Still the star attraction: Amanda Palmer performs at the Village Underground in London. Image: Elliott Franks/Eyeveine
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Amanda Palmer: How to drink with your fans

The internet has ushered in a new era of intimacy between artists and their audience.

Shortly after my crowd-funding effort last year, when I used the Kickstarter website to fund my first album, I found myself doing a phone interview with Forbes. The guy asked – like every business journalist I’d talked to that day who wanted to crack the da Vinci code of successful crowd-funding – the question that I had already started getting sick of.

“So,” he said, “could you briefly explain this relationship you have with your fans?”

I rambled on clumsily about how the relationship was a long-term symbiosis, about how a lot of these Kickstarter backers were folks I’d actually crashed with, drank with and communed with over countless years of blogging, Twitter and emails. I tried to explain how the fan base and I sort of . . . well, took care of each other. Did that make sense?

There was a pause and the Forbes guy said: “Er, can you please give me a concrete example of that?”

The publicist interrupted the call to inform us that we had three minutes left. “It’s kind of complicated,” I apologised, “but it’s beautiful. And real. You know?” He didn’t. “Lemme ask you a question,” I said. “Are you married? Yes? OK. We have two minutes. Could you briefly explain this relationship you have with your wife?” At least I made him laugh.

People are quick nowadays to denigrate the new wave of kickstarting, small-business-running, self-promoting artists. They call us shameless. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails recently commented on the crowdfunding culture: “I’m not super-comfortable with the idea of Ziggy Stardust shaking his cup for scraps,” he said. Ziggy, the fictional icon? Clearly not. But early Bowie, the tech pioneer? Quite likely.

This conundrum is fascinating a new generation of art-makers: do you have to trade your “other-worldly” mystique for your ability to make a living? If so, is that classic brand of mystique going to die a Darwinian death, now that artists are visibly manning their own storefronts?

Not at all. It’s just that the artists most fit to survive today no longer equate mystique with artistic credibility. They’re not shaking their cups for scraps; they’re busy drinking with their fans, like the old-school travelling musicians.

My Kickstarter, which took in over a million dollars in album pre-orders from about 25,000 backers, started at $1 for a digital download; $50 bought the limited-edition vinyl; $5,000 bought a house party, 34 of which were sold in locations including South Africa, Israel, Canada, Norway and Sydney. In each of these places, 50 fans created a city-specific online group with a volunteer organiser who banked their pooled contributions, an innovation in collectivist fandom that I found inspiring.

Two people bought the $10,000 “art sitting and dinner”, for which I promised to “draw your portrait or vice versa . . . or whatever (clothing optional)”. I delivered the first one in Washington, DC, and brought along my husband, Neil (who is luckily quite sociable), to keep me company.

Nobody got naked. Instead, Neil and I painted a mural on a bedroom wall belonging to the unborn baby incubating in the belly of the Kickstarter backer, Chanie. We created a surreal scene featuring a moon man playing the piano and a killer rabbit in a hot-air balloon, while Chanie and her husband sat on the floor of the empty nursery, chatting with us about bad films, sibling feuds and how family can be impossible. Then we all went for Indian food. The “shameless” connection that exists between new-school crowd-funding artists and our fans lies within the wider context of social media, which has led to an increasing level of intimacy. Once you’ve been in a relationship for years (hopefully) shame disintegrates. There’s a difference between asking a stranger for a handout, a friend for a favour and a customer for a down payment. Crowdfunding artists are generally working in the third category, in the spirit of the second. It’s the blurry line between the two latter categories that makes crowd-funding difficult to explain to the Forbes guy.

I delivered the second art sitting last month in Perth, while touring with my band in Australia. The backer’s name was Yana and it wasn’t until I met her at the show the night before that I realised I knew her from Twitter; we’d been casually communicating for years.

Yana’s hard to miss. She was born with achondroplasia. She’s in her late twenties, she’s four foot six inches tall and she’s undergone ten operations to lengthen her arm and leg bones. After she gave me a tour of her folks’ cosy suburban house, we sat down for a home-cooked feast, during which I chatted happily with her younger brother, who is six foot three inches, and her parents (her mum is from France; her dad is from England) about everything from homesickness to the new Australian prime minister (nobody was a fan).

Then Yana bundled up a canvas, blankets and brushes into boxes that I helped carry across a street and a football pitch. She had it all planned out: she wanted to pose nude in the park where she’d played as a child. I was impressed. I told her that if we got arrested, it would probably be the most cred-building event to have happened to me since getting jailed in Amsterdam for playing a spontaneous ukulele gig in Dam Square.

Yana wasn’t a natural exhibitionist but as soon we settled into a shady gazebo near the playground and nobody was watching, she took a deep breath and shed her clothes. I picked up a paintbrush.

Her body was a beautiful landscape of voluptuous, snow-white skin, her legs and arms covered in constellations of scars (there were 35, she told me later) from her ten operations. As I focused on sketching her outline, I felt a quiet, profound sense of honour. I’m a shit painter and completing a passable likeness took two hours and included a couple of close calls in the indecent exposure department. One old man wandered over to us and asked us what we were doing, as Yana dived under the blanket. “Art students,” I explained earnestly, winking at Yana, who stifled a laugh.

