Crowdfunding is one of the more dominant topics of this year's South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, which takes place March 8 through 17. The SXSW website lists 21 panels just with the word Kickstarter, including one panel with Amanda Palmer and the team behind her $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign (March 13 at 12:30pm). There are five panel lists with the term "direct-to-fan" and one with "D2F."
 
It seems crowdfunding has stolen the thunder from direct-to-fan, a theme that has dominated music conferences for a number of years. (I should point out that many of SXSW's crowdfunding panels relate to the Interactive and Film portion of the conference rather than the Music portion.) Part of this is momentum. Crowdfunding is a newer topic that has yet to be explored to the extent that direct-to-fan services have been explored at conferences. But part of this could be crowdsourcing sites crowding out direct-to-fan services that preceded them.
 
Crowdsourcing sites and direct-to-fan services allow artists to do similar things: reach out directly to fans and sell music, merchandise and experiences with a variety of price tags. Artists are limited only by their creativity. An artist could charge $1 for a digital album or $100 for a limited edition, autographed vinyl LP. An experience -- soundcheck before a concert, dinner and wine, an exclusive acoustic concert -- could cost hundreds of dollars. Some items and experiences could cost thousands of dollars. Selling directly to fans is clearly different from selling single tracks and albums at iTunes.
 
But there's a difference between crowdfunding and direct-to-fan: the timing of the revenue. Crowdfunding allows artists to generate revenue by selling music, merchandise and experiences before the project is actually undertaken (sometimes crowdfunding sites are used to raise funds to complete partially completed projects). The artist effectively uses the crowdfunding site to take pre-orders, thus the name crowdfunding. The crowd provides funds to artists and reduces the financial uncertainty and risk involved in undertaking projects. Or, in many cases, it allows for an amount of fundraising that would otherwise be impossible (see Palmer's $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign.)
 
On the other hand, direct-to-fan services require a project already be funded (unless an artist is selling via a direct-to-fan service a project that was sourced via a crowdfunding site, but that's another matter). That shifts the obligation to fund the project to the artist, or to a record label or another party.
 
Not all artists use crowdfunding sites, obviously. Artists signed to record labels are going to be less likely to use a site like Kickstarter, although some have used PledgeMusic. Labels will continue to use their direct-to-fan tools to sell packages from the artist and label websites. Crowdfunding is more geared toward independent artists -- longtime independent and those who have just recently left a label. It's also been good for filmmakers, video game makers and other types of artists. 
 
But back to the overlap between crowdfunding and direct-to-fan. Crowdfunding sites give artists the same ability to sell deluxe packages of all shapes and sizes. Those packages have been direct-to-fan services' calling card, and now they've been one-upped by sites that combine new financial tools with now-common selling tools. This could be a reason why crowdfunding is such a big topic as SXSW. Crowdfunding doesn't preclude the need to sell premium packages later down the road, but it does allow artists to sell packages at the most important time in the project's lifecycle: when cash is needed. SXSW will be a good barometer of the mood on crowdfunding, so be sure to read Billboard's coverage.