Amanda Palmer: The erotic politician on the crowd-sourcing campaign trail

I sometimes get annoyed at people who feel a burning desire to rail against the alleged “capitalist system,” because by my estimation, we have no more say in whether to stay within the confines of capitalism than we do to disobey the laws of gravity. Accrued interest, cash as a substitute for barter, wealth begetting more wealth, these aren’t necessarily voted-on concepts so much as laws of finance-via-human-nature that guide our interactions with each other. In the arts, of course, it’s even trickier, as “value” on a musical “good” is even more ephemeral than that of a “real” “thing:” a song or an album is either a hunk of plastic or a series of ones and zeros or a long trail scratched in a circle of vinyl, and yet the power of our culture, via the cult of celebrity, imbues great societal value on some over others.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that as the rules of late-20th-century music biz chicanery quickly fall by the wayside faster than you can say “Spotify,” we’re going to see a lot more shitshows like the one currently ensconcing local don’t-call-it-goth superstar AMANDA PALMER.

For those just tuning in, a quick recap: Palmer, solo after the demise of her much-beloved early-'00s They-Might-Be-Giants-meets-Tori-Amos-(please-don’t-take-that-insultingly) duo Dresden Dolls, and four years into a solo career that saw her finally free from the clutches of her label-that-didn’t-ever-get-her Roadrunner Records, recorded a second solo disc, titled Theater Is Evil. Rather than go begging to labels, Palmer used popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter to raise money for the release.

The response was overwhelming, with Palmer raising $1.2 million for the album’s release. Her Kickstarter appeal featured a video referring to the campaign as “the future of music.” Some of her funds were raised by small-money “investors,” or “donors,” (or “fans”), but a large part was raised by big-money givers, with a number of $1K, $5K, and even $10K donations helping to push the whole thing over the top. In the wake of the cratering of the label system, it was a new free-form capitalism, with an artist directly soliciting money from her fans, turning a simple album release into an explosion. In the wake of the campaign’s success, story after story praised Palmer’s project as representing a way for artists to succeed sans record label in the 21st century. It was Palmer 1, critics zip.

Cut to earlier this week, when Palmer issued this post on her site, soliciting musicians to join her touring band for select shows on her upcoming tour. The sticking point, at least to a number of people who saw Palmer’s post, is the part where she mentions that she won’t be paying these extra musicians, claiming that it would cost approximately $35,000 in order to pay those musicians for the tour. The outrage that followed came quick and hard: how dare she raise so much money, and then claim poverty when it comes to actually paying members of her band?

The story’s viral success is in some ways a shame for Palmer, if only because it has shifted focus away from the actual album that she just released; although her diehard followers surely know all about the record, most who don’t follow her career too closely may now know more about how much the album cost, and how much these auxiliary musicians should be paid if they were going by the scale rate of the classical circuit, than about the songs that make up the record itself.

The debate over Palmer’s allegedly-filthy lucre hits so hard because it sits at the intersection of several hot button issues: first, the ongoing debate over the changes in intellectual property, as the internet’s effect on our world sees access trump proper credit or compensation, whether you are selling a song or a book or a piece of software; second, the way that the austerity of our times have made sheer decadence seem wrong, with Palmer’s blowout coming across like a Caligula-like indulgence, at least in the indie world.

It’s important, before we get into, say, the back-and-forth between Palmer and producer Steve Albini, to understand that Palmer clearly intended the record as an event album, a token of a bygone era where bloated records made for a fortune were snatched up at midnight sales, the musical equivalent of a Michael Bay film being put on wax. Think of the way that hundreds of thousands of dollars were reputedly spent on the snare drum sound on Def Leppard’s Hysteria, or the countless millions that went into Roy Thomas Baker’s flange-heavy non-stop-champagne production of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — in the old days of record company accounting, spending big usually meant that you were big, and that even if the stakes were higher, more attention was bound to be paid to the gargantuan product being pushed. Nowadays, bands don’t record in chateaus and castles, and it’s up to the artist to front their own drug money — and to find a way to make people care about their wittew wecowd that they toiled on for so long.

