Amanda Palmer: why fans choose to pay artists they love
To celebrate the release of my new book, Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, I've invited some of my favorite creators and thinkers to write about their philosophy on the arts and the Internet. Today, Amanda Palmer, author of the just-published Art of Asking, has granted kind permission to reproduce her introduction to Information Doesn't Want to Be Free. -Cory
I'm a street performer. Nowadays I do other things too. I'm a rock star as well, and I run the business that is my life and my job. But before I was a rock star, between about 1998 and 2002, street performing was how I paid my rent, bought my beer, and fed myself. My act was called "The Eight Foot Bride". I was a Living Statue - you've probably seen something like it. I stood on a box, white from head to toe, dressed as a mournful bride in a Victorian wedding gown and bridal veil (purchased for $19.95 at a Boston thrift shop), accessorized with long white gloves ($9.95, purchased at the fabric store in Waltham, replaced every 40 performances or so), black wig ($29.95, purchased at Dorthoy's boutique in Boston, replaced about twice a year). I came to life and sorrowfully handed a white daisy-pom flower (purchased at discount for $2/bunch from a sympathetic florist on the corner who gave me his day-old rejects) to each and every person who dropped any amount of money in an old-fashioned tin milk jug (stolen from my folks' house) that lay at my feet.
I would stand there for hours at a time, watching the habits of passers-by.
Of the literally MILLIONS of people who walked by my humble performance in dozens of cities on three different continents:
Some didn't look at me, and gave me nothing.
Some looked at me, enjoyed my performance, and gave me nothing.
Some looked, enjoyed, and gave me a small amount of money.
Some looked, enjoyed, and gave me a huge amount of money (I was tipped with a $20 about every 4 or 5 performances. This was always a cause of celebration.)
Some looked, enjoyed, and didn't have any money, so left me thank-you notes, sketches, poems...or got more creative and left pumpkins, fountain pens, cigarettes, or in one very dubious act, a pink, powdery dimebag of unidentified drugs (the effects of which are a story for another introduction).
Here was the shocker (or perhaps shocking to those with the general music industry mentality of the 1990s):
I made a steady, predictable income every single day.
I could pretty much count on making $20-30 dollars an hour on an average weeknight in Harvard Square. And more like $40-50 an hour on the weekend nights.
Like clockwork, people were generous. Nobody asked them to be. I just stood there, literally silent, waiting for them to tip me out for the weird, loving act of randomness I was making available to humankind. Many times some stranger would sit and watch me from a distance for five or ten minutes. In those five or ten minutes, they became fans. They would then leave me a dollar (or more, or less) and go their own way, never to return.
I maintain that no job could give today's musicians a better education that four years of street performing. And I don't think anything could re-educate the crumbling and scrambling music industry more than a few years hocking their talent to the wide world of international passers-by. This is what they would learn, and this is what they could apply to the Internet, and this is also what Cory Doctorow understands from his opposite perch after years in the world of copyfighting:
People actually like supporting the artists whose work they like. It makes them feel happy. You don't have to force them. And if you force them, they don't feel as good.
This is fundamental.
Back when I was in my first band, The Dresden Dolls, we were signed to a major label. It was 2004 and 2005, our debut CD was popular and selling in stores, but it was also the burgeoning era of home-CD-burning and torrenting.
And not once, not twice, but dozens of times I had fans come up to me in signing lines and hand me cash in ten and twenty-dollar bills (someone even once wrote me a personal check and demanded I keep it), insisting that they wanted to absolve themselves of the guilt of having burned our CD. Many times people said "I tried to find your music in a store so I couldn't. I really wanted to be able to buy it. Please, please, take this money."
I never suggested they do this. They came to me. They'd enjoyed the content, and wanted to feel the pleasure of first-hand, directly supporting the content-provider.
Neil told me Cory's metaphor about dandelions and mammals a few nights ago. I couldn't help but think that my time standing still in the street wasn't all that different, in a kind of poetic way...except I was the empty dandelion stalk, standing in silence, watching the sea of humanity pass, holding onto a faith that a few seeds out of thousands would blow back in my direction. I knew many wouldn't. But I only needed about 3% of the passers-by to take part in my magic little performance to pay my rent and feed myself. And they always did.
As long as people make art and content and other people want art and content, the marketplace will adjust to create paths for them to connect and support each other.
