Amanda Palmer Destroys/Saves Musicians; Chances Of 'Hitting It Big' As An Artist Remain Unchanged

from the one-sentence-between-'darling'-and-'pariah' dept

In terms of incendiary writing, the following sentence ranks so low on the scale as to be imperceptible:
we will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.
That was Amanda Palmer's offer to instrumentalists willing to join her on stage during tour appearances. And then the internet exploded for most of five days before Palmer reappeared to say this:
me and my band have discussed it at length. and we have decided we should pay all of our guest musicians. we have the power to do it, and we’re going to do it. (in fact, we started doing it three shows ago.)
So. Here's the deal. I had 1,600 words assembled in an orderly fashion and was gently (but firmly) herding them through the Amanda Palmer "free as in volunteer musicians" minefield. It was quite possible many of these words, some multisyllable, some a bit sweary, wouldn't make it all the way across. But, it was this close to being a "thing," a monumental defense of Amanda Palmer's absolute right to ask for fans to pitch in on tour despite her having $1.2 million worth of Kickstarting (mostly spent) in her hip pocket.

Because she had every right, no matter how seemingly large the amount at her disposal, to ask people to volunteer to be her sidemen/women. The problem was her critics (and lord, there were quite a few of those) were blinded by all the money she had, especially when comparing it to the money they had. Here's Bob Lefsetz, breaking it down:
They believe she should pay.

Because she raised a million dollars on Kickstarter and they didn’t!

Amanda ankled her major label deal, she makes money on Twitter, she uses the new technologies to both reach people and profit and they don’t like it. They could join in, but then they might fail, and they wouldn’t be able to sit at home at bitch.
But before the (probably) bloated opus could hit the front page, Palmer decided to shell out cash to her volunteers, freeing up the money by shuttling money back and forth between line items, robbing Video to pay Sax Players, as it were.
my management team tweaked and reconfigured financials, pulling money from this and that other budget (mostly video) and moving it to the tour budget. 
all of the money we took out of those budgets is going to the crowd-sourced musicians fund. we are going to pay the volunteer musicians every night. even though they volunteered their time for beer, hugs, merch, free tickets, and love: we’ll now also hand them cash.
Was it the right thing to do? No. It wasn't the wrong thing to do, either. It was simply a thing to do. When you're trying to tour and all anyone wants to talk about is whether or not the VOLUNTEER sax player is going to get paid scale or at least, more than hugs, it's often simpler to do the thing that drops the ongoing dialog down to a manageable dull roar, or at least a trifle more supportive roar.

Not paying was never wrong. Take away the crowdfunding aspect (which seems to be what the critics get hung up on) and Palmer's offer is every diehard fan's dream. Get on stage with your favorite artist! Get beer/hugs! In any other situation, there's no controversy. Only people who get to live their dreams for a night and those who get to see others living their dreams. Try these hypothetical offers on for size:
- Lady Gaga, major label artist, sends out an invite for interested fans to jump onstage and perform for a couple of tracks in exchange for discarded wigs, unused wardrobe and travel bottles of Ciroc. (Feel free to substitute a major label artist you can actually tolerate for Lady Gaga, if need be.)

- Indie legend Weezer sends out an open invitation for interested fans to perform onstage with them at their tour stops in exchange for corrective lenses, sweaters and "Pinkerton" CDs rescued from the cutout bin.

- Label-free artist Jonathan Coulton sends out an open invitation for interested fans to perform interpretative dances during his live appearances in exchange for retweets and a 4-song EP dedicated to you and recorded backstage while you wait.
Viewed this way, the same invitation Palmer made sounds like pure gold for diehard fans. Each of these artists is offering a chance for local artists to become local heroes, if only for a night. In exchange for their time, effort and expertise, the contributing fans will walk away $0 richer in direct monetary terms. But who would turn that down? No fan is going to tell one of their favorite bands, "Thanks, but I'd rather be paid." Or, "Not interested. I'd rather watch from a safe distance away."