Yana shared the stories of her life: about how she was constantly ill as a result of her condition and about Jeff, her best friend, who had turned her on to my music years ago. “We were both hospital babies,” she told me. “We never had to justify ourselves to each other.”

The month Jeff died was the month I launched my Kickstarter. Yana bought the art sitting as a sort of parting gift to his memory. I didn’t ask where she got the money. “Everybody always stares at me,” she mused, as another passer-by wandered too close and she grabbed the blanket. “But never for the reasons I want.”

I kept messing up her eyebrow. I erased and redrew, thinking about how we judge one another. Was I trying to make her more beautiful? I shook the thought off and kept trying to get her left eyebrow right.

We felt like we knew each other but that’s because . . . we did. One of the things I’ve noticed lately about these flash-relationships I make with fans is the immediate comfort we have with one another. Fan/artist intimacy was once a one-way street: Patti Smith fans in the 1970s may have felt like they knew her through her lyrics but how well could Patti know them back?

I learn about my fans’ lives at my leisure, through Twitter and Tumblr, while on the couch at home, in airport lounges, riding the subway. The rules of true friendship really do seem to apply: we check in with each other frequently, we respond to each other truthfully, we help in emergencies, we tweet each other’s projects, we write comforting words. And occasionally, like in any friendship, we bicker about Miley Cyrus.

As human creatures, we’re much more likely to help those we know intimately. This is why crowd-funding works far better for the artists who are in committed relationships with their fans. The artist who never communicates anything online and then suddenly launches a crowd-funding campaign is like the friend who doesn’t call for six months, then suddenly asks if she can borrow your van to move her shit to a new apartment.

The next time I saw Yana was at the house party in Melbourne. It’d been over a week since our nudist park escapade and she looked a little ragged. I’d seen her in the front row the night before, her chest pressed against the barricade. The party’s hostess was a drummer named Rachel and her grunge band was playing for the backyard crowd. I bumped into Yana outside the bathroom. “How are you doing?” I asked. “Kinda sick,” she answered, in a voice that didn’t want to elicit any pity. I hugged her.

A handful of friends dropped by unexpectedly to play music, including Tom, a songwriter from Melbourne who’d just successfully crowd-funded his own record. We exchanged Kickstarter horror stories about international postage. Someone showed up through the back door with vegan lasagne and a box of home-brewed beer. Tom and I clinked glasses and I told him about my recent house party in Portland, the one on the day of the death threat.

I had been in a coffee shop in Seattle that morning, readying myself for the drive up the coast to the house of a fan named Susan, when I got the call from my manager, Eric. I’d recently blogged a poem that mashed up my emotional experiences with those of one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects – and someone had sent an email through my website suggesting that they were going to locate and kill me. Grand.

“It’s probably just a crazy,” Eric said. “We’re trying to track down the email ISP. Can you get to a police station?”

I refused. It just seemed too silly. But as I washed my hands in the café bathroom a few minutes later, I noticed that they were shaking.

The three-hour drive to Portland took seven because of traffic and somewhere around the Columbia River crossing, I started weeping. A John Lennon song came on the radio and I started weeping harder.

When I finally arrived at Susan’s house, everybody was already drinking and carousing on her porch and, as I walked over the dark lawn, they gathered around me and applauded. Someone thrust a beer in my hand. Susan, who crafts weird headwear for a living, crowned me with an antler headdress. I cleared my throat and said, “Hey, guys. Thanks for coming. My day’s been fucked. I may start crying now.”

And I did. I didn’t tell them about the death threat until much later, while I was playing in Susan’s shag-carpeted basement. A neck rub circle had started. We collapsed in uncontrollable laughter singing Nine Inch Nails songs with misheard and alternative lyrics about cats, then I played some sad ukulele songs in the pitch dark and a quiet, tall boy with a moustache leaned into my ear and whispered that he’d just lost somebody.

The party raged into the night but I headed upstairs to bed. I kissed and hugged people goodnight and Susan tucked me into bed and made sure I had a clean towel.

“This is my daughter’s room,” she said. “She’s off at college now. But she’ll be so, so happy you slept in her bed.” She blew me a kiss and closed the door. I shut my eyes, feeling entirely safe.

Tom and I were due to play a song together in the garden, so the Kickstarter horror story hour came to an end and I ducked back into the hostess-drummer’s bedroom, where I’d left my make-up case. I sat myself down in front of a cracked mirror. As I tossed my ukulele on to the bed, I saw something move in the corner of the room. It looked like a pile of clothes. I went closer. The pile of clothes was Yana. She was lying on the floor, wrapped in a blanket.

“You OK?” I asked. “Don’t you want to lie on the bed instead of the floor?” I felt helpless.

“No . . . I’m good,” she said.

I put my hand on her cheek and looked down at her. I knew those eyebrows so well by then. I wished I hadn’t fucked them up so much. I pulled the blanket over her shoulders.

“Feel better,” I whispered. She shut her eyes and I grabbed my ukulele and went back to the party.

Like I said to the Forbes guy, we take care of each other. It’s complicated. And beautiful. But very real.

 

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain