Amanda Palmer and the Gift Economy


Punk-cabaret chanteuse Amanda Palmer (or as she likes to call herself, “Amanda Fucking Palmer“), best known for her work with the Dresden Dolls, was recently at the center of unwanted attention when on August 21st, as she was preparing for her tour with her new band Grand Theft Orchestra, she posted the following request to her blog:

Palmer Future of Music
Amanda Palmer
Screen capture from her Kickstarter video

we’re looking for professional-ish horns and strings for EVERY CITY to hop up on stage with us for a couple of tunes.

we need a COUPLE of horns (trumpet! bari! sax! trombone! all need apply!!!) to join in the blasting with Ronald Reagan, our sax duo who’ll be joining the Grand Theft Orchestra every night.

and we need enough strings to make up QUARTET (pre-made quartets WELCOME) to join us for a couple tunes….and to act at the string quartet for [Grand Theft Orchestra’s bassist and string arranger] jherek bischoff’s beautiful music (basically, you get to BE the opening ACT!).

She then added information about the requirements and payment for the gig:

Story continues below.

you’d need to show up for a quickie rehearsal (the parts are pretty simple) in the afternoon, then come back around for the show! we will 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.

And if anyone suspected that she was willing to give beer, hugs, and high-fives to just anyone:

you need to know how to ACTUALLY, REALLY PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT! lessons in fifth grade do not count, so please include in your email some proof of that (a link to you playing on a real stage would be great, or a resume will‚Ä®do. just don’t LIE…you’ll be embarrassed if you show up for rehearsal and everyone’s looking at you wondering why you can’t actually play the trombone.)

This expectation for the guest musicians to treat the gig as a professional engagement (and note that they were not merely expected to perform as sidemen but as the opening act), and not get paid, caught the attention of a number of musician unions, especially given that Palmer and the members of the Grand Theft Orchestra were being paid. The Musicians’ Association of Seattle Local 76-493 tweeted:

Criticism also came from American Federation of Musicians president, Raymond M. Hair, Jr., who in an interview with The New York Times, stated: “If there’s a need for the musician to be on the stage, then there ought to be compensation for it [….] Playing is work and there’s a value associated with it, and that value ought to be respected.”

What irked so many critics was not just that Palmer was counting on musicians willingness to be paid in beer and swag, a common token of gratitude between friends when money is scarce (as it often is) or even that it would have been considered an outrageous offer were it made by promoter or a venue owner, but that the Palmer had had just successfully crowd-sourced funds for her new album, Theatre is Evil, and the tour and connected projects like an art book and touring exhibition, to the tune of $1,192, 793 via Kickstarter. Despite this influx of cash, Palmer complained that she could not afford to pay the additional musicians, estimating in the NYT interview that to take eight additional musicians on tour would cost $35,000.

On September 13, musician and producer Steve Albini, who had been initially quoted in the press as calling Palmer “an idiot,” summed up this disconnect between having $1.2 million and not having $35 thousand on a message board:

I have no problem with bands using participant financing schemes like Kickstarter and such. I’ve said many times that I think they’re part of the new way bands and their audience interact and they can be a fantastic resource, enabling bands to do things essentially in cooperation with their audience. It’s pretty amazing actually.

It should be obvious also that having gotten over a million dollars from such an effort that it is just plain rude to ask for further indulgences from your audience, like playing in your backing band for free.

Fuck’s sake a million dollars is a shitload of money. How can you possibly not have a bunch laying around after people just gave you a million dollars? I saw a breakdown about where the money went a while ago, and most everything in it was absurdly inefficient, including paying people to take care of spending the money itself, which seems like a crazy moebius strip of waste.