For anyone who's been claiming that a more "faith-based" or honor system on the net is too theoretical and Utopian ("Sure, it would be NICE if people actively kicked back money to digital content creators when they didn't HAVE to, but they WON'T...that's wishful thinking") I point them back to the philosophy that has kept street performance viable for hundreds of years. Not everybody passing by will play the game. But enough people will play to make free content an ongoing reality. Those people aren't pretend, theoretical people. They exist here, now, on the planet, surfing the Internet, absorbing content, information and art. They actively, vocally offer to give support to the many entities online -- artistic and otherwise -- that keep the Internet, and the world, a generally nicer and more interesting place to be.
The minute you start locking up the pathways of the Internet, and putting rules and regulations and fences around content that was once freely sharable, you ruin the possibility of an entire generation to organically evolve into a more mutually-supportive ecosystem. We don't know exactly what it will look like and how it will function, but as long as human beings enjoy trafficking in the commerce of art and information: it is possible.
In street terms: locking up Internet content is the equivalent of issuing mandatory ball-gags for street musicians to be worn until an interested passer-by brokers a deal with a middleman who has a permit to remove the ball-gag, release the musician for a few minutes to play a song, after which point the hands are tied up again and the ball-gag goes back in the mouth. By putting laws into place that stop the free flow of information, sounds, and images, you mute the possibility of a real, authentic exchange, you take control OUT of the hands of the content-creator to hock their wares, and control OUT of the hands of the public to decide whether or not they want to support.
I just completed a crowdfunding campaign that raised over a million dollars in capital so I could put out a record without a major label, and people are scratching their heads.
Why would this happen? How did she do it? The newspapers, the journalists, the bloggeratti are all weighing in. Is this the future of music?
As I write this, I'm watching people screaming at each on the Internet about whether my Kickstarter is "repeatable".
Am I a freak, an outlier, a strange charity case that an outlying public accidentally raised above the norm?
Not from where I'm standing. There are many more of me, there already have been, and we are legion. It's repeating as we speak.
We are a new generation of artists, makers, supporters and consumers who believe that the old system through which we of exchanged content and money is dead.
Not dying: dead. Not saveable, not re-instatable, not resuscitatable. And this fact doesn't cause us agony (oh no!!! what the fuck are we going to do without labels to truck our music around and send us checks!?) we see this is a cause of celebration of freedom (Fuck yes! We can give our art away, for free, to whoever we want!!! and they can put money directly in our pockets! Without someone telling us how to make art or how to pay for it!)
No artist is exactly repeatable, just like no fanbase or community will ever act or react the same way twice.
Will there ever be another Grateful Dead? Will there ever be another duplicate group of DeadHeads?
No way. One time deal. As it is with any great content-creator, or any large community. But there are patterns, and we learn lessons.
This is the lesson I learned, as a rock star and as a street performer in my wedding dress:
· Keep the content authentic,
· Keep the exchange honest,
· Keep the message spreading by any means necessary,
· And people will come.
· Once they come, if you make it easy for them, many will pay.
When people feel and know that you are keeping the channels open, doors open, airwaves unblocked, locks unlocked....they come. And they will pay their hard-earned to keep the content existing and the cycle continuing.
And just as I could count on a predictable income in the street, it's not a stretch to say that humankind will adjust to freely available content and react to the demands of it's content-makers as needed.
The musicians I see trying to keep content locked up are generally the ones who aren't creating any new content and who aren't hanging out on the Internet very much, where they could see the enthusiasm and goodwill of their fans on a first-hand basis. They don't see the open windows, only the closed doors. They're trying to keep things as is because they don't know any other system, they've been getting their royalty checks from labels for CD and vinyl sales like clockwork for years, and the numbers are dropping. They face an uncertain future if they can't count on those checks.
So they argue and they fight and they try to make it 1990 again. But 1990 isn't going to come back.
Most of the younger musicians that I know nowadays don't even realize there's anything to argue about.
They're too busy making music and uploading it, blasting it out to their small networks; giving it away for free in order to convince people to become a part of their story, their tribe.
They take for granted that if the content is worthwhile, their careers will take off and they'll somehow make a living.
And they're right.
Trying to protect a system that's now fundamentally broken is like trying to re-route a raincloud to go thunderstorm on a different town. You're better off dealing with the facts and grabbing your umbrella.
Or, if you're like many of the people I know: stripping off naked and running around in the street, screaming with joy and enjoying the downpour.
-Amanda Fucking Palmer
This article is part of a series of posts occasioned by the publication of Cory Doctorow's Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. Kirkus Reviews called it "a guide to the operation of the Internet that not only makes sense, but is also written for general readers."
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