Amanda Palmer: How to drink with your fans

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

New Statesman
Still the star attraction: Amanda Palmer performs at the Village Underground in London. Image: Elliott Franks/Eyeveine

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.