Amanda Palmer and the Privilege of Success

Human StatueIn 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.)

FlowerShe 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?

Harvey Danger's 2009 farewell letter
Harvey Danger’s 2009 farewell letter

(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.

Tip JarThe 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.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. Thank you for posting some much needed criticism on Amanda Palmer. Already being successful and then taking advantage of that later on down the road by asking for help from a large gaggle of fans is not the same as people trying to get a leg up to get in the business. I’d regularly wake up in my house to find bands I didn’t know crashing all over the living room when I was in my early 20s. None of them asked in a grand gesture for a place to stay. In between songs someone said, “Hey we don’t have a place to sleep, if you can hook us up let us know at our merch table.” It was just part of life not some giant political movement that warrants a TED talk. These bands who crashed on my floor broke up or moved on to other projects and they were small. Most didn’t want stardom or radios playing their records. This is also where Amanda Palmer is different. She wanted to be and likes being a rock star.

    Also, some folks are just into music for music. Not a giant performance art piece. So you may not be able to charge someone $10 to scribble on you with a marker if you’re in a hardcore band, you know?

    So many good points on this piece tho! Thank you again!

  2. Yes, I’m stunned by her shamelessness. After all, we expect any movie director who has a successful movie to stop charging for tickets. We expect any software developer who puts out a successful game to stop asking their customers for money. Why does AP think she’s special?! After all, I get in for free at every concert for an 80s band whose music I purchased back in the day. They OWE me.

    And the article gets it right on the nose: every band who ever reached Dresden Dolls’ level of success is automatically able to command a legion of paying fans in perpetuity! I can’t think of one counter-example… well, except for the one that the article mentions, but somehow tries to use as a supporting argument. There is no element of subjective “shared experience” that goes into a fan’s devotion to an artist, obviously.

    This sounds like an empty complaint about “the popular kid” to me.

  3. I’ve seen this criticism of Palmer arise in a couple of different places, but I’ve yet to see anyone address the obvious question: what’s the better alternative? It seems clear to me that Palmer’s TED talk is about how to fund the arts and support artists in the age of digital media and effortless copying and sharing, and as far as I can tell she’s trying to make a case for a world with an open Internet combined with grass-roots sponsorship instead of a world where governments and corporations and industry groups like the RIAA exert panopticon-like control over people’s lives to make sure nobody ever gets anything for free while also exercising top-down control over who does and doesn’t get a “big break.” That’s what’s at stake — as I understand it — when she compares finding ways to “let people pay” (or ask for help) with finding ways to “make people to pay.”

    Given that she herself charges for tickets to shows, charges for physical merchandise, and actually does pay the musicians, artists, assistants, and promoters she works with (more on this in a moment), it seems to me that it’s a very uncharitable reading of her intent to suggest that she’s arguing for a world where no musician or artist ever charges for their work. As far as I can tell she’s not saying a band is wrong to charge at the door instead of relying on a tip jar. My understanding is that she’s asking: who will set the terms for the transaction and how? And when it comes to understanding the transaction, do you start with the concept of art as commodity or art as human connection? And given the disruptive power of the Internet, should we build elaborate digital systems to enforce payment and maintain the corporate hierarchies of a pre-Internet music industry, or should we further democratize the production and consumption of art?

    On the paying of musicians–bearing in mind that we’re talking about uncoerced volunteers and not the GTO, who were paid normally–you write: “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.” Given that there was no shortage of fans who were also musicians who were also very happy to play on a couple of songs for hugs and beer and a good time, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that among Palmer’s fans and observers there was a disagreement about the value of that experience, and not that it was, categorically, “bullshit?”

    All that being said…you’re right that Palmer is speaking from a position of relative privilege, and that her TED talk doesn’t offer a universal solution to the problem of artists and musicians needing to be paid for their work–the ideas she articulates in the talk are far too high-level for that. Maybe some coercion of the audience does need to be involved in order to support a vibrant artistic culture–good unions, for instance, or a robust welfare state that offers universal single-payer health care, or more public investment in the arts at all levels, or all of the above. Such proposals would represent a third alternative between draconian corporate surveillance and depending on the kindness of strangers. But I’ve yet to see Palmer’s critics offer new solutions.

  4. Aaron, I’m confused. You seem to be making the exact argument that she’s making, yet framing it as if I’m making it. She’s the one who’s suggesting that successful artists stop charging and start asking. She’s suggesting that if they do that, they’ll make it big, just like her. Which is naive and close-minded.

