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4 December 2014

Couldn’t have done it without you: Amanda Palmer’s manifesto for singers in the digital age

Palmer’s first book is a somewhat scattered, heartfelt and 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.

By Cory Doctorow

The Art of Asking (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help) 
Amanda Palmer
Piatkus, 339pp, £13.99

The question of “business models” for the arts is a contradictory one. Setting out to become a professional artist is a statistical improbability on a level with winning the lotto. This is not to say there isn’t a very profitable arts industry, which judges the success of its business models by how well they do by the people they serve, not the would-be artists they leave behind.

In the 70-plus years when the dominant musical business model was sound record­ing, all the music we heard came from those people who could find a niche in that particular world. What of the artists who, for one reason or another, didn’t fit the industry type? Before the advent of recorded music, literally every musician who earned a living did so by performing in front of an audience. In theory, there must be an equally large army of artists lurking in potentia today, waiting to burst on the scene when a new technology enables a fresh way of earning your living. In practice, there is evidence for this, and her name is Amanda Palmer.

Palmer’s first book, The Art of Asking is a somewhat scattered, heartfelt and 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. I first met Palmer through her husband, the author Neil Gaiman. She is an unabashed extrovert – a pianist who paid her dues by gigging up and down the US, crammed into a van with Brian Viglione, her partner in her band the Dresden Dolls, playing Goth-inflected cabaret tunes, jotting
down email addresses of fans who packed out her tiny, grimy venues and avidly corresponding with them by means of a highly confessional, idiosyncratic mailing list.

All the while, she worked at various artist day jobs, even spending time as a human statue in Harvard Square, face whitened, wearing a second-hand wedding gown and standing on a milk crate, clutching a bouquet of wilted flowers. Whenever a punter put money in her case, Palmer would spring into mechanical motion, handing him or her a flower. Working like this, directly charming money out of the crowd, was a mighty apprenticeship for life as a performer. She experienced generosity and abuse – verbal and physical – as well as theft; and also nobility, when passers-by chased down and retrieved the money she’d earned. Her time as The Bride taught her, in a bone-deep way, that despite the entertainment industry’s go-get-’em business rhetoric, what she did with her fans was not a market activity. The exchanges were “irrational”, motivated by something like love. There was no reasonable expectation of return.

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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 would focus all her energy on the band’s mailing list (“customers” who’d already been sold to) when she could have been using her energy to find “new markets”. (Eventually she tricked the label into releasing her by faking a drunken crisis that made the bosses conclude she was too flaky to keep on their books.) She made Twitter her hub, organising impromptu “ninja-gigs” around the world, sometimes passing the hat and at other times just trading confessions with the people who came.

She became famous, of course, thanks to Kickstarter: Palmer was the first musician to raise more than $1m through the crowdfunding service, symbolising the possibility of real, big-budget recording and touring for artists who refuse to participate in the labels’ way of doing things.

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Kickstarter was a lightning rod for praise and criticism, jealousy and admiration. Palmer has always published her hate mail. After she invited local musicians to come on stage and jam with the band on tour, an online forum ran the headline “Amanda ‘$1.2m’ Palmer wants you to play with her for free” (this was inaccurate; her regular band got paid). As she points out, other groups have run successful Kickstarter campaigns in which they charge their backers for the privilege of appearing on stage with them. But let no money at all change hands, and our reactions are disordered. Art without the market is a terrifying thing.

Palmer is a good writer, and in places, she’s great. The Art of Asking has a loose, meandering structure that, though generally successful, doesn’t always work – but as a manifesto from an artist uniquely suited to her time, it’s without parallel. What her story tells us is that asking, trusting and giving are dangerous. She receives death threats, is stalked and sexually assaulted by some fans, is terrorised by others who threaten suicide to command her attention. She doesn’t make it look easy, this choice of being public and naked. She is plagued with self-doubt. Yet she is committed to the idea that the 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?”

Palmer believes that the practice of the artist earning her keep through a connection with her fans is better than the situation of the 1980s and 1990s, “when most exchanges with big musicians were entirely indirect . . . walking into the record store, and exchanging your $9.99 for a physical album, which was rung up for you by an indifferent clerk”. I’ve lived and worked in both eras, and I’ll take this one any day. 

“Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free” by Cory Doctorow is published by McSweeney’s (£16.99)