The Problem with the Future of Music: Amanda Palmer and the rise of the music biz Super PAC

In The Problem With Music, an oft-cited screed from the heady alternative-bands-being-poached-by-major-labels days of 1993, audio-engineer/musician/crank Steve Albini posited that the big label machine was sucking the marrow out of the vibrant underground music world. More insidiously, it was doing so by forcing artists to sign onerous deals that seemed like big bucks until they read the fine print. He ran the numbers of a typical big label buyout, revealing in the end how much money the business made compared with the working-at-Walmart wage of the musician, ending with the notorious epithet “Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.”

As anyone with even tangential interest in the business of music would understand, we are a long way from the salad days of ‘93; in a sense, Albini’s dream has come true, as major labels have seen their power wane and un-label-affiliated artists have found ways to thrive in this new musical economy (well, not everyone agrees; read, if you have a spare few hours, for example, this bitter missive, entitled Meet The New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss" from ex-Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven frontdude David Lowery on how the new musical business reality completely blows for the indie artist). The latest salvo from the anti-label camp is sure to be the news this week that a new record has been broken in music fundraising on the website Kickstarter (a project-funding site where users can solicit donations/investments in a specifically goal-oriented manner): Boston’s own AMANDA PALMER, ex of local heroes Dresden Dolls, has so far raised almost half a million dollars for the release of her next solo album. Impressively, the money has been raised in only a few days, with over a quarter of a million raised within the first day alone. Palmer started the Kickstarter project upon finally wiggling out of her major label deal with Roadrunner Records, and in many ways the enthusiasm of her fan base that she has been able to channel into this project is remarkable.

Corresponding with the Phoenix earlier this week, Palmer made a bold declaration in terms of what her Kickstarter success means for the future of music, as a business model: “The music industry as we knew it -- where musicians were beholden to the big media machine -- is officially dead. I hope my kickstarter helps shine a flashlight on its sinking coffin.” And she is certainly within her rights to say this, seeing as, for her, it is true; free from the confines of Roadrunner, she has proven that going directly to her fans works exceedingly well for her. It didn’t take long for news of Palmer’s first-day success to spread the globe, as site after site picked up the breathtaking lede that the music business model is dead and the future of music belongs to independent artists circumventing The Man.

But lost amidst the sound of champagne corks popping was a look at exactly what is happening here: my first thought, scrolling through the Kickstarter page, was a sense that the numbers on Palmer’s page were very similar to those in Albini’s treatise. In his piece, Albini tallied up the numbers of a typical label deal, coming to the conclusion that million dollar signing advances don’t necessarily add up to much when put through the major label machine. Palmer’s Kickstarter project is ambitious: in addition to the recording of an album, the project entails the album’s release and promotion, the creation of numerous versions of the album, from lowly CD to lavish art-table-book editions with commissioned works by famous (read: expensive) visual artists, and an ambitiously staged tour. Looked at that way, the half-million that Palmer has netted so far may not go quite as far as one might think.

Of course, the point of the whole exercise, the reason it is considered such a coup, is that Palmer’s haul will be used by her and her alone, allowing her to avoid the bloat of a major label. As she pointed out in her correspondence with the Phoenix, “5,000 backers from one day of funding -- that’s NOTHING in ‘traditional’ album sales. My old label would have rolled their eyes at that number.” And she has a point: in the traditional album sale model, an enormous number of sales are needed to float the boat of the label, with the artist only receiving a check after the album has sold vast numbers-- a phenomenon that Albini details in his 90s essay.

However, the other instructional aspect of Palmer’s Kickstarter is to dig into exactly how much people are donating (or “pledging”, in Kickstarterspeak): as of this writing, she has over 2,500 backers who paid a dollar or more for a digital download of the album, and nearly 3,500 $25 or more backers who will receive a deluxe hardbound copy of the album. But the real meat is in the other end of the spectrum: Palmer has received nearly 30 $1,000 or more backers, 25 $5,000 or more backers, and even a $10,000 or more backer. These big spenders are due to receive all manners of personal services from Palmer, from house party appearances to handmade books and turntables to, for the 10K backer, a one-on-one five hour hang. Palmer is far from the first musical artist to employ this method of personal reaching out: I remember being moderately skeeved out a few months ago when checking out the Kickstarter album project page for California tween-pop duo Millionaires, who made, on the upper end of the money spectrum, all manners of sketchy promises, from a Disneyland trip with the duo to them giving the backer “their cell phone number” (This kind of stunt goes way back, though: those of us old enough to remember the early days of MTV, for example, remember that the dawn of reality TV was arguably 1984's Lost Weekend With Van Halen, when some zit-faced Pennsylvanian got his house raided by VH and their entourage, in a scenario that perhaps Palmer is looking to recreate).

