Amanda Palmer and the Privilege of Success
In February, Amanda Palmer did a TED talk. Have you seen it yet? Check it out at the bottom of this post.
For the tl;dr version, Amanda Palmer (she of Dresden Dolls and $1.2 million Kickstarter and asking musicians to play for “hugs and beer” fame) begins by explaining the job she had before she was making money from music. She was a human statue, which involved giving passersby a flower (and a big dose of eye contact) in exchange for some money in her jar. She stresses the incredibly personal connection she’d make with each person that got that eye contact, and regularly returned to that theme as a comparison each time she talked about connecting with her fans. The talk continues with a retelling of how she relied on the help of her fans as the Dresden Dolls, and eventually the Grand Theft Orchestra, got bigger. She crashed on couches (with an 18 year old fan’s illegal Honduran immigrant family and a Reuters financial blogger and his artist wife, alike), requested pianos to practice on and neti pots to snort over twitter, and generally enjoyed the connections she made with her fans along the way. (“Is this fair?” she asked herself once, when staying with the family from Honduras. When the mother told her that Amanda’s music was very important to her daughter and that she was grateful, she decided that yes, it was. Statue. Gotcha.)
When she got signed and sold 25,000 records, only to be told by the label that the project had been a failure, she decided to cut ties with the label and encourage her fans to download her music for free –with a small contribution, if they wished. One fan approached her with a $10 bill out of guilt for burning her CD. That seemed to have been the spark that ignited the Kickstarter campaign — whose $1.2 million, I noticed, came from just about as many contributors as the number of CDs she had sold legitimately.
She does address the free-musician kerfuffle, but only briefly and simply to blame her critics: “They weren’t with us on the sidewalk. And they couldn’t see the exchange that was happening between me and my crowd: an exchange that was very fair to us, but alien to them.” (Actually, AFP, they were. Many of them were your fans, fans who also happened to be musicians. They knew what was happening between you and your crowd, and they knew enough to know it was still bullshit.)
She leaves the audience with these parting words, which Michael Nelson of Stereogum rightly calls “an empty platitude”: “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’”
Amanda Palmer has clearly never seen an empty tip jar before. She is speaking with the privilege of success, a privilege that is blind to all the people (including the record company that’s in a large part responsible for her current fame) who got her where she is now. Sure, when popular bands offer their albums in return for a voluntary donation, they do very well. But that’s after years and years and years of doing it the old-fashioned way, with a record company and CD stores and corporate branding and such.
I’ll tell you about another band who offered their album for free. Harvey Danger. Remember them? They had one single hit in the ’90s: Flagpole Sitta. Unlike many other one-hit wonders, this band was incredible. Nearly every song on every album they made was killer. And they made three whole albums. You didn’t even know that, did you? That’s because they’re what Amanda Palmer could have been: an incredibly talented musical force that just didn’t catch a break. Their first album had a single song that was wildly popular. For their second album, they tried their best to give one of those songs the same radio play as Flagpole Sitta, to no avail. When it came to their third album, they saw the writing on the wall and decided to offer it for whatever their fans were willing to pay (I paid the whole $15 for the hard copy, which also got me a free sticker. Whee!). And a few months later, they disbanded. That is what Amanda Palmer could have been. Fans are fickle. Who knows why Harvey Danger failed and AFP succeeded?
(I should also mention here a few key points that fellow Labber Maggie brought up in a discussion about the talk: not only has Amanda Palmer been commercially successful, she was commercially successful just long enough ago for those young diehard fans to be older diehard fans with disposable income to spend on whatever she’d like them to. Also, she’s now married to a multimillionaire writer with an equally diehard group of fans who have now adopted her. In Maggie’s words, “…yeah. It’s not the same anymore, AP.”)
This is what’s wrong with Amanda Palmer’s suggestion. We do let them pay. All the time. We let them pay us to play their restaurant and they cite another band who did it for free. We let them give tips for our shows and we end up with less than cab fare home. We let them pay for our Kickstarters to record albums and we barely break even. Amanda Palmer can afford to let them pay because Amanda Palmer was signed to a label that worked its ass off to make her famous. She caught a break. She is completely oblivious to this fact, which is why she doesn’t understand why the rest of the world hasn’t thought of her awesome idea.
The thing I find most interesting about this is the reaction of my musician friends. Most posted the video to Facebook and included some harmless note like “This is an important message!” I don’t blame them for that — it’s a musician thinking really hard about the economics of her art, and that’s important for any artist to do. The most fascinating reaction was that of a trumpet-player friend who decided to include the video in an email he sent to three up-and-coming Chicago big band leaders he works with. His request was not to let the bands’ audiences pay — they were already doing that with a tip jar, after all — but to actually start charging for the shows. He watched a successful musician talk about how she makes money by asking her fans to contribute, looked at his own situation, and instead of going with her plan, he went for the polar opposite. Because her plan does not make logical sense to anyone who doesn’t have her level of fame.
Amanda Palmer, get a grip on reality. You’re wildly successful because you’re talented, yes, but also because a record company made people pay for your music in order to finance all the promotion it did for you. Other people are not as fortunate, and you need to realize that…or at least stop making grand pronouncements about how your relationship with your musicians means you don’t need to pay them and how all musicians and record companies need to do is ask and they’ll wake up one day with $1.2 million.
Here’s the video. Enjoy.
All photos screencapped from the video or Harvey Danger’s website, with the exception of the tip jar, which was by Jacob Nicholson.