Policing Amanda Palmer: How crowdfunding has changed expectations for artists
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In April 2012, Musician-artist Amanda Palmer launched a Kickstarter asking fans for $100,000 to manufacture and promote her new album, Theatre Is Evil. Close to 25,000 backers kicked in, pledging nearly $1.2 million and making her the first musician to break the $1 million mark on a Kickstarter project. The album came out in September 2012 and Palmer launched a tour. As she had in the past, she invited musicians to join her on stage at each stop, promising merchandise, beer, hugs, and high fives to anyone semi-professional who wanted to jam with her. The post set off a massive Internet backlash, with people questioning whether she was exploiting musicians, and weighing in on her posted budget from May. Palmer recently announced that she’s paying guest musicians now. But the whole kerfuffle raised a lot of issues about Kickstarter, crowdsourcing, what people expect from artists and celebrities, and more. Music Editor Marah Eakin and National Editor Tasha Robinson recently kicked some of these questions around.
Tasha: Let me just acknowledge some bias up front, Marah. I like Amanda Palmer as a singer and performer. I already have tickets for her Chicago appearance on the Theatre Is Evil tour, and I saw her in concert last time she came through Chicago with Dresden Dolls. At that performance, she brought Chicago singer Molly Robison onstage to do background vocals on “Delilah.” I have no idea whether she paid Robison; it didn’t occur to me at all at the time. What I did notice was the comfortable, huggy interaction they had, and Robison’s beautiful voice. I looked Robison up online immediately afterward—she’s on Twitter, Facebook, Bandcamp, MySpace, all the usual outlets for an up-and-coming musician—and she was all over social media talking about what a thrill it was to be up there with Palmer, and how much fun she had.
And I recently interviewed Palmer, which involved a lot of reading about her backstory, and her lengthy history of inviting theater students to come to her shows in costume and interact with the audience, and inviting other musicians to come play with her when she was in town. So when this whole flap started up, I wasn’t sure what the big deal was. She’s doing what she always did, right? Were people just not aware that this was nothing new for her?
But here’s a difference, I think: Before the Kickstarter success, no one knew how much money she had, so her budget wasn’t a matter of public policy. Now, everyone thinks of her as “Amanda Palmer, Kickstarter millionaire,” and she’s being held to a very different standard—especially since now a lot of people feel like they partially own her financial success, either because they personally contributed to it, or because it was publicly funded, and they’re members of the public. Watching the backlash, for me, has been a lot like watching someone yell at a policeman, “You have to do what I say, because my taxes pay your salary!” How have you taken the whole situation?
Marah: I’ll get into that, but let me also get my biases out of the way up front. I do not like Amanda Palmer’s music, but I do respect her as an artist, and as a performer who has the right to make whatever kind of music she wants to make. That said, I also spent years working in the music industry, both as an independent publicist and as a publicist for record labels, so I am of the opinion that the business is not as evil as everyone makes it out to be—and that it takes that kind of business backend to make everyone’s musical frontend experience so great.
While your policeman analogy is kind of apt, policemen are out there working for our public safety, whereas Palmer is—whether she likes it or not—working for our enjoyment. Not mine, per se, because I didn’t donate to her campaign, but she should be accountable, at least a little bit, to those who did. That’s not to say that she won’t be mailing out the CDs she’s saying she will, but coming from the industry I worked in before this one, I think what people are really reacting to is her public budget and this perception she’s built up over her years of fan interaction. If her fans had just matched her goal, then great, no one would care about this whole pay-for-play issue. However, instead they went above and beyond, and thus expect to be compensated accordingly with special experiences. Palmer could have done her whole tour without strings and brass, but instead she decided she needed them, because people would show up and do it. In some cities, like in New York, she pays those people. (She pays everyone now, but this was before.) In others, like Des Moines, she doesn’t. I think that kind of stuff is what gets her fans up in arms. Isn’t she one of us? Isn’t she of the people? If she is, then why do some people get better experiences than us, and why does she expect even more from us than we’ve already given her?