I guess the head-scratching aspect here, for me, is who are these people giving thousands of dollars? In the traditional record label model, investors give money to the label, the label finds talent and songs and matches them up together, and that investor money is spread out amongst a roster of artists; most of those artists lose money for the label but then the label will hit on a Mariah Carey or a Nickelback and make back enough money to recoup any losses. The investors are re-paid, the artists are paid (barely, maybe), and the label retains dough to keep the thing going. In this Kickstarter model, though, there aren’t investors, there are only donors; meaning that the artist isn’t beholden to the label, but is instead in some manner beholden to the donor.

The music business has been moving into this tiered-appreciation model for some time now. If Palmer’s 1-dollar-to-10K spectrum seems crass to you, consider that most major artists, when they tour stadiums today, use similar tiered systems. When Bruce Springsteen or U2 or Madonna roll into town, they sell the cheap seats and the front row seats, sure: but they are also doling out even more primo swag, like the opportunity to be sidestage or backstage, or to meet the band before the show, for the right price. In ye olden days, fans would have to win contests to get these kinds of prizes-- but in in today’s free-for-all market, that stuff is just straight-up for sale to the highest bidder. If you want to shake hands with your hero, it isnt’ a matter of going through the huck and jive of the label anymore so much as just straight-up being willing to pay the money that the prize demands.

Or to put it another way: the Internet has allowed artists and fans to have a more direct relationship, but it has also given artists a more direct way to shake their fans upside down for pocket change. Much has been made of the fact that, in the traditional model, the $14.99 you plunked down for a CD at Sam Goody resulted in a pittance actually finding its way to the artist’s pocket. But if you give that money directly to the artist, don’t you now have a greater say in what music that artist makes? The traditional model allows artists to do their thing, with the label as an intermediary between the artist and the desires of fans. Without that intermediary, fans can and probably should feel free to express their opinions on the work that they are paying for directly.

What this may mean is that a small, rich, vocal cabal of music fans could grow to have an undue impact on the way music progresses, as artists within this direct patronage model have to appease those that put food on their table. I can’t help but see this as not dissimilar from the way that election fundraising has developed in recent years; in a sense, Kickstarter success stories like Palmer’s are the Super PACs of the music world. Think about it: someone like Newt Gingrich, for example, should have been out of the race a long time ago, except that he had the massive financial backing of an extremely small and extremely wealthy group of backers. Were he to be successful in his bid, he would be completely in the debt of those that paid for him to be there-- and the less people that pay for him to be in that position of power, the worse it is for everyone, right?

So it is, sort of, for music: do we want our cultural heroes to be those that millions and millions have agreed on, or do we want everything to be decided by small pockets of fanatical wealthy supporters of niche musicians? It’s food for thought: after all, it’s Palmer herself standing there in her own video holding up a sign saying “This is the future of music.” The question, then, remains: Is it?

If you watch the video, by the way, notice closely at around the 40 second mark when she gets to the point where she is forced to tell you that she needs money; for a brief second, she turns from the camera with what I take to be nervous laughter. After all, what artist wants to ask for money, right? Part of this being the future of music is artists losing the boomer-era idea that wanting success is gauche. The victory of hip hop culture is supposed to have alleviated us of the old chestnut that artists don’t want to sell out and are not privy to the business side-- someone like Palmer is an artiste artist, but she is also a businesswoman, as are pretty much all successful musical artists nowadays. From Gaga to Jack White, the top of the charts are filled with people who are, on at least a few levels, shameless hucksters for their own wares, in the traditional show business sense.

In 2008, at a solo Palmer gig at the Paradise, I witnessed an onstage auction, as audience members bid on everything from various tour bric-a-brac to a signed guitar.  The guitar went for $800, and this wasn't charity, this was just Palmer raising funds for her tour.  Soon after, a literal hat was passed around.  It seemed, to me, that audience members had already given once when they bought a ticket-- was everyone in attendance supposed to "give until it hurts", to use the parlance of non-proft fundraising?  At the time, I voiced my distaste for this sort of straight-up money-grabbing.  But maybe I was just looking at it all wrong-- because an artist has to do what he/she must do.  It’s important to remember that Palmer’s roots are in street busking; expecting her to have shame while asking for money is misunderstanding where she comes from and how she got here. Moreover, as an ambitious modern musician, she knows that if she didn’t do this sort of thing, someone else would. After all, the future of music is going to be artists who shamelessly grab the brass ring. We’ve had several decades by now of pop music being over-run with ex-Disney kids and televised singing contest winners-- in case you old timers out there hadn’t noticed, this isn’t exactly Robert Johnson at the crossroads anymore. Or maybe it is: because what exactly does an artist sell when they get fans to dole out 10K in exchange for basically nothing?
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