Taking Sides

by: Michael Shields

Amanda Palmer’s endeavor to change the music business through an active connection with her supporters meets some resistance….

This time would be most constructively spent discussing the gem of an album which is Amanda Palmer’s1 ‘Theatre is Evil’.  Nothing would make me happier than to put you onto a record that is easily one of the years best, crafted by one of the industry’s most interesting acts.  I would love to discuss the powerful opening tracks that are ‘Smile’ and ‘The Killing Type’2.  I would like little more than to examine an album that would most easily, and simply, be described as honest.  Few tracks are as beautiful and heartbreaking as ‘Grown Man Cry’, ‘Trout Heart Replica’ and ‘The Bed Song’, and these poignant intimate songs are seemed flawlessly with large impact pulsating cabaret punk hits such as ‘Do it with a Rockstar’, ‘Lost’, and ‘Massachusetts Avenue’.  I want to delve into all this, dig deep into these songs as Amanda3 has dug deep herself, and created her best album to date, an album that is the by-product of one of the largest Kickstarter campaigns ever4.  But that will have to wait for another time.

There are more pressing issues to discuss at this point because Amanda has drawn some criticism for the ways in which she is conducting herself and her business (Brace for some back-story).  Besides triumphantly sourcing the money for her album through her supporters on Kickstarter she is “crowd sourcing” a string quartet and horn section for her current tour in support of the album, and this is rubbing some the wrong way.  The most vocal of these agitated souls is a man by the name of Steve Albini.  Steve is a veteran producer and the current front-man of a band I favor called Shellac5 who disapproves of Amanda’s methods, stating:

“A new music business paradigm, if it is worth anything, should strive to be free of exploitation and be honest about its motives….”

“Nobody’s an idiot6 ……some ways of conducting business are just uglier and more exploitative than others.”

With a heated debate such as this I feel the need to weigh in; throw my hat into the ring so to speak.  It is few and far between when we see someone, in reaction to today’s music industry woes, develop a completely new business model, and it is not surprising that it has drawn some ire7.  But, after far too many hours in thought about the subject, I cannot help but ask….

What’s the big deal?

I believe Amanda may be receiving much of this criticism because she raised 1.2 million and then follows that act of charity by asking for professionals in each city she tours to play with her only to be compensated in “beer and hugs”.  She is on record saying she cannot afford to pay these musicians as it would cost upwards of $35,000.  I understand how this could be viewed poorly after so many have given to her artistic cause….but who are we to spend her money?  What do we know of the album’s expenses paired with the tours?  I believe we begin to walk a fine line of privacy infringement and jealousy when we begin to re-allocate Ms. Palmer’s funds in the way we deem fit.

I admit I do understand Steve’s argument in many ways, and the one point that I think is the most important is that this does have the possibility to set a bad precedent.  This is potentially a big deal.  I am an ardent supporter of artists being rewarded for their talents and work, and I suppose Steve Albini is making this point on behalf of touring musicians and their livelihood.  This makes sense.  But, after looking into the situation as  thoroughly as the Internet allows, I have to give Amanda a pass on this one.

The truth is Amanda pays her touring band and her crew.  This is fact.  Beyond this, the musicians solicited to work for essentially no wage are not of the caliber of the New York Philharmonic, they are mostly there to enjoy themselves and play music with an act they respect, and therein lies the beauty.  Many would love to play with their favorite musician; in fact I would go so far as to say I would actually pay for the opportunity.  How is a bouquet of people jamming at a concert such a bad thing?  How is audience involvement to this degree a problem?  Life experiences are not always about being paid and Amanda is offering just that – and unforgettable life experience.  She is basically asking “Does anyone out there want to sit in with us?”  So much beauty has been born out of that simple question…..

