Amanda Palmer on crowd-sourced musicians, Emily White, and kerfuffles
Amanda Palmer just had a rough couple weeks. Recently thrown into the spotlight for trying to crowd source various "horn-y and string-y" musicians for beer and hugs during her Theater is Evil tour, it's understandable that Palmer might be wary of opening up about her decision to let the music community step up to the stage.
Ahead of Palmer's October 3 stop at First Avenue, Gimme Noise had the chance to chat with her about her motivation and thoughts on the music industry's latest dividing point, and she was surprisingly candid.
We started by talking to Palmer about referencing Unwoman's response in SF Weekly about volunteering for the Grand Theft Orchestra. Unwoman, San Francisco-based cellist, mentioned in her guest feature a kind of non-monetary, intangible currency gained by taking a chance to play with a famous musician for free.
As soon as actual musical love and sparkly fame come into the picture, you're looking at currency that's not dollars. That currency is, in Amanda's case, invisible to anyone who doesn't love her music or want to play for her fans. But it's real to us.
For Palmer, the feeling is mutual. "I mean, that intangible thing that she's referring to," Palmer says, "is the currency on which my entire life has run. Which is not to say there isn't rent, and there aren't bills, but I didn't get into music because I wanted to be rich."
While some may argue that Palmer is, in fact rolling in money after having raised $1.2 million on her Kickstarter (far surpassing her intial $100,000 goal), she defends and breaks down where that extra money goes on her blog.
At this point, Palmer became very passionate and urgent about the value of one's time. "You need to pay your rent, you need to be happy, you need to feel like your art and music are valuable and worthwhile," she says emphatically. "But all of the rock musicians I know tend to have a different gauge and value system than a lot of the classical musicians I know, which isn't to say there's not some crossover. I know tons of classical musicians who are happy to gig for free, and spend their time with street performers, potentially the basic building blocks of playing on a risk basis. It really is the collision of two philosophies that I see happening. Rock and roll philosophy is much more messy. Rock's philosophy is never clean and measured. That goes for everyone from the local bar bands down the street, all the way to Mick Jagger. Everyone in rock and roll knows that the way you measure your time and energy is personal, ever-changing, and about as flexible as it gets."
Palmer astutely zeroed in what she thinks the root of the problem may be. She's become the face of a larger problem in the music industry, similar to when former-NPR intern Emily White catapulted into infamy as a shameless music pirate. "I think the controversy you're seeing isn't so much about me as much as it's about a much larger, raw, cultural nerve," she says. "The reality of the situation is that we are in an economic recession, symphony halls are closing down left and right, and musicians are very afraid. We in freewheeling, improvisational, rock and roll land have our way of attacking it."
In fact, after our interview, Palmer ran into White at an NPR event in New York, discussing and exchanging thoughts at a bar about their respective public battles. Palmer came to the conclusion that many people are quick to judge those in the public eye without remembering the fact that they're human and how that has an effect on people's day-to-day lives.
Ultimately, Palmer wants something bigger and better to come from this self-proclaimed "kerfuffle." While her word choice may sound silly or glib, but there was no mistake in Palmer's voice that this issue is close to her heart, and she's trying to understand it and deal with it in a sincere, intelligent, and thoughtful manner. The days Palmer has spent answering endless questions as well as hearing about blogs and articles from music journalists around the nation have given her a voice on a proverbial soap box that she may not have gotten without this exposure.
"I would hope that this kind of controversy opens up a dialogue between artists so that we can understand each other better, instead of creating a rift," Palmer says. "That's the last thing we need. As a street performer who has been in dialogue with every kind of musician there is, from other street performers to rock and rollers to classical musicians who sometimes sit in with rock bands... I know fundamentally, every single artist has a different way of measuring their time and energy. That is an essential right that you have to grant every artist. You can't apply the rules of one musician to another."
"Especially in the digital era with everyone freaking out about how we're all going to get paid," Palmer explains, "the best thing we can do is encourage each other to experiment, take risks, figure out new systems, find new ways to connect with each other instead of tearing each other down if one musician happens to be using a system you don't want to use. That's definitely not the way forward."
Palmer delves deeper into the artist mindset, breaking down the difficulties one faces in terms of finding motivation and value. "I think, as a musician or an artist, you are constantly trapped in a battlefield of content and energy and commerce," Palmer says. "This has been true long before the internet happened. The decisions that you are faced with as an artist on a day to day basis, the big decisions that you're faced with, are how do you spend your time and energy? As with anything else, especially when it comes to musicians and artists, we usually feel very unhappy when told what to do... which is why we became artists in the first place."
According to Palmer's latest blog post on September 19, she appears to be quite happy to have reconfigured her Kickstarter funds to allow for guest musician pay. (The money comes out of Palmer's music video budget.) After a week of back and forth between Palmer, her volunteers, various bloggers, and high-end music industry folk, she has embraced a new system. From now on, Palmer will pay her upcoming guest musicians and the ones who have already played. She did not disclose the amount each musician will be paid.
Palmer also stated on her blog that after the kerfuffle began, her band gave the volunteers the chance to back out, and no one did. In fact, more musicians signed on to help out in upcoming tour cities. To highlight the collaborative process between Palmer and her volunteers, she ended her blog with a video of a performance in New Orleans.
Whichever side of this issue people side on, it's clear that Palmer has tried to make amends and move forward to focus on the music and the relationships she's built with her fans, her musicians-both old and new.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with Palmer where we talk Theater is Evil, Prince, and assless pants.
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