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The naked diva rebuts unpaid criticism: ‘artists are free to decide how they share their talent’

Amanda Palmer, the kickstart millionairess, has flashed back at global criticism of her call for ‘professional-ish’ musicians to join her tour on a no-fee basis. She says it’s up to every artist to decide whether he or she wants to get paid and how much. In her own troupe, she adds, everyone’s on different rates.

There is substance to her argument. It’s a healthy corrective to the one-fee-fits-all that prevails in many ensembles, but she fails to acknowledge the difference between an artist freely deciding to waive a fee and an employer – herself – declaring that she won’t pay.

Here’s the letter that triggered Amanda’s pang of concsience. And here’s her response itself.

UPDATE: A Boston musician, acquaintance of Amanda’s lays down ground rules here on when you should play for free.

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  1. The average brain surgeon has about as much training and skill as a good musician. No doubt if Ms Palmer ever needs one, she will be happy to accept one for free from her fan base.

  2. Gary Carpenter says:

    The blog banner-head reads ‘Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra’. I’d take that as a sign!

  3. I can’t say I am convinced at all by the lengthy response. The elite system in music where the top guys get fat earning millions and the rest are expected to keep quiet and eat cake if they can find some is fundamentally unreasonable. Under the present economic pressures the insult has become greater because musicians are even being denied living wage income and are expected to work for nothing while the stars swan around in their limos checking their bank statements and offshore tax arrangements.

    The situation is not so different with major orchestras and opera companies paying big name conductors and soloists fees comparable with the money all of the total of the rest of the orchestra earn added together. Coincidentally quite a few orchestral concerts lose money comparable with the cost of the conductor and soloists, which amount ends up covered in the UK by public money funding.

    Time for change. Wherever you look, the ‘rank and file’ musician is not valued as he/she should be.


      Interesting point Bill. In addition I always wonder why in the days of environmental concern and internet marketing why so much money is spent on super super glossy season brochures. How much budget for classical music goes needlessly on print and design?

      Equally this issue brings to my mind tango pianist and composer Osvaldo Pedro Pugliese. He is seen in Argentina as the saint of musicians, with his picture put on equipment and music cases for luck. Musicians from all genres in Argentina will say “Pugliese, Pugliese, Pugliese” for luck. This tradition comes not because they all like his music but because he was renowned for his communist politics which led to a custom of paying his musicians exactly the same as he himself received.

      It might not always be possible to act like a saint but it is important to at least try. Working for free is relative to what the rest of the people in the building are being paid.

      • Somewhat off the topic of Amanda Palmer, a note re the matter of glossy season brochures:
        1. Matte printing is in most situations *more expensive* than coated (i.e. “glossy”) options. The sheen may look more expensive but it’s quicker and cheaper.
        2. “Bad design” will often cost you just as much as “good design”. I’ve seen imaginative and delightful brochures that have cost no more than dull and poorly laid-out brochures. So just because it looks gorgeous doesn’t necessarily mean that it was outrageously expensive. In some cases a design agency may even provide a non-profit with pro-bono or in-kind sponsorship work if they’re attracted to the creative possibilities.
        3. Especially for very busy orchestral concert seasons of 30 to 40 distinct programs, presenting concert information on-screen just doesn’t cut it . Concert-goers still want something they can hold in their hands and flip through and write on, perhaps even keep as a souvenir once the season is over; and the classical music demographic still includes many who are not active online or online at all. A lot of organisations are now issuing pdfs of their brochures as well, which is a great move, but it will be a long time before pdfs/e-books/apps and the like completely replace the printed article.
        4. Ultimately, classical music presenters wouldn’t spend money on season brochures if there wasn’t a “return on investment”. A well-designed, well-laid out, attractively presented brochure can be a key factor in reaching sales goals, especially subscription sales, both renewing and new.

  4. “UPDATE: A Boston musician, friend of Amanda’s lays down ground rules here on when you should play for free.”

    Not quite what I said, which was:

    – This is how *I* decide what gigs to play at what price. Others’ mileage may vary.

    – I’m not a “friend” of Amanda – I am in the same Boston musical community. I know people who know her and/or have lived with her at the Cloud Club. We’ve been in rooms at the same time, and she once made a guest appearance at a show where my band also played, but before reading my post yesterday I doubt she knew I existed >;-)

  5. Reggie Benstein says:

    No matter how it is spun, any musician who plays for free while others are being paid and tickets are being sold for personal profit is doing a great disservice to themselves and all musicians.

    This is not a charity event and there is nothing in Palmer’s argument that convinces me.

  6. I can see reasons why I might say yes to an unpaid gig — I can also see more reasons why I might say no. It is up to musicians individually … but I’m not surprised at the flap over this either, particularly coming on the heels of a publicized windfall for her. Coming from the tech boom in the 90s, I saw more than a few companies have a tough time negotiating the changeover from having an identity as a sort of high-tech garage-band with their buddies working until midnight and being paid in pizza and beer to a proper corporation where employees expected traditional compensation. That often hit after the VC funding came through, where people were like, “Okay, no more pizza and beer, right?” It can especially be hard if the company’s top management have a strong personal identity wrapped around being a DIY startup operation, and suddenly they have to admit to themselves that a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed, and they can no longer identify themselves that way.