I am positive that Steve Albini is FAR more in tune with the problems facing the music industry than I am, particularly independent and niche acts.  But I am positive that Amanda Palmer isn’t responsible for the eroding demand for recorded music, or the eroding demand for albums in whole.  I am sure that she hasn’t championed the right of consumers to acquire high quality music at little or no cost through file sharing.  And, I am sure that she isn’t behind the dominance of the quick-buck “mega-acts” owning the airwaves today  – in fact she is the direct antithesis of such acts.  It just seems to me that she is just actively looking for a solution, and including her fans on a journey into undiscovered country with this ground-breaking process.  She is using technology to reach people and making some money for her art through this connection.  This does not come off as exploitative or even ugly…..it appears to be rather….genius.

  1. & The Grand Theft Orchestra []
  2. A contender for track of the year, 2012 []
  3. Amanda Palmer is the former Dresden Doll front-woman, FYI. []
  4. She raised a whopping 1.2 million dollars!!! []
  5. Steve Albini was also a member of Big Black and has done notable in-studio work with Nirvana, Slint, Sparklehorse, and PJ Harvey amongst others []
  6. He misspoke and called Amanda an idiot in a recent discussion []
  7. Especially from Steve Albini who has acted as the “indie police” before chastising Sonic Youth for joining a major label- Geffen – in 1990 []

4 Comments

  • I would like to take a quick moment and discuss why something wasn’t discussed more. I laid off what I have seen in a couple articles today refereed to as “The Kickstarter Problem”. I gently breezed over the fact that Amanda reeled in 1.2 and that was completely by design. I see no need to delve in further as I see nothing controversial about it. In fact I think it’s exciting that so many would be behind her artistic cause. Her goal was 100,000 and she brought it 12 times that. You see, when you donate to a cause such as this you do it because you believe in the artist, in their cause. You want them to have the freedom to create and have COMPLETE control over their projects. You do not do it in hopes on any return on your investment (well in this case you were rewarded with a free copy of the album – and a damn fine album it is) besides the artists ability to create unrestricted art, for one to enjoy when complete. When we start discussing the amount of money one brings in and how they allocate it we are discussing an entirely different entity – we are now discussing the terms of a loan or something of that ilk. That is not what kickstarter is about.

    Debating the ethics behind crowd-sourcing musicians is fair. Debating how the artist you chose to support should spend every dollar one freely donates doesn’t seem fair….it seems souless and not the point at all.

    I appreciate and understand this recent quote from one of the founders of Kickstarter, it makes sense to me:

    “The pursuit of these projects with a guarantee doesn’t work,” they wrote. “A Kickstarter where every project is guaranteed would be the same safe bets and retreads we see everywhere else. The fact that Kickstarter allows creators to take risks and attempt to create something ambitious is a feature, not a bug.”

    Discussing Kickstarter accountable is ridiculous. It’s a leap of faith, usually done %5-$25 dollars at a time. Faith requires trust. If you don’t trust the artist simply do not donate.

  • Amanda is an artists and artists do exactly that, create Art. We can’t put the industry boundaries around peoples art form, can we?

    Personally, I think she is one smart ass cookie & wish her the best. More power to the people who are able to leverage the system to their advantage.

    -sam

  • It looks as if Amanda has decide to pay her crowd sourced musicians and explains why in a letter (a bit lengthy but a fun read):

    hola dear comrades!!

    it’s been a week since my cell phone rang backstage in NYC on the opening night of the Theatre is Evil world tour. on the line was a NY times journalist I’d never spoken to. what followed has been a week-long fervid – and at times vitriolic — discourse about the nature and value of art, energy, time and money. i said in my last blog, we’ve clearly hit a huge cultural nerve with this whole “crowd-sourced musicians” kerfuffle. we didn’t expect to hit that nerve, we did, and now we’re dealing with it.

    a few of them (the cowards, the trolls) threw some pretty nasty stones. but most of you brought well-articulated views, along with your personal stories and experiences. 
steve albini called me an idiot, then apologized for calling me an idiot, then called me an idiot anyway. 
a lot of my musician friends (including zoë keating, and nataly dawn from pomplamoose, who’s been having her own double-edged success with kickstarter), took to their blogs to explain the eco-system of playing for reasons other than cash money. i thank every one of you who spent the the time to explain it to people. 

