Amanda Palmer sells $15,000 worth of merch in three minutes; you probably can't, but that's OK

Awesome, copyfighting punk diva Amanda Palmer put her latest indy EP (the magically titled Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele) up for sale direct to her fans, along with a wide collection of limited edition merch.

Three minutes later, she had sold $15,000 worth of music and objects containing or celebrating music (vinyl records, various deluxe packages). As of this writing, practically everything else has sold out.

This model doesn't work for everyone. But it's worked for Palmer and various others, repeatedly. Just as not every artist can succeed in the studio, or can succeed touring, or can succeed performing covers, or can succeed performing original materials, not every artist can do this.

But the fact is that every commercially successful artist is basically a fluke. Most artists -- even those who've attained "success" in the form of a deal with a major publisher/label/etc -- do not find commercial independence there, and it has always been thus. As someone who helps support his family with his arts-related income, I'm here to tell you, if your kids want to pursue the arts, they should have some other marketable skill to fall back on (or chances are they'll fall back on you!).

And yet, what Palmer is doing is fascinating, because it involves spending less capital to reach smaller, more specialized audiences who willingly part with larger sums, from which Palmer gets to keep the lion's share. That looks a lot less like the old winner-takes-all model in which you get 100 or so acts who can fill a stadium and get rich, and a bunch of also-rans living on bread and water. In Amanda's model, individual artists gross much smaller amounts, but net much larger amounts, because they're not supporting a whole supply chain of execs, marketing people, giant buildings, trucks full of vinyl, radio DJs, etc.

What's more, she's made this work repeatedly, and there's every indication that it will work for her again.

Now, if your plan is to do what Amanda is doing in order to keep yourself in room and board, you will probably fail. But that's nothing new: practically everyone who set out to earn a living the old record-label way also failed (failed to get a deal, or, with a deal, failed to earn a living from it). The important thing here is that this can work, and work at least as well as the old system -- without demanding that the entire internet be surveilled, without making war on fans, without buying corrupt laws, or turning artists into sharecroppers.

That's a fine thing indeed.

Fan Feeding Frenzy: AFP's New EP FTW (Thanks, PeaceLove)


  1. She already has a well established name in the Northeast and got free publicity for this album from the Boston press so she has some advantages.

  2. This is obviously wonderful news for her. What other musicians are there out there who have found this kind of success without a major label helping them become recognized?

    1. I was really curious about that, too. Did she get mechanical licenses for all of these songs? That alone would be a couple thousand dollars in added expense.

    2. You can buy the album for a minimum of 84 cents. You can pay more but the 84 cent minimum covers the portion that Radiohead gets for each album sold.

      1. […] A minimum of 84 cents […] covers the portion that Radiohead gets for each album sold.

        If I recall correctly from the complaints of the World of Goo authors, paypal’s cut for stuff like this is something like 60 cents, meaning Yorke et al get some 24 cents or so per download.

        1. Actually, it’s fifty-four cents to Radiohead (the industry standard 9 cents per song) and thirty cents to Paypal for the fees. Hence the minimum price of eighty-four cents; anything above that goes to her.

          She’s been very up-front about how the money works in her blog, which is awesome on two levels: first, because it’s a glimpse behind the scenes that consumers practically never get, and second, because it turns out that knowing where your money is actually going feels really good.

  3. A little free publicity never hurts, either! How much would a comparable ad run on Boing Boing? I’d guess a lot! :-D

    1. Radiohead knows about it. Actually, they released one of their records in a very similar way. Plus, she actually is paying them the royalties on each cover of one of their songs that she sells, which is $.09 per song.

  4. Amanda used to be part of the Dresden Dolls. She split from her label.

    This is not to say she didn’t do all this on her own, but she was part of a record label when she started her career.

    1. I don’t think Palmer’s ever denied this. But, from what she’s said about the label, they initially started out supportive, but by the second DD album were not so much… by the time she put out her solo album, they did basically nothing to help her promote it, other than get it into stores. She ended up putting herself into debt to get WKAP promoted, etc. It does help that she was already established prior to the release of this album.

      Part of that, though was all the work she did connecting with her fan base on a deeper level. Her fans (myself included) tend to be loyal, because she tends to be loyal, and frankly kind of accessible. People like that… they feel a part of her work… If you look at her bundles, it wasn’t just oh, here’s the album, here is a shirt– she sold hand painted ukes (6 of which she did), a phone call in which she’ll sing you a song of your choice, one in which she’ll sing your haiku… Plus, you don’t get this sense that, oh, only AFP could do this. It’s kind of punk rock in the sense that she is promoting this as anyone can do this DIY — it’s the same kind of hard work ethic you found with say, Black Flag (she tours a hell of a lot)…

      Overall, I think it’s great for her, and I think she is setting up a good model, based on Kevin Kelly’s “1000 true fans” essay.

