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.

 

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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