Amanda Palmer’s Tempest in a Teapot: Or How Should One Ask for Volunteers?

Amanda Fucking Palmer is no stranger to controversy. Her (stage) middle name can not be said in “polite company.” She has had projects which some feel are in at best questionable tastes (Evelyn-Evelyn). Some take issue with her refusal to be groomed as a “proper” lady. She has often been called an attention whore for her refusal to be fully clad at all times and her constant self-promotion via the Internet. And then let’s not even address her high profile marriage to author Neil Gaiman and the various accusations that has brought up. Despite the controversy, Palmer is on fire (and maybe her success helps in part to explain the controversy).

Her music and her struggles to break out of the strictures of the music industry have resonated well with her fans, friends, and defenders. Palmer has built a fan base by writing songs that reveal the personal struggles of being a young woman and a working musician in the early twenty-first century. Her self-promotion often takes the form of reaching out to her audience in various ways (setting up extra ukulele gigs, for free, allowing her album to be downloaded for free, cyber-hitching rides to gigs, cyber-couch surfing, hosting online parties, even live-streaming the recording of an album, complete with fans tweeting song ideas). Everything about her self-presentation and music screams authenticity to her audience (but fame-whore to her detractors). For those fans, it feels like community building and less like crass self-promotion on her part. Palmer’s apparent accessibility only reinforces that notion. She blogs, tumbles, parties on the Internet and tweets with the best of them. Like many others, I personally find this level of apparent openness disarming. And I absolutely enjoy her music. I will publicly admit to being an AFP partisan.

If you are unfamiliar with her work, Palmer cut her teeth in the Boston-based Dresden Dolls with drummer Brian Viglione. Palmer coined the phrase “Brechtian punk cabaret” to describe their sound and stage presentation. Not surprisingly, given the name, it evokes a certain era of German history often associated with decadence and cabaret shows. Her instrument of choice is the piano, and she prefers what I would call a rolling mode of playing—think of punked out ragtime. For his part, Viglione bangs out a steady, rocking beat for upbeat songs, but brings a certain percussive subtly to their quieter songs. Live they bring the audience into the performance. Their dynamic is one of constant motion, easily flowing between the two musicians and the crowd. I think Gaiman’s description of them live might sum it up best—they really are two percussionists hammering out these songs at live shows.[1]

Palmer’s solo work has taken many strange twists. Her first solo effort, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? is a concept album. She has also recorded an album of Radiohead songs on a ukulele, has performed (very controversially) as a conjoined twin with long time friend and collaborator Jason Webley, and put together an album of songs about or recorded in Australia (including a song in praise of pubic hair). Both with the Dolls and in solo projects, she leans toward “confessional” lyrics, touching on issues of the body, sexuality, guilt, shame, and alienation in a very honest manner. I can honestly say I have yet to hear another woman sing so openly about cutting.

All of this has led to a higher profile for Palmer – her endless touring, her confessional yet accessible lyrics, her engagement with social media, her willingness to help her fellow artists, her embrace of her fan base. But being high profile can often mean inviting controversies that the media, her fans, and her detractors can debate on the very public forum of the connected world. The newest controversy involved the crowdsourcing of “professionalish” musicians for her latest tour. Since breaking with her old label, Roadrunner, Palmer has publicly searched for a workable alternative to the major label system. Built on the old punk vision of DIY, she has embraced  what has come to be known as crowdsourcing and a freer attitude towards downloading as the way forward. It has paid off.  When she hit the web looking for funding for her most recent album, Theatre Is Evil, she quickly blew past her $100,000 target to raise $1.2 million within a month. The backers were funding her debt, her recording and duplication costs, her band’s salary (and those working for the band in other capacities), as well as high end goodies for some backers, a short pre-show tour of six cities (with an art installation and payment to visual artists participating) the full length world tour, web redesign, and whatever Amazon and Kickstarter take off the top.[2] Michael Gira of the Swans often offers his devoted fans premiums for their continued financial support.[3] Other bands have turned to subscription services in order to fund albums.[4] Many of these artists, including Palmer are benefiting from direct fan support rather than a more mediated relationship with a label in between (though this does not address the question of the Internet as the new mediator). But who gets the money is still a major question. The call for volunteers and the angry discourse that followed illustrates just how unclear the lines are regarding crowdsourcing and how an artist should be paid for his or her work.

