Georgia Straight March 13 2013 – Vancouver acts talk Amanda Palmer and TED: a new way to pay?

palmerIf you’re not familiar with Amanda Palmer, let me bring you up to speed.

She is half of the “Brechtian punk cabaret” duo The Dresden Dolls, half the conjoined-twins on piano performance artists/musical duo Evelyn Evelyn, and half the power couple that is Amanda “Fucking” Palmer and award-winning author Neil Gaiman. She’s also an accomplished soloist, perhaps a bit of an attention whore, and, most recently, an online punching bag after she followed a $1 million Kickstarter triumph with an appeal for free labour.

Throughout that debacle, Palmer remained steadfast, stressing again and again on her website that it is expensive to be a musician, dammit.

To be fair, Palmer was bringing “volunteer” musicians on stage long before her success with Kickstarter. And she retracted a request for musicians to join her on stage without compensation shortly after the shitstorm her latest call out produced. But it still seemed a bit rich (and down right offensive, to some) that the request was made so soon after the crowdsourcing windfall that was only made possible by the contributions of generous fans.

Addressing the matter once and for all on February 27, Palmer gave a 14-minute TED talk entitled “The art of asking”, wherein she spoke about where she’s coming from, why she does what she does, and why what she’s doing is the right thing to do.

Palmer compares street performance (where she began in the entertainment industry) to crowdsourcing, arguing that they are one and the same. Performance is a valuable art, and asking for money in exchange should be seen as fair compensation, not begging.

“For most of human history, musicians, artists—they’ve been part of the community,” she said at TED, “connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance. But the internet and the content that we’re freely able to share on it are taking us back. It’s about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough.”

Vancouver jazz-fusion sextet Brasstronaut raised $15,471 in 30 days on Indiegogo, another crowdsourcing website. To promote and press their second album, the 2010 Polaris Prize long-listers had counted on a Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR) grant, until it fell through. So the group had to get resourceful, clarinetist Sam Davidson said today in a telephone interview. “It was a desperate moment but we went for it.”

“The world is changing, people don’t want to buy and experience music the same way that they have for the last 100 years,” he continued. “Now we can interact with the artists that we like and build relationships.”

“You can never really count on federal funding these days because it is so darn competitive. I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t accomplished that campaign, I think the band would have folded.”

Vancouver guitarist Gordon Grdina, who has been working in Canada’s music business for over ten years, agreed with Davidson.

“What the fuck do you expect us to do as artists?” he asked. “We have to do things like Kickstarter now because record companies won’t touch anything that doesn’t sell over 200,000 records. If you make anything that’s indie or artistic, you’re not going to be able to make close to that, so where are you going to get funds to make music and do tours and make what you are?”

Not everyone thinks crowdsourcing is fair. Last year, Vancouver music critic Michael Mann wrote in the Georgia Straight that bands asking for money on crowdsourcing sites “come across as a bunch of shameless and entitled pricks.”

He went on to state that the good old days, when a band had to suffer for their art and put its money where its mouth is, have been replaced by “sickeningly safe-and-easy websites that allow you to turn your band into a charitable cause in five minutes.”

Mann mentioned Brasstronaut in his article, saying the band used the site to “hire a publicist to get them more pixels of coverage on the blogs.”

“It’s just such an old construct,” Davidson responded. “There’s so many people who are able to support your music in different capacities, and every one of those ways is perfectly valid from an artist’s standpoint. We have to let people imagine how they want to experience their relationship with their favourite artist; some people can give more and some people can give less.”

It’s an idea that echoes the main point of Palmer’s TED talk: it’s about the relationship between the artist and the consumer. The focus should not be on how to make fans pay for music—that model’s dead—but rather how to let them. “When we really see each other, we want to help each other,” she said.

“A lot of  people are confused by the idea of no hard sticker price,” Palmer explained. “They see it as an unpredictable risk, but things I have done…I don’t see these things as risk, I see them as trust. The online tools to make the exchange as easy and as instinctive as the street, they’re getting there. But the perfect tools aren’t going to help us if we can’t face each other and give and receive fearlessly, but more important, to ask without shame.”

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