Amanda Palmer. F-ck yes or f-ck no?

by Jonathonio

From The New York Times:

“If there’s a need for the musician to be on the stage, then there ought to be compensation for it,” said Raymond M. Hair Jr, president of the American Federation of Musicians. “Playing is work and there’s a value associated with it, and that value ought to be respected.”

Raymnd M Hair Jr, of the musicians’ union, is correct. There is a value associated with standing on stage and playing an instrument. The problem is, as in many other areas of the content industry, that value has been eroded by new supply chain models enabled by the internet.

As it turns out, the true value of a professional musicians mightn’t lie so much in the act of standing on stage and playing a trumpet (plenty of amateurs can do almost as good a job) so much as the certainty and reliability that payment affords the buyer. Imagine trying to crowdsource, without the internet, a two-person horn section in each city of a 33-city global tour (66 musicians). No wonder people pay money upfront for reliable pros to travel with them.

Even if you had internet, imagine trying to do if you hadn’t already, as Palmer has, impressively laboured at building an engaged online network of thousands upon thousands of fans and potential volunteers. It’s been completely ignored that Palmer has built this network almost entirely via handing over for free the kinds of things (video, audio, interviews) that used to carry a much higher value in the old content economy – yet I don’t see her complaining.

What Amanda Palmer is inviting musicians to do is exactly what I am doing, right here, in this article; providing for free something which someone else would like to be paid to do – some struggling journalist aspiring to get paid for writing snarky op-eds. Getting used to the fact that your income in the old days relied more on inefficient distribution and artificial scarcity rather than your own intrinsic wonderfulness must be difficult, I imagine. I’m very sorry (I’m not).

Of course the other aspectof Palmer’s endeavour which has enraged people in this instance is that she recently raised $1.2 million via a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign not three months ago (original target: $100k). Therefore, the reasoning goes, ‘this woman is rolling in money, why can’t she pay her musicians?’.

I have three points about this. Firstly, the average Kickstarter pledge to Palmer is $47. How much accountability should an individual expect for $47? I’d suggest not much and that you get what you pay for. If you throw $2 to a busker as a token of appreciation it doesn’t authorise you to question the allocation of their finances.

The second point is simply caveat emptor: if accountability is what you want, negotiate it up front as part of your pledge. And if you can’t do this (as would be likely with Kickstarter) then just don’t pledge. It’s not complicated.

And finally, in the old days we used to give money to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger by paying for their records, which they’d spend on heroin and dark spirits. Now, Amanda Palmer gives away a lot of her records, for example through Noisetrade. As part of this value exchange she then appeals to us directly for money, which we happily give her. Why then, do we now consider ourselves shareholders in Amanda Palmer with the right to interrogate her expenditure? I don’t get it.

Last word to the lady herself: “To me it seems absurd,” she said. “If my fans are happy and my audience is happy and the musicians on stage are happy, where’s the problem?”

*Please note, I am not saying ‘f-ck yes’ to Amanda Palmer in toto. I do not like her or her appalling music, and especially not her ropey eyebrow augmentation which frankly turns my stomach.

by Liam Hogan

There’s been a lot of criticism about Amanda Palmer’s proposed shows featuring volunteer musicians. It’s a suckhole of claim and counter-claim and mutual aggravation that’s really a feature of the internet working and feeding on its own moral outrage. I do love the internet’s ability to self-infuriate, and I do enjoy the raw spectacle of a community lathering itself into thorough opprobrium.

It’s natural too that every argument on the internet branches into discussions of broader and narrower issues, the fact-checkers sharing comment fields with warriors of generalisation. So to some facts.

Yes, Palmer was always in the business of paying her regular band; they’re now paying the volunteers. I imagine many of the volunteers were genuinely prepared to play for beer and t-shirts.

Good for her, finally. But I don’t think it changes the issue everyone got angry about. The issue boils down to a principle about labour and production, expressed in the simplest form by Palmer herself, in a blog entry while the argument was still hot:


the minute YOU make black and white rules about how other artists should value their own art and time, you disempower them.

At one level this is obvious. Of course, not every performance by a musician is equal, and the value of that performance is utterly subjective. Musicians of every skill level have always played free – for charity, for art, for practice, for worship, for celebration, for every reason. Palmer’s argument was that since music is such a grey area, why not ask, and then if people are willing to play for nothing, why not let them?

But here’s the thing. This isn’t about music. It’s not about the entertainment industry nor the decline of traditional forms of media distribution. Palmer’s argument, that time and skills are to be valued individually, is one with which every worker is becoming more and familiar.

Voluntarism has been creeping into the workplace, first into the edges where labour and profit are blurred – the ‘caring’ professions: nursing, childcare, aged care, social work – and it’s gradually merging across the economy. University students are expected to ‘intern’ in white-collar professions to gain experience. White collar workers on salary are expected to take work home out of enthusiasm and love of their role. Even shop assistants are expected more and more to work for a few shifts, or days, or weeks, on unpaid ‘probation’, a practice which is, rightly, illegal.

If musicians subjectively determine the worth of their own time and skills, why not cooks as they do when they volunteer to go on programs like Masterchef? If musicians are prepared to play for nothing, because they enjoy it, why not nurses, who presumably believe in their healing, caring job? If people who really like trains or trams or buses or airliners would be prepared to drive and fly them for free for the pleasure, why not let them?

Skills and time aren’t just what you say they are. When you work for nothing, or ask people to work for nothing, there are consequences.


Image by Burns via Creative Commons Licence

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