Amanda Palmer Didn't Do Anything Wrong

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship

Amanda Palmer is having a rough week. Her situation (abridged) is as follows: Palmer developed a cult following as singer of The Dresden Dolls, made 1.2 million dollars via a Kickstarter campaign, and then got firestormed this week for an open request for horn and string players to play for free on tour. She has since been painted as a wasteful, disrespectful exploiter, but maybe her only crime is too much transparency.

In the idealist's mind, art and money are unrelated. This is untrue, even during the most basic stages of the creative process; somebody's got to pay for the piano. The strangest aspect of Kickstarter is how it makes fans aware of an artist's financial budget. Of course, it also gives haters - who, regardless of context or logic, are gonna hate - more fuel.

When Amanda Palmer started to get some heat for her seven figure Kickstarter sum, she became noticeably self-conscious. She posted a lengthy outline of how she was going to spend the money, which had some disturbing but common inefficiencies. Palmer's openness is her way of being punk rock, of bucking the major label system that went out of its way to portray relatively low-rung artists like her as struggling martyrs while pumping untold thousands into their careers. But by breaking down these walls, she made herself vulnerable.

Palmer thought it would be fun to invite auxiliary musicians from her fanbase to play with her in the (unfortunately titled) Grand Theft Orchestra in exchange for beer and hanging out, but the conflict wrote itself: how does a millionaire justify not paying musicians? This question has been posed by intelligent people who approach the subject with as much subtlety as a political attack ad.


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12 comments
Jason Koenig
Jason Koenig

I think my big problem with the whole thing is that she pitched the idea under the understanding that, this is because she can't afford to pay a full touring band of the size that she requires. This rationale, seated next to the public knowledge of her Kickstarter revenue, sounds like bullshit- even if it isn't. Perhaps if she had tried to sell it as "I want to break down the walls of interactivity with my fans" rather than as a budget issue it would have been better received. Ryan, I see your point that this is, in some ways, no different than Kickstarter. Which brings up a question: how would this bandsourcing idea have been received if she'd actually included it as a reward in her Kickstarter campaign?

kwernowsky
kwernowsky

This really comes down to whether art is something you do as a hobby or if it how you want to make your living.

There's a certain cache that comes with rubbing elbows with someone of Amanda Palmer's stature, but there's also an element of self-respect that needs to exist for artists who create something and who want to have an actual "career" doing something constructive.Having spent a decade as a journalist, I've seen companies exploit free or cheap interns. I've seen freelance rates plummet to near insulting levels.

Sure, it's a tough time in publishing, but how much can you expect from people in the way of quality when someone works for peanuts? Personal pride doesn't keep the lights on.

Yes, you work for "experience," but eventually you're "experienced" and deserved to get something back. Someone's making money off of you somewhere. You're the creator and you deserve something, otherwise it's just exploitation.  

It's disheartening that a woman who already has a great deal of personal success asked people (many who have already forked over money to support her and to see her live) to play for nothing.

If you want to have fun and support a well-compensated artist for free, that's your business. The exposure you get from playing with her is probably going to be very limited. It's not going to make or break your career. At the most, it's probably a good story you'll tell someone who cares about Amanda Palmer. 

But at some point you have to put your foot down and demand that someone pays you for what you do. Period.

This isn't a case of exploitation. I'm sure she genuinely thought she was doing something nice for her fans. But I'm sure there was a time in her career where she struggled, and it would have been nice if someone said, "Hey kid, here's $40 bucks. Thanks for playing the kazoo." 

At some point, artists have just got to stop giving it away for free (please note I will require $11 dollars for the time it took me to write this). 

Jarret L Green
Jarret L Green

Since art and creative things can be "fun" and "a privilege", I guess most people shouldn't expect to get paid for it. I wonder, did Mr. Wasoba get paid for writing this apology? I do think the outcry was a bit overdone, but I also think that an artist with 3 successful releases, on the same label that Nickleback started on, doing a Kickstarter and then crying "This is the future of music." is a bit overdone.

go.get.em.AFP
go.get.em.AFP

I gave to her Kickstarter (and already received the incredible art we requested) and would have volunteered to play for her if she was coming to St. Louis.  AFP is a visionary.  She is trying hard to beat the system and say f-off to the big labels.  Good for her!

travis.bursik
travis.bursik

Weezer's Hootenanny tour requested that people bring whatever instruments they wanted to play, rehearsal-free on stage. It's not the same thing. The Glenn Branca show is a closer analog, but trying to pay 100 musicians would have amounted to a nominal, almost insulting amount. Not to parrot Albini, but is this any different than record execs of old telling kids that they should be grateful for the opportunity and then pocketing all of the money? If she's hoping for accomplished string, woodwind and brass musicians in each town, aren't they potentially jeopardizing their standing if they belong to a musician's union? I've happily collaborated with people for free, but that's because there was never any money to be made. If there is an opportunity to pay people fairly, they should.

videocrime
videocrime

"pay for the piano"? a d-plan reference? oh, ryan, you cad you. 

