‘Twixt Underdog and Overlord: An article about Amanda Palmer

The problem with success is that it can be expensive to maintain. You might enter a raffle and win a Rolls Royce but what is the point if you can’t afford the fuel?

There’s been a lot of Amanda Palmer bashing going on over the last few days. If you haven’t heard about it (or her) here’s the brief gist:

Former Dresden Doll famed for dramatic and inclusive stage shows raises over a million dollars ($1,192,793 to be exact) to fund her self-released album and its accompanying tour through the crowd-sourcing website/phenomenon Kickstarter. As a consequence she is promptly crowned empress of the modern DIY model, “Exhibit A” for any anti-label argument and general pin-up for the “pay-what-you-want” philosophy. She then angers the artistic community for putting an advert on her website asking string and brass players to join her regular salaried ensemble for selected dates on her tour and perform for NO PAY.

Impressive numbers and recent controversy aside, she is pretty amazing, proving to possess almost Christ-like powers in converting her audience into acolytes, not to mention investors and contributors.

But the rules change when you become one of life’s winners. Palmer has drawn damning criticism for extending the crowd-sourcing model into the human realm, calling for fans to accompany her for “beer and hugs”.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. As a fellow chancer she has my sympathy. As a card carrying member of the Musicians Union I must, however, wield a pointedly arched eyebrow in her direction.

But my first reaction to any shit-storm is to find shelter rather than start flinging any of my own. Enough people are laying into Palmer right now without me wading in. After all, most visitors to this site know my views about musician’s not being paid properly but they also know that I, like Palmer, welcome (and indeed rely on) the assistance of my network. Most people don’t mind the likes of me getting a free ride once in a while because they know my band lives pretty hand to mouth. But that’s the problem Palmer has right now, she’s still thinking like an underdog. Or maybe I should say, she still wants to be an underdog.

Because much of the criticism revolves around the fact that she can now, after raising all that money, afford to not skimp on things like a brass section. People also mention her marriage to best-selling novelist and screenwriter Neil Gaiman as evidence that she surely can’t be short on funds. Well personally I think all that is irrelevant. For one thing she itemizes all her expenditure in her Kickstarter blog, for another she’d receive even more indignation and shouts of “not fair, not fair” from fellow artists if she got her husband to pay for everything.

This should really have been a private thing between her and her audience, away from the quizzical looks of envious peers and industry sneerers. It makes total sense in that context, she does all sorts of things as part of her live shows, including even posing nude for audiences to draw her. Inclusion is a big thing for her and I really like that attitude. Thanks to non-fans sharing this story though she’s in trouble, it looks really bad. She has a regular line-up for this tour and they are drawing a wage. Alongside them will be local musicians playing for beer and merch. There’s a sourness to it that a lot of people find distasteful.

But really this is just a big PR fail. She’s usually brilliant at packaging this kind of enterprise but this time she handled it badly. Why? Because her network is so much bigger than it was before. Her myth is harder to maintain now that she is scrutinized by people who don’t like what she does in addition to her long term followers. There are people out there new to this stuff, people who look at things in black and white – needless to say Palmer is a colourful character.

I bet comparatively few of her fans think she’s at fault on this one, after all she gives a lot more of herself than most singer-songwriters. But it’s about perception. Labels are the ones who traditionally rip-off musicians, that’s the story passed down through the lore of independent artists. Palmer is a figurehead for the non-label route – it is easy to see why people are upset with her. It is even easier to see why people who don’t like her are enjoying the current feeding frenzy. With great power comes great responsibility. Is Palmer shirking that responsibility?

Her response to the outcry is worth reading, it is very eloquent and she puts herself across well. It is particularly interesting in that she uses arguments in her statement that many would use to illustrate the opposing view. You don’t have to read the comments section to know which of her points are going to get horsewhipped through town though. Still, I admire her stance. I also think she’s probably right about fans wanting to be a part of the act for a night. If I could bang a tambourine for Leonard Cohen one evening then you bet I would. I’d pay for the privilege. See, it could be worse, she could be charging. Imagine that – Pay To Play.

It’s all about context though. Everything always is. Last month I asked people to send in weird and wonderful clips they’d made so I could edit them into a music video for the next Bedlam Six single, a kind of exercise in audience participation. If Radiohead did that then film makers would probably be up in arms saying they should be paid for their work, that they’re devaluing their craft. It’s funny though, if I told you an accountant friend does my taxes as a favour would anyone be sending me angry letters saying I was doing some poor accountant out of a job? I doubt people would do that even if I was a millionaire. There is a reason why “starving artist” is a cliche but “starving accountant” isn’t.