It’s also crucial to get that Palmer saw this not as just an album, but a tour extravaganza, putting her whole endeavor in a long line of overly ambitious tour concepts wherein an artist bites off more than they can chew. In the late '70s, Emerson Lake and Palmer, at the height of their worldwide fame, set up a massive world tour with an enormous full orchestra in tow — if you think Palmer is nuts to attempt to ensnare a few classically trained musicians in each town she swings into, imagine what it costs to bring an entire orchestra with you night after night. Needless to say, the tour went bankrupt halfway through, and the rest was completed sans orchestra. Countless other major tours have lost a fortune on the crazy boondoggle ideas of the principal artists, whether it’s the lemon that was U2’s Zooropa tour, Styx’s doomed Kilroy Was Here tour or Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball jaunt, all of which sold out stadiums worldwide but reportedly cost their artists millions of their own money by the end. Many of rock’s most memorable concerts, when you really get down to it, are money-losers: what was Woodstock, for example, but one of the most calamitous investments in rock ever?

The difference, of course, is that when those indulgent money-wasting free-for-alls were going on, the paying public was usually none-the-wiser as to how much everything cost. Palmer’s sin here is, ultimately, one of transparency, or over-sharing: so much of her persona is wrapped up in letting us know every little thing she is doing or thinking, so of course she’s going to make a big deal out of how much her Kickstarter netted, and of course she’s going to toss out the figure of $35,000 that the musicians would have cost were she not crowdsourcing their skills. $1.2 million, $35K: Palmer herself floated those amounts out to us, we didn’t have to go digging. And for the casual observer, it doesn’t take much to draw a straight line between those two numbers and say “Hey, why isn’t there $35,000 left in the budget to pay the musicians, what with you having $1.2 million?”

Someone like Albini knows perfectly how: he wrote the book (essay) on the Byzantine arithmetic that screws musical acts who are bad at accounting with his infamous early-'90s essay “The Problem With Music”. So it should come as no shock that he somehow found his way into this thing, with his seemingly innocuous post to his own Electrical Audio board (named after the recording studio that he owns and runs). He didn’t come out and call Palmer an “idiot”, as he was eventually quoted as having done, but he did poke at her crappy math and indulgent budget, which makes sense, since he has always been the voice of Spartan techniques and manageable bottom lines as the only real salvation of rock and roll. The world of indulgencies is not his thing, so of course Palmer’s fanciful folly of an album/tour/concept would elude his analysis.

Palmer’s eventual apology/not-an-apology was a necessity, and is of course an indication of just how potentially damaging this whole thing is to her aesthetic reputation. Palmer’s career has been one of sticking it to The Man in the defense of The Fans, but this particular example of crowd-sourcing is striking many as exploitative. Is it, really? Not really, in the sense that most people would have no qualms, if they were able to, in jumping onstage to jam with an artist that they are a fan of, without worry of compensation. How many jobs, especially in the creative world, hinge on unpaid internships at the outset? As Palmer sees it, in a New York Times piece on the phenomenon that sparked the outrage, it’s a win-win-win situation, with her, her fans, and the musicians all benefiting from the arrangement.

It also speaks, though, to our current musical climate’s rapid erosion of the cult of the rock/pop star, as authorship and auteurism take a greater and greater backseat to the inclusive participatory nature of the current climate; whether it’s fans making Youtube clips and parodies that make eventually obscure our memory of the original (quick, which have you heard more, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” or the ten bajillion remakes and take-offs?) or EDM concerts that are little more than a no-holds-barred dance party with a non-descript DJ on the stage dwarfed by a massive Jumbotron stage show, the rock-star-as-messiah-to-our-youth is increasingly a thing of the past.

It was Jim Morrison who dubbed the rock star the “erotic politician,” a concept that is as true for Amanda Palmer as it was for the Lizard King. Which of course means that every step, every choice, is a political one, a decision on how to wield power for maximum yield. If Palmer’s current album, filled to the brim with catchy songs, motorik beats, massive choruses, and melodic tuneage, is sonically engineered to entice the swing voter, Palmer’s tactics of late are, in contrast, “playing to her base.” No one who is currently a fan will be moved to disown Palmer because of her attempt to crowd-source talent for her tour, but those unfamiliar may miss out on the populist kick of her new long-player.

As more established artists are forced into unknown territory, as record label deals vanish and the security of a lifelong career with it, don’t be surprised if Palmer’s grand experiment becomes a canary in a coalmine for the pitfalls of navigating this new and untested terrain that is the 21st century music biz.

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