Amanda Palmer at Glastonbury. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Standing naked in front of an audience: Amanda Palmer and a new way to make art

Cory Doctorow on the singer and performer Amanda Palmer's first book, "a manifesto and a confessional of an artist uniquely suited to her time and place".

The question of "business models for the arts" is a weird and contradictory one. For one thing, the arts are a "non-market activity" - people make art for intrinsic reasons, starting from earliest childhood, and even the people who set out to earn a living in the arts are not engaged in any kind of rational economic calculus because virtually everyone who's done this has lost money. Of those who made money, most made very little; and of those who made a substantial sum, most had their careers quickly crater and never earned another penny from their work. Being a "professional artist" is about as realistic as being a "professional lottery winner" - there are lots of people who've tried, and though a few have succeeded, it's a statistical improbability on the order of, well, winning the lotto.

Which is not to say that there isn't a very profitable arts industry. There is, and it's extremely profitable, as its lobbyists remind us whenever they demand new powers to censor and surveil the internet, as though the nervous system of the 21st century was a mere glorified video-on-demand service. The industry offloads the costs of figuring out how to be a successful artist on the artistic hopefuls themselves, then turbo-boosts their careers with professional advice, access to locked-up channels to address audiences, and a raft of often genuinely useful promotional, sales, marketing and artistic advice.

People within the industry - and the general public - suffer from a common cognitive ailment called "survivorship bias". When weighing "artistic business models" for their fitness, we look at how well they do by the people they serve, not how many would-be artists they left behind. In the 70+ years during which the dominant business model for music was sound-recording and its cousin, the radio-broadcast, we all knew about the artists who did well in that environment. Chances were, all the music you were familiar with came from one of the people who could find a niche in that world. That is, 100 per cent of the successful musicians you encountered were fit for some kind of survival in that world.

But what of all the artists who didn't fit into that model? Not just the people who hungered after a record deal and never got one. Not even the artists who got a deal and then discovered that it served them poorly indeed (Alanis Morrisette's lawyer once told a Future of Music conference that 97 per cent of recording artists with a major label deal earned $600 a year or less from it) - but the artists whose music was just not suitable to the whole system of labels and radio and all the rest of it?

Is there any reason to believe such artists existed? There's certainly historical precedent. Before the advent of recordings and radio, literally every musician who earned a living did so by performing in front of an audience. The idea of a musician who was artistically brilliant, bursting with songs that would bring joy to millions, but who didn't want to actually perform those songs in front of other people - it was as weird as the idea of a champion swimmer who didn't want to get wet.

But when the radio and phonogram came into existence, it turned out that there were armies of musicians with this weird kink. The musicians who only lit up when they were in front of an audience resented these people - composer John Philip Sousa told the US Congress that the "infernal talking machine" would cost America its voice-boxes, that their vocal chords "will be eliminated by a process of evolution as was the tail of man when he came from the ape".

And 70 years later - as a new wave of touring musicians are finding success by performing live in front of audiences that they discover and nurture through the internet - the spiritual descendants of the performers who hated crowds, who sidelined the charismatic showpeople that had dominated music before them, say: "How dare you tell me how to earn a living? I'm a white-collar worker who labours indoors with my muse, and when I'm done, I slide the product of my creativity under the door so that bourgeois men of commerce can take them out to the masses. I'm not your trained monkey!"

So in theory, it seems likely that there was an equally large army of artists lurking in potentia, waiting to burst on the scene when a new technological reality enabled a new way of earning your living.

And in practice, there's evidence to support this proposition. Her name is Amanda Fucking Palmer.

***

Palmer's first book, The Art of Asking (Piatkus/Hachette Digital), is a somewhat scattered, deeply heartfelt, often moving, and extremely insightful look at the career of an artist who seems to have lucked into being born into precisely the right moment for her work, temperament, and ethos.

Palmer is an unabashed extrovert, a pianist who paid her dues by gigging up and and down the US and around the world, crammed into a van with Brian Viglione (her partner in her band the Dresden Dolls) performing goth-inflected, vampy cabaret music, jotting down the email addresses of the fans who packed the tiny, grimy venues she played and then avidly corresponding with them by means of a highly confessional, erratic, idiosyncratic mailing list.

All the while, Palmer was working the usual array of crappy artist day-jobs (and some unusual ones): scooping ice-cream for a Boston cafe whose owner was a patron of young artists and was tolerant of their foibles; serving coffee; even stripping. And she was also performing in her other artistic gig: being a human statue in Harvard Square, face whitened, wearing a ratty second-hand wedding gown and standing on a milk-crate, clutching a bouquet of slightly wilted flowers. When a punter put money in her case, she sprang into mechanical motion, selecting a flower and handing it to her benefactor, furiously emoting matrimonial romance and gratitude.

Working like this, directly charming money out of the crowd with acts personal and vulnerable, is a mighty apprenticeship for a performer.

