When you support the essentially non-profit outfit known as singer-songwriter Justin Branam, you get rewarded for your largesse. For a $50 donation, Branam will send you a hand-written lyrics sheet of your favorite song. For $100, you'll be thanked in the liner notes of his upcoming record. Two hundred and fifty dollars gets you a personalized prank phone call ("I'll prank call anyone you want...you create the scenario and the character," Branam explains). $1,000 buys a private living room concert, and for $2,500, he'll send you his banjo.
Branam set up this tiered pyramid of prizes on the website Kickstarter.com, which helps fund new creative projects through online pledges. Though the above are some of the more extravagant rewards, Branam's basic idea was to use the site to generate funds for his next full-length album.
The basic reward is an EP created entirely on his iPhone. Titled the iPhone Sessions, the 5-song record was not only recorded on the device, but features album art created on it as well.
"I was really shocked by the quality of the recordings," Branam, who, after a few experiments, realized that an iPhone-created EP could be a cost-free and interesting way to fundraise, said. "It's a good grassroots step towards making a record — it gives people a chance to hear these songs in a raw, intimate setting."
Unlike the banjo or a promised YouTube recreation of the "rollerblade/bike scene from Napoleon Dynamite" ($750), a digital download of the iPhone Sessions is only $5. This bottom rung of the ladder demonstrates the egalitarianism of Kickstarter.com: Anyone not completely destitute can contribute to projects they care about.
"We're looking for something that's a richer experience, that lets us feel closer, that gives us an affinity with the artist," said Yancey Strickler, co-founder of Kickstarter.com. "You get to feel magnanimous, like some mogul, but you're just giving some guy on the internet five bucks. You don't have to have special access, you don't have to be rich — anybody can take part in anything they want."
The new material marks a creative departure for Branam, an Indianapolis transplant to Nashville, Tenn. Since moving to the city three years ago, Branam feels that he has grown as a songwriter and is looking for a new start as an artist. He's gone as far as to discontinue the iTunes sales of his debut album, 2006's Words Worth Mentioning.
"I was still trying to find my identity as a songwriter and musician," Branam said of his work on Words, adding that he feels he's found that identity now. "The songs I'm writing are leaps and bounds beyond that record. I wanted this to become my second chance."
The city itself has contributed to his growth, offering a more densely-populated musical community than Indianapolis. Though he says it can be difficult for a musician in Nashville to differentiate himself from the crowd, he has found many opportunities to co-write and collaborate, and the competition can be as inspiring as it is difficult to overcome.
"It kinda forced me to get better or give up," Branam said. "It's a lot more of a challenge that I see here — it makes everyone better at the craft."
The maturing of his sound can easily be heard — 2009's Introducing Justin Branam features lush string arrangements, with a melancholic folk-pop sensibility and smoky, emotive voice that recalls the music of Damien Rice or Ryan Adams. A far cry from the breezy, John Mayer-esque tracks of his debut, this trend continues on the iPhone Sessions, but with an air of intimacy that can only be achieved with self-made home recordings of nothing but a voice and acoustic guitar.
Branam will venture home to Indy Aug. 20 for a show at White Rabbit Cabaret with fellow Nashvillian Ferraby Lionheart. Though Branam's deadline for his $3,000 Kickstarter.com goal is quickly approaching (10:59 PM on August 23), he isn't worried about failure. Kickstarter.com works on an all-or-nothing system — if the goal isn't reached, no money changes hands — but the songs Branam has written aren't going anywhere.
"I would chalk it up as a great experience and something that helped get a little bit of buzz for the new record," Branam said. "If you never try you never fail. If nothing else, I'll have the knowledge that I tried something new."