The whole thing caused Steve Albini to call Palmer an idiot. To be fair, he kind of backed off, but then did not. Kind of. In case you have lived under a rock which had no access to the history independent music of the 1980s, Albini is a well-known and respected producer and musician. While he is probably best known for producing Nirvana’s In Utero, he is an accomplished musician with absolutely impeccable indie cred. His mid-80s Chicago band Big Black helped influence how bands outside the major label system would function. His famous invective against the evils of the major label industry, “The Problem with Music,” has informed how many musicians and indie music fans think about the major labels (Palmer links to it in her breakdown of costs).[5] More importantly, Albini puts his money where his mouth is: he will charge smaller indie bands a more reasonable price than someone with his background can command.[6] In other words, Albini is genuinely interested in music, the production of music, and true artist independence. He has demanded control over his own work, and has given that control to other musicians in his role of sound engineer.

Albini’s weighing in on the controversy marks it as a debate about artist independence from corporate forces. But is it only that? While there have long been “independent labels” within the structure of the music industry, a new wave of labels embracing the independence from the rock music industry emerged in the wake of punk rock in the United States and Great Britain. I have argued elsewhere that these labels came about largely due to the mainstream industry ignoring these bands in the mid-1970s.[7] While many early labels were more like old school indies, run by people involved in the music industry in various ways already, by the very late 1970s, a set of labels emerged that were run by musicians themselves and aimed at keeping control of the business side of music in the hands of musicians.[8] It is a case of “seizing the means of production” by the producer. Both Palmer and Albini are concerned with this question—both have taken advantage of technological changes within the industry, technology which helped make it a question in the first place.

But how does the problem of paying artists for the labor come in to these questions, especially when it comes to the ones not “making” the music on the production side? There is now a much easier access to music now via digital downloads. Tiziana Terranova has questioned the use of free labor on the net and whether or not all such unpaid labor (notably creative labor) which generates revenue, should be called exploitation.[9] This is not a new struggle for the indie world, which depends on community for support. Palmer has documented how she plans to spend the funding, including paying her full-time backing band and other members of her full time crew a salary. Arguably, even if she is seizing the means of production and asking her fan base up front to generate the capital to do so, she is now employing others (and has been for a while). Does this change her status as a “working, independent” musician? Is she no more than a capitalist? How are musicians playing for other musicians to be paid going forward?

A more important question is whether or not Palmer’s call for volunteers in this case constitute some sort of exploitative relationship. Parallels have been drawn to a major label artists (or a label itself) doing the same thing, but is this really comparable? I’m not convinced of this argument, even if what she did is problematic. Nor I am convinced of any malicious intent on her part. The problem might be that she does not really imagine herself in this light and still thinks of in terms of being a working indie band, still utterly dependent on her community. Palmer seems more of a small business woman, operating within a specific community and dependent upon that community, while trying to cater to it. In this case, a community of fans and indie artists that happens to be spread across the world.

It is also important to remember that the sort of language being deployed here—by both Palmer and Albini—is tied directly to their conceptualizations of themselves as part of a tradition of independent, underground music that grew out of punk rock. In many ways, it is a political orientation, one that carries as much baggage as being labeled a Democrat or Republican. It is the very definition of punk/post-punk that is at stake here. On some level, both seem to assume a static definition of punk or indie which we all agree on. Palmer has long used the term “punk” with various qualifiers to describe her work. Moreover, she argues for a strong connection between fan and artist, with the fan directly footing the bill when they can. She has also never shied away from asking for payment for her talents and services.[10] For his part, Albini consistently points to his willingness to support artists through his labor as an engineer, without charging a huge fee for having his name slapped on the album. He does not work for free but for fair compensation. Big Black, though emerging in the post-punk period, is positioned as a punk band.

