In Defense of Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer: Gives away her music. Does what she loves. Lives her dreams every day.

(Photo by Mark Wagstrom)

She’s recently come under some extreme scrutiny for inviting volunteer musicians to play with her on tour stops. The thinking seems to be that since she raised so much money from her recent Kickstarter project, she doesn’t have the right to not pay these people. A lot of her fans appear to be turning their back on her because of it. Some are saying the people who volunteer are being suckered into playing for free.

Amanda wrote a blog post defending her position, the TL;DR version being: “YOU don’t have to play for free. But I hope you won’t criticize me for wanting to, and hope you would try not to criticize or shame other musicians for making their own decisions about how to share their talent and their time.”

Some of these people volunteering to perform with Amanda might never be able to get on her stage if she were only taking paid performers. For those people, performing with Amanda is a dream come true, and the sheer magnitude of that experience* outweighs any possible paycheck. In that regard, Amanda is doing those people an incredible service.

Experiences like that are worth SO much more than money. This is the key point that her nay-sayers are missing. And at the end of the day, regardless of how you feel about Amanda, each and every one of the volunteer musicians made the choice to be on that stage. No one twisted their arm. They had a reason for doing it and that reason clearly outweighed the desire, or even need, for a paycheck.

It comes back to that dirty word, “should”. Lots of people think Amanda “should” pay her volunteer performers. The only people who are angry about it are those who feel she’s doing those people a disservice.

Ask the volunteer musicians themselves if you think she did them a disservice. I’ll bet none of them would say yes. How they feel about their choice is all that matters. Telling them they “should” feel mistreated when they don’t is the only real disservice in this situation.

Here’s the deal: Amanda never truly asks anyone to work “for free”. I’ve been to her shows. I’ve watched her pass the hat around to help support the artists on the stage with her. I’ve put money into that hat.

Amanda started her career as a busker. Frankly, as a fan, I LOVE that she crosses those busking roots over into her stage shows. I admire her for wanting to share the stage with people that LOVE being on it.

If the hat doesn’t get passed around (which is, as it seems from her blog, sometimes at the discretion of the artists themselves), she takes them out for dinner. She buys them a drink. She allows them the opportunity of the rush of playing a high energy show for a very enthusiastic crowd. For a performer, that can be a pretty amazing reward.

As a fan, I have always paid for Amanda’s music, even when I could have gotten it for free. If the music came at a suggested price, I would always pay a buck or two more. Even though I don’t have a huge income, it’s important to me to support her, because a) I love her art, b) she inspires me, and c) I want her to be able to keep doing what she’s doing.

I can only assume that every fan who contributed to her Kickstarter felt the same way.

Amanda has always done things her way. Her career has always been an extension of her theater and busking roots. Money she earns may go to staging flashier shows and packaging fancier products, but Amanda is a street performer at heart.

If we, as her fans, admire and support that and give her money for those reasons, why should we demand she does things differently just because she “has money now”?

Why are we so quick to support someone who’s struggling, then knock them down when they’re not? If she hadn’t earned a million dollars on Kickstarter, we would love the fact that she’s using volunteer performers, touring from the groud up, inviting people to share the stage with her. But since she “has the money”, now we don’t.

She even broke down her expenses for the album and tour, and people are still complaining.

Frankly, it makes NO SENSE to complain about an artist making so much money. The only reasoning I can see is that the people complaining are upset THEY don’t have that money. Perhaps they don’t feel any one person “should” have that much money. (There’s that dirty word again.) But we, the fans, are the ones that gave it to her, because we love the service she provides.

As a fan, I WANT her to have as much money as possible. I WANT Amanda Palmer to have the means to fulfull any dream she concocts. I WANT her to be able to perform and present her art the way she chooses. I WANT her to stick to her roots and tour the way she’s always toured, amping up the awesome with her increased income. I WANT her to continue to create and inspire, and for these reasons, I will always happily give her my money and support what she does with it. Especially when she says shit like this: “If I wind up truly loaded someday, it means I’ll probably buy an abandoned church somewhere and turn it into a free 24-hour circus brunch bar for everybody. Cross your fucking fingers. We’ll all win.”