      1. It’s just that RioMcT above said she hadn’t become known through a record label.

        I think she does have an existing fanbase from that, so we haven’t yet seen someone unknown do this successfully. Presumably she could have done, but even she went to a label first.

  5. Hmm, maybe the key to online success is to …sell stuff?

    Now I’m curious. Among all the zillions of ad-supported sites, what kind of yearly income are people seeing? How many of us have actually quit our day jobs *without* having to become starving artists/bloggers/etc?

    1. Bill, the key to success is to sell stuff, but there are two things that are neccesary, Motivation and Marketing. Then, IF you can sell 10,000 songs on iTunes you’ll make a little dough. I have a 4 song EP out and I make about half a dollar on each song. That’s a good percentage. But I’ve sold barely any songs. I have no marketing or word of mouth, no live shows. Now if I were to pull some kind of crazy stunt and appear on Jimmy Fallon and push my EP, then I might have something.

  6. Another artist who uses this model is Zoë Keating (who plays ‘cello on one of the tracks on Amanda Palmer’s album too).
    She just got to #7 in the Billboard Classical chart based on selling CDs from her own site,

  7. The figure quoted for Palmer is fantastic but still modest compared to what one Australian artist, Hazel Dooney, generates each time she offers a series online. Having stepped out of the traditional gallery system, four years ago, in which she was represented by two major names in the Australian art world, she doesn’t just rely on the web but rather produces her own shows, carefully manages ‘personal appearances, and generally behaves not like an artist but a rock band. She even ‘goes on the road’. All further grist to the mill that is crushing old intermediary systems.

  8. The members of Radiohead are already filthy rich. Why not wave the fee? There’s no need to be a bunch of greedy bastards needlessly taking money away from other artists.

    1. Waive the royalties? I don’t think you understand the method by which the rich get richer!

  9. Most of us musicians expect to have to supplement our music incomes from other sources. I teach clarinet to quite a few young (and old) students. I would teach more but I have Type 1 diabetes (which sentences me to a part-time job for health benefits…yes, I’m very lucky). I’d prefer socialized medicine of course, because then I could do the work I actually want to do, but for now it works.

  10. I kicked in some money for the Radiohead project — both because I like the idea and because I wanted to hear the music.

    It’s a new world. When my fantasy series was dropped by Bantam, leaving things dangling on a cliffhanger, I went directly to my fans to publish the fifth book as an online serial, with various fundraiser prizes (signed copies, artwork, Tuckerizations, etc). While I have a vastly smaller fan base than, uh, just about any decent musician anywhere, I still have enough devoted fans that I’ve gotten five figures in donations so far. A small press is publishing the print version, and I’ll do e-book versions too, which should provide other small revenue streams.

    True, I can’t quit my day job… but I couldn’t quit my day job when Random House was publishing me, either. And going direct to my fans has bought my groceries and paid my kid’s preschool tuition and health insurance for most of the year. Building a personal connection with fans makes all the difference… and, frankly, that connection is very rewarding as a creator, too.

    (I am still writing books for other publishers, both big and small, under my name and pseudonyms… but I’ve actually made more off the serial than I’ll get from the advances for any single one of the other books I’ve agreed to write this year.)

  11. Ciao BoingBoingers!
    I do remember Amanda Flipping Palmer from the Dresden Dolls but liked her recent work and so was keen as mustard to hear her luscious licks on the uke on the latest EP. I donated $1 per song for the EP and another couple of tracks as this is what iTunes and Amazon charges me (or thereabouts) and Amanda hopefully gets more of it. I loved her versions of No Surprises and Creep especially. Fantastic soundstage and voice recording.
    I wish I could have afforded the merchandisey goodness on offer but glad that others snapped it up.
    All in all very happy with the album.

  12. It’s true this is not so much of a mystery when you consider how much experience with the inner workings of a label Amanda and her crew have had.

    Publicity is still publicity. And you still need a significant investment of money to do anything at all: recording, mastering, and vinyl production ain’t cheap either.

    That said, this is awesome. And Cory hits it right on the head when he says it’s a fluke, but I’d say it’s a fluke over years and years.

    Speaking of artists who lived at home, Nick Drake’s parents told him he should have ‘something to fall back on,’ he said “The last thing I want is something to fall back on.” We know where that ended. What do you do when that mindset is usually the only one that produces great art, though? It’s irrational, but the very fact that success is mostly chance-driven and almost impossible to predict is a lot of what makes success so amazing. The success of ‘good work,’ that is. Success of crap is just annoying and depressing, albeit inevitable.

  13. A label puts you in the studio, records your music, promotes the record and organizes the tour, and funds as much of your rock & roll fantasy as you want to blow your advance on. And they’ll charge you for all of it, at retail prices.