Palmer's offer is different. It's not different because her offer is any different than the hypotheticals posed above. It's different because of one thing: $1.2 million in transparently spent, crowdsourced dollars.

If Lady Gaga declines to pay supporting volunteers, it's the label's fault for not spotting her enough money to do the show the way she envisioned it. If Weezer does it, it's because working for indie labels means tight margins. If Coulton does it, it's because he has to finance his own touring via ticket, album and merch sales.

But, because Amanda Palmer pre-financed her tour, a majority of her detractors saw "$1.2 million" and wondered if she's blown it all on ridiculous stuff like, well, who knows exactly, but presumably wasteful, more-money-than-brains accoutrements. The debacle turned musicians into accountants and Palmer's actual accountants into a "crazy moebius strip of waste."

But that's ridiculous. Beyond the fact that the source of the money does make her offer wrong, there's the poor underlying argument from some musicians that there's something "wrong," or at least "diminishing" about playing for free. There isn't. Everybody does it.
if my years working as as street performer taught me anything, they taught me to accept help in every way, to never be too proud or afraid to ask for it. i never got pissed at a passerby for not throwing change in my hat. i stood there knowing that maybe 15 people later, maybe 20, maybe 100…someone would. it’s literally an opposite strategy from someone deciding that they, on principle, won’t gig for free.
i’ve built my life as a musician, like many many people in rock and roll, playing for free….a LOT.
or playing for beer.
playing for exposure.
playing for fun.
playing just to be able to sell merch.
playing to do somebody a favor.
playing a benefit to help a cause.
It's also important to note that Palmer was only asking for a little bit of the artists' time. She wasn't asking them to tour with her gratis or even perform the entire show. 
we’re looking for professional-ish horns and strings for EVERY CITY to hop up on stage with us for a couple of tunes.
Palmer's transparency worked against her. A full breakdown of where that $1.2 million is going has only prompted questions on the validity of some of the line items. Her response that it would cost $35,000 to secure the additional musicians for the entire tour is greeted with "but, but... $1.2 million." It almost seems as though fans were happier when all the money was raised and spent in complete opacity. When the sausage making apparatus was still hidden, and the money routed through middlemen, being invited to jam with your idols was a dream come true. Now, somehow, it's a slap in the face to struggling musicians everywhere?

Artists performing for free do not diminish the art form or drag all other similar artists into a race for the bottom, pricewise. Neither does one artist asking other artists to perform for free. There's nothing disingenuous about this offer. Anyone who thought they were being taken advantage of needed to do nothing more than not respond the offer.

Were these volunteers being screwed? If they were, it was being done so skillfully and pleasurably that they never noticed.
when we handed the musicians their surprise cash backstage in new orleans the other last night, they laughed like mad and said “after ALL THAT, you're going TO PAY US??!!

moreover: i feel like we accidentally put ALL of our volunteer musicians into a weird situation that they didn’t bargain for….they unwittingly signed into a kerfuffle they never asked to join. all they wanted to was to hop on stage, rock out, and drink beer with us, etc.

so you all know: when this all started going down last week, jherek sent an email out to his current list of volunteers telling them that we totally understood if all this controversy was weirding them out. and we gave them an opportunity to pull out, no hard feelings.

since this started, not a single musician has pulled out.
One of the saddest aspects about this whole debacle is that the artists who did decide to play for free were treated as traitors to The Cause simply because they didn't demand to be "treated with respect", respect in this case being dollars. That's some ugly artist-on-artist hate right there. Not that there weren't other sad aspects, what with the internet being involved and all:
I can’t tell you how many “you’re such a stupid cunt” and “i’d pay to travel just to fuck up your gig…if i played violin” tweets i’ve seen in the past few days...
Lots of criticism along the lines of "I'm a classically trained musician and it's hard enough to find paying gigs without rich musicians refusing to pay us for our contributions." Well, it's probably true that it's hard for a violinist or cellist or sax player to find paying gigs, but in no way did Palmer's "unpaid gig" offer hurt you unless you yourself accepted... but then, if you hate the idea so much, why the fuck would you? Just to make a point? Weird thought process. It's as if they believe every artist looking for a cellist or whatever will just point at Amanda Kickstarting Palmer and say, "She doesn't pay, therefore neither do we."

