With the second Dresden Dolls album, the relationship began to unravel. "The straw that broke the camel's back was when I went in to meet with the head of the label and he asked me to make a mainstream pop record," she says. "Now, I'm a good pop songwriter, and I might well make a pop album someday. But if I do, it'll be on my own terms."
She campaigned, very publicly, to be dropped, and after a period of time the label realized it wasn't seeing eye to eye and accommodated her request to go on her own, a source close to the situation says. Roadrunner does retain the rights to future Dresden Dolls releases.
When it came time to release her Radiohead covers album, Palmer decided to team up with Bandcamp, a relatively new e-commerce platform for musicians. Palmer says she calculated the minimum she would need to break even on each album, including paying publishing to Radiohead and covering her own costs, and arrived at a base figure of 84 cents.
She advertised that number as the base donation, adding that buyers were free to contribute more. She also sold vinyl copies of the album for $20 and devised a number of other fixed-price packages, including T-shirts for $20; a $35 pack with vinyl, a shirt and buttons; and a $250 pack with vinyl, a shirt, a ukulele hand-painted by Kayla Oberlin, a signed photo, a mai tai glass, poster and other goodies.
In addition, she put together a $1,000 package with vinyl, a shirt, a ukulele hand-painted by Palmer, a phone call with Palmer, an original song by Palmer based on the buyer's suggestion, a signed photo, glass and poster. She also created a second package that contained all the content in the $1,000 pack, plus a one-of-a-kind iPhone 3GS with exclusive content, that also cost $1,000. Within 24 hours, everything was sold out save for the shirts and one of the $1,000 packages.
Even though 84 cents was the minimum, Palmer says the average donation was about $5 per EP. "Once you type in 84 cents, it looks like such a paltry number, and people want to bump it up," she says. "They know the money is going to me, and that makes it easier to increase the amount."
She adds that for previous albums, she has been open about telling her fans to simply find her music for free online and support her by buying merch and coming to shows. "People come up to me at shows and say they downloaded my album or got it from a friend, and then they hand me money," she says.
While Bandcamp is not the only service that provides an e-commerce platform for bands, co-founder Ethan Diamond says the site is well-suited for artists like Palmer. "We provide fulfillment of digital audio, and we can provide different kinds of audio files," he says. "We are like Etsy in that we provide the interface for sales of physical product and then artists can choose to contract out the fulfillment or do it themselves. And artists can see the data we collect on a dashboard."
Bandcamp takes a 15% commission on digital sales and 10% on physical sales.
"Amanda has been successful using this platform, but that doesn't mean smaller artists can't also do well," says Sean Francis, Palmer's director of new media, marketing and promotion. "The real danger comes when someone sees what Amanda is doing and decides to just follow the model. Things work for different people in different ways, and the worst thing you can do is just blindly follow a model because it has worked before. The smartest thing any band can do is throw out the rules and just listen to their fans."
Palmer says that she's content with where her fans have led her. She's currently preparing for a performance as the MC in a production of "Cabaret" at Boston's American Reparatory Theater that will run in September and October. She adds that while she's not getting rich, she's able to pay her bills with the income from sales and touring.
"People have asked me about Lady Gaga, and while she's great, I have no desire to do that," she says. "People need to get out of this old mind-set about fame being some sort of game you can win and look at ways for musicians to make sustainable, middle-class incomes. I'm focused on my audience and art, not being a flash in the pan."