The Amanda Palmer Saga
Bear with me on this one, because it’s a doosey. Also, TSI has already done some coverage of this issue that you can check out here to get caught up.
Here’s where it starts. Amanda Palmer, the former frontwoman for the Dresden Dolls (who also appeared very very naked in The Flaming Lips’ video for “The First Time I Saw Your Face“) raised money for her new record, Theatre is Evil solely on donations of her kind fans. In fact, Palmer raised $1.2 million ($1.2 MILLION!) through Kickstarter, a donation-based fundraising site.
Over the past month, Amanda Palmer has been the center of a whole big ball of controversy. On August 21st Palmer began crowdsourcing for horn players to take part in her upcoming shows. Pretty cool, eh? Here’s the catch, she promised that for payment “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.” The musicians weren’t to be paid except for beer and hugs. Read the whole statement here.
This caught the ear of indie Renaissance man Steve Albini. In a particularly heated statement made on his studio (Electrical Audio), Albini wrote the following:
“I have no fundamental problem with either asking your fans to pay you to make your record or go on tour or play for free in your band or gather at a mud pit downstate and sell meth and blowjobs to each other. I wouldn’t stoop to doing any of them myself, but horses for courses. The reason I don’t appeal to other people in this manner is that all those things can easily pay for themselves, and I value self-sufficiency and independence, even (or especially) from an audience.
If your position is that you aren’t able to figure out how to do that, that you are forced by your ignorance into pleading for donations and charity work, you are then publicly admitting you are an idiot, and demonstrably not as good at your profession as Jandek, Moondog, GG Allin, every band ever to go on tour without a slush fund or the kids who play on buckets downtown.
Pretty much everybody on earth has a threshold for how much to indulge an idiot who doesn’t know how to conduct herself, and I think Ms Palmer has found her audience’s threshold.”
Oof. But Albini was not alone. A French-Horn player named Amy Vaillancourt-Sals wrote a letter to Palmer expressing her discontent with Palmer’s decision to not pay her crowdsourced musicians. In her letter, Vaillancourt-Sals declares “We are looking at you now and your request for musicians to come play with you for free, and most of us have even fallen in love with you and your music, and how do you think we’ll respond? We’re f*&king perplexed, agitated and disheartened, to put it mildly!” Read the whole letter here.
Palmer again took to her blog to defend herself. She wrote a very long, very angry post as an “open response to Amy.” A candid excerpt reads “YOU don’t have to play for free. but i hope you won’t criticize me for wanting to. and hope you would try not to criticize or shame other musicians for making their own decisions about how to share their talent and their time.” Check out the full-length essay here.
But Albini was unable to stay out of the continued flame war. On a separate follow-up to his first scathing post, he wrote
“I don’t think Amanda Palmer is an idiot, and it was rude and sloppy of me to make that impression. I’m sorry Amanda Palmer, the internet is going to tell you that I think you’re an idiot, and while that’s not true, it’s my fault…
I have no problem with bands using participant financing schemes like Kickstarter and such. I’ve said many times that I think they’re part of the new way bands and their audience interact and they can be a fantastic resource, enabling bands to do things essentially in cooperation with their audience. It’s pretty amazing actually.
It should be obvious also that having gotten over a million dollars from such an effort that it is just plain rude to ask for further indulgences from your audience, like playing in your backing band for free.
Fuck’s sake a million dollars is a shitload of money. How can you possibly not have a bunch laying around after people just gave you a million dollars? I saw a breakdown about where the money went a while ago, and most everything in it was absurdly inefficient, including paying people to take care of spending the money itself, which seems like a crazy moebius strip of waste.”
Of course Palmer would respond to this. On a post that insists that she’s “Resisting the Trolls,” she writes
“many musicians and artists are SCARED right now. the economy is sucking. traditional record sales are plummeting. digital content is rampantly freely shared (and many artists like me are encouraging people to share and copy). big, previously untouchable musical institutions and symphony halls are shutting down. a lot of musicians fear for their livelihoods…and fear often breeds hate and anger. a lot of musicians really don’t know where their next paychecks are going to be coming from.
and everyone has a different approach.
this is the nerve we’ve struck. and i am a really convenient target at the moment.”
To this, Albini wrote n an email interview “A new music business paradigm, if it is worth anything, should strive to be free of exploitation and be honest about its motives….” to imply that Palmer was both exploitative and dishonest in her asking for fans to play with her for free.
Hang in there, it’s almost over. On September 19, Palmer finally posted “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.” Hallelujah, it’s over!
But it really doesn’t end there. Palmer’s new record (the one from way back at the beginning that was made with donations from fans) is FO FREE on Palmer’s site. Well, not exactly; it’s a pay what you want Radiohead type shindig. Along with the release, Palmer added the note
“i firmly believe in music being as free as possible. unlocked. shared and spread.
i believe that in order for artists to survive and create, their audiences need to step up and directly support them.
if you’re broke – take it. if you love it, come back and kick in later when you have the money.
if you’re rich, think about who you might be karmically covering if you really love this record.
the store below has two versions of the record. one is totally free, and one has a minimum price of $1.00 so that i can cover the cost of covering other artists’ songs.
once you have it, SHARE SHARE SHARE! COPY COPY COPY! SPREAD THE EVIL!!!
we are the media.
Amanda Palmer, why? It takes some bravado to ask fans to pay for the production of a record and then expect them to play that music for free. It’s a pretty perverse system when fans pay to make a record and then can’t even get paid when they hop on stage and play it. I honestly don’t think exploitative is too strong of a word here. Sure, I would be jumping at the opportunity to play for free with my favorite bands, but I am not a professional musician. Remember that she was asking for professionals: people who make a living off of their craft. She wasn’t asking for the college kid strumming his guitar in a dorm room or the bored adult that took up trumpet as a hobby. No, she asked for those who make their livelihood from their instrument. Merchandise, beer and high-fives can’t compensate for that.
In the end, she did make the right decision to start paying the volunteers, but for her to go for so long without doing this shows a staggering amount of naive immaturity. Bottom line: you shouldn’t expect a professional to do their craft without monetary compensation.
She also is giving her album away for free (or for however much you want to pay for it). On the statement about this release, she even invokes the language of karma in an effort to get people who can pay for it to pay for it. This makes the album seem like a gift, like she’s being gracious here. But in reality, it’s not a gift. The fans have already payed for it, whether through donations on Kickstarter or on free performances. So while she once expected her fans to pay to make an album and then play that very same music for free, I now expect her music to be free to me. It’s not a gift, it’s an expectation. But let us not forget that this music is actually really good. It’s a lot of fun and you’ll probably enjoy it. So hop on and get it for cheap while you can just in case Palmer changes her mind again and makes us all pay for the album.