Another underlying reason for my support is this: The idea that if she can do it, I can do it. Supporting Amanda Palmer is, in a way, supporting my own dream.

Here’s where I want to get a little personal. I’m a hoop dancer. I’ve gone back and forth trying to make my living off of it. Maybe someday I will, maybe I never will. I have occasionally made decent money teaching and selling handmade hoops, and for a while I was also performing.

I have never once been paid for a performance. I have never once been upset about that. I’m not a professional and I may never be one. I’m not rich. I have bills to pay, too. But I love the experience of performing, and hearing just one person say they enjoyed watching me makes it worth my effort.

I never really considered the exposure vs. paycheck argument until some well-meaning friends brought it up and planted the seed. I’m friends with a lot of performers who DO strive to be professional, who DO want to make this their living, and who DON’T want to do unpaid gigs if they can help it. I have nothing but respect for these people. They are doing amazing and admirable things with their lives.

Unfortunately, I am not driven by a monetary bottom line.

My currency is experience. My currency is happiness. If I manage to make some money off of those things in the process, it’s a bonus. Money has never been a driving force in my life. I have quit jobs that “paid me what I’m worth” to work more happily for ones that “didn’t”. SHOULD they have paid me more?  SHOULD I have been more upset about it? Maybe. But I DIDN’T CARE. The worth of my piece of mind was so much more important than an extra dollar or two (or even five) an hour.

Still, I let the fact that I wasn’t getting paid keep me from new performance opportunities. Eventually, it contributed (with a mishmash of many other factors) to my slow disappearance from the performance circuit.

And I didn’t even realize it until I read Amanda’s post.

I have missed out on a lot of joy, a lot of experience, a lot of happiness based on the idea that I “should” be paid for it. On the idea that my performing for free hurts everyone. However, when it comes down to it, the only person whose happiness I can control is mine. If performing makes me happy, I shouldn’t have to feel guilty or less of an artist for doing it for free. It makes me happy, it makes the people watching happy. There was a currency exchange there; whether or not others recognized that currency is irrelevant.

Thank you, Amanda. You continue to inspire me. You continue to motivate me. And in exchange, I will continue to support you.

*Let me emphasise here that I am talking about the EXPERIENCE of playing one of these shows, not any potential EXPOSURE. That’s a whole different argument.


12 thoughts on “In Defense of Amanda Palmer

  1. Excellent article, it a shame that people cannot seem to get a sense of perspective on this , even choosing to ignore the list of expenses that AFP has published for the album and the tour. ‘There’s a bandwagon, let’s jump on it…’.

  2. “Frankly, it makes NO SENSE to complain about an artist making so much money. The only reasoning I can see is that the people complaining are upset THEY don’t have that money. Perhaps they don’t feel any one person “should” have that much money. (There’s that dirty word again.) But we, the fans, are the ones that gave it to her, because we love the service she provides,”

    If you love the service she provides, you need to honor the people who help provide that service by paying them fairly.

    It’s not about jealousy of her success. It’s about the fact that being successful should come with a conscience and ethical behaviour. It is unethical to pay some people and then not pay others.

    She is being paid cash money for the concert. This is not a benefit, not a charity gig, not even busking. Like it or not, she’s a boss now. If she is profiting from the gig and not rewarding everyone, including an integral part of the show, she’s behaving unethically. Period.

    “Another underlying reason for my support is this: The idea that if she can do it, I can do it. Supporting Amanda Palmer is, in a way, supporting my own dream.”

    That is in fact what worries so many musicians. If she succeeds with this, it will lead to others thinking they can ask profesional musicians (many of them with student loan debts from studying their craft) to play for nothing or next to nothing.

    There’s no shame in asking your idol to do the right thing.

    • She is not asking anyone who wants to be paid to come on the stage and perform for no money. She is asking people who want the opportunity to be on stage and would not mind volunteering their time to join her. That is all. No one loses here.

      • The poeple who could have been paid for those gigs are losing out. I’m not sure why this is hard for people to understand. Every “volunteer” opportunity (and before you even say it, I’m not talking about charity work) takes a potential job away from someone who really needs it.