Amanda Palmer
Amanda Palmer, Kings Arms Tavern, Aukland, New Zealand, September 12, 2006
Photograph by Wonderferret

The breakdown of the $1.2 million to which Albini refers had been posted to Kickstarter by Palmer back in May. Despite the numbers, it is often vague and rambling. Apparently allocating a quarter million for paying off personal debts, and the rest going to the CD which she claims to be “a superdeluxxxxxe work of art” and costs $15 a unit to manufacture, two-thousand copies of a limited edition art book, thank you cards to her donors, salaries for her personal staff and artist commissions for all the work. In short, she promised to lavish high quality product upon her fans, special limited edition gifts to her donors, and paying salaries and commissions to those who work for her, except, of course, as the August 21st blog post notes, players in the string and horn sections.

Cord Jefferson, writing for Gawker, found that Palmer’s explanation of her production costs for art books, 7″ vinyl records and CDs, even with some sort of artisan packaging, were greatly inflated, noting the difference between producing 7,000 “superdeluxxxxxe” CD packages for $105,000 and 7,000 CDs in a standard jewelcase with a 32-page insert being produced for $9,000; essentially a 1066% markup.

Oddly enough, despite her claims to not have any money left over to pay the string and horn players, her Kickstarter request had laid out the plan to conduct the same album, concert tour, art book, and traveling art exhibition for $100,000.

In a rambling blog entry dated September 14th, 2012, Palmer admitted that the backing musicians were paid in some cities and not paid in others:

there were cities like new york where jherek – and everyone in the band – really wanted to make sure we had a 100% tried-and-true string corps. he didn’t want to bank on possibly risky volunteers that night. chad raines, my guitarist, who’s also in charge of wrangling the horns, agreed on that front as well. so we called our more professional horns and strings friends in new york, and we freed up the budget to pay them. we’re doing that in some cities, and in some cities it’s a total grab-bag of strangers on stage.

[…] the upshoot? every single city is totally different. sometimes paid. sometimes not. it’s sometimes messy. sometimes not. sometimes slightly risky. and therefore, in my opinion, fun.

The upshot is that musicians were unpaid when it was convenient and paid when it was seen as necessary, also claiming that when musicians were not being paid, that they were happy with the situation. She further responded to her critics by noting the times she had played for free, or had famous musicians sit in with her and concluding that “YOU HAVE TO LET ARTISTS MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS ABOUT HOW THEY SHARE THEIR TALENT AND TIME” with the implication that there was an equal playing field between an artist who is capable of raising over a million dollars from enthusiastic fans and one who may very well be struggling to make ends meet. The underlying argument was that the market (that is the employer, that is Amanda Palmer) should set the wages and working conditions and everyone should be happy for the opportunity to play with Amanda Palmer no matter their pay-scale. Shockingly, it is the same argument that free-market libertarians make against labor unions and health and safety regulations. It was also quite at odds with her decision to perform Leon Rosselon’s song The World Turned Upside Down at an October 6, 2001, Occupy Boston event. The song tells the story of the Diggers, a sect of 17th century rural English Protestant communists:

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The song is often mistaken for a ballad from that era (and certainly was presented to me as such during my 2004 stint with Bread & Puppet Theater, when it was the closing number to “Upside Down World Circus”). The lyrics condemn private ownership, insisting that some things should be held in common, which in the 17th century would be understood as land, but today might be understood in terms of infrastructure, knowledge, information, and the products of crowd-sourced endeavors:

The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain

Other lyrics describe the way obedience is enforced through the “dazzling” tales of the Anglican clergy; and certainly there is a parallel with the dazzlement of pop-star idolatry:

They make the laws
To chain us well
The clergy dazzle us with heaven
Or they damn us into hell
We will not worship
The God they serve
The God of greed who feed the rich
While poor folk starve

Indeed, one could ask if it only took a sudden infusion of $1.2 million to turn her sympathies for the 99% upside down, or if her previous sympathies for the downtrodden were a glam rock affectation.

