Amanda Palmer’s experiments in addressing the death of the music model have fed my inner fanboy as much as her passionate music itself. Check her great TED Talk. By embracing new technologies she has made truly immediate, accessible connections with fans. Tweeting photos of herself in the bathroom mirror the morning after a late show. Announcing spontaneous pillow fights on the street. She makes connections and then leaves a hat out, bypassing a whole collapsing industry of leaky money channels and equating direct dollars with love.
Sadly for her musical career, this has meant that she is more often interviewed about her 1.5 million dollar kickstarter campaign (and controversy around her old practices now that she is, “rich”) than her music itself. She also had no idea how to release her next album. In her communal, take it to the people style, she brought together a room full of fans to have a town hall discussion about what’s next. (She also included songstress Zoe Boekbinder) I hammered out a quick essay and, with luck, was invited to attend.
Tech Tech Tech Tech Blech
The most dominant discussion was around a whole range of technologies from Spotify to BandCamp to Kickstarter to Facebook and the fundamental dismay that artists feel when they just want to create something, get it out there for people to hear, and have enough to buy a sandwich while making the next thing. There was a lot of discussion about the challenges of trying to make music while having to be a technical expert, financial wizard, social networking guru and personality. It’s not enough to know how to promote music or set up a website today, because by the time you have another album of material everything will have changed. Nothing that worked before seems to work again a year later.
Music as dialog
Given this type of dialog it was impossible for Zoe Boekbinder to not play the song about technology she had written that morning. At the end of the discussion she brought a guitar to the mic and used it to perform, “I don’t need a machine.” Irony, never being lost on me, lead me to return home and immediately throw together a musical response to the song and the general tone of the event.
Maybe Darwin makes it all go away
I think one of the most fundamentally intriguing things Amanda brought up during the course of the day was the idea that supporting musicians through buying a physical object like a tape or CD was a phenomenon that was a tiny blip in the history of music. Before this you had to work for the church or other wealthy patron, hold out a tip jar, or charge people to see a show. The wealthy patron format has gone out of style and if paying for recorded music really does die that means that anyone who can’t perform will cease to be supported. That means that for a brief moment in history there was a golden era where introverted artists could make beautiful music and slide it out under the door. If we continue the way we are going, art from that whole spectrum could go away, a huge number of voices silenced. Darwinian and, perhaps, true.
Of course if it’s true that a viable career for introverted artists is going to slip into the history books perhaps that’s an inevitable part of human society’s evolution. Maybe, too, music returns from the realm of “professionals” and back into a place where everyone makes imperfect but delightful music with their families and friends in the evenings. A quick skim of YouTube makes it clear that plenty of people are already doing this by the digital fireside.
I think ultimately the drive to make art is too strong for many to not continue to make it, but there is definitely a sense that without support to provide time and space to practice and create there is only so far they can go.
Suck it up, you’re a plumber now
A reasonable case was also made that musicians may just have to suck it up like every other independent businessperson, from a bicycle mechanic to a cupcake baker. They just want to play with bikes or bake but most of their time is spent figuring out how to promote themselves and handle money. Amanda’s response was that people get into music because they don’t want to, or can’t, handle business, but I really don’t think that’s any different for anyone I know wanting to make chocolate or cupcakes. They are also just as trapped without income if they can’t show up to a job site or come in to cook cupcakes one day. Perhaps music (and, for that matter, writing) have just ceased to be product-based careers. (I’m skipping for the moment that writing, unlike music, has no performance aspect that could generate income. Also noting that I still don’t have a tip jar on this blog.)
Speaking between universes
One of the dynamics in the room that I found most fascinating was watching a techie talk about how she didn’t understand why musicians didn’t just create a co-op based technical solution. Amanda gave a human response, about the challenges of having artists work together and give up control of their images and material. The techie responded again with, “anything is possible”. Being of both worlds myself I could see the disconnect as they each spoke their different languages at each other. Amanda, without an understanding of the process of building software, focused on the human side. The techie saw infinite possibility in knowing she could build absolutely anything technical but that world of infinite possibility didn’t necessarily include the complexity of human behaviors, needs and desires. The solution, if there is one, lies somewhere in between.
Incidents and Calls to Action
At one point a fan in the back row told his story of how he had payed for a crazy expensive flight to Europe to see one of his favorite musicians perform – but hadn’t bought her latest album. On the other hand, he talked about how he was perfectly happy to contribute to helping buy her a piano so that she could make more of the music that he loved. There are clearly dedicated fans who are perfectly happy to throw money, tokens of love, into a bucket for someone they care about. All they need are incidents or calls to action. Amanda’s Kickster was just such an incident. When I heard that there was an opportunity to support her, I jumped at it and threw some money behind the project. I had given her money in the past and I could have given her money any time in the weeks or months before the Kickstarter but I didn’t. Helping pay for her meals would have allowed her to focus on her art and contribute in just the same way. But I needed a reminder and an opportunity, and this opportunity was particularly well flavored in that it gave me the sense that my contribution was directly contributing to getting the art I loved made.
All in all there were some interesting points but, of course, no real conclusions and it left a melancholy about an already sad reality. It helped a little to get an awkward fan photo with one of my heroes but then I made a bumbling ass of myself in our discussion and had to walk away evaluating each moment like I was 13 and just bumped into my crush in the hallway at school. It was just another demonstration of the power of human contact and perhaps brings us right back around to the fact that our artists may just have to learn to shake hands with, hug, and sing for their bumbling fans until we find another way.