Update: Palmer's paying all the musicians, forward and retroactively, so everyone can chill out now.
Whenever a female musician reaches some high point of success, particularly an indie artist—it seems inevitable that her moment of recognition will be followed by a backlash of one sort or another. With this in mind, I was not surprised to see a wave of drama spread accross my Twitter timeline yesterday, focused on Amanda Palmer. Her wildly successful Kickstarter campaign raised more than a million bucks for a music project.
On her blog, the hyper-interactive Palmer put out a call to fans that she was "looking for professional-ish horns and strings for EVERY CITY to hop up on stage with us for a couple of tunes." In exchange, the blog post continued, Palmer promised to "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."
Critics said this amounted to asking for free spec work. Lots of hostile comments piled up on that blog post, some from working musicians, upset that the million-dollar crowdsourcer was asking for free labor from creative professionals who are struggling to make a living.
The New York Times arts blog reported that Palmer was "inviting those who play strings, saxophone and brass to join her on stage during a tour. Joy and beer are the recompense." Palmer told the Times she can't afford to pay the large backup ensemble she's hoping to have on tour, "a string quartet and three or four sax and brass players." The total cost to pay this number of musicians on the tour, she told the Times, would be around $35,000.
Legendary singer/songwriter/performer/producer/engineer/writer and epic troll Steve Albini piled on. He said critical things about Palmer's play-for-love invitation in the press and on industry message boards.
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?
He called her "an idiot" * He later clarified his comments, and had some thoughtful but critical things to say in a Q&A with the UK publication StoolPigeon. "Nobody's an idiot," he said, "some ways of conducting business are just uglier and more exploitative than others."
Elsewhere, Brendan Maclean, a musician who performed with her at one Australian gig for free, wrote in support of Palmer, and in conversation with her, and provided context for why some musicians don't have a problem with the proposed exchange.
And just last night, internet shit-storm be damned, these guys had a blast playing with Palmer for beer and hugs:
— Two Star Symphony (@twostarsymphony) September 19, 2012
Like Palmer, Matheny also routinely asks fans who can play one instrument or another to show up at gigs and accompany him for free. He, however, does this"out of necessity," as he has "considerable vision impairment and travels by bus or rail because he can’t drive a tour van."
He will often recruit collaborators online for each tour stop, each at varying degrees of skill and necessity for filling out his sound. But while he finds that the setup can be a creatively fulfilling and economically efficient strategy (especially for musicians on the low-margin DIY scene), it comes with expectation that everyone is broke and doing this as a passion project -- a sense of goodwill that an artist with fame and a huge financial windfall can't expect for themselves.
But when an artist raises a million bucks, as Palmer did, and that financial milestone becomes huge news? Well, that "expectation that everyone is broke and doing this as a passion project" is not shared. It doesn't matter that Palmer won't personally pocket "One! Million! Dollars!," and she won't: that string of zeroes is what pops into everyone's head right now.
Which brings me to the thought I've been chewing on, ever since I read the first angry tweet on this topic.
When you crowdsource project funding, every single person that contributed, and every single fan that even just heard about the campaign and didn't contribute—every single one of them feel like they own a little piece of you. That can be a good thing, and Palmer has certainly benefitted from that kind of mass intimacy.
But any time that many strangers feels entitled to tell you how to do your work, shit like this is just gonna happen.
It's worth noting that Palmer's career was built on this sort of volunteer/fan-collaboration/interactive stuff. She has volunteered her own talent as an unpaid artist on projects and tours, she has busked, she has jammed.
And one could argue that for some musicians, an opportunity to perform on stage with the post-Kickstarter-fame Palmer is more valuable than one night's worth of scale pay: bragging rights and egoboo sometimes trump that.
I don't think her intent here was predatory. There is precedent in the blogging world (unpaid guests popping in periodically on a popular blog, as I did before I became part of the Boing Boing team), and in the music world, and probably elsewhere, too. Sometimes artists work together in ways that aren't commercial exchanges. And Amanda Fucking Palmer isn't holding a gun to any starving trumpet players' heads, forcing them to accompany her for free.
In a response on her blog, she wrote:
there were cities like new york where jherek – and everyone in the band – really wanted to make sure we had a 100% tried-and-true string corps. he didn’t want to bank on possibly risky volunteers that night. chad raines, my guitarist, who’s also in charge of wrangling the horns, agreed on that front as well. so we called our more professional horns and strings friends in new york, and we freed up the budget to pay them. we’re doing that in some cities, and in some cities it’s a total grab-bag of strangers on stage.
So there's that.
Update: Glenn Fleishman wrote an interesting riff on this post, over at his blog.
* To put Steve Albini's comments in context, this is the same man whose project "Run N**ger Run" [redaction mine] released a track “Pray I Don’t Kill You F**got,” and was quoted in Spin as saying he wanted to call Big Black’s second EP “Hey N**ger.” He also once used the phrase "I don't give two splats of an old negro junkie's vomit" and "The future belongs to the analog loyalists. Fuck digital." Doesn't mean he's wrong on the merits of his arguments, but Albini periodically makes provocative or offensive comments to provoke a response.
(photo courtesy amandapalmer.net)
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