Amanda Palmer: If You’re Asking ‘What’s In It for Me?’ Then You’re In the Wrong Business

Amanda Palmer’s foreword to the 4th Edition of The Future of the Music Business by music industry attorney Steve Gordon is a major breathtaking capsule of everything she has fought for, and against, in her career. For an artist that very few people might be able name a single song from her, she has brilliantly attracted attention for her views on the music business, and doing good in this world. I’d take her heartfelt attitude over the vacant hipness of a few popular big artists any day.

When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Mr. Rogers

If you’re reading this, you’re already not normal– normal people generally don’t want to legitimately “work” in the music business. If you’re reading this, you’re either an artist, in which case you’ve taken a decidedly difficult path in life (why not go into insurance sales?), or you’re somehow affiliated with the giant variety of jobs that are supposed to help the connection between the artist and the rest of the world: a club booker, a music lawyer, a producer, a sync agent.

I say “supposed to help” because this basic truth can get lost when people head into the noisy, confusing marketplace of sharing, selling and commodifying music–especially as things are changing at the speed of the internet.

The music business I experienced as a kid was the golden cage/age of the 1980s and 90s, in which the goal was to get signed, and in which the middlemen (the managers, agents, promoters and mainstream media) provided the conduit from the artist to the wide world. The artist’s job was to make music and tour, and it was music business’s job to carry the heavy load of records out the door, make people listen, make people come, make people care.

That era is over.

We now live in a world where artists, if they want to, can skip most of the old-school steps and make their own material (recorded on the relative cheap), release it (uploaded to the net at no cost to the artist), promote their own music and book their own tours (via web tools and email lists); and if their music is any good, they can make a living wage. If they have a strong work ethic and good enough material, and a few thousand fans, they can earn enough to survive without ever being “successful” in the eyes of the mainstream media. You’ll never hear about these people. They are out there, working, and they probably have a small handful of people helping them.

A lot of the jobs that used to be only executed by a manager, agent or producer-engineer are now doable by the small-to-mid-level artist, or the artist’s girlfriend or boyfriend (if the artist’s girlfriend or boyfriend knows basic garage band and/or facebook techniques). Google and email have unlocked of lot of the doors to which only the experts in the music business once had the keys.

It used to be that if you needed to rent gear, only the local promoters knew how to come to your aid. Now, you can google, make a cell phone call from the back of the van (or if you’re well-loved, twitter to fans to please loan you an bass amp…because yours got blown out last night in Chicago).

It used to be that if you had a handful of fans in St. Louis, you used to have to rely on the middlemen to get the word out to those people if you were going to return to town . You needed radio. You needed a label with a street team. Now you can post a PDF to your website and email it to your fans in St Louis, asking them to please hit the coffee shops and college bulletin boards on your behalf.

This may all seem to spell the beginning of a giant DIY culture–and in a way, it does–but in a way, it’s the opposite: no artist can do absolutely everything himself.

Here’s the thing everyone has to bear in mind as we transition from a stiff hierarchy in music to more of a level playing field, with room for a bigger middle class:

Working artists still need HELP.

Someone has to design that PDF. Someone has to make sure it gets to the fans. Someone has to organize and maintain the email list once the artist gets too big to keep track of everything.

People are constantly wondering what’s going to “become” of the labels of yore. They’ve already collapsed. The old majors are shadows of themselves, or they’ve merged into super-structures.

The ones that are succeeding, and the ones that will survive, have to somehow manage, in the thick of things, to find a way to do one, fundamental thing, to fulfill a need that will never vanish. The artists need help.

The companies and individuals who are evolving in the new landscape are able to see that fundamental truth as a ground zero and work upwards from there.

Whether an artist is trying to make a living via Bandcamp and Kickstarter or signing their entire future and firstborn child to Giant-Major-Label-Promoter-Conglomerate (and both of these things are totally legitimate, depending on the artist), they are still the same: they are working artists.

If they’re going to actually work on art:

They need help getting from place to place.

They need help answering calls.

They need help getting the word out.

They need help collecting their paychecks.

They need help sending and delivering goods and services to their fans.

The women and men I know working on the support side of the new-model music industry who are blazing new trails (and blowing by all the people who are bemoaning the past and clinging to the old rules) all have this one thing in common: they want to help. (or, to be honest, they’re really good at faking it–whatever, it works most of the time.)

Those winning in the music business today adopt an attitude of service. They look at the world and locate who wants the music. They assess the crazed artists who want to make a go of it, and they don’t ask:

What’s in it for me?

They ask:

How can I help?

And they project this attitude towards those they court and work with.

