Amanda Palmer is hardly your average musician. The multi-faceted artist and former co-leader of Dresden Dolls has a groundbreakingly hands-on relationship with her business affairs and, via social media, with her fans. Last year those fans pledged $1.2 million in a Kickstarter campaign for her latest project, Theatre Is Evil, which included an album, a book and concerts. The album got a traditional release in September and debuted at #10 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
She's also no small provocateur. As some people have started reacting to the free culture espoused by Lawrence Lessig in the 2000s -- books such as Free Ride by Robert Levine and Freeloading by Chris Ruen, and the Trichordist blog by David Lowery -- Palmer sees free culture intertwined with a patronage system that's enabled by technologies like social media and platforms like Kickstarter. Make your music available and create a relationship with fans and they will support you.
"I see everybody arguing about what the value of music should be instead of what I think the bigger conversation is," she tells Billboard.biz, "which is that music has value, it's subjective and we're moving to a new era where the audience is taking more responsibility for supporting artists at whatever level."
Palmer says these themes will be probably be featured on February 27 in her presentation at TED2013 in Long Beach, California, although she admits she hasn't written it yet. Below, she talks about why she believes a pay-what-you-want "patronage" model is the way forward for the music business, the changing relationship between artists and fans, the future role of records labels, and more. In part 2 of this interview, publishing Wednesday, Palmer talks about how the ways promoting her tours have changed, the enormous difficulties in fulfilling her fans’ Kickstarter orders, the morality of running your own business, and even more.
Have your thoughts on the value of music changed since your Kickstarter campaign?
Actually, in some ways, no, fundamentally. In some way my fundamental feeling about music is that it's impossible to put a price tag on it. Human beings made music before they made a lot of other things, including tools. When you think about that and you think that music's fundamental purpose is for human beings to share an experience with another human being, it gets really sticky to talk about the changing value of music because it's so subjective and it's so messy.
I grew up in that era where a new CD costs $15 and a used CD cost about $6.99 or less if you were lucky -- or more if you weren't -- and we were raised to think that music has a solid, tangible price tag. And we didn't do a whole of thinking -- at least I didn't when I was 15 years old -- about the relationship between the $6.99 you're spending on the CD and the person in there who's writing the song and singing them. Who knows if this money is getting to [the Cure’s] Robert Smith and Simon Gallup? It doesn't matter to me. I just want my CD and they're rich, famous rock stars, of course, because everyone is buying their CDs. No one was even having a conversation about the pathway of the money you're spending at your local record store and Robert Smith and his ability to go on tour and pay his rent. You just assumed it was being done in the shady backgrounds and somehow the system worked it out.
That whole system, year by year the curtain is gradually being torn away and the system is crumbling. Now the whole culture is being forced to face the artist. Oh my god, these are people with real lives and people with needs. It's kind of a pain in the ass. You get the feeling that on a lot of days the audience for most music would kind of rather not be faced with the artist, especially because we've been educated to think that the artist are these special creatures are otherwordly and aren't like us. That's bullshit. An artist is not all that special. You are still -- hopefully -- living a life and doing a job and facing the same struggles that pretty much every other working person is facing.
One of the best things about Kickstarter and crowdfunding and the collapse of the music business is a lot of artists like me have been forced to face our own weird mess about ourselves and what we thought it meant to become musicians. That's a conversation everyone's having: all of my artist friends, all of my musician friends.
We're talking about the relationship becoming more personal between fan and artist. Some people might say people should want to pay for music if the relationship is more personal. But you're not saying that?
That's a perfect way of putting it because you're right. This is the giant question mark in people's heads. My theory is that things aren't going to pick up until people … instead of saying people should want to pay for music, I think people should want to help their artists. I really think it's a different way of thinking.
Instead of trying of reeducate people and cram the idea into their heads that a song is worth a dollar, I think it should it should really be more about making people understand that while music is free -- because no one can f---ing argue that music isn't free; it just is. I've been saying this for years. You can no longer ignore the obvious. Once we can email each other songs and albums, the conversation had to change [and] you weren't going to put the genie back into the bottle.
I think the question is more now that this is what we're dealing with, what's the conversation happening between the artist making the music and the person listening to it? I think this is where my years as a street performer really inform my thinking. If you change the tenor of the exchange, then you can move things to the level where you as the musician aren't demanding anything, and you're not complaining about anything, then you're making it possible for people to help you. If you're a street performer, the vast majority of people will walk by and not help you, but most people will appreciate what you're doing and help you that you can make a living -- which I did as a street performer. Is it a steady paycheck? Not really, but you can generally predict that you're going to make "x" number of dollars on a Friday or Saturday night.
That's probably the way we're all going to have to think if things are going to work. Because if everyone just throws up their hands and says, 'OK, well, that's it, the system sucks, music is just free, artists are going to have to make their living some other way -- licensing their music to commercials or touring endlessly or whatever.' Artists can make money that way, but what if the way the world and the entire audience out there thought a little differently about this? What if they considered their musicians available to them somehow?
This is the sort of thing I'm probably going to talk about at TED. It's sort of what I've been saying from day one from way back in the day with early Dresden Dolls days when I realized people were sharing our music and burning our music onto CDs before things were sharable on peer-to-peer, you could see there was going to be this giant shift and there was nothing to do but embrace it and remind the audience that we're here and we're to be helped. And that meant money, help promoting us, a couch to sleep on. Let's just assume we're all in this together and you like our music and we need help and anything you'd like to do to help us from going back to our day jobs, you should be doing it. That's why it never made sense to me to punish our audience for wanting our music. To me, there's nothing more natural than the idea of people wanting to share music with or without having gone into a store and bought it.
A voluntary patronage system works a lot better for a totally independent artist these days than someone with a record label, don't you think?
Sure. I think the role of record labels is going to have to fundamentally change. You can already see that happening. Record labels are going to be forced to evolve into things that just help artists. We all know that it isn't about and can no longer be about shipping an extra unit to Walmart and seeing what sells. There's nothing to stop a giant corporation from wanting to pump a bunch of money into an artist to see what comes back and take that risk.
But the thing we've been talking about, the basic questions stay the same: will enough people care about Lady Gaga to the point they will all willingly throw down $5 for her strange side project if she says it's totally voluntary? My guess would be yes. But it's also because she has a direct line to her fans, she would be asking them and they would be responding to her, the artist. Does she have that gigantic reach because she's been promoted up the wazoo by her record company? Yeah, of course. But she doesn't have special status and she's no different from your local indie band who says the same thing to their 200 fans? It's a game anyone and everyone is allowed to play.
In part 2 of this interview, publishing Wednesday, Palmer talks about how the ways promoting her tours have changed, the enormous difficulties in fulfilling her fans’ Kickstarter orders, the morality of running your own business and more.