    Anybody have a source for the story of Lady GaGa making a pile for her label but being seriously in hock?

    What a label doesn’t do is encourage fan art or fan pages (quite the opposite, with Oasis) or have the musician hang out and sign merch until everyone’s gone home, nor organize Friday night webcasts, all of which Ms. Palmer has done. For about 10 years.

    I went in for a fiver, after seeing her do “Creep” as an encore.

  14. This stuff about “you can’t do it,” “you will probably fail,” and “it won’t work for everyone” is nonsense. You don’t provide any argument for that point of view, and it’s not true. Lots of people are already doing the same thing, which means that “you will probably fail” is false for the plural of “you,” and as for the singular, I do the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale. It’s very, very easy to do. You build up an audience, and then you sell them things.

  15. This is timely for me, and inspiring.

    I think there is a real hunger on behalf of listeners to be connected to as well as compensate musicians. The larger music industry happens to be terrible at both, so there is a world of opportunity now.

    I *just* launched 2 days ago. It’s kind of an online music magazine / mix-tape delivery service. We accept music from independent, DIY, unsigned artists. Artists get > 75% of the revenue.

    My story is not as dramatic as Amanda’s – that’s a real impressive feat – but within hours, Ramen Music sold enough subscriptions to cover costs for Issue #01, paying 15 artists out at $125 a track. This was done without having a single mp3 sample on our site, without Issue #01 being released. It has been a humbling experience, and has opened my eyes quite a bit. (And we have until September to raise even more $ for artists – we’re giving 100% of revenue to artists for the first issues)

    I’m not sure I agree with the “make sure you have a backup plan” mentality. In order for the rules of the game to change, people need to decide to make their dream work, in whatever way they can. If they instead accept that they will fail – or worse, if they *plan* to fail and divert energy away from their dream – they are in fact giving up, accepting the current state of music as valid and acceptable. There might be some arguments here about having to be practical and realistic, but I really do thing that the worst advice to give a striving musician is to “get a real job.” It’s not their fault the industry is piss poor.

    I personally have little doubt that in 10 years time, there will be a healthy number of independent musicians and small businesses giving artists and listeners what they want and earning a modest and acceptable living while doing so. Perhaps I’m optimistic. I prefer to think that I see opportunity in the massive failure of the music industry, as do the artists, as do the listeners. That’s why I started Ramen Music. We’ll see how it goes, but so far the response has been positive and encouraging.


  16. … sold $15,000 worth of music and objects containing or celebrating music…

    Or, perhaps she sold far many more dollars “worth” of music and such objects, depending on what that $15,000 is a count of and what measure of “worth” we use:

    Let’s say that people paid AFP $15,000 for whatever they bought. Let’s say, for example, that 17,900 folks bought the 7-track album at around the base price of 84¢. At the iTunes 99¢/track price, that’s $17,900 worth of music. At the iTunes $1.29 price, that’s $23,091 worth of music. At the RIAA’s Whitney Harper “price” of $750/track, that’s $13,425,000 worth of music!. At the RIAA’s premium “price” of $150,000/track, that’s over $2.6 billion. :)

  17. i think the point about the record label is that record labels exist to make money. that was the source of the trouble Amanda had. RR didn’t promote WKAP at ALL because they didn’t think it could make money – hell they even told her to edit the Leeds United video because she looked “too fat”.. One may ask why a label that has predominantly signed metal acts would sign an act like the dolls in the first place, but that’s a trifle redundant. Amanda had very little control over the direction of her art and wanted to make music she liked in a way that could connect with her fan base. Many people cast doubts over the sustainability of such projects for Amanda and generally but my thinking is just fucking enjoy the music now and see how the system evolves.

  18. This is a common niche strategy in business, even outside of the creative arts. I’m sure many people have heard of the 80/20 rule, where 20% of your customers provide 80% of the revenue. What niche players like Palmer do is basically say “let’s just focus on the 20%.” That works well for most small, focused, or independent artists or businesses simply due to resources — it comes naturally to focus on those who really want your stuff.

    She’s tying two things that are popular together in an artistic way and people are supporting that. That’s pretty awesome. The sustainability thing is true in any business, creative or industrial, and is simply based on whether you can keep doing it. And “it” doesn’t need to be the same thing, although it helps when you can cater to a subset of your current audience if you’re doing something different.

    What this shows, to me, is that she hit on a great idea and now has some breathing room to see what to do next. That’s a great place for a creative individual to be in.

  19. Trent Reznor raked $1.6 million in the first week of releasing “Ghosts”. He was giving his music out online for free long before Radiohead, and wasn’t doing it as a simple, temporary, pr stunt.

    You can still download many albums for free, get the layered Garage Band files to create your own remixes, or stream virtually every release from the iPhone app.

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