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."
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."
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