Unless you’ve been living in a cave on a some remote South Pacific island, by now you’ve heard that Amanda Palmer created quite a controversy when she announced that she was asking for string and brass section “volunteers” to work for her on many of the dates on her tour. Ms. Palmer became an even bigger celebrity this last year when she did a Kickstarter for this album and tour and raised $1.2 million dollars. A full million dollars more than she needed for the project.
For the last week, I’ve tried to avoid joining the anti-Amanda Palmer internet pile-on that has captivated many in the music business and tech world. Why? For one simple reason. I believe in the artist’s right to monetize their songs and performances in any way they see fit.
If Ms. Palmer had told her Kickstarter fans that she intended to record her entire new album in one take with one microphone into an iPad, post it on the internet and pocket the 1.2 million dollars that is her right. (Well, hers and the IRS’s.) Yes even a punk cabaret singer deeply involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement has the right to get rich from her art and music. It’s nobody else’s business. Yes, that may clash with her public profile, and her fans can also choose to not support her if they think this is somehow hypocritical. But she has no obligation to give away all her earned riches–or gifts for that matter. Further, she has no obligation to be transparent about her finances, as she is a private individual. Although I understand why publicly asking for money on Kickstarter may change that for many artists. I stay out of this part of the debate, cause it seems to be mostly about the million dollars and whether Amanda Palmer has the right to make a comfortable living in privacy. Of course she does.
However, I do agree with the criticisms of others on nearly every other count.
This appears to be the blog post that started the whole controversy, Amy Vaillancourt-Sal of Classical Revolution Portland:
My friends and I are looking to bring back the respect that musicians deserve. As a personnel manager for my branch at Classical Revolution, I’ve been working towards assuring that my musicians are compensated for their talents and hard work. So, looking back at your ultra successful kickstarter and your request… Here you are, and you’ve raised over $1 million for your tour and album release. Here we are as musicians on foodstamps, maxing out their credit cards to keep the lights on, are hoping that we have enough money to pay next months rent, and have instruments that are in need of repair, need to be replaced, and even need to be insured. We are looking at you now and your request for musicians to come play with you for free, and most of us have even fallen in love with you and your music, and how do you think we’ll respond? We’re f*&king perplexed, agitated and disheartened, to put it mildly! What would you say to you if you were in our shoes? I have a pretty good guess…
The naive ones will say “sign me up!” I most certainly had that as my first response. But in looking at the whole picture, this time you’re coming across as the 1% looking to exploit us. I’m guessing this is not the impression you were going for. If this is the case, please respect the musicians who are giving you their time and specialized skills. We would love to play for you! Please do the right thing, Amanda. This all seems so contrary to your vision.
The future of music is musicians being compensated for their specialized skills and the beauty and difference that their craft brings to the world! We all know you can certainly afford it…
Ms. Palmer then somewhat defensively responded:
your concern reminds me of the complaints i’ve seen from musicians who insist that i’m “devaluing” their own recordings by giving my music away for free and encouraging people to pay what they want for it (which is how i just released my new record). i get the impression that they see me as a force of evil who is miseducating the public to think that “music should be free.”
here’s what i think about all that, and it also applies to this paid/non-paid musician kerfuffle:
YOU HAVE TO LET ARTISTS MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS ABOUT HOW THEY SHARE THEIR TALENT AND TIME.
especially in this day and age, it’s becoming more and more essential that artists allow each other space to figure out their own systems.
the minute YOU make black and white rules about how other artists should value their own art and time, you disempower them.
The thing is–Amy never said she was trying to make rules. She’s not the employer. We’re not talking about sitting in, or a jam. Ms. Palmer is an employer and she does make the rules on her stage. Other musicians–like Amy and me–don’t have to like her rules. We are free, however, to point out that this employer does not pay fair wages. This is a collective bargaining/workers rights issue. Nothing more. Please don’t try to make musicians feel that questioning the ethics of a rock star employer is somehow violating the rock star’s human rights. That’s disingenuous.
Justin Colletti also made some good points…..
Is it noble to support musicians only with “exposure”? Exposure for what? So that they might be selected to play the next cash-rich tour for free as well? Or are we talking about the kind of “exposure” that musicians will be subject to when they can’t pay their rent?
Let’s not make false equivalencies in this debate. It’s important to remember that we’re not talking about a friend of Ms. Palmer’s jumping up on stage to play a guitar solo or sing backup on a song. Rather, we’re talking about working or aspiring musicians who are expected to send in an audition tape, learn the material in advance, arrive punctually for a high-pressure rehearsal, and then arrive punctually again for a high-profile performance in which they will be an essential part of the emotional and aesthetic impact of many of the songs.
This kind of work deserves compensation — even if its just a token sum from an artist who cannot afford to pay a more traditional rate….
Palmer is paying her promotional team and her management team handsomely, but not the musicians? In doing this, she is becoming the very thing that she has told us she is railing against.
If a concert stands to make no money at all, or if it does stand to make money but the proceeds are meant to go to a humanitarian cause, then playing for free can be a very noble thing to do. But it’s important to remember that Amanda Palmer is not a charity. She is now running a significant for-profit entertainment business. And she’s doing a very savvy job of it. Other entertainment entrepreneurs would be well-advised to learn a lot from her. But not this.
I sympathize with Ms. Palmer. I understand how she found herself in this situation. It looks like over the last three years her shows have averaged about 600 paid attendance each night. An artist is lucky to receive a $6,000 dollar performance fee on that kind of attendance. If you consider the fact that a 8 person string and brass section costs money–my guess is close to $2,300-$3,500 a night in fees (based on local AFM scale) you can understand why she was reluctant to spend that kind of money. She would still have to pay all her other expenses out of what is left. I personally would not spend that kind of money (instead I would use backing tracks rather than ask people to play for free), but that’s her choice.
But now that Ms Palmer is playing for more than 1200 people a night and her shows are grossing between 30-60k a night, most reasonable people would agree that Ms Palmer would and should pay ALL her musicians. Just as this petition at Change dot Org suggests:
It appears that Ms Palmer has very conservative financial instincts she probably learned by years of down and dirty touring. I get that. Her mistake is she didn’t realize that her financial situation has changed, and many of the old rationales are not there anymore. Once there is profit it should be shared equitably. She simply failed to adjust to her new success. If Ms. Palmer is able to adjust her thinking and accept that she is now an employer in the 1% of musicians and pay all her musicians, we should all move on. Until then I am adding my voice to those asking her to fairly compensate all her musicians.