She experienced the purest generosity, as well as all its adulterated forms - generosity-with-guilt, generosity-without-connection, even generosity-with-mockery. And she experienced abuse, verbal and physical, as well as theft. But also: nobility, when passers-by chased down and retrieved her stolen case and the money that she'd earned.

When I was starting out as a writer, I worked in a bookstore, which I think should be a mandatory apprenticeship for writers (and, judging from the number of booksellers I meet who are trying to break into publishing, very nearly is). Books would come in with great fanfare, pushed hard by the sales rep, in fancy hardcovers, ordered by the dozen and promoted at the front of the store. Readers would return having read them to tell you how rubbish they were (or how great they were, which was worse, given what happened next). The bulk of the hardcovers would be returned. The paperback - with a snappy new cover and a fresh marketing push - would repeat the process. Then there'd be a stack of remainders of the hardcovers (sometimes with our price-stickers still on them, having made the warehouse-shop-warehouse-shop round-trip), then those would go. And that would be it.

The experience was humbling and haunting. Someone worked bloody hard on that book. Maybe it was even a great book. It got more push than any other title in the store that season. It flopped. But the flip-side was that there were genuinely great books that started out in the midlist, books you could hand-sell to every customer, books that readers would sell to each other, coming in in pairs to recommend their favourites to one another. Books you cheered for, that would become best-sellers. Of course, there were also plenty of bestsellers that succeeded in every way except literary merit, which was also depressing in its own way.

Palmer's experience as "the Bride" was a formal education in applied human psychology. She came to understand, in a bone-deep way, that, despite the entertainment industry's go-gettem business rhetoric, that what she did with her fans was not a market activity. From a classical economic perspective, everything she did - and everything the fans did - was "irrational." There was no reasonable expectation of return. It was motivated by something like love, and something like honour, and something like generosity.

This was a profound insight for Palmer to arrive at early on, and she seized on it, made it her pole-star, and set out to build a life and a career around it.

***

In The Art of Asking, Palmer recounts her ill-starred brushes with the entertainment industry. There was the label that couldn't understand why she'd want to have a website year-round, why she'd focus all her energy on the band's mailing list of "customers" who'd already been "sold", when she could have been using all that energy to find "new markets" for her work (by her account, she tricked the label into releasing her by faking a drunken crisis that made them conclude she was too flaky to keep on their books).

There was a series of managers who couldn't understand why Palmer was "fooling around on Twitter" instead of being a business-person.

Palmer made Twitter her hub, using it to organise impromptu "ninja-gigs" around the world, announcing that she was in town and crowdsourcing a venue, backing musicians, opening acts, and a crowd itself, sometimes passing the hat and sometimes just playing and trading hugs and confessions with the people who came.

Much of Palmer's story is universal to the experience of all artists.

Like everyone, like me, she is plagued with self-doubt, with impostor syndrome.

But some of it is gendered. The self-doubt of women, the way that their success is tied into their looks, the gender-specific nastiness, harassment and even violence that women experience is different and worse than the stuff that we male artists go through.

***

I know Palmer personally. In fact, she contributed an introduction to my new book, Information Doesn't Want To Be Free (McSweeney's), which is all about the arts, business, and the internet, but is also about as different from Palmer's book could be.

I met Palmer through her husband, the polymath writer Neil Gaiman, who also wrote an introduction for IDWTBF. I've known and admired Gaiman for a long time, because he is a great writer, but also because he has a gift with people.

For many years, I've remarked on how public Gaiman manages to be, how gracious he is in his online presence, how he always seems to be carrying on a conversation with thousands (and now millions) of people. This is a gift that I don't share. I am positively deficient in figuring out how to be sociable with large groups of people and I suffer from real, toss-and-turn self-recriminating anxiety about the idea that I might have given offense to someone by not including them (or not including them enough) in some social situation. It's a self-defeating fear, one that can nearly paralyse me in crowds, self-consciously nagging at myself to smile, make eye-contact, check in with that person over on the edges and see if she or he is waiting to say something.

But as public as Gaiman is, as gracious as he is, Palmer is his better and master in this regard, by an enormous margin.

I've seen Palmer perform - at Gaiman's 50th birthday party, a few years ago - both as the Bride and in a special reformed version of the Dresden Dolls. She's electrifying, her already-great music vastly improved by her performance. Not just her stage-presence, but her vulnerability, her openness, her trust. One of Palmer's signature performance moves is to crowd-surf, jumping off the stage, trusting to her fans to catch her. Sometimes she does it in the nude. At house-shows - given as awards to top-tier Kickstarter backers - she lets fans draw all over her naked body with markers. She performs generosity and trust, and leaves no doubt that the performance is genuine.

***

Palmer, of course, became famous-famous thanks to Kickstarter. She was the first musician to raise more than $1 million from Kickstarter and became (deliberately) a symbol, an existence-proof of the possibility of real, big-budget recording and touring for artists who refuse to participate in the record label's way of doing things.

