The first thing to know about musician Amanda Palmer is that it is nearly impossible to have an impartial opinion about her. Nothing about her is easy to take. There’s the steampunk-Goth-showtune sound of her music for starters. Then, there’s her personality, which some of us find to be the human equivalent of having an air horn blown into your ear; if there’s anyone who loves attention more than Amanda Palmer, we don’t know their names, probably because they were locked in a bank vault early on so that the townsfolk could get their work done in peace. She tweaks her eyebrows into wacky shapes, disrobes on red carpets, uses chainsaws in her live act, and celebrated her marriage to author Neil Gaiman (a man formerly so private that he managed to divorce his wife of over 20 years without anyone noticing) with a “flash mob wedding.” I will confess that my normal reaction to Amanda Palmer is to write her off by mentally cutting and pasting her name into the appropriate Onion headline. And yet, fate, circumstance and Steve Albini have forced us to confront Amanda Palmer once again, not as a musician, but as a leader in labor issues.
For Palmer recently raised $1.2 million dollars via the fundraising site Kickstarter. This, in and of itself, is very exciting. The Internet is either the worst thing to happen to paid creative work, or the best, depending on your slant. On the one hand, the moment we figured out that we could get music, movies, cable TV or news for free, many of us stopped paying for them. The result is that the organizations that fund creators — magazines, record labels — collapse. Which means, in the long run, fewer people getting paid for creative work.
On the other hand, people who are gifted and have devoted followings (often people who’ve gotten those fan bases through working with said dwindling organizations, like Palmer, or Community creator Dan Harmon) can appeal to their fans directly, asking them to become direct partners in funding their projects. It’s democratic, it ensures the artist is only paid what her public thinks she’s worth, and (in principle, if not in practice) anyone can do it successfully.
But, whatever Palmer did with that $1.2 million, she didn’t initially allocate money to pay guest musicians. Last week, she asked local horn and string players from the towns she planned to visit to play her shows, in exchange for beer, hugs (or high fives) and her own promotional merchandise. She estimated that actually paying these people would cost her $35,000; about as much as it would take to pay a receptionist decently for one year, and $10,000 less than she estimated it would cost to produce “about 100 turntable packages” ($15,000) and “arts & crafts/7‑inch packages, if we sell about 300 of them” ($30,000), which she did factor into the budget.
Musicians and union advocates, predictably, were not pleased by the idea that a millionaire was asking people to work for free, then giving them the vast privilege of walking around wearing a commercial for her own band. Producer Steve Albini summed up the problem best, noting that after receiving such generous funding, “it is just plain rude to ask for further indulgences from your audience, like playing in your backing band for free.” And, even more succinctly: “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?”
Matters weren’t helped by Palmer’s having bragged, earlier, about the exorbitant amounts of cash she was spending on things that were not musicians: “don’t forget: i’m CHOOSING to spend all this money making the packages fancy as shit….and i’m CHOOSING to tour this way. EXPENSIVELY,” she wrote. Well, people didn’t forget that she CHOSE to make her album packaging cost $105,000 to produce, exactly three times as much as she said it would cost to pay guest musicians, scoffing along the way at the unpardonable sin of “cheap-ass jewel case CDs.”
Unsurprisingly, after all this controversy, the famous rock star who is married to a bestselling author was able to scrape together the cash to pay these people, primarily, she says, by cutting her $80,000 music video budget. “We’re inundated with excited offers from musicians for the rest of tour,” she wrote on Wednesday. And she had chosen to pay them. Palmer is framing this as a special favor: “even though [the musicians] volunteered their time for beer, hugs, merch, free tickets, and love: we’ll now also hand them cash.”
Now: I have worked for free. I have also worked for very cheap. Everyone, in every creative profession, does this. Writers intern or work for free, musicians play tiny clubs and open mics, actors do small plays in small theaters. The basic things that people want to know about you when you are starting out — Are you reliable? Can you take direction? Are you any good at what you do? — are not things that people are going to risk large amounts of money to figure out.
But this is supposed to be a young artist’s game. And it’s not supposed to happen when someone has $1 million specifically to fund your given art form. We’re living in an environment where people are increasingly less willing to pay for media, and where, for creative workers — for everyone from unpaid bloggers at the Huffington Post to local bands who will never be able to buckle down and produce their opus because they still work day jobs — the young artist’s game is the only game in town. Palmer was in a rare position of being able to pay her workers, and her initial choice not to do so only added to that environment.
Artists are skilled laborers. And skilled labor demands compensation. Any Beatles fan who has ever given up on guitar lessons can tell you that loving an art form isn’t enough to ensure that you can produce it. What makes you able to produce is hard work, the same required by any other job. We can get what artists make for free. We often do. Whether we’ll always get their best work by doing so should be a question we ask ourselves. After all: No one wants to get surgery from a doctor who’s doing it for a high five.