        What got me thinking about this is the original letter from a classical musician who was upset about this. She is a fan of Amanda Palmer, but she explains that she is constantly asked to volunteer her services, and she just wants to make a decent living.

        Compare this with another commenter who said that he would gladly offer his band: a jazz combo composed of two doctors, a scientist and a lawyer.

        Thus amateur hobbyists who do this as a lark are favoured over people who do this as their vocation, just because they have the gall to ask to be paid. That hurts all artists, especially when they are told they shouldn’t do it for money but for the love of it.

        At a time when all the arts are being devalued, it really, really sucks to have an artist devaluing other people’s contributions.

        I hope you will take this into consideration.

      • While I see your point, I don’t think what Amanda’s doing is devaluing anything. If someone wants to get a paid gig with her, they could go through the same avenues as those who are getting paid. Amanda’s offering the opportunity to let joyful fans share the stage with her. She’s not asking struggling musicians to cut their loses and do it.

        If Amanda were putting out a call for musicians and then telling people once they got there, “Whoops, this is a volunteer position, just FYI, you won’t be getting a paycheck,” that would be horrifying. But anyone who signs up for these positions knows that it is not a paying gig.

        I understand the frustration that comes from feeling like there are no paying gigs, from trying to make a living off of the arts, because I did it for a while too. While it’s fully understandable to want to be paid for your services, your thinking essentially states the opposite “should”: Artists who are told they should insist on being paid or they devalue themselves. This is just as equally harmful a viewpoint.

        There is room for both to exist. Some beautiful art has come out of volunteerism. It’s a leap of faith to ask for volunteer performers because you don’t know what you’re going to get, and that’s what makes it interesting, it makes the show a participatory event rather than just a spectator’s sport.

        Yes, artists who do make art for a living deserve the right to be paid. But they have the choice whether they would like to volunteer or not. And Amanda Palmer has the right to choose how she makes her art.

  3. She’s not making that “leap of faith” in gigs in major centers. For those gigs, she’s hiring profesionals, because she wanted to be sure of the quality. And, agian, she’s requiring an audtion and reheasral, in other words professional in all but pay.

    She has the right to choose how she makes her art within the means given to her. She cannot wave away bad business decisions and poor planning (and I’m not even sure it’s that: her budget suggests that she might indeed have the money) as a creative choice. That’s staggeringly unethical.

  4. I have never heard of Amanda nor have I heard any of her music. I was enjoying reading many of your posts tonight. Don’t know how I even stumbled on your blog, I think the Bikram yoga link.

    I am a professional musician who, after a lifetime of dedication and constant hard work, manages to make a livable wage with my work.
    I emphasize the word “work” because it is often hard work. People often enjoy concerts I play in even if I am not enjoying them. Showing up and playing night after night, year to year, is a lot like a yoga practice, which I also try to maintain through about 8 years now. Sometimes you have a good class and sometimes you want to run out of there screaming. Just like being a professional performer. You have to show up and give it your best.

    I agree with the person above who has a problem with this Amanda person making a million dollars( even if she donates it) and using volunteers who want to enjoy the experience of playing with her. The performing arts in our country are so devalued in many people’s eyes. They think we should basically play for free or for much less than our equally trained counterparts in other professions. Most public schools don’t even hire art and music teachers anymore unless they are privately funded. People think art and music and dance is just a side gig to the really important stuff.

    Do you think your dentist should fill your cavities for free because it will make her happy to do it? Maybe Exxon should start giving away free gasoline because it will make the executives feel so much better that we can all drive as much as we want. And all technology could be free too if the head people at Apple and Samsung could just connect with their inner selves and realize what a better world they are creating.

    • No, I don’t think anyone should HAVE to work for free. But I do think if people WANT to work for free, that should be an option as well, there is room for both. Amanda also has paid musicians, and I’ve seen her “pass the hat” for volunteer musicians who were touring with her out of love for the project, and they walked out of that show with a hefty sum. The point of this post was to emphasize that the people who volunteered for Amanda had a choice. No one strong-armed them into working for free.

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