Occupy Amanda Palmer?

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:


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:

Amanda Palmer: Pay ALL the Musicians that Perform On Your Tour

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.

9 thoughts on “Occupy Amanda Palmer?

    1. don’t know if i’m so much passive aggressive than just of two minds on the issue. I want artists to feel free to monetize their art however they want, but It such an obvious labour “foul” at the same time.

  1. Why wouldn’t she WANT to pay her band? Does she really think the final production/performance of her music is just about her? I am so humbled that my band show up and plug in with me once a month to play shows in NYC for f**k all money. I couldn’t make the noise I want without them, they’ve worked incredible hard to make me look and sound good. I wish I could pay them more.

  2. As many musicians as possible should claim their right to the “exposure” Ms. Palmer offers, and say they performed with her. I don’t think it’s worth very much…and I also think she doesn’t sing or write music very well. She is an excellent self-promoter.

  3. There is being generous then there is being a sucker. Palmer is making suckers of musicians who need to be paid. OTOH, I haven’t a clue who she is or what she does and having read this, I won’t bother to find out.

    It’s about more than being known. It is about being reputable.

  4. Amanda Palmer is a ripoff – to claim to be championing indie musicians while refusing to pay her own band is the worst kind of dishonesty. In fact it is probably illegal – a violation in minimum wage laws at the very least.

    How is she any different from the operators of Demonoid, Megaupload or The Pirate Bay?


    It’s OK if you save touring expenses by using local players – blues and country musicians have done this for decades – BUT YOU HAVE TO PAY THEM!

    You’re still saving the bulk of the expense of touring with a show of that level – no hotels, per diems, food expenses, or transportation. BUT YOU MUST PAY YOUR PLAYERS!

    1. You left out Wikipedia that acknowledges a substantial number of editors are “volunteers” under 17 years old.

  5. I have produced some of the finest new music concerts in NYC (rated in the top three by NYTimes) for over 28 years and before that I produced The Varese Concert Series, and with Morton Feldman–the classic “Evenings for New Music” in Buffalo NY. My policy has always been: “Hire the best musicians you can and pay them as much as you can.” Very simple, very successful. Performers are your lifeline in music, and you should be grateful for their amazing skills and sensitivity in delivering your music. When you start with this sort of mentality, you will find ways to fund your concerts. By devaluating the performer, you devalue you own music and music in general. We need to support each other in every way possible and set an example for the general public about the value of music in any society. Bunita Marcus

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