By traditional standards, Amanda Palmer is something of a nonentity in the music business. But traditional standards are useless because we are not living in traditional times.
Her highest-selling album, a self-titled 2004 release with her punk-cabaret band Dresden Dolls, has sold 149,000 copies; none of her subsequent albums (two more Dresden Dolls records, a solo release and an album by a project called Evelyn Evelyn) crossed the 100,000 mark, according to Nielsen SoundScan. She was dropped from her label, Roadrunner. Her tours do well in midsize clubs but rarely break out into bigger venues.
Palmer, 34, can't sell lots of albums in a record store. But she can spend a few hours on a Friday night in front of her computer, drinking wine and tweeting, and wind up rallying her followers to drop $11,000 on T-shirts. (The numbers Palmer reports are all gross, but even so, 440 $25 T-shirts less production and shipping costs is still a nice number.) She can spend a few more hours in front of Twitter and auction off postcards and miscellaneous junk from around her home and bring in another $6,600. And she can release an album of Radiohead covers played on her ukulele and gross $15,000.
So is Palmer just a lucky outlier, blessed with talent, pluck and a devoted and sometimes high-profile support base? (Her fiancé is writer Neil Gaiman.) Or is she the harbinger of a new DIY model?
One thing is certain-Palmer likes to talk. In an hour on the phone, she barely takes a breath, covering everything from her unhappy undergrad experience at Wesleyan University to former label Roadrunner to her feelings about Lady Gaga. The verbosity has served her well. Palmer believes she wouldn't have built such a rabid fan base if she weren't willing to spend hours talking to them.
Palmer isn't just a prolific Twitterer. After every show she plays, she spends at least an hour signing autographs and talking to fans. "She really does love it," her project manager Beth Hommel says. (Palmer is self-managed but has a staff of three.) "I'll be trying to round her up to get her on the bus, and she'll just want to stay and keep the conversation going."
Her affinity for fan interaction isn't new, either. Palmer has insisted on spending time with fans after every show since the Dresden Dolls started performing eight years ago. "My fan base is not huge per se, but they are devoted. People come back again and again," Palmer says. "I get people coming up to me after shows and just handing me money because they want to support my work."
In an age when bands come and go quickly, Palmer says her staying power is mostly due to her fans. "I am constantly telling younger artists to take care of their early fan bases," she says. "There is still a stigma about hanging out with your fans and showing gratitude. I've seen it a lot-when Dresden Dolls was first coming up, I'd go see bands and wonder why they were big and we weren't, and then a year later they were gone, because their fans just moved on."
RUNNING FOR IT
Palmer's fans have proved to be loyal. When she posted that Roadrunner had cut shots of her midsection from a video and speculated that it was because she wasn't a size zero, her fans started what they dubbed a "re-belly-on" and sent pictures of their own stomachs to the label.
While her relationship with Roadrunner was fraught toward the end, she says that everything started out copacetic. "Roadrunner was the only label that was interested in Dresden Dolls," she says. "I sent out packages to everyone-name a label, and I sent them something. In my mind, we were the dream band-self-sufficient, with an audience already."
Unlike some of her formerly major, now-indie contemporaries who simply spew venom at majors, Palmer says she gives credit where credit is due. "They did a fabulous job on the first record," she says. "And I have no doubt we got a huge boost out of it. People think it's weird I signed to a metal label, but in my mind, I looked at the bigger picture and saw that Roadrunner was working with weird bands, non-pop bands, bands with hardcore followings, and it made sense."