On September 19th, after several more days of backlash, Palmer defiantly relented:

for better or for worse, this whole kerfuffle has meant i’ve spent the past week thinking hard about this, listening to what everyone was saying and discussing. i hear you. i see your points. me and my band have discussed it at length. and we have decided we should pay all of our guest musicians. we have the power to do it, and we’re going to do it. (in fact, we started doing it three shows ago.)

my management team tweaked and reconfigured financials, pulling money from this and that other budget (mostly video) and moving it to the tour budget. all of the money we took out of those budgets is going to the crowd-sourced musicians fund. we are going to pay the volunteer musicians every night. even though they volunteered their time for beer, hugs, merch, free tickets, and love: we’ll now also hand them cash.

i hope this does two things: i hope it makes the volunteers surprised and happy (they’ll be getting some dough they had no idea was coming) and i also hope it makes our family circle feel good about speaking out. when we handed the musicians their surprise cash backstage in new orleans the other last night, they laughed like mad and said “after ALL THAT, you’re going PAY US??!!”

[…] we’re also retroactively sending a payment to the folks who’ve already played with us. SURPRISE!

While Palmer did in the end decide to pay her guest musicians, she continued to insist that her initial position was a “philosophical” one and that she was beyond ethical reproach.

Interlude, the First:

When I look at what appears to critics to be the immense extravagance of Palmer’s budget, I cannot help but wonder if $1.2 million were distributed amongst ten or twenty of Massachusetts most artistically adventurous fringe theatre companies. With theatre artists often having to find imaginative ways of working on a shoestring budget, that influx of funding could easily create a theatrical renaissance in the state.

A case in point, two years ago, Whistler In The Dark Theatre‘s founder and artistic director, Meg Taintor used Kickstarter to raise $2,657 so that her actors could train in aerial silk acrobatics for a production of Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, an adaptation of The Metamorphoses. It was a fairly modest financial request but the resulting work was widely acclaimed. Indeed, former Clyde Fitch Report contributor Thomas Garvey suggested on his own blog, The Hub Reivew, that this production could represent Boston nationally or internationally. Two years later, Whistler has moved out of their haunts in the small brick-lined 49-seat Factory Theatre and are reviving the show at the relatively spacious 125-seat Jackie Liebergott Black Box at ArtsEmerson. Just imagine what the Whistlers other troupes like them could do with an extra sixty to one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand dollars?

Amanda Palmer and the Gift Economy, Part 2

It’s hard to understand the Boston music and arts scene without acknowledging just how much relies on a gift economy (of which crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding is but one variant) and trading in-kind services. The gifting of talent and time between artists is often times necessary not just for getting the art out there, but for creating the social glue that makes for a cohesive arts community. It is within this the scene in which Amanda Palmer started her career and formed her ethos. I have long participated on the same scene, and I suspect that Boston is not unique in that regard.

Amanda Palmer
The Ballad of Immoral Earnings:
Amanda Palmer playing her “Kurtweill”

During the late 1990s Amanda Palmer was a performance artist best known for her human statue act, “Amanda, the Seven Foot Bride.” Though popular in other cities, human statues were a fairly rare sight on Boston streets in the 1990s, but in her wake, it has become the most commonly seen non-musical form of street performance in the Boston area. We crossed paths a number of times; on one occasion in 1999, we both performed at a benefit show for the Stillings Street Studios, a live-in art space in Boston’s Fort Point where the artists were being threatened with eviction by the Boston Wharf Company. I did my spoken word act; Palmer choreographed a brief piece of physical theatre about the eviction. Our efforts would be for naught: the artists would eventually be forced out on April 1st, 2000, and the building was demolished two weeks later and replaced with a parking garage.

Under the name of the Shadowbox Collective, Palmer curated art parties at the Cloud Club, a complex of two brownstones that artist Lee Baron has, over the course of four decades, turned into a live-in art installation in Boston’s South End, and where Palmer made her home for many years. These were not for-profit events, but an opportunity for artists to perform to their own communities. It was at these parties, sitting on a bureau in Palmer’s bedroom I saw one of the very first performances of the Dresden Dolls. Brian Vigilione was in one corner playing on a minimal drum set, while Palmer pounded percussively on the keys of a baby grand piano in the other. In 2001, I played one of the characters inhabiting the Cloud Club for a benefit party for a play that Palmer was workshopping entitled Hotel Blanc. Hotel Blanc would be performed the following spring at the Middle East Night Club in Cambridge, and while I cannot say I was very impressed with either the narrative or the shoddy historical research, there was certainly a sense of community ownership.

