Amanda Palmer: When Good Things go Bad
Singer/Songwriter Amanda Palmer’s main claim to fame may be her marriage to author Neil Gaiman. But, she was also half of the cult music group The Dresden Dolls. Yet, Palmer is probably most famous, or infamous, to those who know about, and possibly participated in, her Kickstarter campaign. Labeled by many as a hypocrite and the most evil person on the Internet (Clover, 2012), Palmer has created a controversy about whether musicians deserve to get paid for their work.
In April of 2012, Palmer launched her Kickstarter, here’s her promotional video for the campaign:
(*Warning there is adult content in the video, so watch at your own discretion.)
The campaign was for what she called “help to launch her new album” with a new band called “Grand Theft Orchestra.” Palmer had just left her label and had decided to go independent with a new band, but she needed funding. She claimed going independent cost her a lot. She even asked for musicians to join her new band. If you go to Palmer’s Kickstarter Campaign on the Kickstarter website, she promises all kinds of gifts and rewards, including a special book written by her husband and a colleague if people donated. She even advertised for “professional-ish” musicians to join her band, she needed string instruments and more orchestra-based musicians. She would buy them food, beer, and offered them other sundries, but… she couldn’t pay them. Her reason behind not being able to pay them was that Palmer spent all of her funding on producing her album, as well as the fact that she needed money for things like airfare, mailing costs, and all her personal debt, and so she couldn’t afford to pay anyone (Clover, 2012).
Chicago-based musician Steve Albini was infuriated by Palmer’s request. In an article written by Michael Nelson on the music website “StereoGum,” Nelson shares what Albini told Palmer – Albini called her an “idiot” for thinking that she could ask for professional musicians to work for free. Palmer did not respond directly to Albini, but she did give the New York Times a statement by saying, “To me it seems absurd. If my fans are happy and my audience is happy and the musicians on stage are happy, where’s the problem” (2012)?
Palmer didn’t realize that there was a problem and only saw this as a win/win for herself and her fans, which tends to be the case with many of the promoters of fan-based types of crowdfunding campaigns. According to Graeme McMillan, a writer for Digital Trends, an online tech magazine, Palmer managed to take advantage of her online fan-base by having them fund all of her own work and also decided it was not wrong to ask musicians to play for free (2012). The irony was that Palmer thought it would be a privilege for local musicians to come and play with her for free, and in so doing, she saw herself as a benefactor to musicians because she was offering them more musical experience. Palmer was able to make 1.2 million dollars on her Kickstarter, yet she couldn’t seem to pay the musicians she invited to come and play with her.
Certainly this led to a huge backlash for musicians who are paid for their services and how crowdsourcing/funding may need to be regulated. Yet again we get into the conundrum of fan agency and labor. Supposedly no one was twisting Palmer’s followers to pay or play; they did this of their own free will, and this is the excuse that Palmer gave readily. Something that McMillan points out is that the fan agency idea is a cop out; professional musicians who were asked to come and play with Palmer are just that, professionals, and they should be compensated for their labor.
Palmer did eventually send out a rather passive/aggressive retraction stating:
I’m sad to realize that our creative intentions of crowd-sourcing – something that I’ve done for years, and which has always been an in-house collaboration between the musicians and the fans, never a matter of public debate or attack – are getting lost in the noise of this controversy (McMillan, 2012, p. 1).
Palmer also went on to add that she would be paying her musicians after all, but by then it was too late; she had musicians angry with her. There are still many of her critics that are outraged and find her words insincere and disappointing. Many people no longer believe her, and because of this, she’s lost a lot of fans.
This incident of Palmer’s opens up the issue of outsourcing to people who will work for less because it just makes them happy to do it (remember the affect theory), but it is an issue between what fans are willing to do and the labor they provide. I believe McMillan says it best when he mentions fan labor in his article in The New Yorker:
Ideally, you don’t even know you are working at all. You think you are keeping up with friends, or networking, or saving the world, or jamming with the band. And you are. But you are also laboring for someone else’s benefit without getting paid. And this, it turns out, was exactly Amanda Palmer’s hustle (McMillan, 2012).
**Update: March 16, 2015. Amanda Palmer is crowdfunding again, this time on a crowdfunding site called “Patreon.” It’s a site where artists can go and receive funds from patrons to continue to create their artwork. Her Patreon campaign is a bit different from her Kickstarter, she wants to produce art now. The video in her campaign is similar to the one up above, and she has a rather long diatribe as to why she’s an artist and why you should support her and her art. She started the campaign. As of March 26, 2015 she’s got 3925 patrons, earned $29,139.25 and has produced only one “thing,” a single for her new album, but the single is not quite ready yet, so the thing isn’t quite a thing yet.
Clover, J. (2012). Amanda Palmer’s Accidental Experiment with Real Communism Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/amanda-palmers-accidental-experiment-with-real-communism
McMillan, G. (2012). Kickstarter Queen Amanda Palmer, Meet Your Internet Backlash.
Retrieved from http://www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/kickstarter-queen-amanda-palmer-meet-your-internet-backlash/
Nelson, M. (2012). Where’s the Beef? Steve Albini: Amanda Palmer Is An Idiot. Retrieved from http://www.stereogum.com/1151562/steve-albini-amanda-palmer-is-an-idiot/franchises/wheres-the-beef/