Both claim to be part of a very particular tradition within the music industry—one that has at best an ambivalent if interconnected relationship to the major label system. The truth is that since Nirvana “broke” punk, terms like “indie,” “alternative,” and “punk” feel more like meaningless buzz words rather than meaningful understandings of a community built around music. Even if such things are no longer obvious, authenticity matters to indie music fans. But is authenticity just an illusion anyway when one is talking about making a living via art? Plenty of artists manage to carve out control over their artistic output, but continue to work within the confines of the major label system in one way or another.[11] Indie music fans are always on the look out for poseurs, it seems. These harder to please music consumers feel that they have a personal stake in the music they consume. The relationships between fans and artists are often deeply personal. Support is far more direct in many cases and has been for several decades now. Betrayals, real and perceived, are taken as a personal insult rather than as the cost of doing business in a volatile industry. But let’s not delude ourselves in thinking that we are not consumers and that our personal musical heroes can exist on our admiration and air.

Palmer was not just dealing with the politics of indie rock. She stepped on classical toes as well, which further complicates this debate. She was requesting “professionalish” musicians who could play horns and strings. It does not seem as if she lied to anyone in making this call for volunteers—she made it clear that this was a volunter gig, with no cash payment.[12] But who would answer the call? Maybe not just indie rock musicians. It is true that the lines that divide the classical and rock world are not as clear as they used to be. But she needed people who could play and read sheet music, so her call was for people who might have a foot in the classical camp, if not their whole bodies.

I would say these two worlds share more in common than is readily apparent. The classical world is another place where purity matters. Classical is high art, and is imagined to be hermetically sealed off from making a profit. Despite this perception of purity in these two worlds, both are much closer to the means of production and as such more aware of the contradictions involved in money and art. Many classical musicians have worked their way up through the ranks, and compete for seats on symphony orchestras, where they are paid a salary for their unique expertise. Many only perform the work of others, and do not write their own music. This has been reinforced by musicians’ unions, which work to protect the rights of these artists. Let’s not forget that many symphony orchestras are having serious money issues in the current economic climate.[13] But it is hard to argue against the notion that a classical performer is more likely to be considered a “professional” musician. When Palmer asked for volunteer musicians playing horns and strings, she was appealing to her fan base (on her blog) but was asking for a particular set of skills that many indie rock music fans may not possess. People did sign up.

Not all classical performers were thrilled that she was appealing for volunteers to a class of musicians who are well-trained. French horn player Amy Vaillancourt-Sals took to her blog to express her concerns.[14] Palmer responded several days later on her own site.[15] Albini then waded into the discussion, questioning her decision not to pay her backing band—a charge that is not completely true, as the touring band is salaried.[16] But it seems to me that no one took into account that there are several groups of people being addressed with very different expectations regarding how music should be funded. Palmer herself has been publicly trying to answer this question in the indie world for several years now.

The criticisms and attacks on Palmer came in part because she raised a large amount of money for this project and then claimed to have no cash to pay extra musicians. Albini argued that she should have budgeted for it upfront. Fair enough. This is especially true as many sectors of the American economy—not just the music industry—remain very precarious. Working indie musicians might not have the same access to flexible (yet at times low paying) jobs that allows them to pursue music careers “on the side.” As such, payment from music gigs becomes even more critical. Many see Palmer as coming from a position of privilege for numerous reasons—not many people can make a living out of producing art, after all. All these realities created the perfect storm that seemed to show that she was asking for more free labor from her already generous fan base. The expectation in the creative arts is that you give back to those who support you—this is doubly true for indie artists. She had dipped once into her fans’ pockets and it rubbed some the wrong way that she wanted them give her access to their talents as well. One person’s embrace of their fellow man’s talents is another man’s exploitation.

