A few years ago, Joe, now 30, quit his office job to pursue a career as a musician. We’ve all dreamed of doing it – kicking off our sensible shoes to follow our heart towards fame and fortune – but the reality is hard work. Alongside writing and performing his own material – alone and with his band, The Steady Letters – Joe hosts two open mic nights, pitches in as a sound engineer for other artists and has taught himself the basics of music production. His commitment has paid off; in September, Joe will join a postgraduate course to study to become a commercial music producer. The MA runs for 12 months and costs £10,900. And Joe wants you to help him pay for it.
"I was concerned that people would dislike the idea," says Joe when I email to ask him about the crowdfunding page he has set up to finance his course, "[after all], there are more worthy causes." Crowdfunding campaigns – or kickstarters – are historically the domain of entrepreneurs seeking cash to get a business idea off the ground, marathon runners raising money for charity or families struggling to pay for a loved one’s urgent healthcare. Social media has been quick to call out campaigns where there is an overt self-interest (more than one couple has faced ridicule for attempting to crowdfund their wedding) so Joe’s apprehension is understandable. Yet he is part of an established – albeit under the radar – trend.
Unlike undergraduate degrees, postgraduate course fees are not overseen by government regulation; an MA in history, for instance, can cost as little as £5,000 at York St John University or as much as £10,440 at University College London. Also unlike undergraduate degrees, until recently there was relatively little financial support available to those who wished to progress beyond a BA or BSc. With the exception of a handful of vocational courses that offered bursaries by way of incentive – teaching, say, or social work – and the poorly publicised (and now defunct) Professional and Career Development Loan scheme, prospective graduate students were left to scrap over scholarships or rely on the generosity of family. Even more than undergraduate study, postgraduate education was a rich man’s game.
Then, in 2016, the government introduced a postgraduate loan system. For the first time, master’s students from any discipline were able to borrow up to £10,000 to assist with tuition fees and living costs. The scheme was an immediate success: between 2015-16 and 2016-17, the number of postgraduate students on eligible courses leapt from 73,880 to 96,465, with the greatest proportional increase among students from educationally disadvantaged areas, black students and students with a disability.
On the face of it, crowdfunding seems unnecessary. These new loans are relatively easy to come by and operate in much the same way as undergraduate loans, in that repayments do not begin until the course has finished and the recipient is earning over £21,000. So why go to the considerable effort of devising and implementing a fundraising strategy? Joe acknowledges that it can be a slog: "The initial setup was easy but the ongoing campaign is where the majority of the work is. I have a social media campaign, which includes filming, editing and producing videos and tracks, and running music nights. I’m recording musicians at my open mic nights and offering them a mix of their track in exchange for donations (the donations are completely optional but have been fairly successful so far). I’m also hosting two crowdfunding gigs before the course starts. Venues, musicians and bar staff have kindly offered their services for free."
It all sounds like a lot of work, particularly for a jobbing musician with an already overflowing plate. Does Joe believe the payoff will be worth it? "I don’t expect to raise the full £10,900 course fees, I’m just looking to raise as much as possible to ease the burden," he says. "Although the campaign has been difficult to drive, the response has been good... Ultimately, I hope that people will enjoy being part of something bigger."
The critics among us might scoff at hearing Joe describe his studies as "something bigger" and yes, perhaps there is a touch of grandiosity in inviting strangers to contribute to one’s education. Yet this is the age of the influencer – ordinary people whose ordinary lives are packaged up and sold to us as something greater than the sum of their parts. The influencer asks us to engage and we oblige: we like, comment and follow; we buy their products and take them up on their recommendations; we write stories about their success. There is a model and it works, so it makes sense that Joe and others in his position would adopt a similar mentality. If we are willing to fund a YouTuber’s lifestyle with our clicks, why can’t we help Joe keep making music that many people enjoy?
Over on Hubbub, a crowdfunding platform that specialises in educational projects, Katie, a final year student at the University of Birmingham, is raising money for a postgraduate degree in philosophy at Oxford. Like Joe, she has positioned her campaign within a wider context: climate change. "My intended research area is the ethics of climate change," begins her pitch. "With the current rate at which climate change is accelerating, I believe it is vital to establish the ethical boundaries of our responses to it and I want to be at the forefront of this. Your contributions will allow me to do so." It is a clever angle – climate change is a hot topic right now, thanks to the high profile activism of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion – and by identifying a subject that for many of us is a very real concern, Katie (who did not respond to a request for comment) presents a compelling case for support. At the time of writing, her sponsors have pledged almost £1,300.
Jonathan May, cofounder and CEO of Hubbub, confirms that Joe’s and Katie’s approach is key to making crowdfunding pay. "Those that have succeeded have tended to be those that spent more time before their campaign thinking about why what they’re doing is important to others, rather than why it’s important to them," he tells me over the phone. "Most people could raise five figures on crowdfunding but if it’s framed to be about their need, it’s less likely. If it’s framed to be about why it matters, maybe to the world or some particular part of the world, then it has a much better chance."
I am taken aback by Jonathan’s belief that the majority of people could secure five figure sums through crowdfunding. Perhaps it’s my own squeamishness about asking for money, or the scepticism of my colleagues when I brought up the subject in a meeting, but is the general public really willing to empty its pockets to help educate a stranger – particularly when there is state funding to be had? Jonathan thinks so. "I do believe that a lot of people have a surprising amount of goodwill in their network and an amazing amount of reach these days, given social media. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. It either tends to take off quite quickly [because] somebody’s got it and figured out the angle they’re going to use, or it struggles along for three or four days and then [they] abandon their campaign."
In 2014, Emily-Rose Eastop raised £26,569 through crowdfunding for an MSc in cognitive and evolutionary anthropology at Oxford University (remember, this was before the introduction of postgraduate loans). As the administrator of the popular Facebook page I fucking hate pseudoscience, Emily-Rose was able to tap into a vast network of subscribers and convert their online engagement into cold hard cash. (When the tabloid media stumbled across her campaign and branded her a "posh brat", the pledges simply rolled in faster.) Jonathan is at pains to point out, however, that Emily-Rose is the exception rather than the rule. "[She had] a big social media presence already … something immensely powerful that she could leverage. For every [case like hers] there are 20 or 30 that flopped at five quid."
Nevertheless, Emily-Rose’s success should inspire hope in Joe and Katie and others like them that it can be done, if you put the work in. And in this uncertain economic climate, where young people work zero-hour contracts and are reminded on a daily basis that they may never own a home and will likely enjoy a less than comfortable retirement (if they ever get there), the prospect of coming out the other side of a postgraduate degree without a further £10,000 of student debt to add to the £50,000 already hanging over their head must be tempting. As for us, the potential sponsors, let us think of it this way: If 6,911 backers can pledge $55,000 to make a potato salad, surely we can all spare a quid to help save the world.