by Ryan Wasoba
Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship
Amanda Palmer is having a rough week. Her situation (abridged) is as follows: Palmer developed a cult following as singer of The Dresden Dolls, made 1.2 million dollars via a Kickstarter campaign, and then got firestormed this week for an open request for horn and string players to play for free on tour. She has since been painted as a wasteful, disrespectful exploiter, but maybe her only crime is too much transparency.
In the idealist's mind, art and money are unrelated. This is untrue, even during the most basic stages of the creative process; somebody's got to pay for the piano. The strangest aspect of Kickstarter is how it makes fans aware of an artist's financial budget. Of course, it also gives haters - who, regardless of context or logic, are gonna hate - more fuel.
When Amanda Palmer started to get some heat for her seven figure Kickstarter sum, she became noticeably self-conscious. She posted a lengthy outline of how she was going to spend the money, which had some disturbing but common inefficiencies. Palmer's openness is her way of being punk rock, of bucking the major label system that went out of its way to portray relatively low-rung artists like her as struggling martyrs while pumping untold thousands into their careers. But by breaking down these walls, she made herself vulnerable.
Palmer thought it would be fun to invite auxiliary musicians from her fanbase to play with her in the (unfortunately titled) Grand Theft Orchestra in exchange for beer and hanging out, but the conflict wrote itself: how does a millionaire justify not paying musicians? This question has been posed by intelligent people who approach the subject with as much subtlety as a political attack ad.
Where was the outrage during Weezer's "Hootenanny Tour," in which fans were encouraged to bring instruments and play with the band on stage? Where was the outrage during Glenn Branca's 100 Guitars concerts, where volunteers spent three tedious days practicing massively loud, atonal music in advance of one concert, and only Branca and his crew were paid? Where was the outrage during every show Bomb The Music Industry or Emperor X has played where the prospect of somebody joining the band for a night and winging it added a level of excitement?
Perhaps what made Palmer's situation different is her attempt at quality control; she wanted the volunteer musicians to virtually audition by sending videos of themselves playing. But, had she set out to pay these folks, the whole dynamic would have changed. It would have turned from people who wanted to play with a musician they respect into people just trying to get a gig. If somebody is a fan of Amanda Palmer and happens to kick ass at oboe, they'd probably rather play on stage with her than pay to be in the crowd. If this is exploitation, don't tell the volunteer musicians.
I don't exactly feel bad for Palmer, but I don't think she did anything wrong. More specifically, I don't think "crowdsourcing" musicians is any more wrong than directly asking fans to donate money via Kickstarter. One could argue that this is all part of the new model of musicians finding revenue streams since so many listeners are downloading albums for free rather than buying them. Remember: every time you bittorent a record, a bassist loses its per diem.
Last night, Palmer posted on her blog that she reconfigured her budget in order to pay the musicians who had previously volunteered to play with her free. Pitchfork ran the story as "Amanda Palmer Starts Paying Musicians," as if she has never given anybody a dime in her life. This will not be the last time an artist is bashed for crossing a boundary of interactivity with fans. We can no longer rely on the old punk rock ethics ("Independent: good! Major label: bad! Rollins smash!"). Situations like this will be more common, and they will likely become more complicated.