The problem with this "NO UNPAID GIGS" stance is that it only ends up hurting the idealist who take it. You might believe that if enough people turn down unpaid gigs (and make a lot of angry noises about it), then at some point, those needed instrumentalists will run out of artists willing to work for free. If you can manage to hold together a career long enough for every invitation to come accompanied with payment, good on you. You've beaten some very long odds.

Most of this discussion is now academic, as Palmer will be paying all contributing tour musicians from this point forward. That's what living in public does. Transparency is double-edged and every Palmer detractor was seemingly a music school grad with an accounting degree. To her critics, this offer "proves" that her breakdown of the $1.2 million was filled with waste. Now they can pat themselves on the back for righting a wrong and turning "instrumentalist" back into a paying job.

But Palmer paying cash doesn't make the world better for struggling artists, just as paying in beer didn't make it worse. If someone wants to reach the million-dollar-Kickstarter level, they need a whole lot more than one artist paying other artists. And most of these artists who decried the previous situation just aren't up for the level of commitment involved. In fact, most human beings aren't up for it. Living like Amanda F. Palmer isn't easy, and the rewards only come after years and years of killing yourself day in and day out:
You’re just not willing to work that hard.

That the only thing holding you back is you. Amanda does not know the word “no”. And every effort is an investment in her career. Money is secondary. She wanted to raise a million bucks on Kickstarter, did, and now it’s almost all accounted for, profit is next to nothing.

If she sleeps, it’s not for long. I felt lazy just being in her presence. But that’s what it takes to make it today. Hard work. Are you prepared? 

And hard work is not e-mailing journalists who don’t care, it’s not badgering people to watch your YouTube clip and like you on Facebook, it’s doing something so good people are drawn to you.
Palmer has delivered the narrative, lived out in public, that if you're willing to run flat-out, day after day, for more than a decade, you can get to this point. And the response from so many musicians to her open invitation was basically: "You made it to the top. Now, lift the rest of us up." You won. Now you owe us.

Everyone got the same offer from Palmer. There's no shame in saying "no." But there's also nothing wrong with saying "yes." Artists, including Palmer herself, have done unpaid gigs for exposure, charity, or simply because they were dying to perform and doing it for free was the only way to get it done. Either way, it's up to the individual. Someone else accepting a perceived screwing from an artist that a thousand armchair accountants have already decided has the money to pay in no way diminishes your chances as an artist. These chances remain what they have been, and will be, for years in either direction: slim to none. 

In the end, I'm neither relieved nor disappointed this turned out the way it did. I'm glad that Palmer will be able to concentrate on what she'd clearly rather be doing: touring and entertaining. The Kickstarter money was freely given to her during that campaign, but apparently had plenty of strings attached once she started talking about unpaid gigs. I get the feeling that many of her detractors didn't contribute to the fundraising effort (indeed, it's doubtful that many had even listened to her music -- Steve Albini, along with other commenters in that thread, clearly stated that he hadn't), but it certainly didn't stop them from having strong opinions on how an artist they'd never listened to should spend money they didn't contribute.

I guess it sort of works out for everybody -- musicians get paid and Palmer gets back to work. But no wrongs were righted and the long, hard road to success didn't get any new shortcuts.

Reader Comments

The First Word

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  1. icon
    Suzanne Lainson (profile), 23 Sep 2012 @ 9:47am

    Re: More on collaborations

    I'll add that I think the trend will be this for creative projects: Rather than everyone getting paid for them, no one will. I think between everyone wanting to be a creator and no one having any money, we'll make art ourselves and then just give it away. I think the "artist with fans who give money" model will disappear in time. As I mentioned before, it will be the Burning Man model of creation. You create. I create. You give it away for free. I give it away for free.

    Sure, there will be differences in quality, but I don't think those differences will be enough to compel people to pay more for one thing than another as overall consumption goes down and people learn to get by for less.

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