As the Dresden Dolls would become progressively more popular, they routinely performed benefits for area arts organizations such as a benefit show for Mobius Artist Group, which I specifically remember because it was the first time I heard them perform Brecht & Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and it was the first time I noticed Palmer’s alteration of the Kurzweil logo on her keyboard to “Kurt Weill.” Indeed, Palmer has long enjoyed associating herself with Brecht & Weill, having coined the phrase “Brechtian Cabaret Punk” as a marketing term for the Dresden Dolls. Though outside of the fetishization of the Victorian era debauchery portrayed in Three-Penny Opera, there was little sense of what was “Brechtian” about the work. The power of Palmer’s songwriting and the Dresden Doll’s performances often came from emotional catharsis and not from any provocation towards the critical thinking to students of 20th century theatre.

Around the time the Dresden Dolls solidified their glam rock image and became a top Boston band, the concept of the Dresden Dolls Brigade seemed to come into existence. Not only would fans show up at shows in elaborate costumes, but the shows would began to feature performance artists as opening acts or as a side show, extending many of the ideas behind the Shadowbox Collective into for profit venues. The drift from a community with an impresario at the center, to a star asking favors from her fans had begun.

Ian Thal
The author performing at a Dresden Dolls concert at Boston’s Avalon Nightclub, October 30, 2004
Photograph: Jeff Wasilko

On October 30th, 2004, I joined the Brigade, performing a short mime piece entitled “The Argument” to a recording of Duke Ellington’s The Dicty Glide on stage at the Avalon Ballroom near Boston’s Fenway Park. While the image of the white-faced mime was a popular one amongst Dresden Doll fans, for many, I imagine that for most, it was their first time actually seeing a mime performance. I was not being paid; I did it na√Øvely for the experience and with the hope that by participating in the gift economy, I might be on the receiving end later.

Several months later I would rejoin the Brigade in a 2005 show at the Paradise Rock Club, a short walk from the Allston apartment where I was living at the time. I loaded in that afternoon during sound check to confer with the crew. When I met with the evening’s master of ceremonies, he was a well-groomed hipster boy who appeared to have the gleefully energized short attention span of someone using recreational substances: despite having in hand a written schedule listing me as one of the acts he was supposed to introduce, he was incredulous that I was actually supposed to be on stage. One of the other performers on the bill also attempted to explain the schedule to him, but he was too high to understand. Eventually I had to rush off to teach my mime class and hope that by the time I was back, he would sober up. I returned in time to get in make-up, watched the first acts on the bill and waited to be introduced. The MC skipped me. A performer in one of the other opening acts expressed concern. The tour manager, quite without apology, decided that it was not important to fit me back onto the schedule. After the show, when I voiced my frustrations to the MC, his only excuse was that he had been high and really excited to be MCing a Dresden Dolls show. When I raised my complaint with the staff member who had booked me for the show, he was unresponsive.

There is a simple dictum behind why artists do things: love or money. If you are not doing what you love, you need to get paid; if you are not getting paid, you need to love what you are doing: ideally the long term goal is to be paid for what one loves. After treating the volunteer engagement as professional commitment I had found myself poorly treated. The Dresden Dolls Brigade concept had become ungainly and was riddled with a lack of accountability. I wrote it off to experience decided not to work with the Dresden Dolls Brigade again under those conditions.

Interlude, the Second:

When the Amanda Palmer controversy first blew up in my Facebook feed, more than once I encountered questions such as “Why can’t Amanda get the money to pay the musicians from Neil?” “Neil,” of course, is Palmer’s husband, Neil Gaiman , the best-selling author of numerous graphic novels and creator of the Sandman franchise. Leaving aside the fact that she clearly did not need his money, there is simply the absurdity of imagining Gaiman in a similar situation.

