Amanda Palmer at Glastonbury. Photo: Getty Images
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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.

Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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