    They want to hold onto that identity if they have defined themselves in opposition to the mainstream and don’t want to identify upward, because they fear being arrogant. But refusing to admit that you have moved upward comes across as presumptuous.

    It’s a tough thing to navigate as an artist that has suddenly moved upward. Palmer is no longer as garage-band DIY-ish as she once was … and people’s expectations of her have changed. I can still see why a musician might play the odd unpaid gig, and definitely think it’s a matter of choice for them … but I can also see that Palmer might have lost the freedom to use the DIY tools — the equivalent of paying your buddies in pizza and beer — without difficulty.

    I wonder how many lower-level “starving musicians” donated to her kickstarter campaign, and hence feel that they should have moved up along with her? That may be the downside of those sorts of campaigns: many, many, many disorganized quasi-shareholders, each with an opinion and a sense of ownership.

    • If I could “Like” this, I would. A thoughtful reply and a good analogy.

      • I should say here that, the more I think about it, the less open I am becoming about the “matter of choice” thing. That sounds too much like the neoconservative argument against minimum wage: if some desperate slob someplace will work for a penny an hour, then that’s their choice, and it will not damage the global economy at all or run down wages for anyone else. To be clear: I consider that argument nonsense. There are valid, vital reasons why putting a floor on wages is a crucial component in a livable society.

        So I’m starting to slide well over from “I can see why someone might play for free” to thinking that it’s simply too close to scabbing and undercutting, even for me. So I might play for free if I’m road-testing new music or whatever … what does that do to me when I’m suddenly ready to start getting paid and no one’s ready to start paying because, hey you worked for free last weekend …

  7. I wonder what the Musician’s Union has to say about it all….

  8. Gary Carpenter says:

    Within the general discussion, I found this blog interesting:

    • Very right-wing attitude in that post, though. Romney says the same thing about the minimum wage. If some workers “choose” to work for starvation wages and undercut everyone else — and tank the economy in the process, then too bad.

      As I observed in another post here, this is where the mask worn by upper-class progressives slips, and reveals what’s underneath: nothing different from hardcore market-worshipping right-wingers. If scabs can undercut you, then they should. Seriously, that’s what I’m seeing here. There is no awareness that paying someone a penny if you can at all get away with it does economic damage beyond just that one transaction. It’s especially hilarious because this sort of “systems-level” thinking is generally what that demographic pats themselves on the back nonstop for appreciating.

      It’s not a matter of freedom to choose to work for starvation wages. It’s not a matter of starving on the street if you aren’t a super-with-it genius. It goes beyond that — and Palmer is someone who has played up her progressive, revolutionary, left-wing-appealing cred in a lot of ways. For her now to make appeals to ultra-right-wing Romney-esque “let the market decide I have no social responsibility and my actions go no further than my own front door” is insane, to say the least.

      It really does make me think twice about the times during the 2000s and 1900s when left-wingers would wonder aloud why oh why those foolish, dumb, timid flyover working-class folks would insist on voting against their own interests. Maybe it’s because they sensed what was under that fauxgressive mask worn by people like Palmer, Godin, and the rest of the TED talk demographic. Maybe they knew that their best interests weren’t represented there, either.

      Palmer is asking for scabs. She’s also asking for people who do not NEED to earn the money they must spend on themselves to undercut those who do. The only people who can “choose” to play for free are people who do not need to make their money with their music: trust fund kids, naive teenagers whose parents pay the bills, people whose spouses (let’s be honest and say “husbands”) earn the bulk of the money in the household, and people with wealthy elderly relatives who will bankroll their experimental lives.

      If she, Godin, or you think that the world will continue to function at all if one must be a genius in order to stay off the streets, you are all kidding yourselves. The standard argument remains: if the poor, foolish, less-perfect proletariat can’t afford the fruits of your creative-class genius anyhow because, not being creative-class geniuses, they have no jobs … then how do you make money in the first place?

      You don’t. It’s amazing to me that this is the same argument that that crowd made 24/7/365 during the Bush years, and now they seem to have been overcome by amnesia. Either that, or they smirk and roll their eyes, as if to say, “You didn’t really think I MEANT any of that bullshit, did you?”

  9. This ‘work for free’ expectation is rampant in the child care industry. I looked after kids in my home (before and after school) and one parent became incensed when I said that I would be charging him for full days when the kids had PD days and holidays. He expected me to work for free. Why? Because during a teacher’s strike, I didn’t charge him. It was my mistake. In not charging for my time, I taught him to devalue my time. If I could not charge for the teacher’s strike why should I charge for Easter holidays. How dare I ! Instead of being grateful, when you work for free, people become entitled and expect you to do more work for free.

    Volunteering is a different matter but when you need to earn a living don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to ask to be paid. The parent who criticized me for charging for holidays was making a good salary; he didn’t work for free. He got paid holidays and benefits.

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