If it is possible to boil down the latest micro-controversy to play out before the hazy background of FreeLoading to anything, then it boils down to #this: Amanda Palmer standing in an empty street in Melbourne, holding up handmade signs that read, “Join our rock n’ roll cause…This is the future of music. This is how we fucking do it. We are the media.”
Of course, this rhetoric was part of a marketing pitch to her fans, to build attention and support for a Kickstarter campaign that she promised would help cover the marketing and production costs for her new record, Theater Is Evil. Palmer was happy to be off of her big bad record label (the label which had taken on financial risk to invest in her young career, it should be said; the label that she chose to sign with years before; and the label with whom her relationship unfortunately soured over time), but she still needed to invest in her new record. With the Kickstarter campaign, she would be able to make a profit from her music and help finance her tour, among other things (both explicitly mentioned in her Kickstarter video linked above). The ambitious fundraising goal for her campaign was $100,000–a lot of money. But as her fans quickly blew past the goal by hundreds of thousands of dollars, the campaign took on a more lofty, historic quality. Next to the frozen video frame of Palmer holding a sign that read “This is the future of music,” the dollar amount kept ticking up until it reached just under $1.2 million.
At the time I had two reactions to this.
First, that Palmer had worked her ass off for many years and had devoted herself to music in that time. It’s easy to see someone getting attention and money and, maybe out of envy, drawing that as something to hold against them. But I know Palmer has gone through tough times along her career path and so the Kickstarter success seemed like a culmination, from my vantage. Not only is it great to see any artist defy the odds in the merciless art world, but it communicates to other artists that all hope is not lost; maybe their career will work out as well if they keep plugging along.
Then there was the second reaction, which referred back to “This is the future of music.” What a cynical marketing ploy! Her music wasn’t a good enough draw; a good enough cause? Palmer decided to conflate her very particular campaign and well-publicized career with the “future of music.” Pretentious, pompous, crass, self-serving… And people/media ate that shit up. This was a political statement. This was a movement. It wasn’t a question of her album, but of casting a vote for “crowdfunding” and against all those terrible, awful, gatekeeping record labels out there who want to “control our culture.”
“They just won’t get with the times, man. But Amanda Palmer? She ‘gets’ it and I fucking love her for it. I like her music, too.”
So, as you see, I was of two minds about the whole thing. Though, at the end of the day, it is really up to fans and consumers to decide whether they want to give their money to x, y or z. I may not have liked her pitch, but then again I wasn’t her audience. If people are going to fall for that kind of rhetoric and conflation, that’s their problem. If Palmer was going to actively push that kind of conflation, well, that’s also her problem (over the long term, if not the short).
But it seems to have become her problem in the past week or so. The chickens have come home to roost. Palmer encouraged the notion that she wasn’t just an artist, that she was a symbol of the “future of music”–that her career, in fact, WAS “the future of music”–so when she very publicly asked that “professional-ish” musicians join her for her Professional (no “ish” at all) tour dates and said she would pay them in beer and–yes—hugs, she couldn’t hide behind DIY innocence or financial desperation. For professional musicians, the notion that it was okay to not pay backing strings and horns for a ticketed gig came off like a threat. Was this “the future of music?” They sure hoped not–#and took to her blog to vent their frustration.
And fans–who bought-in to the conflation, who believed they were supporting something “better” than the “old model”–were sincerely confused. Read the comments on Palmer’s other blog posts (#here and #here) and the confusion and disillusion from SOME of her fans is pretty striking. Everyone knew how much money Palmer had taken in. Everyone knew that she had out-raised her Kickstarter goal by 12 times. And everyone knew that her husband provided their marital union with an unusual degree of financial stability. So, after all that, why not just pay the musicians? Even a little? As others have noted, there is a thin line between asking your fans for the support you need, and unnecessarily exploiting their desperation to be near you; to feel closer to “the movement” or to be onstage in a “professional-ish” manner. Two years ago, I doubt anyone would have raised hay about this, am I right? But after your fans fork over 1.2 million dollars and you have used that lucky development to promote yourself, well, things change. Sure, we don’t know how much money Palmer really pocketed (and that fact alone should raise some questions as to the “transparency” of crowdfunding in general), but either way, after such a huge success, “Professional-ish” doesn’t really cut it anymore as a matter of policy, or you risk being seen as taking your fans for a ride.
I sort of agree with Palmer in that, if her fans are happy to participate for beer/hugs and the audience doesn’t mind, well then where is the damn fire? Any artist’s career is ultimately dependent upon their fans’ support. If they are happy being “taken for a ride,” who am I to say that they shouldn’t be happy? Palmer is quite clearly trying to get away with not fully-funding the tour she really wants to have. She is trying to have it both ways, but if her fans are going to humor her, no one can stop her from doing so.
However, there is a certain amount of bullshit that Palmer deserves to be called out on–not all of which relates directly to this controversy (though, quite a lot of this controversy doesn’t relate directly to this controversy…). Yesterday #she posted about playing a small gig at NPR and trading war stories with the famous Emily White and how she has gotten some really nasty letters throughout this whole controversy. Dumb, mean, vengeful, hyperemotional reaction is an unfortunate byproduct of an Internet where people can act like unconditional assholes and never pay the social costs due to anonymity/distance. Yeah, it’s a drag and can undercut a lot of the potential for digital communication.