Am I wrong in thinking this? I absolutely get where she’s coming from, and I think she has the right to do what she wants, and the musicians have the right to say no. But on the other hand, to me, it seems like she’s devaluing their work by saying hers is better—or at least more valuable in both a monetary and artistic sense. What do you think?
Tasha: I think that as soon as you dropped into the royal we, I got the twitchies and my shoulders went up around my ears. I know you’re channeling your version of what the fans might think, but as soon as anyone who is not officially representing a designated, specific group (preferably after having been democratically elected to the position) starts talking in terms of what “we” think, I hear a raging wave of entitlement and assumption, the attempt to turn one person’s opinion into a movement via rhetoric like “I know the silent majority of people out there agree with me when I say…”
And that’s part of why the Amanda Palmer backlash sets my teeth on edge. The rhetoric on the Internet gets awfully heated awfully quickly, and there’s a lot of tendency to try to speak for other people. I’m annoyed at people who aren’t her fans trying to define how her fans should interact with and respond to her. I’m annoyed at the Seattle union speaking up against her on behalf of all musicians. I’m annoyed at people who didn’t contribute to her Kickstarter issuing orders about how she should spend that money, on behalf of those who did.
But as far as I’m concerned, even the people who did contribute to her Kickstarter shouldn’t get a vote in how she spends the money. She told them specifically what they were getting for their money in terms of contributor rewards, and she has a duty to meet those obligations. She never said part of the funding was making sure Des Moines fans got the exact same concert as New York fans, for instance. Or that part of the money would go into getting a professional career sax player for each gig. But is that really part of the equation here? The objections I’ve been seeing have been much more along the line of, “She has $1.2 million, she should be paying everyone who gets onstage with her, why is she so greedy in holding onto it all for herself?” I honestly haven’t seen anyone complaining that the real problem is that she hired pros in New York but is calling for fan participation in Minneapolis. Have you seen a lot of people complaining about inequity? Because that does get into some of the things we wanted to talk about here, about fan ownership of artists and entitlement and obligation, but it’s a side of the story I haven’t encountered myself yet.
Marah: I have seen that, but mainly on message boards and listservs. And no offense to anyone who comments daily on any anonymous forum, but that’s the perfect place to shout things into the wind you’d never say to Palmer’s face, let alone a non-celebrity’s face.
But you’re right. I shouldn’t have used “we” to mean that I’m a Palmer fan, because I’m not. I am, however, a music fan, and you could sub any artist in her place in this controversy—including ones I like a lot, say, Ted Leo or John Darnielle—and I’d be just as annoyed with what’s been going on.
I have contributed to other Kickstarter campaigns that have more than succeeded, like one for the 99 Percent Invisible podcast and one for a Harvey Pekar statue in Cleveland. Both of those had a slightly more charitable bent than the Palmer campaign, but the premise is the same: Once you’re receiving goods or services in exchange for money, it’s not a donation. If money is going into the subject’s pocket—in this case, Palmer’s—then it’s a business transaction. Arguably, a business or an artist or a bum on the street can do whatever they want with whatever money I give them, but if they don’t use it in the way I intended when I handed it over—a product, a concert, or food, not booze—then I’m allowed to be irked. They just broke the social contract.
I think that’s one of the big problems with Kickstarter: It’s viewed as altruism, when really, it’s just a different business model. It’s a new way to do the same old record pre-sales that labels did and still do. Anyone—Palmer included—can be all flowery about it and say, “Oh, this is the new model. It’s the way creative communities can flourish,” and while that has the potential to be true, it’s just not. It’s the same old model wrapped up in shiny, well-designed web packaging. It makes contributors feel like they have a hand in the production of something, when really, once that money leaves your PayPal account, all bets are off. There’s no guarantee you’ll ever get that 180-gram LP or postcard from Joyce Brabner or whatever. It’s all faith, and that’s where I think Kickstarter fails—or at least needs some retooling.