  5. mslongjr, it seems to me that she’s not asking any of those questions. If I were to be charitable, I could look into it and come out with something that doesn’t make it sound like she’s suggesting we all do it her way, but her past behavior hasn’t demonstrated that. By past behavior, I do mean not paying her volunteer musicians — just because there were people who were willing to play for free doesn’t mean it wasn’t wrong. There are always people willing to play for free. That’s why the people who aren’t willing to play for free have to settle for that so often, and therefore work in an industry that doesn’t value their contributions on a monetary level as much as perhaps a chef or a plumber or anyone else with far fewer years of training in their field than any given professional musician.

    That being said, I like what *you’re* saying. I think it’s valuable to ask those questions, and let people decide how they’ll work the money side of things on their own terms. There’s a certain amount of necessary heavy lifting and promotion that only a corporate label can provide to get someone to AFP’s level, but the monetary and ethical trade-off isn’t necessarily worth it. A third option would be welcome, and I’ll admit I don’t have that answer.

  6. Here’s my thing. Take a look at this:
    It’s been posted on my FB page and friend’s pages. The gist, if you don’t want to click, is that people will pay $5, but not $.99 for a song. And whenever I see it I post a link to where they can buy my music. And they never do.
    Tjis article has some really valid points. Though I don’t know how much her former record label did to get her name out there I know that her being married to Neil Gaiman helps quite a lot as far as spreading the word.
    Oh, and…

  7. I have a terrible habit of using a really important source and simply linking to it in a few words instead of pointing out how really important it is. Her letter to her record label right when she cut ties is telling — she admits that they have a lot to do with her current fame.

    My problem with the “people will pay $5 for a cup of coffee but not $.99 for a song” meme is that, like most memes of its nature, it simplifies a very real problem without bringing to light all the reasons the problem exists. Why will people pay $5 for a cup of coffee? Perhaps because they can’t get it for free elsewhere, they get instantaneous satisfaction from it, and it’s often an impulse buy. Music isn’t like that — you can get it for free all over the place and not only do people consider the music they buy to be an extension of their identity, but the very fact that music lasts so long in your possession means that buyer’s remorse lasts a lot longer with music than with coffee, 99 cents or no 99 cents. What’s interesting, though, is that Starbucks’ model seems to be working pretty well — in 2004, they were responsible for one-third of all sales of some of the CDs they offered ( Things are getting more dismal now that everyone considers them the Wal-Mart of musical taste, but that “would you like a CD with your coffee?” success is worth observing.

  8. I agree with everything you said, even after Amanda Palmer’s explanation about the musician volunteers, I could see the point, but it still felt wrong.

    One thing is that the money from the kickstarter is supposed to all go to making the album, touring, and making other pieces of art. All the additional money goes to making more art (according to ).

    So, can normal folks make $1 million dollars asking fans to pay? Nope. I am not sure that’s really the idea. The concept is to find ways for fans to give you money. It doesn’t just have to be buying records. Make it interesting. I have seen around that a solo musicians you need 1000 people to give you $100 a year (or equivalent) minimum. Some projects produce amazing physical objects that go along when you buya CD, or a packge of a bunch of stuff. Not everyone can do it, but some can. Certainly its not the way the majority of musician’s will get paid, but the majority were not getting paid by record companies before.

  9. Hi Smashley — I suppose I ought to offer a quick disclaimer. I participated in Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter, and I really liked the CD and the big art book and the hoopla and, oh yeah, the music. And I’m one of those people who’d never heard of the Dresden Dolls until Palmer’s tweets started filtering through to me about 16 months ago (probably do in some part to her connection with Neil Gaiman). And I’m predisposed by my other interests to view Palmer’s TED talk through the particular lens that I offered in my earlier comment…so please make of all that what you will.

    And I’m much too lazy to go combing for evidence now through her old blog posts and interviews and all the stuff that was written about the “kerfluffle” regarding unpaid musical volunteers, but for my part I don’t remember ever getting the feeling that Palmer thought that other musicians had to do things her way. Yes, she was *excited* about her way of doing things, but I always came away with the impression that she favored artists and musicians doing whatever they needed to do in order to thrive and make a living, and if that meant signing with a label or using Kickstarter or having a day job or joining a commune or busking in subways, it was all fine with her, since everyone has different needs and goals. She just didn’t appreciate being accused of heartless greed and exploitation. It’s that lingering impression that makes me doubt she was using her TED talk to tell struggling artists and musicians that they’re doing it wrong, that they’re not allowed to deal with labels or charge up front for their music.