lots of the musicians who’d initially volunteered (even some who didn’t get chosen to join us) posted really intelligent blogs defending your decisions.

    as a result, we’re inundated with excited offers from musicians for the rest of tour, and we’re psyched. the shows so have been sick, glorious, communions of awe.
    the musicians have been amazing, and generous, and brave.

    this is how we be the media.

    i’m sad to realize that our creative intentions of crowd-sourcing – something that i’ve done for years, and which has always been an in-house collaboration between the musicians and the fans, never a matter of public debate or attack – are getting lost in the noise of this controversy.
    an editor tweeted me last night to PAY MY BAND. good lord.
    to be clear, i have ALWAYS paid my band, who are on SALARY for the entire year (and will be next year too), even during the weeks/months we’re not touring.

    this sort of shit sucks to read. but truly? i’m blessed: i’m a financially successful musician working in a culture where support for musicians is in a state of terrifying flux. nobody knows this better than me and my friends, all of whom are trying to navigate their own creative ways in the murky waters of a new-digital-music-future during a recession. people see me as powerful. it is – by its nature – going to bring more attacks from the world when it disagrees with my artistic and business approaches. i doubt it’ll stop anytime soon.

we’re ready.

    and as usual, i wouldn’t want it any other way. this is the cost of being transparent.

    the fact that we all have access to each other and CAN discuss this stuff in realtime is what has MADE my success possible, even if it means i’m tied to the stake every once in a while. i’ll take it.

    for better or for worse, this whole kerfuffle has meant i’ve spent the past week thinking hard about this, listening to what everyone was saying and discussing. i hear you. i see your points. 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.)

    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.

    i hope this does two things: i hope it makes the volunteers surprised and happy (they’ll be getting some dough they had no idea was coming) and i also hope it makes our family circle feel good about speaking out.

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 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 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.

    for their bravery, i also consider our payment to them a fucking thank you for standing their ground and standing in solidarity with us and our philosophy.

    we’re also retroactively sending a payment to the folks who’ve already played with us. SURPRISE!

    i really appreciate those of you who came to the table and made your voices heard. despite a few of the haters who were just along for the fun, i really value your various points of view, and into conveying your thoughts – even if we don’t all agree. this is how we grow. we are the media, and we are a peaceful community who communicate with each other. this is how we do it, this is how we’ve always done it.

    and i feel good about doing this, because i feel like we’re doing this together. that’s the point. always.

    i’d like to offer a giant especially-given-the-circumstances round of applause to all the musicians who have rocked out with us thus far:

    David Fishkin, Kirk Knuffke, Sam Kulik, “Moist” Paula Henderson, Toshi Chun (and his sister, Keiko, for telling him we were looking), Austin in atlanta whose last name we don’t know because you showed up so incredibly spontaneously, Ashley Shab-an-kereh, Hannah Krieger (and special thanks to Alexandra Scott for sending us EVERYONE in new orleans!), Catherine Piacente, Justin Sabe, Jessie England, Alec Spiegelman & Kelly Roberge of Ronald Reagan (Boston’s Premiere 80s Pop Saxophone Duo!), Jerry Ochoa & Jo Bird & Debra Brown & Margaret Lejeuneall (all members of Two Star Symphony who have an incredible show coming up in houston this friday where they’re going to be attached to heart monitors and play along to the beat of their own hearts, YES!!!!!!), David Bloom & Finnegan Shanahan &Josh Henderson & Dylan Mattingly & Mariam Parhizkar who played with us at bard and are all members of contemporaneous.org, Daniel De Jesus, Brian Fitzgerald, Timba Harris, Alex Weill, Francesco in DC, Maggie Dziekonski, Natalie Spehar & Nick Montopoli (both members of classicalrevolutiondc.org), Tim Martin, Elliot Anderson, Laura Hubbard, Omar Luiz-Lopez, Sam Craft, Jack Craff and Mary Petro. (…and if you’ve played with us and we missed you or your last name, tell us in the comments! there’s a ton of you!!)