After a week or so of online debate, Palmer decided to pay those who volunteered their time at her shows. She did so by shuffling around the tour budget a bit (taking from the video budget to do so).[17] Still, not everyone is happy and feels that she was very bitchily capitulating to pressure to pay up rather than admitting wrong.[18] Feelings are still raw. What we should keep in mind is that this controversy is not just about Palmer, her supporters and detractors, even if personal insults (often very sexist ones) were thrown about in this debate. Rather it reveals the music industry in a state of transition. Many were rightfully concerned that her appeal for volunteers was exploitation of artists who often do not get fair compensation for their work. Palmer for her part has often worked for free or for tips (busking, opening for bands that can’t pay and sending around a hat at the end of their set, financing tours out of her own pocket when her old label would not pony up). As far as this album is concerned, fans can download it for free or pay whatever they want.[19] That being said, the structural changes shaking the industry have made many nervous. It did come off as a bit tone deaf to appeal to her talented fans who might be working musicians to play for her for free, when she has benefited from their support and love already. Many of them are working to live up to her example of an indie artist who made it on her own terms.

This entire incident in no way diminishes my admiration for her music personally. The music industry has always been tough. The mythologizing of musicians—especially in the “purer” areas of popular culture—as somehow above the dirty parts of the industry does not help us move forward as the industry changes. Many people have spent years struggling with these questions, and I do not think anyone has come up with any sort of satisfactory answer. Palmer’s request came at a particularly contentious moment in history and the debate reflects that moment. If AFP has done nothing else here, she has started a discussion we need to be having about labor and art.

Mindy Clegg is a doctoral student in History at Georgia State University. Her research interests include the political economy of the music industry, especially during the Cultural Cold War, as well as punk and post-punk as a transnational scene. She loves music and sometimes plays a ukulele, but only very poorly.


[1]   Neil Gaiman, “Neil Gaiman on Amanda Palmer and the Dresden Dolls,” Spin.com, November 5, 2010, http://www.spin.com/articles/neil-gaiman-amanda-palmer-dresden-dolls, (accessed September 26, 2012).

[2]   Her breakdown of where the money was going can be found here: http://www.amandapalmer.net/blog/where-all-this-kickstarter-money-is-going-by-amanda/.

[3]   Information on the funding of the Swans’ most recent projects can be found at “Swans: The Seer,” No Rip Cord, September 4, 2012, http://www.noripcord.com/reviews/music/swans/seer, (accessed September 23, 2012).

[4]   Both indie rock musician Kristin Hersh of the Throwing Muses and German experimental industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten have created subscription services, which their fans pay and receive premiums for their financial support. For Hersh, see  “Strange Angels,” Kristin Hersh, http://www.kristinhersh.com/mailing-list/strangeangels/, (accessed September 23, 2012). For Neubauten see “Supporter Neubauten supporter.org,” Einstürzende Neubauten, http://www.neubauten.org/supporters-english, (accessed September 23, 2012).

[5]   She gave a break down of her expenses on Kickstarter, where she raised the inital $1.2 million for all aspects of the project. Amanda Palmer, “Amanda Palmer: The new RECORD, ART BOOK, and TOUR,” Kickstarter: Amanda Palmer, May 22, 2012, http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/amandapalmer/amanda-palmer-the-new-record-art-book-and-tour/posts/232020, (Accessed September 23, 2012).

[6]   Some of the details on how he runs his studio, including details on his deal with Nirvana for engineering In Utero, can be found at Paul Tingen, “Steve Albini: Sound Engineer Extraordinaire,” Sound on Sound, September 2005, http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep05/articles/albini.htm, (accessed September 23, 2012).

[7]   You could compare for example, Chicago’s Chess Records, run by two brothers who started out running a bar in Chicago where many blues artists would perform, to say the West Coast label, Bomp! Records, started by music critic Greg Shaw. Many of the later punk and post punk labels were set up by Musicians themselves – Mute Records, DisChord, SST, or Alternative Tentacles, for example. I make this argument in Mindy L. Clegg, “’Through the Roof and Underground': Translocal Hardcore Punk in Los Angeles and Ljubljana,” MA thesis, Georgia State University, 2011.

