Amanda Palmer Responds To Criticisms

Palmer pens an open letter in response to backlash from fans against her request for musicians to play in return for beer and hugs

In a rapidly escalating turn of events, former Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer has kicked up controversy by trying to recruit horn and string sections to play on her tour and offering ‘beer’ and a ‘hug/high-five’ as payment.

Her request has sparked a spate of angry responses from fans and musicians, some rankled by the fact that her recent album Theatre Is Evil was funded entirely by $1.2 million, raised through the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter, with ‘touring costs’ marked as one of the fund’s original uses.

Steve Albini has also commented on the issue, taking to the message board of his studio Electrical Audio to state: “I have no fundamental problem with either asking your fans to pay you to make your record or go on tour or play for free in your band or gather at a mud pit downstate and sell meth and blowjobs to each other.

“If your position is that you aren’t able to figure out how to do that, that you are forced by your ignorance into pleading for donations and charity work, you are then publicly admitting you are an idiot, and demonstrably not as good at your profession as Jandek, Moondog, GG Allin, every band ever to go on tour without a slush fund or the kids who play on buckets downtown.

“Pretty much everybody on earth has a threshold for how much to indulge an idiot who doesn’t know how to conduct herself, and I think Ms Palmer has found her audience’s threshold.”

Albini has since issued an apology on the forum, stating: "I don’t think Amanda Palmer is an idiot, and it was rude and sloppy of me to make that impression. I’m sorry Amanda Palmer, the internet is going to tell you that I think you’re an idiot, and while that’s not true, it’s my fault."

He did, however, question the way the money was spent, adding: "I saw a breakdown about where the money went a while ago, and most everything in it was absurdly inefficient, including paying people to take care of spending the money itself, which seems like a crazy moebius strip of waste."

Palmer today responded to the criticisms with an open letter to Amy Vaillancourt-Sals, a musician who wrote to Palmer taking issue with her call for volunteers. Here are extracts from Palmer’s letter, which you can read in full here:

“anyone is allowed to crowdfund a record.

and anyone is allowed to crowdsource a musician.

or a pair of socks. or a place to crash. or a meal. anyone.

the band at the local pub can do it, i can do it, tom waits can do it, and justin bieber can do it (his fans would FLIP to be up on that stage making music with him. i’m imagining a crowdsourced belieber playing violin on “boyfriend” right now and loving the image, truly. it’s also fun to think of tom waits wearing fan-knit-socks.)

“you see, with this tour, i originally fantasized that we’d write super-easy-to-learn parts, and then musician volunteers – of varying backgrounds and skill level – would join us to play them, in every city. as an experiment, as the concept behind the grand theft orchestra. we are the media. we are the orchestra. it sounded like a really FUN way of doing a tour, and so far, it really has been. it has worked out great for all involved. it’s pretty much worked out the way we envisioned, with some changes here and there (using paid pros in some markets, using our openers, etc).

“the volunteer musicians have been the same. we’ve been doing this for over a year now.

sometimes we get seasoned pros, sometimes we get people who barely play at a high school level.

sometimes it’s a lot of work. and every night, we work with who and what we’ve got.

“and honestly: i’d take a less experienced horn player who was overjoyed to be on stage for the fun and experience over the pro who’s clocking in to get paid and doesn’t care about me or my band any night of the week.

“this has been the onstage checklist since i first started touring, and it’ll probably never change: is everyone on stage happy – both the salaried musicians and the volunteers? does everyone feel welcome? appreciated? respected? is everyone enjoying themselves? and most importantly: does everybody have a drink????

“the reality of the players and the feeling in the room is more important to me than anything.”

Palmer also links to a post detailing what she did with the Kickstarter money, which you can read here.

The issue continues to divide opinion: a commenter called J.G. wrote under the open letter: “What people are trying to highlight is that ‘crowdsourcing’ can become predatory. There’s a lot of things Bieber’s fans would do for him. That doesn’t mean they’re all automatically good things. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible for him to take advantage. When people in power exert their power, they always talk about ‘freedom’. That goes for ‘rock stars’ too. People are not upset about ‘jam sessions’, they’re upset (among other things) about the disconnect between the rhetoric and the actions, the failure to take ownership of your privilege (privilege of stature and means) and the re-appropriation of community values for one person’s gain.”

By contrast, Esmertina Bicklesnit wrote: “Amanda put it exactly right. What’s important to me is that they [the musicians] are happy and enjoying themselves, which presumably means they are happy with the transaction. Whatever they are getting out of it, even if just the psychic equity of getting to jam with Amanda, balances in their personal cost/benefit analysis for the time and talent they are giving.”

In an excellent earlier blog post on the New York Times, Daniel J. Wakin talked to Palmer, who said: “If you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument would become invalid. They’re all incredibly happy to be here.”

She also revealed that the full cost of taking a string quartet and a three/four-piece horn section on tour for all dates would be $35,000.

Wakin also raised the issue of a “culture clash” between musicians, writing: “To some extent, the kerfuffle results from a culture clash between the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll scene of club dates and scarce cash and the world of established conservatory-trained musicians long supported by strong union locals with wage scales.”

One such musician, Betty Widerski, wrote a post on her blog explaining her reasons for volunteering to play with Palmer, which you can read here.

While the debate shows no signs of abating, it does raise questions about crowdsourcing and performance: for what purposes can crowdsourcing be legitimately used? Should musicians working in different styles expect to be receive different levels of recompense?

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