RyanWasoba
RyanWasoba

 @kwernowsky  I get where you're coming from. I think the situation is a complicated one.

 

Part of the issue, that I didn't get to in the column, is that we're not talking about a core instrument to the Amanda Palmer lineup. We're talking about additional stuff. Not to make it seem like violins and trumpets don't matter. They totally do, and anybody who excels at these despite the lack of societal awards is amazing in my book. But these are low risk, low commitment, additional parts for her arrangements. I think her request for semi-professional musicians was a way to keep people from showing up with a trombone just so they could get in for free. It's tricky, yes.

 

At the same time, if you play cello, you're always playing for limited exposure. From the perspective of somebody who plays music and also deals with the "industry side" of receiving promotional materials and bios from people, I know that having an unexpected name on your bio can really make a reviewer/reader pay attention. So I don't 100 percent believe that having Amanda Palmer's name on your resume is going to give you work in the future, but it is interesting.

 

The sidenote of "I will requre $11.." joke is actually very appropriate. I mean, you chose to interact with the RFT,  and you put in effort. Our commenting system is set up to encourage this kind of behavior, but there's no reward for it. In fact, posts with the most comments get the most readership, which in the broadest terms, brings in more revenue to the RFT as a whole. So in the same way that Amanda Palmer's "free" musicians (which, she is paying) adds to her show as a whole and in an abstract sense makes her some more money, your comment does the same for the paper. But you demanding to get paid is a joke and the musicians' is not. I know this is not a clear comparison, but the whole interest of this Amanda Palmer fiasco is that it's gotten people thinking in terms like this. I think that's a good thing.

 

I'm just waiting for somebody to demand to be paid after an artist reTweets them. Then we've got something.

kwernowsky
kwernowsky

 @RyanWasoba Well, we're also talking about a new frontier in performing and art.

The do-it-yourself model and stick-it-to-the-man-by-self-funding-your album/tour/stand-up comedy special is a wondrous thing for the artist. It frees the creator from the constraints and commercial expectations of having to sell "x" amount of this or "x" amount of that. It also cuts out a lot of middle men and women who often piggyback on artists back and seem to get paid just for having office jobs.

But like it or not, Amanda Palmer is now the CEO of Amanda Palmer. By choosing to self-fund everything, she is now the conduit in which all of that money flows. The decision to take complete control of her art means that she also has to take responsibility for the way she pays the people who help round out everything that makes her art what it is.

Comedian Louis C.K. self-funded his most recent comedy special and put it online for people to purchase for a measly $5. He made $1 million and decided to give his staff $250,000 in bonuses, $250,000 in charity and $250,000 to cover the cost of production (which meant he already paid his staff and for the filming of the special). 

THAT is how this should work. I understand that music is different and there are more pieces to the performing puzzle. I've performed standup for nothing, and for "experience," but there are times when a gracious headliner will kick in $20 or $30 as a way to say "Keep at it, and some day you'll be the one handing out these bills."

RyanWasoba
RyanWasoba

 @kwernowsky  Is this the part where one of us is supposed to call the other a queer to signal that the conversation is over?

kwernowsky
kwernowsky

 @RyanWasoba Steve Albini is Steve Albini. I've interviewed him and he is a very nice and very bright man. He's also a very intense person, so there is always a bit of eyerolling when he says something like Amanda Palmer is an "idiot."

You and I both agree that she didn't do anything wrong. Her intentions were in no way mean spirited. She's not caging her fans and refusing to give them water.

Albini had a good point, albeit he didn't express it in the most cordial manner. 

Too often the financial side of art, ESPECIALLY music, tends to fuck the artist (See a Tribe Called Quest).

It's why Neil Young now says, "Yeah, go ahead pirate music," because he's not making money off of that anymore. Piracy only scares executives and pop artists who benefit from a very outdated model of art finance.

If there's anything good that we can glen from these to mid-to-high-profile artists having a squabbling match its that people are having very serious discussions (like this one) about this very subject. 

RyanWasoba
RyanWasoba

 @kwernowsky I agree with how it should be and such. I guess my point is that there's a difference between what is right and wrong and what you would do if you were the musician. For example, Steve Albini has a very myopic view of how things should be and he projects that as morality. He always has. Just ask Sonic Youth.

 

By saying Amanda Palmer didn't do anything wrong (as the title suggests), I'm not necessarily saying she did it right either. I think she has played very close to the edge of breaking the code of conduct, but hasn't crossed over into wrongness yet. 

 

And with all this said, if somebody put a gun to my head and told me to name an Amanda Palmer or Dresden Dolls song, I'd be dead.

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