Having pretty much stopped following popular music about 20 years ago, I'm not at all familiar with Amanda Palmer, but a (very) little research turns up the fact that she once performed with a band called the Dresden Dolls which some friends of mine liked, and that she's married to Neil Gaiman, an author I've read a little of with pleasure, and that their wedding, according to her Wikipedia page, happened at the home of Michael Chabon, another writer whose work I actually have read a lot of and whom I admire greatly.
Imagine a Photo of Amanda Palmer here
She's copyrighted all the ones on her website, although she clearly didn't take them herself.
In fact, I would never have thought of mentioning her had it not been for my friend Mark Rubin, a musician and force of nature and man of strong beliefs, who posted a link on Facebook to a New York Times blog post about Ms. Palmer's current tour. Apparently, she has asked string players, brass players, and saxophonists to show up at sound-check on her current tour to augment her touring band, somewhat appropriately named the Grand Theft Orchestra. The pay, she's said, is "hugs and beer." Well, I like hugs and beer as much as the next guy, but something is deeply wrong here.
To begin with, there's stuff that doesn't add up. Palmer gained notoriety by jettisoning the whole major-label system after achieving stardom, leaving her band, and, after a couple of solo albums, deciding to go it totally on her own. She started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for her next album, which she would totally self-finance. I forget how much she asked for, but, in a result that made her a poster-child for the whole Kickstarter crowdsourcing concept, her fans raised $1.2 million for the album, and it got made: it's called Theatre is Evil and is available on her website free (for a low-quality MP3 album) or a higher-quality product with four extra tracks, a booklet, and so on, for between $1 and $20, pay what you want, Radiohead style. You can also buy a physical CD for ten bucks or a vinyl album for $20. (Didn't it used to be the other way around? Man, I'm old.) Her tour kicked off this Monday and will continue in the United States, Canada, and Europe through New Year's Eve. And she's advertising her call for free musicians here.
Okay, reality time. Where did the million bucks go? (I'm not the only one asking this question: Steve Albini has raised the issue, although he's also been saddled with having to explain himself to more clueless types. Still, worth reading the interview here.)
Over a decade ago, I interviewed a band in a comfortably funky house in Austin, and, in the process of the interview, was told that the very living room I was sitting in was where they'd recorded the album I'd been listening to. The album was warm-sounding, and had excellently-recorded vocals and mostly, but not exclusively, acoustic instruments. I was shocked. "We had better equipment than the Beatles had for Abbey Road, too, and it all cost us around a thousand bucks," one of the guys told me. Of course, once I looked into it, that was hardly a radical statement -- and, remember, it was ten years ago. Now, they could have increased that cost tenfold with a top-of-the-line studio and a fancy producer. Bring in some expensive sidemen, spend a lot of time mixing...let's now call the cost $300,000 in this day and age. Palmer appears to have done none of this. She appears to have a four-piece band. Where did the money go? She told the Times that most of it went to the expenses of promotion and touring. She also said that adding the strings and brass to the touring band would add $35,000 to the expense of the tour. Doesn't seem like a lot when you've had $1.2 million to work with. Is she totally financing the tour? Making no money on it? Doubtful.
But I don't really know the numbers on this, so let's stick to the stuff we can all see: namely that she's asking for performers to play for free. She's already got two saxophonists (called, for some obscure reason, Ronald Reagan), and wants to augment them. The string quartet she wants also gets to do the entire opening set backing one Jherek Bischoff as well as some numbers with her. This, I think, is the part that offends me the most. Pickup horn sections have a long tradition in rock and roll: a friend of mine made a lot of money by having one ready to travel with a little notice in the early '60s down in Louisiana. He's a saxophonist, and specialized in working with soul performers: he went on the road with Otis Redding every time he swept through the area because his group was known for professionalism and always being in tune. But, as the long career of the Memphis Horns shows, you can get by with two guys who can do killer head arrangements. In Austin, there was a shambolic horn section that used to play with hardcore bands from time to time, and they were fun. Strings, though, are a very different matter. Playing together requires a lot of listening to each other, a lot of subtleties we average listeners don't hear -- although we'd sure hear their lack if the players didn't do them well.
Now, Amanda Palmer isn't asking the Tokyo String Quartet to join her on stage, but she is asking for fairly skilled musicians to help her out, she who lately had $1.2 million to spend. What's shocking is not that she asked, but that there's been a positive response. Not just from the clueless woman who responded to Mark Rubin's post with something akin to "OMG, I love her so much if she asked me to play guitar I'd do it all week for free" (it should be noted that that's not what she's asking for, having her own trained guitarists on board), but from musicians for whom, apparently, beer and hugs are enough. “If you could see the enthusiasm of these people," she told the Times, "the argument would become invalid."
So if that's what the give-it-all-away culture has done to musicians, abased them to the point where they think their skills are worth beer and hugs in the service of a rock star with a worldwide following, then no wonder fans think musicians can live without incomes. The American Federation of Musicians has been an incredibly retrograde force in American culture, yet I stand with them here: just say no; after all, this kind of exploitation is why there are unions. There are people out there who admire me and ask me to use my skills in their behalf, but I just can't do it unless I'm paid. The same should go for any musician skilled enough to stand up on a stage, even if they have a trust fund worth seven figures. It's called taking pride in your accomplishments, stating your worth, and not letting the crowd call the shots.
By the way, lest I be accused of disdaining crowdsourcing, which Ms. Palmer seems to think is part and parcel of the negative reaction to her exploitative request, I've used it myself to good effect, and I've watched Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who perform as the Tom Tom Club, do a magnificent job as they readied their new EP, Downtown Rockers (on which they used my sax-playing friend, incidentally), and then used their fan base to download a poster of the cover, post it in various interesting places, photograph it, and upload the results. They're about to undertake a tour, too, and I suspect there'll be nothing but pros on stage. And even though they've been in the business for years and sold many more albums both as the Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads than Ms. Palmer has so far, they have never exhibited a fraction of the feeling of entitlement she has.
Fanbases are essential to popular musicians, these days more than ever. They buy the merchandise, the deluxe versions of the album, they come to the shows, and yes, at times you can ask favors of them: anyone know a club in such-and-such a town we could play? At the bottom end of the foodchain, they provide the couch circuit on which bands in Econolines depend. At every level, they can provide astounding help: Chuck Prophet recently (and stupidly) left his guitar and his bassist's bass in his van overnight in San Francisco, and guess what? They vanished. His fanbase mobilized and he had both instruments back in a couple of days. It was social media and fandom at its best. But you can bet Chuck's going to take more care in the future. The moral is, it's not smart to stretch it too far, and for her sake, I hope Amanda Palmer learns that lesson.