March 4, 2013:In praise of Amanda Palmer

photo-mainGoodness, does Amanda Palmer wind a lot of people up. Her TED talk on The Art of Asking being the latest reason people are being cross in my inbox wondering why Music Ally gives her more precious publicity-oxygen.

Why? Because she’s interesting, because there’s a lot that other artists can learn from her career in recent years – one of the most important things being that she’s not a template to follow, but inspiration to make your own template – and because she winds a lot of people up.

Isn’t that what proper pop stars are supposed to do? If we can learn some lessons along the way, so much the better.

Sometimes the cross emailers have issues with Palmer’s music (pro tip: writing someone off as worthless because “their music isn’t even any good” is best saved for when you have teenage children who won’t give a shit anyway); while others have Manly Male Masculine Issues with her willingness to get naked in public without ANY SHAME OR RESPECT WHATSOEVER (pro tip 2: deal with it).

Others, I think, have more understandable problems with Amanda Palmer, which are less about her and more about the idea of her: The Artist Single-Handedly Bringing Down The Industry Through Tweets And Fan Engagement While Sticking It To The Man.

The cardboard cutout; the poster-artist for D2C evangelism. The idea that if you’re not Amanda Palmer, you’re not only doomed, you’re stupid. Which bears little relation to what she’s actually said or done over the last three years.

That’s why I enjoyed the TED talk video: the latest chance to hear from Palmer herself, rather than at one step removed, like many of her harsher critics. It was good stuff: entertaining, informative and 576% less smug than a number of TED talks I’ve watched in the past.

Highlights? On how she got so many people to ‘pay for music’ that she raised $1.2m on Kickstarter: “The real answer is I didn’t make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, it connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you.”

Or this, on the shifting sands of musicians and celebrity culture: “For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community. Connectors and openers, not untouchable stars. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the internet and content that we’re able to freely share on it are taking this back. It’s about a few people loving you up close, and about those people being enough.”

Does that wind you up, or make you think – or if you’re an artist, spark a few ideas? Palmer’s “few people” may be pretty numerous – 24,883 Kickstarter backers – but she’s saying something important about how the music industry is evolving. It’s something other people are saying too: a bona-fide trend rather than hot air.

It’s also general: the underlying principles for other artists to dream up ways to keep making music and find an audience, rather than nailed-down specifics on what to do and how to do it.

Palmer’s career as a personal path that’s turned out – through a mixture of hard work and open-mindedness – pretty well. It’s not one single template for the future, more a collection of pointers towards hundreds or thousands of possible paths for artists, rather than a dictatorship dealing destruction to artists unwilling to flog t-shirts on Twitter or cover the works of Radiohead using a ukulele.

But yes, to come back to the ‘in praise of Amanda Palmer’ part: rabble-rousing rhetoric like “This Is The Future of Music” in her Kickstarter pitch video is too-easily misunderstood as suggesting “This is the only future of music”. Palmer herself has scotched that suggestion:

“The mainstream structures, now collapsed or collapsing, are still on the wrong track, since they keep asking what the NEXT model is. The truth is: there is no next model. Show me 1,000 talented musicians, each with a unique style and personality, and I’ll show you 1,000 ways to make a career in music…there is no longer an off-the-shelf solution,” she said in October 2012.

“My kickstarter was exciting, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. What artists and their audiences will make possible, now that they’re able to connect directly without the aid and criticism of the machine, is going to astound all of us, including me…we’ve only just barely begun a new era of authentic connection with each other.”

Me? I don’t completely agree on the “machine” elements there. At Music Ally, we see a lot of smart people still working within labels, firmly focused on helping artists do exactly that: connect directly to their fans. If there are 1,000 ways to make a career in music, a lot of them still have a place for labels or entities like labels. And a lot of them haven’t.

But this is the real point: you don’t have to agree with everything Amanda Palmer says – or anyone sticking their neck out on the future of music for that matter – to be pleased that they’re saying it.

You don’t have to see crowdfunding as the single source of investment for artists in the future to be fascinated by Palmer’s Kickstarter success, especially when she breaks down the numbers on how she’ll spend it and weighs in to the debate on Bjork’s failed project with valuable insight.

You don’t have to like the music or the Nothing-But-D2C evangelists either. You really do have to deal with the naked thing, though. Sorry.

Just like the fact that – in an industry where transparency around new business models can still be in short supply; when fear still leaves a lot of people standing back rather than stepping forward; and when artists’ voices are needed at the centre of all these debates about digital and physical connections – Amanda Palmer’s personal path is out there as one case study among the many we need.

A few more artists like her – which is to say, lots more completely unlike her finding and sharing their own paths for their peers can learn from – would be a grand idea.

Now, about that TED talk…

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Stuart Dredge
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One response
  • Jay says:

    This is so inspiring, but what she is talking about is aeons old: the function of musicians in society before the blip on the timeline that was the recorded music industry’s golden decades.

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