The worry here is not about what people will and won’t pay for, or what certain artists can get away with or about where particular musicians draw their lines. The worry is about setting precedents. Will we see a surge in popular artists sourcing their bands from their fanbase? Well, anyone who’s ever been in a band will know that the one sure way to strip all the glamour out of someone’s stage show is to share a tour bus and backstage area with them. Doesn’t seem like a very sustainable option for a pop star. I don’t think we’re likely to see the emergence of an artist-audience vortex with an ever decreasing circumference feeding on itself like some musical ouroborus.

Far worse is the precedent already at work, the one rarely challenged, the one that whispers in the ear of anyone working in the arts who may be trying to cut a few financial corners. The terrible (and worryingly inarguable) precedent set in big cities that says you get used to playing without pay for a long long time before you get used to playing with it. The Musicians Union has no power to change this, there is simply too much of a belief in the celebrity lottery for people to not “have a go” at rock and roll in the hope they might have their lives immeasurably improved for the better – the line between amateur and professional is just too blurry in our field to set up any effective picket lines. Indeed, if there were pickets in place then every one of us would begin our career a blackleg. My band has been going since 2006 and we only started to consistently make MU minimum wage in the last year. I know plenty of people who have been going for the same length of time (and much longer) who have never made MU minimum.

This is something Amanda Palmer has been through herself, probably for two thirds of her career if not more, probably long into her record deal and out the other side. She has played for nothing and did so for years, lost money on opportunities of exposure and eventually came out on top as a result of a mixture of talent, charisma and stubbornness. She knows that playing for nothing is no big deal when looked at on a night by night basis. She knows about the hope of one thing leading to another.

But I’ve got an annoying habit of saying “I understand this point of view” and “I understand that point of view” and too often I like to leave it at that. If you want me off the fence well here it is. My take on this subject splits into two very important sections that cannot be torn apart from each other, the first is my opinion and the second is my judgement:

  1. I think Amanda Palmer is allowed to push things as far as she can, to see what people will do for her, to weigh up the pros and cons of her choices and to move forward guiltless of the accusations of exploitation being leveled at her. But – and it’s a big but – she must know that she will have to continue justifying it to those who do not share her philosophy and, I suspect, it might cost her more in the long run than the money she saved by not paying the musicians in the first place.
  2. I am left sad by both my and her arguments here. Why is it always the musicians that work for fun? Why is it them that always suffer the cuts? Every. Single. Time. I’ve read her itemization of costs, the whopping amounts being spent on every tiny aspect of what she is doing, the fact that even after raising a million for this project it might still leave her out of pocket (temporarily at least). But why, after making a big point about how visual artists must be paid, designers must be paid, film-makers must be paid, the people who pack and ship the items must be paid, the tour manager must be paid, drivers, website builders, costumes, lawyers, the list goes on… why it that out of so many people there should be such a tiny handful going without – and all of them musicians? Why are they reduced to an appendices of sorts to her grand plan? Yes I understand the fun/value of fan inclusion but why not build that inclusion into the original Kickstarter pitch rather than tack it on as an afterword? Even at an equivalent level to “pledge $25 or more and get a beautifully packaged backer-only version of the CD in a hardbound case. includes a 24 page art booklet. PLUS deluxe digital download & thank-you card.” It’s no less exploitative in the eyes of the Musician’s Union but at least it’s upfront and official. It would have been far less confusing and out of character than the apparent hypocrisy being read into it at the moment.

don’t forget: i’m CHOOSING to spend all this money making the packages fancy as shit….and i’m CHOOSING to tour this way. EXPENSIVELY.

i could send you all cheap-ass jewel case CDs, fire my staff, make a cheap book on xerox paper, and tour just with a solo piano…with no crew, no band….and RAKE IN THE DOUGH.
i mean: i could potentially do that and walk with close to half a million dollars. but the products would suck and the tour would be a solo piano tour. and nobody would ever trust me again.

I just don’t understand how, right at the end of the entire process, with the icing already well and truly on the cake, that final flourish, that little holly berry leaf sprig has to be a kick in the teeth for musicians. One that all musicians at every level have experienced with such dull regularity that it barely registers as an insult anymore. It is so needless here. After being so transparent with everything, after being an inspiration to so many, to sour it with such an oversight. She’s better than that and so are her fans.

Yes the musicians who will play these shows are fans. They are getting something that fans dream of. It will quite possibly become a much cherished memory and is beyond the reasoning of unions and protocol. And as fans they are contributing to the tour just like the fans who contributed varying amounts to the kickstarter campaign. And this is where the two arguments finally meet in an environment of shared insanity: Pledging a few dollars buys all sorts of limited edition goodies, tailor-made to one’s chosen price bracket. But if you contribute by giving time and talent in a sector of expertise that Amanda Palmer has herself battled through for most of her adult life, then it’s back to the oldest performance deal I know: playing for beer.