Take, for example, the case of Animal Collective’s Josh Dibb. Better known as Deakin, Dibb raised more than $25,000 on Kickstarter back in 2009 to go to the Festival Au Desert in Mali, both to perform and to record music, which would then be distributed to donors. He was also supposed to make a full color art book “containing photos, writing, drawings” and ephemeral material from the trip. None of this stuff ever got made or distributed to donors, but it seems like Dibb did, in fact, go to Mali and had a grand old time.
While Palmer will hopefully follow through on her end of the Kickstarter bargain, just by participating in the site—and in the grand discussion she has with fans and the world every single day—she has to expect some sort of accountability for her actions both in relation to Theatre Is Evil and beyond. She doesn’t have to listen to what anyone says, but her not listening doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to have barbs to throw. She can armor herself in her philosophy, but she can’t hide behind it.
Tasha: Sure. But there are two different things at work in these examples: living up to obligations, and living up to extra demands based on a lot of factors, in this case including angry entitlement. Dibb said he was going to do something if fans gave him money, and then he took the money and didn’t fulfill his end of the bargain. Whereas Palmer never promised to start paying people who came onstage with her if she got funded past a certain point; it wasn’t part of the contract. And I don’t accept your idea of a social contract for people on Kickstarter—not for things they specifically didn’t promise. If you announce to the office you want $10 to go see The Master, and in exchange, you’ll tell us what you thought of it, and we’re all so excited that we each give you $10, suddenly you have $100. If you see the film and report back as promised, two weeks later, I don’t get to suddenly start bitching over how you spent the other $90, because I think you should have taken nine other people with you, or you should have spent the money on something healthier than popcorn and a mega-Coke. You promised to see the movie and report; if you follow up on that, your personal obligations to me are done.
Granted, it’s within my right to decide I’m never giving you another $10 for a movie. People frequently take an interest in what corporations are doing with their money even after they’ve gotten the goods or services they paid for: the recent Chick-Fil-A boycotts and support days over the company funding homophobic groups with its profits, for instance. If people now want to opt out of Palmer’s shows, or buying her albums, or contributing to future Kickstarters because they think she’s being selfish or hypocritical, that’s their right. But they don’t have a right to say, “She isn’t spending the money we/they gave her on stuff she never said she would, but that I have opinions about anyway!”
One of my big issues with this whole thing, though, is that I don’t think she is being hypocritical. I think she invited people to participate in her shows—like she’s always done—and people are suddenly judging that invitation in a completely new way. Even though it hasn’t changed, in people’s minds, she has, because she has money now. Or had it, before pressing and distributing the album and paying off all the debts associated with recording it and paying her touring band and going on tour and all the other things in her budget.
Here’s where I’m coming from perspective-wise. Remember when They Might Be Giants invited the whole office to come sing along with them on the “Tubthumping” Undercover? That was a blast. And yet those greedy bastards didn’t pay us. Were we being exploited?
But wait, then the video went viral, and got hundreds of thousands of hits, and got picked up by CBS News, and got TMBG a whole lot of press, and they still didn’t pay us anything. Were we being exploited then? What about when they invited us to come recreate the experience onstage when they played town? We all came out and gave our time to rehearse and perform with them, and they still didn’t pay us. And now they are actually selling the mp3 of that performance as part of an album, Raises New And Troubling Questions. They are making money from something we contributed to, and I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a cent of it. So surely we’re being exploited, right?
You make the point that Kickstarter isn’t about altruism. I agree, it isn’t. It’s about directly funding an artist you like, or a project that sounds cool, and ensuring that as much of your money as possible goes to the artist. (After Kickstarter gets its 5 percent cut, and Amazon gets its 3 to 5 percent, and the taxes are paid, all of which amounts to a hefty cut of that millionaire money.) And I think that is a new paradigm, not just the same old thing in a new package. It’s a commercial exchange, yes, but it’s one that comes with the feeling of cutting out the middleman, and getting early information about a project, and access to it as it progresses, and maybe personal rewards in return.