    By contrast, when she explicitly mentions Metallica’s lawsuit against Napster early in the talk, and then ends it by saying her presentation has been about her belief that it’s the wrong question to ask “how do we *make* people pay for music;” and when I bear in mind that at TED she’s talking to media and tech entrepreneurs and bigwigs; and when I remember the ongoing debates over how to monetize music and art online and what do to about copyright, stuff that seems to be constantly in the air; and I think about the RIAA suing everyone left and right for filesharing, and I think about major ISPs implementing a “six strikes” rule….it just seems obvious to me that Palmer is talking about the war between surveillance and coercion on the one hand, and freedom and openness and trust on the other, and how if we’re asking the wrong questions it might be because we’ve forgotten what art is supposed to be in the first place.

  10. I thought about this a little more.

    Basically, if you don’t ask, who is going to ask for you? I think the idea is, noone is going to make you successful except yourself. If you want to be an artist and have the time and money to keep making art, you need to ask your fans for help. Sure you might get a record deal, or book deal, whatever depending on your art, but really for most people that’s not going to happen.

    I like to think of George Hrab. He’s not getting rich, as far as we know, but he’s had amazing opportunities to bring his art around the world. He does this by providing unique content every week for years. He has said as much himself. That’s the secret. Keep working hard. Keep up a relationship with the fans. This can be done at multiple scales, just because Amanda Palmer has been able to do this at a larger scale is not a problem. Her point was that at whatever scale her career was at any point, the hard work and relationship with the fans was always important.

  11. I first encountered the Dresden Dolls when they did “The Onion Cellar” at the A.R.T. I went because I had season tickets, and thus had already paid for it. I walked out saying, “How did I not know about these guys?” because they were doing exactly the kind of music I liked best. So if their label “worked its ass off” to make them famous, they did a piss-poor job. As for never seeing an empty tip jar, I don’t recall if I ever saw Amanda Palmer doing the bride in Harvard Square, but I’ve seen enough street performers doing that bit to know that she saw plenty of them.

    I thought the musician flap was particularly stupid. Sure, there are professional musicians who work only for pay. That’s their prerogative. But the offer wasn’t intended for them. There are other musicians, not quite so well established, for whom the opportunity to perform with and make contacts with a fairly major group is more than worth the investment of their time. And there are some who are more fans than professional musicians who would have happily paid for the privilege. So the musician flap basically boiled down to the “I got mine, Jack” crowd in group one–the guys who were already established and supporting themselves by their music–to cut out the upstarts in groups 2 and 3. And of course, its a zero sum game, so the money Palmer ultimately spent paying those musicians–the ones who were happy to work for free–ultimately came out of the budget, and almost certainly would have otherwise gone to support other equally hard-working professionals and aspiring professionals who worked on such things as production of the band’s videos or promotion of the band. But nobody seems to care about them.

  12. I’m curious — what needs of yours are you meeting by sharing this piece?

    You characterize Amanda Palmer like this: “She’s the one who’s suggesting that successful artists stop charging and start asking. She’s suggesting that if they do that, they’ll make it big, just like her. Which is naive and close-minded.”

    And you say that she is only able to make her argument because of privilege and her previous record label deal and now her marriage.

    It’s easy to trade in judgment and stand in criticism over others who are attempting to stand for something constructive.

    Your post and the other critical pieces you linked to leave me wanting to re-watch Ms. Palmer’s video rather than spend another instant bitter and depressed alongside you and your blogging compatriots.

    What if this other path Amanda Palmer is pointing to isn’t actually reserved for the rich and privileged? I’m not really convinced that you’re a good guide to follow in terms of mapping out the field of possibilities for enterprising musicians in the modern digital moment.

  13. I was aware of the Dresden Dolls when they were on Roadrunner, but I was not a fan. Roadrunner may have helped with name recognition for the band, but did nothing to connect with me and pull me in. In fact, they only gave me enough superficial information so that I could evaluate and reject the possibility that I might like their music. They turned me AWAY as a fan.

    Amanda connected with me and pulled me in and made me a fan all by herself, starting with her blog. There is not a single cent I have ever given her that is attributable to the label.

    Like the TED talk says, she is continuing to be true to way she connected to fans when she was standing on a box. It’s what comes to her naturally, and it works, and THAT is why she has EARNED the privilege of success. I find it odd to say that because her strategy has worked, she now has a duty to stop using it. I think she’s got it right — it’s her duty to SHARE it and say “hey, here’s what worked for me.” It boggles my mind that people criticize her for that.

  14. Thank you Ashley for being present and willing to question.

    Be well. peace.

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