John Vanderslice on Covering Bowie and Why Kickstarter Is “Just As Involved As Some Labels”

Indie veteran John Vanderslice has long been a Flavorwire favorite, so our ears most definitely pricked up when we heard he was self-releasing two new albums this spring, especially since one of them is a full-length cover of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. The albums are both financed by a Kickstarter, which hit its $18k target within days — it was sitting at $54k when we spoke to Vanderslice yesterday, with some three weeks to go. In a lengthy interview, he gave us a fascinating insight on the mechanics of Kickstarter, the ins and outs of financing an independent album in 2013, and his career as a long-term Bowie obsessive.


Why release these albums yourself, rather than through [your former label] Dead Oceans?

Well, four months ago, I woke up and I just knew. I don’t know what it was, why I was so anxious – maybe I had questions about the release schedule, I had questions about whether they would let me do this Diamond Dogs record, maybe I had questions about my future on the label, but I woke up and I knew I had to get off Dead Oceans and start my own label. There’s not a negative there for me, it’s just that I knew I had to have complete control over what I wanted to do. I’ve been on record labels for ten straight years and I’ve made ten full-length albums. I’ve probably played 1,100 shows on tour, so for me, I had to know that I was doing it on my own. And look, Dead Oceans is a phenomenal label. My friends thought I was totally insane when I broke free. They thought it was a terrible decision. And it might veer out to be a bad decision, but what matters is you have to do what you’re supposed to do.

It must have been kind of terrifying, though?

It actually made me physically ill. I do own a recording studio, so I do have a little bit more flexibility, but my flexibility is mostly to run up tabs with people who help me make records [laughs]. I had run a tab that was probably about $1,500-$1,600. And when you make a record on a label, you get a sizable advance. There’s an enormous amount of downtime, there’s about nine months where you’re just recording and not really touring… you’re not taking an income, you’re just spending money and the more ambitious you are, the more you’re going to get into debt. And then you start thinking about production costs and vinyl… I don’t know, man. It was really difficult. And the amazing thing is, I really didn’t think about doing a Kickstarter. But then, a few of my friends mentioned their Kickstarters and then I started paying attention to bands doing Kickstarters that were interesting. For me, as long as it wasn’t pure fundraising, that it actually had some utility, it was really a good option for me.

Did you follow that whole Amanda Palmer thing, how she made $1 million on Kickstarter?

Yeah, [and] I saw the whole backlash, too. I mean, I didn’t have as much of a problem with that stuff as much as other people did. I was very interested in it. The less barriers that you have between people listening to your music, and the less barriers you have between the distribution of your music, the more you control it. And I think that for me that was the lesson with Kickstarter. But it is scary, because you’re leaving a kind of a collective that’s curated your own release with other bands they’ve chosen, and it feels like you’re part of a family.

The thing is, when you go on your own, people respond in a way to your desperation, I guess [laughs].

It’s a matter of selling, I guess. Convincing people that they should invest in your record. It seems like a kind of mercenary thing to do, but also it means that you’re able to deal with your fans directly.

Yeah, and it seems to me that you really are in a much more vulnerable position, I think that that brings people closer to you.

Do you have any thoughts on Kickstarter in general as a phenomenon, the way that it has the potential to affect how people finance records?

Well, I got to say one thing, man, just from a user perspective: they’re smart motherfuckers. They contact you, they guide, in a way, because they don’t want you to fail. You’re a reflection on them and vice versa. They got in touch with me and helped me in a way that I honestly did not think was going to happen – they basically emailed me and said, “Hey, if you want to have a phone conversation with me, I can help you with some problems I see.” I sent someone at Kickstarter a preview of what I was going to post. They called me [about it], and they were incredibly insightful. I mean, of course, this is all they do. But they pointed out things that would’ve been really stupid for me to do. And also, they helped tighten up the language and the idea of what [I was] doing. They’re just really, really smart. Whatever input they gave me didn’t interfere with the content of what I was saying, but it definitely made it a lot clearer for people. In a weird way, they were involved as much as some labels that I’ve been on. They were on the phone with me.

That’s really interesting.

And I know that they do that with a lot of people. They’ll do it for anyone who wants to reach out to them.

I was going to ask if you think that they do that for everyone.

I’ve heard of many small bands who have had phone conversations with Kickstarter, and that is so useful, because you’re operating in the dark. You really have no idea how it’s going to go.