    you guys have been BRILLIANT, every one. your support, energy, musicianship and “AMANDA WHERE’S MY FREE FUCKING BEER” & “WILL i BE TIED IN THE VENUE BASEMENT WHILE WE’RE WAITING TO GO ON??” jokes with us at the last few shows (especially under the circumstances) have kept us laughing and breathing.

thank you all for talking to us backstage every night about what’s really going on, how it feels….about the shit that’s important to you, and what you really think is going on here.

    and a huge thank you to chad raines (@radchaines) the GTO guitarist, synthist, and horn arranger/conductor/wrangler, and to jherek bischoff (@jherekbischoff) the GTO bassist & string arranger/conductor/wrangler….they’ve braved this kerfuffle with ultimate CLASS.

    thank you ALL for making us possible, again and again and again. onwards, onwards.

    also, if you missed the news, the first week of sales of “Theatre is Evil” are IN.
    we’re #10 on the billboard charts.
    TEN. not a typo. TEN. we’re in the top ten of the motherfucking BILLBOARD CHARTS.

    in with the old, out with the new, on with the new, off with the old, up with the down, down with the motherfucking up!!!!! whatever the fuck it means, we’re doing some SERIOUS DAMAGE, MAN!!!!!!!!!!!!
    we fucking did it together. and this is just the beginning.

    here we fucking go, people…..

    PROST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    love & everything under the sun,
    AFP & GTO

  • Amanda recently responded to a thoughtful post by Bob Lefsetz. In it she discussed the ability to ask for help and why she became a rock star. Here is what she wrote:

    From: Amanda Palmer
    Subject: Re: Palmer & Gaiman

    hey bob

    thanks for Getting It.

    you know, i had such struggles marrying neil because of just this kind of imagined criticism freaking me out.
    love won in the end, and i’ve actually grown so much as a person getting over all that fear of people judging the f*** out me.
    in the beginning of our relationship, i had a really hard time letting him pay for anything because of just this kind of stuff…
    the fear that i’d lose my independence, my cred.

    you said it in your first email: i had my eyes on the prize. and part of my plan was being finally independent of any man. of anyone.

    when my best friend, anthony, went down with cancer a few months ago and i cancelled an entire two legs of tour, i had to face it.
    deciding to let my husband totally float me for a while so i could stay home and take care of anthony was the moment that changed me.

    and i don’t regret it.

    would i have been able to cancel my tour if i hadn’t had neil to fall back on? i don’t know. maybe. but probably not as easily.

    did my kickstarter do better because neil and his fanbase boosted the signal? no doubt.
    is it ok with me? helllll yeah. thanks, honey! he was there, toasting with me, my fanbase, and everybody else who worked so hard to make it all happen.
    he’s part of the whole family and the story.

    i’m currently cranking on my upcoming TED talk (and freaking out about it) and it’s so funny, it’s all wrapped up with this.

    i’d love to know if there’s a married person out there who hasn’t worried about the the financial imbalances, the power imbalances, the way people judge your relationship.
    so much of my connection with my fans – and now neil – has been about getting to the point where i CAN allow people to help me and receive the help mindfully, carefully.

    help comes in a so many forms: money, energy, love, care…it’s endless.

    a lot of artists i know are terrified to ask for help, for fear it’ll make them look weak.
    there’s a lot of shame around it.

    the strongest artists (and people) i know are the ones who know how to ask for help, boldly. and receive help, gracefully.
    the ones who don’t….look unhappy to me.

    and a respectful clarification:

    i, for one, didn’t ever become a rock star because i wanted to get LAID.
    i did it because i wanted to get LOVED.

    but looks like it’s working out just fine.
    i’m getting both 🙂

    xx
    afp

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