This Machine Kills Fascists, Doesn’t Pay Musicians

Folk artist Amanda Palmer raised more than $1 million on Kickstarter, then tried to get musicians to ‘volunteer’ at her shows. This is a problem.

Sady Doyle

(Aleisha Cutler/Flickr/Creative Commons)

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.

Despite getting $1.2 million from her fans, Amanda Palmer asked local musicians to play with her on stage in exchange for free beer, hugs and merchandise.

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.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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