But then she writes this about the #Lowery/White thing: “…which, as you may remember, started a FULL-BLOWN MOTHERFUCKIN’ BATTLE between the old school (people must pay for digital content or musicians will starve and die!!!!) and the new school (digital content cannot be locked, the floodgates are open, let’s figure out a new creative solution!!!)”
So, one side is hysterically fearful and the other side is innovative and creative? Nope. It’s about the tension between some who believe it’s excusable (for one reason or another) or even progressive to illegally exploit artists for their work and deny them their individual rights under the law; and those who don’t believe we are entitled to the fruits of an artists labor for free just because it happens to be easy to find online, usually through distributors who are CHARGING FOR ADVERTISING off of said illegitimate work.
Then this: “many musicians and artists are SCARED right now. the economy is sucking. traditional record sales are plummeting. digital content is rampantly freely shared (and many artists like me are encouraging people to share and copy).”
I go into this at length in the book, but to call this “sharing” is really offensive to other peoples’ intelligence. Sometimes, through luck or happenstance (or technological development), people are handed a considerable degree of power over another person or group and can easily exploit them without really having to deal with any consequences for it in the short term. That doesn’t make it right and it certainly has nothing to do with “sharing.” A schoolyard bully doesn’t threaten a meek classmate, take their lunch money and then, walking away, say “thanks for sharing.” Unless they are that much of an asshole. An empire that invades/pillages a weaker state for their treasure is not, then, innocently “sharing” that colony’s resources. In regards to what I call “FreeLoading,” “sharing” is an Orwellian stand-in for “exploitation.” I would love Palmer to recognize this fact. When Palmer says “and many artists like me are encouraging people to share and copy” I hope she means to share and copy her OWN work — which IS sharing in my book, because the artist has consented to it. And that’s what this issue comes down to, in many respects, understanding and recognizing the consent of the artist. Some artists are happy to put their work out for free and the fact that the Internet makes distributing your own work so easy is a fantastic cultural development. But we would avoid a lot of needless bullshit if we could all just try a bit harder to respect that which is the core of traditional copyright: the notion of a creators’ rights and consent.
I am sure Palmer is way, way tired of this whole affair. And that’s why she says “and do me a favor…keep talking about the music.”
I think it would be fantastic to be able to just talk about the music. But when Palmer gained a tremendous degree of sympathy and publicity when she successfully broke free from her record label, benefiting from a popular desire to exclusively scapegoat labels for FreeLoading and sales losses, did that have anything to do with the music? When she sold a bunch of crap sitting around her house to fans via Twitter for thousands of dollars, was that about the music? When she talks about the death of record labels as a foregone conclusion, thus offering music fans implicit justification to FreeLoad their digital content, is that talking about the music? When she portrays herself as a sentinel of the future industry structure, is that talking about the music?
No. These are ways of funding herself through novel marketing schemes, of using her industry politics as a way to draw attention to herself, and, incidentally/ocasionally, to her music. She has made her name more through these schemes/politics than she has through her music. That sounds shitty, but it is the truth and I think most people would agree. (Though this by no means discounts the many fans of her Music alone, who certainly are out there, nor the effort that Palmer surely puts into her art above all.) That sort of drive to marketing novelty and personality at the expense of Music itself, which has long characterized top-40, is “the future of music” I fear Palmer is a true symbol of, at least in part.
We haven’t been simply talking about and enjoying music for a very long time and the reasons are not at all simple. There is no one guilty party. But when the cracks in crowdfunding and ‘DIY’ marketing start to show through, when the backlash comes, it is pretty opportunistic for Palmer to then try to pretend as though this isn’t the exact game she has been playing and benefiting from. Can we just talk about music? Yes, please. That would be great.
But first we all have some shit to work through here. As an example: crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is great. I love kickstarter and I know artists of all levels are benefiting from it. But, you know what? The differences between “crowdfunding” and copyright-based record sales are pretty superficial. In both cases, we each contribute (usually) moderate sums of money to support an artist’s career, and we get something in return. At the very least (and by far the most important thing) we get MUSIC from said artist. Crowdfunding, more broadly, isn’t that different from the consumer market, period. We support the things we want/like with our dollar and invest in them/build them up/give them greater financial power and cultural influence as a result. But over the past decade-plus all record labels have been tarred and feathered with the same dumb, clumsy and opportunistic brush. Record labels are seen as the “old model” even as nearly every “internet sensation” (Kreayshawn, Azalea Banks, Odd Future) continues to sign with them. But “crowdfunding” is novel. “Crowdfunding” doesn’t come with the baggage of copyright or the unresolved tensions/history of “piracy” (another word I’m not a huge fan of).
That tension isn’t just going to go away. We will have to address it head-on and that starts with acknowledging our personal responsibilities/duties (which, after all, are the flip side to “rights”) to respect the consent and rights of creators (along with the rights of the public, ie the public domain) within reason. Maybe if we can all build acceptance for some evolved rules of the road, as it pertains to digital content, then we will get back to focusing on the music rather than engaging in endless accusation and hand-wringing about digital content, and the way that lack of resolution amplifies otherwise minor dust-ups like this one. That would be nice. And I do hope that Palmer can go on as the clearly ambitious and passionate artist that she is without having to bring “the future of music” into it.
(A closing thought. What if this were not DIY Amanda Palmer, but a record label-backed tour? In other words, the label would also be asking for and profiting off of this free musician labor. Just interesting to think about how the reaction would be the same/different and how the situations are/are not the same. Is there a difference?)