Michael Dougherty had a good post the other day about how much easier it is for established artists to raise money via Kickstarter, and how that gives the lie to the more rosy-eyed proponents of internet meritocracy. Amanda Palmer, known for her work with the Dresden Dolls and marriage to Neil Gaiman, is an excellent example of someone who turned online reputation into successful crowdfunding, having raised more than a million dollars on Kickstarter to fund her new album. According to this Times profile, that will allow her to release it in the black, a very unusual feat for most musicians. She played in DC last night.
But rather than paying a string and horn section for the current tour, Palmer announced on her website that she would be taking applications from players that wanted to join the band onstage. For compensation, Palmer and her tourmates would ”feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.”
For this, she’s received a good deal of criticism from musicians’ unions, freelance players, and just people who think musicians should be compensated for playing shows for which there is an admission fee. Palmer disagrees:
In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Ms. Palmer rejected the criticism. “If you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument would become invalid,” she said. “They’re all incredibly happy to be here.” She said the players joining her band were there because “they fundamentally believe it’s worth their time and energy to show up at this gig.” As a working musician, she added, she absolutely believes regular players on a long tour should be paid salaries, as are the three other band members in her Grand Theft Orchestra.
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.
It’s difficult for me to get worked up about this, mostly because nobody is being forced to join the band. Yet it certainly is unseemly that she could raise huge amounts of money and then not compensate her backing musicians in anything other than t-shirts and hugs. Typically if an artist or group wants to do a particular tour with a more extensive backing band, they’ll hike the ticket price. Palmer is trying to have her cake and eat it too.
What bothers me more is that Palmer seems think one of two things. Either she thinks the opportunity to play in a band with her is some kind of gift to her instrumentally-capable fans, or she thinks the experiment is a sociologically innovative way of connecting with one’s audience in the internet age. The first is insulting, the second is untrue. She says the musicians “fundamentally believe it’s worth their time and energy” to show up and play, but she apparently doesn’t think their time and energy is fundamentally worth compensation. And this isn’t supposed to be a slew of amateurs who haven’t picked up their cello since high school; she says on her website they’re expected to be competent and show up for rehearsal. In other words, she expects them to abide by the general standards of the music industry, but she doesn’t pay them like professionals.
All this underscores Michael’s point that online notoriety makes it easier to marshall time, talent, and resources. At a certain point, the same notoriety can apparently bring free labor as well. Kickstarter doesn’t just give life to obscure new projects. It allows one to translate fan enthusiasm into capital, which gets easier with a larger following. On a personal note, my band has often played for no more compensation than gas money and a few pitchers of beer, but that’s because nobody’s ever heard of us. Does Palmer’s minor celebrity come with a responsibility to do better?