In 2010, I broke very loudly and openly from my label, Roadrunner Records. I decided not to sign with another label, and instead, I worked with a small team and we sold things directly to my fans. We used Kickstarter. We used twitter. We blogged and emailed up a storm. We went direct, we mailed records to tens of thousands of homes. It was a shit-ton of work. I needed a lot of help. I was on tour. From the ground control of Amanda-central, people had to man the phones, filter the help lines, provide customer service, and arrange ALL sorts of inexplicable things. By the time my Kickstarter was over, at least a couple hundred of my fans were on a friendly first-name basis with eric@amandapalmer.net, the guy on my team who helped everyone, tirelessly, with their nitty-gritty order questions.

We didn’t know what kind of help he was going to have to provide for me until the crises happened, but when help was necessary, he helped.

I’ve been through a mill of managers, assistants, agents and publicists. Some of them wanted to make money more than they wanted to help. Some of the members of my extended team have been with me for twelve years, and some have only lasted six weeks.

What’s the general pattern? The ones who wanted to help more than they wanted to make money have stayed with me.

My booking agents used to just call up halls and book gigs for me. Things were simple. Then Twitter and Facebook came along and made flash gigs possible. (I call them “ninja gigs,” and I recommend them to any artist with an acoustic instrument).

After endless phone calls, explanations and arguments, some my agents began to understand that my desire to show up and play a twittered flash-event in a public park on the day before a gig in Detroit is a feature, not a bug. People would come to the free gigs, connect, and then I’d take polls at the ticketed, money-making show the next night. A lot of people came because they were turned onto the information, one way or another, through the existence of the free flash gig the day before. Promoters used to call my agents, screaming that I was sucking away ticket sales. But the numbers would eventually speak for themselves. Now they listen. They even help.

The agents who didn’t listen to me, who didn’t try to help, who fought me… they didn’t last.
Managers used to roll their eyes when I asked them to please, please, please read my blog comments and my twitter feed, so they could understand the day-to-day vibe of the community, so they could listen, and therefore, know how to help me and the fans to connect in the best ways possible.

The ones who never understood this didn’t last.

Publicists used to agonize, telling me to please shut up and lay low whenever I traipsed into a controversial situation. I ignored them, kept talking, arguing and engaging people, and all of that work eventually landed me a TED talk that’s been viewed almost ten million times, my own book deal, and a gig writing this introduction. You can’t force people to want to help you, but you can walk away and gravitate towards those who really do want to help.

And how do you help someone with a big mouth? How do you help an artist who barely wants to talk?

It’s HARD to help an artist. This will also never change.

Artists are inherently weird. Music is intangible. Music isn’t concrete, even though it can sometimes seem to be. You’re dealing in the business of feelings, and a strange kind of exchange that extends far beyond the eye-for-an-eye exchange of most businesses. The grey area between help and coercion is wide, and many artists don’t even know what kind of help they need. Worse, many artists have an allergy to certain varieties of help. Letting the artist take the lead is essential if you’re going to be seriously helpful. You can’t assume that all artists want the same things. Ask first, then attack.

To put it crassly, but it’s a fine analogy: you can’t insist that someone have an orgasm by simply pounding away at them. Asking how they need it may be hard, or awkward, but it’s essential if you’re going to be a good lover.

All of the tools that Steve is laying out and explaining in the pages to come are for your arsenal of tools, artist and helper alike. Keep everything handy, and know that using the right tool in the right moment is what makes you truly helpful (and if you’re an artist: able to help yourself and those around you who need a lift up).

The roles that exist in “music business land” (manager, publicist, lawyer, promoter, etc.) originally developed to serve the artist and the audience. To act as a bridge. A connector. A helper. Through the years, that concept has been obscured in a jangle of label expense accounts, self-aggrandizing gate-keepers and gold chains.

So as the whole system goes up in beautiful new flames, ask yourself: where are you?
In the burning building?

Or are you looking for a way to act as a bridge, somewhere on the long, craggy trek a soulful song takes from a Finnish musician’s heart to the heart of a 16-year-old kid in rural Wisconsin, who’s listening with headphones in a crowded cafeteria or standing in the back of a shitty local bar, having snuck in with her fake ID, crying her eyes out?

Can you imagine yourself thinking – assessing what you’re doing with your time, your energy, your talents, your life – not about your own success, but something even more divine:

I helped make that moment happen.

And if you can’t imagine that moment being the most satisfying moment of your life, more satisfying than making all the money, more satisfying than climbing up the corporate ladder, you probably shouldn’t go into the music business.

Choose something more concrete.

Go into insurance sales.

– Amanda Palmer