Consider: were Gaiman to receive a sizable advance from a publisher to produce a new graphic novel and then announce that he wanted a penciler, inker, colorist, or letterer to work for beer, high-fives, hugs, and swag, instead of some combination of pay or royalties, the personality cult that surrounds him would probably be sufficient to convince some very talented fans to work under those conditions. However, not only would he be widely criticized by his colleagues in the field, but he would be seen as a hypocrite, due to his advocacy of artists being fairly compensated for their work, most famously in his own legal battles against artist, writer and publisher Todd McFarlane over rights to characters Gaiman had created, as well as to his successful efforts to establish British cartoonist Mick Anglo’s rights to his creation, Marvelman. The elderly Anglo (born Maurice Anglowitz) sold his cast of characters to Marvel Comics in 2009 for what has been reported to be a sum of one million dollars.

Amanda Palmer and the Gift Economy, Part 3:

During the autumn of the Occupy Movement, it was very easy for right-wingers to accuse Occupiers of hypocrisy, noting that many of the items they relied upon-mobile phones, clothing, coffee, backpacks-were made or distributed by large corporations. Of course, this is a particularly facile criticism. It’s hard to function in modern society without interacting with capitalist institutions. No matter how much a given artistic community operates on a gift economy, artists still need to pay rent and purchase goods, and they either need a day job, patronage, or a talent for either business or living frugally. Participating in the music business, whether one is independent or signed to a label, still requires access to recording technology, music distribution, venues and ticket sales; how one manages to mediate between the idealism of a gift economy and the commodification of the market economy becomes a matter of ethics.

When Palmer was a struggling artist, reliance on the gift economy was a means to an end in creating a truly immersive experience for her audiences. In return, she often gifted her time and talent back to her artist community, as she noted on September 19th:

i’m sad to realize that our creative intentions of crowd-sourcing – something that i’ve done for years, and which has always been an in-house collaboration between the musicians and the fans, never a matter of public debate or attack.

[…] i’m blessed: i’m a financially successful musician working in a culture where support for musicians is in a state of terrifying flux. nobody knows this better than me and my friends, all of whom are trying to navigate their own creative ways in the murky waters of a new-digital-music-future during a recession. people see me as powerful. it is – by its nature – going to bring more attacks from the world when it disagrees with my artistic and business approaches. i doubt it’ll stop anytime soon. we’re ready.

Amanda Palmer $1M
Photo by Kelly Davidson

The problem came when she ceased to be a struggling artist and impresario and became a successful artist and impresario with $1.2 million dollars at her disposal. It took a major backlash from musicians and critics for her to realize that while the rules of the business were changing due to both the global recession and the advent of digital music, her new socio-economic status had also altered her ethical demands, and only she and those dazzled by her public persona did not see that. Relying on crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding when one is a struggling artist seems not to be controversial; it is benefiting from a gift economy. However, arbitrarily relying on free crowd-sourced labor after one has raised $1.2 million shows that one is ethically clueless at best, or deliberately exploitative at worst. Given her justification for her now withdrawn demand for free labor: a zero-sum game in which she aims to give paid commissions to her friends and create an immersive experience for her fans, it is easy to see the rationale both for the backlash and the vehement defense offered by some of her fans.

The 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian (and literary prankster) S√∏ren Kierkegaard, in his Fear and Trembling, took issue with G.W.F. Hegel’s notion that faith and ethics were rational by citing the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Writing as “Johannes de Silentio”, Kierkegaard called this special circumstance a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Kierkegaard argued that Abraham’s obedience to God could in no way be seen as rational or ethical to either his neighbors or to himself since he had no way of knowing in advance that God would spare Isaac. As such, Abraham’s faith was the embrace of absurdity and could not comport with a rational system of thought.

Despite the dazzle of pop-star idolatry, being Amanda Fucking Palmer is not a teleological suspension of the ethical.