Palmer and the perils of success


Singer Amanda Palmer is certainly not one to shy away from controversy. While record labels lament that they can hardly earn money selling music any more, the punk-cabaret singer just made US$1.2 million in four weeks.

Or so it seems. The success didn't come without hard work, and her take on social media and fan involvement also attracted misunderstandings, scores of criticism and unexpected backlashes.

After splitting from her label Roadrunner Records in 2009, when it allegedly pulled some shoots from her video in which her stomach looked "too fat", the Boston-based performer turned to crowd funding website Kickstarter.

Palmer is long known as one of the most proficient artists to use the internet and social media to her advantage, connecting with her fans, organising free impromptu street performances and sharing thoughts and art.

Almost 700,000 people follow her on Twitter, more than 150,000 like her page on Facebook and thousands flock to her blog.

So when Palmer set out to record her new album Theatre Is Evil earlier this year, she didn't look for a new label but instead asked her fans directly to help her to raise US$100,000.

Although she admits that she expected a lot of feedback from her "giant passionate fan base", she was blown away by the massive response she had on Kickstarter.

"It was like a 30-day Christmas, waking up every day and running to the Kickstarter and see how it was rolling along," she says.

The success didn't come out of thin air; she had put in the hard work for years engaging with and building up her social media following.

"The month I did the campaign I was definitely online for five or six hours a day, twittering and encouraging and answering questions, thanking fans and keeping the conversation constantly rolling.

"After four weeks she had far surpassed her goal of raising US$100,000 - fans had chipped in almost US$1.2million.Fans were able to choose how much they wanted to spend.

The options ranged from $1 for a digital download of the album, more for CDs ($25) and vinyl ($50), to exclusive art books,   performances for those backers willing to part with more than $300, and her offer to paint the fan and perform at their dinner for $10,000.

And although the sum of $1.2 million sounds huge, the singer (who is also one half of the Dresden Dolls) says she didn't make a lot of money after all.

"The Kickstarter was a pre-order and people were putting down money so we could manufacture a record."

The amount of backers would directly determine the scale of the manufacturing of the vinyl and the CD.

"It's been a little irritating because all of a sudden people think that I have a million dollars. I actually made very little money. It all went to manufacture the goods that the people ordered.

"We're not rich at all, we took all that money and we gave it back to the fans," she says.

What was left over was spent on marketing the record into the mainstream, spending the money the way a major label would have done it.

The money disappeared fairly quickly and she was faced with the "big conflict that inevitably happens when you have the collision of DYI ethics and larger scale projects, where you are actually trying to sell 100,000 records".

Her ethics are still the same, but it can be hard for people to get their heads around how a DIY record can actually sell half a million copies.

This balancing act between DIY and commercial success has landed Palmer in a big controversy.

Along with her Grand Theft Orchestra the performer invited professional string and horn players to join her on stage on tour in the United States.

She asked them to show up for a quick rehearsal in the afternoon and offered to pay them with "beer, merchandise and hugs". (Inviting local musicians to join her on stage has long been a signature part of her shows.)

But this time around her announcement ignited a social media storm. For many it seemed not proper for the same Amanda Palmer, who - as it was widely reported -  had just earned a million dollars, to ask musicians to perform for free.

Blogs were written, tweets were posted and Raymond M. Hair Jr., president of the American Federation of Musicians, stated that, ''if there's a need for the musician to be on the stage, then there ought to be compensation for it'', while record producer Steve Albini simply called her ''an idiot''.

The backlash came as an utter surprise to the artist.

"I absolutely didn't expect it for one second when I posted that blog that anybody anywhere out there would be upset. When it made national news I knew it wasn't actually about me. We had a really raw culture," she says.

"My fans are very happy to come to our gigs, to play on our show, to hang out backstage with us, to come to our sound checks and drink our beer.

"That has never been a problem, and we have done it for years without any intervention or complaint or any unhappiness.

"But now that I am high profile, I'm being very misunderstood and I've been misunderstood before. I am Amanda Palmer, I get it, but if anything, it served to bolster and strengthen my family.

"But at the same time, the digital onslaught doesn't leave her cold. A professional symphony orchestra violinist, for example, sent her an email and called her an "ignorant slut".

"I almost couldn't believe that was happening to me ... you're never impervious to that kind of insult and criticism and if you are, you're inhuman.

"This is the overall problem with the internet. It is such an incredibly powerful tool for connections and joy and organisation, and it's also such a cesspool of anonymous hatred and attack and you very rarely have one without the other, especially when you are a public rock figure, making art.

"She says that her generation of rock stars have simply grown up to accept that part of their job is fielding and filtering the anonymous hatred of angry people.

"If you want to go online and talk with your family, and talk with your fans and talk with your art community, if you want to have this discussion you have to wear your protective armour.

"The only solution if you don't want to deal with it is to disengage, and for me that is not an option. I'd rather die before I disengage. I'd much rather risk the gunfire and have the conversation than hide in my room with the door closed." 

Amanda Palmer & Grand Theft Orchestra

September 4, Wellington, San Francisco Bathhouse

September 6, Auckland, Kings Arms