The Kickstarter - documented with (of course) frank confessional detail - was a lightning rod for praise and criticism, jealousy and admiration. Palmer has always published her hate mail, owning the harassment in a way that few others have mastered, but the hate-mail after the Kickstarter was beyond her capacity to absorb.

There's a litmus test for how you will likely feel about Palmer's Kickstarter: Palmer invited local musicians in each city on her tour to come onstage and jam with the band. She asked that they come by for an afternoon's quick rehearsal, and offered them beer, t-shirts, and gratitude and recognition. This move - something that Palmer's bands had often done on previous tours - enraged her detractors like nothing else.

The inaccurate headline: "Musician raises $1 million from fans, asks her band to play for free." (Palmer's band was paid, it was the jamming local performers who were volunteers.) Even after it was corrected, even after Palmer relented and offered the volunteer musicians $100 to come on stage with her, she was still pilloried for "not valuing the hard work of fellow musicians".

But in truth, the practice of letting fans jam with the band is an honourable and widespread one. I once spent a night on New Orleans' Bourbon Street, hopping from bar to club, listening to the always-excellent house-bands performing blues and rock and rockabilly and jazz. And without fail, during each set, someone would walk in off the street, a musician on holiday from some much-less-exotic city, perhaps in a state that began and ended with a vowel, with a guitar or sax or even an accordion, and that person would take the stage with the band and jam in. It was a gift - from the band to the vacationing musician, from the musician to the band, from the crowd (who would cheer on the newcomer with real zest), and to the crowd. It wasn't a market transaction, though sometimes a beer or a t-shirt or a CD would change hands (and in any conceivable direction).

As Palmer points out, other bands have run successful Kickstarters in which they charge their backers for the privilege of performing on stage during the tour. No one bats an eye at the idea that musicians should pay to perform, nor do they balk at the idea that they should be paid to perform. But let no money change hands at all and all of our reactions are disordered. Art without the market is a terrifying thing, a frank admission that the alleged "music industry"'s most indispensable components - the musicians - never really had a realistic chance of earning anything, and the ones that do get paid are statistical outliers.

***

First books are strange beasts. They are rougher than the books that follow (usually), but they are also full of literally everything that the author ever, over the course of her entire life, thought worthy of inclusion in a book. All subsequent books will be full of the things the writer came up with after she started publishing. The first one, that's got everything from the other side of the divide.

Palmer is a good writer, and in places she's great. She has a loose and at times meandering structure that usually works, except when it doesn't. As a literary work The Art of Asking is pretty good. But as a manifesto and a confessional of an artist uniquely suited to her time and place, it is without parallel.

What Palmer's story tells us is that asking, trusting, and giving are hard and terrifying, and you face real risk every time you do them.

Palmer receives death threats, is stalked and sexually assaulted by fans, is terrorised by fans who threaten suicide to command her attention.

Palmer doesn't make it look easy, this business of being public and naked. She makes it look hard. The Art of Asking is an inspiration because Palmer never tries to hide the scuffed duct-tape holding her life together. Instead, she takes us by the hand and insists that we look at this 21st century artistic business model with open eyes and realistic expectations.

At my best, I am artisticially brave. For many years, I was plagued by writer's block which is best understood as the crippling fear that the words you write when you aren't "inspired" will be bad words, unworthy and irremediable words. For five terrible years in my twenties, I didn't finish a single story, though I started dozens. Eventually, with a lot of hard work, I came to realise that though when I wrote, I felt that I was either writing "good" words or "bad" words, that six months after the fact, I couldn't tell the difference. That the self-doubt and fear I felt when I was writing bad had more to do with things like my blood-sugar levels and the state of my romantic life and finances than it did with the words themselves.

I still feel that fear. It is terrible and immiserating. I'm in the last month of writing on the first draft of a 180,000 word novel, a monstrous beast that is far too large for me to hold it all conscious memory, that I can only navigate through intuition and informed guesswork. Every day, five days a week, I write one thousand new words on this book, and every day, I finish this task in dead certainty that I am destroying this book, writing unsalvageable dreck that will spoil a novel that I was so excited and hopeful about last March.

But I write on, not because I don't feel the fear, but because I have mastered it. Bravery isn't fearlessness: it is preserverence in the face of fear. Palmer is afraid, sometimes deathly afraid, that she will be hated, forgotten, attacked.

She works because of the fear, not in spite of it. She is committed to the non-market proposition that "the reason people want to help an artist is because they really want ... to help an artist". That the traditional music industry is "obsessed with the wrong question: how do we MAKE people pay for content? What if we started thinking about it the other way around: how do we LET people pay for content?"

That the world of the artist who can only earn her keep through a connection with her fans has its problems and hardships, sure, but it's ever so much better than "the eighties and nineties, when most exchanges with big musicians were entirely indirect, and ­involved . . . walking into the record store, and exchanging your $9.99 for a physical album, which was rung up for you by an indifferent clerk who had absolutely nothing to do with the artist who created the music".

I've lived and worked in both eras, and I'll take this one any day.

And for the foreseeable future.

Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage