Policing Amanda Palmer: How crowdfunding has changed expectations for artists

From The A.V. Club:

In April 2012, Musician-artist Amanda Palmer launched a Kickstarter asking fans for $100,000 to manufacture and promote her new album, Theatre Is Evil. Close to 25,000 backers kicked in, pledging nearly $1.2 million and making her the first musician to break the $1 million mark on a Kickstarter project. The album came out in September 2012 and Palmer launched a tour. As she had in the past, she invited musicians to join her on stage at each stop, promising merchandise, beer, hugs, and high fives to anyone semi-professional who wanted to jam with her. The post set off a massive Internet backlash, with people questioning whether she was exploiting musicians, and weighing in on her posted budget from May. Palmer recently announced that she’s paying guest musicians now. But the whole kerfuffle raised a lot of issues about Kickstarter, crowdsourcing, what people expect from artists and celebrities, and more. Music Editor Marah Eakin and National Editor Tasha Robinson recently kicked some of these questions around.

Tasha: Let me just acknowledge some bias up front, Marah. I like Amanda Palmer as a singer and performer. I already have tickets for her Chicago appearance on the Theatre Is Evil tour, and I saw her in concert last time she came through Chicago with Dresden Dolls. At that performance, she brought Chicago singer Molly Robison onstage to do background vocals on “Delilah.” I have no idea whether she paid Robison; it didn’t occur to me at all at the time. What I did notice was the comfortable, huggy interaction they had, and Robison’s beautiful voice. I looked Robison up online immediately afterward—she’s on Twitter, Facebook, Bandcamp, MySpace, all the usual outlets for an up-and-coming musician—and she was all over social media talking about what a thrill it was to be up there with Palmer, and how much fun she had.

And I recently interviewed Palmer, which involved a lot of reading about her backstory, and her lengthy history of inviting theater students to come to her shows in costume and interact with the audience, and inviting other musicians to come play with her when she was in town. So when this whole flap started up, I wasn’t sure what the big deal was. She’s doing what she always did, right? Were people just not aware that this was nothing new for her?

But here’s a difference, I think: Before the Kickstarter success, no one knew how much money she had, so her budget wasn’t a matter of public policy. Now, everyone thinks of her as “Amanda Palmer, Kickstarter millionaire,” and she’s being held to a very different standard—especially since now a lot of people feel like they partially own her financial success, either because they personally contributed to it, or because it was publicly funded, and they’re members of the public. Watching the backlash, for me, has been a lot like watching someone yell at a policeman, “You have to do what I say, because my taxes pay your salary!” How have you taken the whole situation?

Marah: I’ll get into that, but let me also get my biases out of the way up front. I do not like Amanda Palmer’s music, but I do respect her as an artist, and as a performer who has the right to make whatever kind of music she wants to make. That said, I also spent years working in the music industry, both as an independent publicist and as a publicist for record labels, so I am of the opinion that the business is not as evil as everyone makes it out to be—and that it takes that kind of business backend to make everyone’s musical frontend experience so great.

While your policeman analogy is kind of apt, policemen are out there working for our public safety, whereas Palmer is—whether she likes it or not—working for our enjoyment. Not mine, per se, because I didn’t donate to her campaign, but she should be accountable, at least a little bit, to those who did. That’s not to say that she won’t be mailing out the CDs she’s saying she will, but coming from the industry I worked in before this one, I think what people are really reacting to is her public budget and this perception she’s built up over her years of fan interaction. If her fans had just matched her goal, then great, no one would care about this whole pay-for-play issue. However, instead they went above and beyond, and thus expect to be compensated accordingly with special experiences. Palmer could have done her whole tour without strings and brass, but instead she decided she needed them, because people would show up and do it. In some cities, like in New York, she pays those people. (She pays everyone now, but this was before.) In others, like Des Moines, she doesn’t. I think that kind of stuff is what gets her fans up in arms. Isn’t she one of us? Isn’t she of the people? If she is, then why do some people get better experiences than us, and why does she expect even more from us than we’ve already given her?

Am I wrong in thinking this? I absolutely get where she’s coming from, and I think she has the right to do what she wants, and the musicians have the right to say no. But on the other hand, to me, it seems like she’s devaluing their work by saying hers is better—or at least more valuable in both a monetary and artistic sense. What do you think?

Tasha: I think that as soon as you dropped into the royal we, I got the twitchies and my shoulders went up around my ears. I know you’re channeling your version of what the fans might think, but as soon as anyone who is not officially representing a designated, specific group (preferably after having been democratically elected to the position) starts talking in terms of what “we” think, I hear a raging wave of entitlement and assumption, the attempt to turn one person’s opinion into a movement via rhetoric like “I know the silent majority of people out there agree with me when I say…”

And that’s part of why the Amanda Palmer backlash sets my teeth on edge. The rhetoric on the Internet gets awfully heated awfully quickly, and there’s a lot of tendency to try to speak for other people. I’m annoyed at people who aren’t her fans trying to define how her fans should interact with and respond to her. I’m annoyed at the Seattle union speaking up against her on behalf of all musicians. I’m annoyed at people who didn’t contribute to her Kickstarter issuing orders about how she should spend that money, on behalf of those who did.

But as far as I’m concerned, even the people who did contribute to her Kickstarter shouldn’t get a vote in how she spends the money. She told them specifically what they were getting for their money in terms of contributor rewards, and she has a duty to meet those obligations. She never said part of the funding was making sure Des Moines fans got the exact same concert as New York fans, for instance. Or that part of the money would go into getting a professional career sax player for each gig. But is that really part of the equation here? The objections I’ve been seeing have been much more along the line of, “She has $1.2 million, she should be paying everyone who gets onstage with her, why is she so greedy in holding onto it all for herself?” I honestly haven’t seen anyone complaining that the real problem is that she hired pros in New York but is calling for fan participation in Minneapolis. Have you seen a lot of people complaining about inequity? Because that does get into some of the things we wanted to talk about here, about fan ownership of artists and entitlement and obligation, but it’s a side of the story I haven’t encountered myself yet.

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