That’s the real shame here. There’s absolutely no poetry in it. Just irony.

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4 thoughts on “‘Twixt Underdog and Overlord: An article about Amanda Palmer”

  1. JD Hollingshead said:

    Hey man, nicely written. a few muso friends this way are weighing as well. As a “creative” (I HATE that term), standing outside the music world, I can safely say that it’s not different over in this ball park. Three days before she left Glasgow for good, Alexis was asked to participate in an art fair for unrepresented artists that coincides with the Liverpool Biennial.

    This new interest in the “unrepresented” is very similar to the early stages of Independent music, and something I’ve been interested in lately. Considering it a chance to sell work in Britain one last time before holing up in the stark white north of Canada, where the currency is caribou antler, we decided to shell the grand out of pocket for a ticket back to the UK. The event had been so hyped by the organizers about the exposure and opportunity, but they sold under a dozen works through the whole weekend. While she showed up early and installed her, and other people’s, work (some of whom didn’t bother to make the trip), and still got snapped at. At take-down, she de-installed and had packed up while the no-show artists got to leave their work up in time for some last minute collectors to rush in and buy a few more works. It sucks to spend ten days travelling, a grand out of pocket, and all to gain from it is a lesson. Too many of these peripheral folk, those without the talent to actually be artists, but still want in on the action, have their hands too deep in the pie for there to be enough left for artists.

    Now, these organizers are going to walk away with this idea that they managed to pull off some successful event that very few of the contributing artists would agree with. Well… rant over, I’m-a go back to buying parts for my motorcycle and slowly figure out how to get my work to sustain me without compromising on the vehement principles I foolishly cling to.

    Actually, on this note, I do very much admire your methodology regarding your music, and I’ve informed many people of just that fact. I certainly hope I get a chance to see you guys play again, cause it’s always a ball. I bet Yellowknife would love you. Try a tour of the Canadian tundra sometime!

    Best of luck to ALL us hard-working sons of bitches.

  2. I think the proper musicians etiquette for this situation is: If you get paid, your band should get paid. Period.

  3. Jo Dudderidge said:

    “It’s like people do things just ‘cus they get paid, i just think that’s really sad.” Garth Algar, Waynes World (in the ridiculous product placement scene).

    Great article dude. Did you get paid for writing this?! Just kidding!

    To be honest I admire her approach and her ethos. It seems a lot of the people who are criticising her are assuming that the fans/musicians/people who are joining her onstage are somehow being duped. Until one of those people who have participated in the tour pipe up and say they feel mistreated or exploited then i can’t help but think most of the criticism is just frustrated fingers from disillusioned creative some-bodies-some-where-on-the-internet pointing in the wrong direction.

    It comes down to choice. As much as it is a constant source of anxiety to make a living from my average but hard working talent in this ghastly industry, we (as independent musicians) must reserve the right to do what ever the fuck i want to do… given the choice. That includes playing shows for free and also asking other musicians to play for free too and all sorts of other combinations of unpaid participation in fun-time music making. Doing what you want to do is at the core of it all for me. If that means saying yes or saying no then both are totally cool in my head. To assume people can’t make their own judgements on a very individual and personal choice based on some pretty baffling comparisons to other situations or jobs (that i’ve just read in troll land on AP’s website) is surely more offensive (ie.silly) than asking someone to play for free in the first place?! *that sentence may or may not make sense*

    You may have covered this in your other musings on the wider subject of musicians getting paid… but it does make me wonder whether how you to draw the distinction between playing music for the sheer love of it, and when that process also becomes a role or a commodity to trade in the entertainment marketplace.

    Is that line the stage? I hope it isn’t for me. Or if it is, then i hope it’s the line at which it becomes solely about the joy of music and where everything else withers into insignificance, especially money. My gut feeling is that distinction should be made from within and not from an some kind of ‘musicians must be paid at all times for performing’ one size fits all code of conduct. Whichever way a performer decides, they should not be judged on their answer.

    The AP steam train has clearly become public or at least internet property for the time being so as you rightly point out this could be deemed a PR disaster more than anything. Yet she strikes me from her reply to ‘Amy’ as someone who will sink or swim on their ideas and instincts though. It’s that kind of risk taking and thinking that has probably helped her achieve so much with her fundraising and wild ideas in the first place. I can’t imagine she’ll stop listening to herself. This may lose her some fans, but at the core of it i don’t see someone here who is exploiting the naive. More an artist, and a savvy one at that, who is harnessing the power of her mind and furthermore her fan base to create beauty in her own vision.

    Like much of the internet though, one is left with a choice. You either subscribe or you unsubscribe.

    Hope to see you soon mate!

    x

  4. You should pay your accountant.

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