard work of musicians and filmmakers." He called Kickstarter "a virtual begging bowl."
Today, Ohanian puts his money where his mouth is. As his Kickstarter page, "Record companies screwed over Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers for decades and as a result, today he's poor. The open Internet can make right what the music industry has done so wrong."
"On stage I was talking very seriously about how the Internet is an enabling force for artists and about how they no longer have to be beholden to record labels that have historically taken an advantage of them—they can actually work directly with their fans in all these ways that couldn't happen before," Ohanian says. "I see this all the time now—you don't have too look too far to see another film or album that gets funded. It's one thing to talk about this stuff abstractly—it's another thing to just do it."