[8]   See a good academic treatment of punk labels, Alan O’Connor, Punk Record Labels and the Struggle for Autonomy, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

[9]   Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Social Text 63, Vol. 18, No. 2, (Summer 2000), 33-58.

[10] Amanda Palmer, “Why I am Not Afraid to Take Your Money, by Amanda Fucking Palmer,” Amanda Palmer.com, http://www.amandapalmer.net/blog/why-i-am-not-afraid-to-take-your-money-by-amanda/, (Accessed September 23, 2012). The first comment on this blog entry attacked Palmer for claiming to have pioneered this sort of DIY method of making a living at music, pointing out that many punk bands have been doing this for decades.

[11] An overview of how music from both indies and majors get into stores can be found, Vish Khanna, “How to Understand Major Label Distribution,” Exclaim.ca, November 2004, http://exclaim.ca/MusicSchool/NeedToKnow/how_to_understand_major_label_distribution-research, (accessed September 23, 2012). Again, this is a useful book O’Connor, Punk Record Labels and the Struggle for Autonomy.

[12] Palmer, “Wanted: Horn-y and String-y Volunteers for the Grand Theft Orchestra Tour,” Amanda Palmer.com, August 5, 2012, http://www.amandapalmer.net/blog/20120821/, (accessed September, 2012).

[13] The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is just among the one of many organizations nationwide which are struggling with funding issues. See for example “Atlanta Symphony Near Bottom in Public Funding,” 11Alive.com, July 23, 2010, http://www.11alive.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=147475, (accessed September 23, 2012) and Norman Lebrecht, “Nobody Wants to Audition for Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Slipped Disc, August 12, 2012, http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2012/08/nobody-wants-to-audition-for-atlanta-symphony-orchestra.html, (accessed September 23, 2012).

[14] Amy Vaillancourt-Sals, “Letter to Amanda Palmer,” Amy Vaillancourt-Sals.com, September 10, 2012, http://amyvs.weebly.com/1/post/2012/09/letter-to-amanda-palmer.html, (accessed September 23, 2012).

[15] Amanda Palmer, “An Open Letter in Response to Amy, re: Musicians, Volunteering, and the Right to Choose,” Amanda Palmer.com, September 14, 2012, http://www.amandapalmer.net/blog/20120914/, (accessed September 23, 2012).

[16] For Albini’s statements, see Carrie Battan, “Steve Albini Slams Amanda Palmer for Asking Fans to Play in Her Band for Free,” Pitchfork.com, September 13, 2012, http://pitchfork.com/news/47845-steve-albini-slams-amanda-palmer-for-asking-fans-to-play-in-her-band-for-free/, (accessed September 23, 2012) and “Steve Albini, Amanda Palmer: The Fight Continues,” Pitchfork.com, September 14, 2012, http://pitchfork.com/news/47852-steve-albini-amanda-palmer-the-fight-continues/ (accessed September 23, 2012). Agree with Albini or not, he pretty obviously does call her “an idiot”, despite the walkback. Make of that what you will.

[17] Amanda Palmer, “What We’re Doing About the Crowdsourced Musicians. Also: We Charted at Motherfucking #10,” Amanda Palmer.com, September 19, 2012, http://www.amandapalmer.net/blog/20120919/, (accessed September 23, 2012).

[18] Mary-Elizabeth Williams, Amanda Palmer Still Doesn’t Get it,” Salon.com, September 20, 2012, http://www.salon.com/2012/09/20/amanda_palmer_still_doesnt_get_it/, (accessed September 23, 2012).

[19] “Pay What you Want,” Amanda Palmer.com, http://www.amandapalmer.net/shop/pay-what-you-want/, (accessed September 23, 2012).

Trackbacks

  1. […] projects can be seen as employing spectacle to enrich the few over the many. One could argue that Amanda Palmer’s various kickstarter project and her embrace of a “we are the media” ethos does indeed enrich […]

  2. […] Amanda Palmer’s Tempest in a Teapot: Or How Should One Ask for Volunteers? […]

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