Money, Transparency & Art: Amanda Palmer and Crowdsourced Fury

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Amanda Palmer has had a busy week.

The Boston musician and Lexington native released her new album, Theatre is Evil, on Tuesday. She kicked off a major supporting tour. And, she has continued to received tremendous criticism for inviting musicians to join her band on stage without pay. Critics feel guest musicians are being shafted by an artist that raised over $1 million on Kickstarter in May. But they’re missing the point, and we’re all learning the true expectation of Kickstarter donations: ownership.

Daniel Wakin, posting Wednesday on New York Times ArtsBeat, reported on Palmer’s recent work and the backlash from the American Federation of Musicians and Internet commenters that her guest performers be compensated. In an interview Tuesday with Wakin, “Ms. Palmer also said that she could not afford to pay the extra musicians she requests, a string quartet and three or four sax and brass players. The cost, she said, would be around $35,000 for all the tour dates.”

As an alternative, she scaled down her touring band, opting for two saxophonists and crowdsourced talent from the audience in each city on the tour. Palmer’s blog post asks for horn and string players to “hop up on stage with us for a couple of tunes.” She also asks that players attend a rehearsal prior to the show to run through their parts. This is where many criticizing Palmer stop to decry her request as cheap, unfair, and hypocritical. Truly, one view of a musician is as a craftsman, paid for their time laboring and for the product they produce. This view predominates in much of the outcry on her blog and twitter feed, and is colored green by Palmer’s $1.2 Kickstarter fundraising last May and by her ill-advised comment about budget to the Times. But the issue of money is moot: her request was for fan involvement and entirely in the spirit of her prior performance history and relationship with her audience.

Surprised by the anti-Amanda Palmer outcry. At the heart of it, would you play with your favorite band for free?
Chris Kelly

Viewing Palmer’s request in the context of her performing career offers insight into her intentions. Her band the Dresden Dolls have long encouraged active participation of fans at shows, where the audiences are entertained off-stage by baton twirlers, jugglers, acrobats and other performance art. The spectacle resembles something akin to a midnight screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show. The volunteer groups, called the Dirty Business Brigade, often coordinate themselves city-by-city via message boards on The Shadowbox, an online community of Dresden Dolls and Palmer fans.

According to the Brigade FAQ, audience performers are often placed on the comped guest list. Though it’s not mentioned explicitly on the blog, one assumes this courtesy is extended to the guest string and horn players for Palmer’s current tour.

Mentioning the cost of hiring auxiliary musicians for the tour to the Times was unfortunate, and bolstered many critics’ focus on money as the prime motivation for her request. This spring’s wildly successful Kickstarter campaign was raised from 24,883 backers. In Palmer’s video appeal, she stated “this is the future of music” through Dylanesque cue cards. We haven’t realized the future may include not only crowdsourced performers, but also career managers.

There are a few ways to view a Kickstarter pledge. The donor may be going ‘shopping’, remaining project-agnostic as long as the incentive bundles satisfy. Or the donor may be pre-paying for their recording, or trying to purchase a unique experience, like premium tickets at a concert than include a backstage meet-and-greet.

Yet comments raging on the amount of money raised also advise on the best way to use it. We’re seeing that a pledge is not for the incentive bundle, and not to passively endow a grand project. We are seeing many thousands of donors claiming ownership. Rachel Lynn Brody, a New York blogger, wrote that she originally contributed to the campaign, but now wants her “dollar back.” In a post Wednesday she wrote, “I contributed to Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign because even though I don’t adore her music […] I have a lot of respect and admiration for her as a hard-working performance artist who wanted to change the system. I wanted to play a small part in that change.”

In a sense, we don’t donate to public television for the tote bags and coffee mugs. We support the mission and give funds to prolong it. If PBS started airing programing like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, we might see outcry from “viewers like you.”

what is it with rich 'I can't pay the band $35,000 because I need every cent of the $1.2mil' people?
jacinda woodhead

Jodi Beggs, economist and friend of We Love Beantown, is well-read on audience perceptions of art and the relative merits of musician compensation models. In a NerdNite talk last year at Middlesex Lounge, she touched on an inherent weakness in the patronage model Kickstarter offers: it is conservative and territorial. In early May, Daniel Brockman wrote in the Phoenix on this model applied to Amanda Palmer, who at the time had raised about $500,000. He evaluates a potential outcome for the public patronage model, writing, “What this may mean is that a small, rich, vocal cabal of music fans could grow to have an undue impact on the way music progresses, as artists within this direct patronage model have to appease those that put food on their table.”

What we have seen instead is impact not from a small, rich cabal, but rather… everyone. A donor may view their pledge akin to buying stock in a public company with votes proportionate to their investment. But comments seem more like each donor views him or herself as a little Medici, out of the context of the total sum raised. Palmer only sees the bottom line number as an endorsement of her artistic direction.