And the personal reward we got for the “Tubthumping” events were that we had fun, and got to be up close and personal with a band we like, and got to go onstage with them, live in concert, and live out our rock-star dreams, playing to a screaming, packed, enthusiastic house. We got to experience something most of us probably would never experience otherwise. And frankly, if TMBG made $1.2 million on that album, I might feel a twinge of, “Hey, I wish I had that kind of money,” but I wouldn’t feel I was entitled to it, or that they were devaluing me as a person by not cutting me in, or that they owed me anything. So how is that different from what Palmer is doing, and why does it matter how much money she has right now, or where she got it?
Marah: You’re right. We can take Kickstarter out of this whole equation. It doesn’t matter how much money she has from that or if she’s sold 10 records or 10 million. It does matter that she’s using professional musicians without paying them. We weren’t professional musicians and that’s the difference.
That being said, you’re right in saying that if they want to volunteer, that’s fine. They can also stop volunteering, and as she said in one of her blog posts, no one has, and that’s also fine. Not what I would do, but that’s those people’s prerogative.
To me, what’s not fine is Palmer’s whole attitude about the issue, which is to hide behind the art of the thing. The fact of the matter is that she can, in fact, afford to pay the people. She makes—and this is an educated guess from my years in the business, so not something I know for sure, but something I’d put money on—somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 per show. There are a lot of costs associated with those shows, of course, like a tour bus, food, gas, staff, tour managers, and her other bandmates; but if she can’t pay those two other people $100 each for one night’s work, then I question how she’s spending her money. And yeah, I haven’t seen her bankbook, but to echo Steve Albini’s sentiment when he was talking about her Kickstarter, “fuck’s sake” is $5,000-10,000 a lot of money. Bands you, I, and A.V. Club readers like a whole lot sometimes make just $150 a night for a well-attended show, and somehow they make it work. If she likes these brass and string players enough to have them jam out with her, then she should kick them some bucks, just as a karma thing.
Back to Kickstarter, though. One thing Palmer did that she didn’t have to—and props to her for that—is blog about where all her money went. That’s great. On the other hand, I—and every other industry person I’ve talked to about this—think she got ripped off, production-wise. In her post she says she made “7,000+ high-end CD-books & thank you cards” that “cost about $15 a package to manufacture and ship” at a cost of $105,000 and “1,500+ vinyls & cards, at about $20 to manufacture & ship,” at a cost of about $30,000. I’ve worked places that have made some very, very fancy CDs, and nothing’s ever cost more than $9 apiece. Add in $2 shipping, that’s $11, and that’s for a much smaller run than 7,000 pieces. It would probably be more along the lines of $6 per record, if not less. Same thing with vinyl, which costs a lot more to make than a CD, but still not that much.
Under this new Kickstarter model artists are using, they’re going to have to be a lot more accountable for where all their money goes, from gas in the tank to shoes on their feet, and that’s a bummer. Not for me, the consumer, but for the artist, who under a traditional label model, never had to do that stuff. Labels gave bands tour support and paid staff publicists to work on records. If a band hires a publicist and tells its Kickstarter supporters it’s paying $1,500 a month for that service (a low average figure), will supporters think that’s a waste of money? They already bought the CDs, after all, so why bother?
That’s my issue with Kickstarter: While it’s been around for a few years now, we don’t really know the implications it has on not only little bands, but on the business of music as a whole. The accountability it requires—or lack thereof, in the case of Dibb—brings the business aspect to the fore. The music industry has been demonized, even by Palmer herself, but for struggling artists and with smart companies, it works. Artists use labels because they let them focus on making art rather than conducting business. Until the industry as a whole—artists, labels, managers, promoters, club owners, consumers, and beyond—figures out just how to use Kickstarter right, then it’s a dicey proposition to use it at all. Situations like the one Palmer found herself in make for bad feelings and sour notes, and that’s not music to anyone’s ears.