Amanda Palmer: Knowing The Price Of Everything, But The Value Of Nothing

While Amanda Palmer offers musicians ‘beer, hugs and high-fives’ for performing with her, Derek Robertson’s not happy.

amanda palmer

Poor Amanda Palmer. Life is just so unfair. We all want stuff: cool stuff, fun stuff, and some of us are lucky that our professional perks or privileges give us exactly that. But normally, the only way to get what you want is with cold, hard cash, earned the traditional way in exchange for honest graft. Want the new iPhone 5? You’re just gonna have to stump up the readies amigo. Thing is, Amanda thinks she’s above all that. She’s an artist you see, so why shouldn’t she get everything she wants to complete her vision? After all, it’s important: it’s art. Life is just so unfair.

By now, you’ll no doubt be aware exactly why she’s been buried under a pile of vitriol today – basically, she’s hunting for string and horn volunteers to be her backing band on her upcoming tour. That’s right, VOLUNTEERS. Sure, you’ll get beer, hugs, and high-fives for your trouble, not to mention the honour of sharing a stage with Ms. Palmer, but that’s about it. Predictably, musicians (and some fans) are up in arms over what they see as free labour and a devaluing of what they do. Predictably, she can’t for the life of her understand why people are upset. Well Amanda, I’m feeling generous today, so let me help you out.

Dear Amanda,

There are so many ways in which this reeks of rampant exploitation and opportunism, not to mention the aura of entitlement you seem to be wearing these days. You’re in an incredibly fortunate position making a living from something you love, something you’re very passionate about, and I don’t doubt for one second the effort and sacrifices you’ve made over the last decade to get where you are. I know how hard it is to succeed in the arts, but that just makes it all the more puzzling why you now wish to abuse your position and the goodwill of those who’ve supported you to get something for nothing.

You’re not the first, and won’t be the last artist to have grand ideas about how to put on a show. There can’t be many bands that wouldn’t love to have extra musicians, backing singers, or a string section tag along for the ride, and I’m sure your concerts will be all the better for such additions. But you have to earn it. Those who tour with an extended coterie of hired hands are either selling millions of albums or selling out stadiums and, whether you like it or not, artists have to live within their means. If your income or revenue streams can’t stretch to an extra $35k for some professional backing, or you failed to budget for that in the $1.2 million you raised, it’s no good complaining and throwing all your toys out of the pram. Welcome to the real world.

So many talented and original people struggle to tour at all, what makes you think you’re so special? Why are you any different to some electronic acts that rely solely on themselves and clever use of technology? Why are you any different to bands that act as their own roadies, drivers, merch sellers and tour managers as they shuttle themselves around the toilet circuit? They could quite easily ask for people to help carry their gear every night, but they don’t. Why? Because it would be exploitation, pure and simple, a devious cashing in of what little fame chips they had and taking advantage of fans willing to do anything for a few minutes in their heroes’ company. Necessity is the mother of invention, and while it might not sound quite as good, I refuse to believe there isn’t a cheaper or technological solution to include those sounds on stage, one that doesn’t rely on outright begging.

You make the valid point that it’s up to each artist what to do with their art, and I have no truck if you wish to give yours away for nothing. But that’s not what’s happening here. You’re asking others to give their time, talent, and effort for free, all to help you further YOUR cause and make YOU money. Everything around the tour is designed to help YOUR career and profile, nobody else’s. You say these volunteers are getting valuable exposure; do you think they’re going to put this on their CV? Are you going to write them a reference? How do you figure that one night stuck behind you is going to help anyone find gainful employment? Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to take a night or a few days off to come join the Amanda Palmer gravy train, and yet, in one fell swoop, you’ve added fuel to the fire that music, and art in general, has no value, and should readily be given where and when it can for free, in return for the simple privilege of being noticed.

Remarkably, this ruse even short-changes your regular fans. You may not have noticed, but the economy is pretty shitty; people have less and less money to spend on leisure and recreational pursuits, therefore it’s only fair they expect good value. Your concerts aren’t cheap - $20 in the US and £16.50 in the UK – but what does the paying public get in return? “We work with who and what we’ve got. It’s sometimes messy… sometimes risky”. So you’re happy to take money from fans for a show backed by “professional-ish” people who perhaps can “barely play at high school level” because you’re too cheap to pay for professionals? I’m honestly struggling to think of a more brazen example of an artist showing such utter contempt and disregard for the people who put them in that position in the first place.

What’s worse, you openly admit that for “bigger shows” such as New York, you are actually hiring professionals. Why is that? Worried about reviews? What about your fans in Carrboro, North Carolina? Or Englewood, Colorado? Or Antwerp? Are they less important? Don’t they deserve a professional show? Or are you making a cold, calculating value judgement based on your need for positive press in the biggest, most lucrative markets? It’s a pretty insulting stance, one that I hope residents of these more out-of-the-way cities don’t forget.

You see, it’s fine if an artistic endeavour is a labour of love, one in which people give their time freely and equally, with any surplus profit being channelled back into the project, but that’s not the case here. Through the generosity of your fans, you got to make the album you wanted, pay off your debts – also highly dubious, but that’s another story – make some cool videos, and now you’re touring the world; all off the back of people who genuinely believed in you. But that’s not enough. You want more. You want to have your cake and eat it. Yeah, people will volunteer because they love you. They’ll answer the call and cook for you, or give you somewhere to sleep, all under the pretence that you’re in it together, that this is how it should be, humans helping humans. They’ll do all that gladly, but that doesn’t make it ok, and trying convince yourself and stumbling around in the darkness of your own ego isn’t helping your cause.

If you want to play the role of the struggling artist, railing against the system and fighting for values you believe in, that’s fine. If you need to call in friends, acquaintances, and a million favours with the promise of a future payoff, that’s fine too. But influence and loyalty are a two way street, and the minute you decided to use good fortune to exploit those who follow and support you, you were no worse than the system you so openly and fervently fought against all these years and fully deserving of the deluge of criticism currently ringing in your ears.