In addition to writer, musician, performer, ex-Dresden Doll, Ted Talk-er, Twitter superstar and Kickstarter millionaire, Amanda Palmer has had some other interesting job titles over the years — though the one that best led to her success in the new music economy was her stint as a stripper.
“In my early 20s when I was a living statue, I was also a stripper, a dominatrix, and I worked for a naming and branding company, and an ice cream shop,” she told interviewer Bob Lefsetz while discussing her career Thursday at a CMW event in a hotel ballroom. “I did all these things at the same time. I had an interesting early 20s.”
The room, led by Lefsetz, chuckled en masse.
“There's a million parallels you can draw between Stripper World and Music World. And Human Statue World, actually. But I went in there as 24 thinking I’m a really strong woman, I love human beings, I’m totally compassionate, I’m a feminist, I’m going to make a lot of money, and I’m going to figure it out. And what I found was that it was the attitude that you bring to it. I was very, very different from the other strippers.”
So, too, was famous pin-up model Dita Von Teese, whom Palmer learned an important lesson from by way of a friend who told her a story.
“Dita Von Teese, before she became a burlesque pin-up model fashion star, was a stripper in L.A., and she was surrounded by bleach blondes with boob jobs who were wearing fluorescent clothing, which is pretty much what I was surrounded by when I was a stripper. [Von Teese] would show up in her vintage clothes and her black hair and her crazy performance art tutu costumes and she wouldn’t even strip naked. She would do a sultry old-school striptease down to her underwear and confuse the shit out of everybody. And if there were 50 people in the strip club when the peroxide blondes stripped, they would get a dollar from all the guys [and] she would get fifty dollars from one guy.
"And I was like, that's pretty much the story of my life, the story of the Dresden Dolls. The story of being a really beloved high-art cult band is that you're not aiming at all fifty people.”
Understanding things like this at a young age and following them through to logical conclusions has made Palmer one of the most successful and contentious figures in music- and art-making today. Fans love her boldness, her brashness, and her woman-of-the-people approach to things including but not limited to crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Detractors accuse the former Dresden Doll of everything from ripping off musicians to stealing from her fans.
Over the course of an hour, Lefsetz and Palmer traced her way from being a weird loner in high school to Amanda Palmer: Iconoclast.
“I deeply knew, since I was 12 or 13, that I wanted to be a rock star,” she said. “I knew I loved music, I loved performing, I loved the idea of having some crazy weird alternative lifestyle, and the only people I could see out there who were in my periphery who got to do everything, and made videos, and made theatre, and [wore] weird shit and expressed themselves, and got to be the pan artists where they weren’t just an actor or just a writer, were Cyndi Lauper, Prince, and Madonna.”
Over the course of that hour, Palmer traced everything back to that twelve-year-old's idea of what a rock star was. Her work, she explained, stemmed from a childhood desire to do it all. Unfortunately, there were roadblocks, and college was one of them.
“There were no rock star classes at Wesleyan [University],” she explained, to laughter. “I was looking towards college thinking that it was going to be 'Animal House,' and that I was finally going to find all of my lost brothers and sisters, and that we were all going to do acid and run in the woods, and that it was going to be fantastic, and it was just going to be red wine, philosophy, art, and nakedness.”
It wasn’t like that, though. College didn't deliver on a young Palmer's naïve beliefs. Accordingly, she fell into a deep depression at Wesleyan that didn't relent until she left. “College was dark times,” she said.
The start of Palmer's ascent happened, quizzically enough, when she decided to be a street performer (a human statue of “a fucked up ballerina"). As she described it, this led to a lightbulb moment that led to a lot of what came next. The secret: “Seeing other people doing it, and going 'I can do that.' [Realizing that it wasn't] more complicated than being really, really brave, painting yourself a colour, and standing on a box.”
The vulnerability inherent to this act led to Palmer realizing that monetizing her work started and ended with being forthright enough to go ahead and do it, hence her theories on asking for money from her audiences.
“You had to be a good statue” to make money, she said. Lefsetz suggested that Palmer’s success came from knowing how to specifically ask for money, as a performer.Article continues after slideshow
Beware. And be flexible. Palmer was caught up in an unpleasant dispute with her label over disappointing sales, and so fans voluntarily handed her money to escape their clutches. As a result, she became a trailblazer for innovation, inspiring thousands of other artists to question exactly what their labels do for them anyway. Publishers need to work closely with writers, and not pretend that other options don't exist. They need to listen to them, figure out how to help them, and if they decide to do their own thing, support them in that. The writers will respect the publisher more, and might just call back later if what you can offer is useful to them in the future. But not if they and their readers hate the publishing company for what they said and did before.
Be prepared to hear this drumbeat on a regular basis on Tough Love: Stop with the Digital Rights Management (DRM). What it says to readers is "You can't be trusted not to pirate ebooks, and so we have to punish you by preventing you from owning what we sell you." As both Palmer and Cory Doctorow have shown, their sales and popularity only grow as a result of handing over their creative output and trusting enough people to do the right thing in response. They are only outliers because the mainstream currently forces them to be.
When her first album sold 25,000 copies, the label told her they were disappointed, and pushed her to one side. After all, how much money can you make from 25,000 people? The answer, it turns out, is $1.19 million, if you know how to ask. The label's brusque shortsightedness, plus its 'one size fits all' methodology, cost them not only future Dresden Dolls sales, but probably other artists from wanting to sign with them in the future. A small number who truly follows an artist are ultimately worth a lot more than a huge number who'll forget them tomorrow.
That $1.19 million wasn't as big a pay day as it first sounds. But that's ok, because its value was far greater than monetary. What the Kickstarter did was identify groups of fans, all of whom had proven their support in a more meaningful fashion than simply clicking a "Like" button - and some of whom had self-identified as prepared to pay higher prices for more personalized experiences. Kickstarter isn't where artists raise a regular income - it's where they find and develop true fans.
At each gig, Amanda Palmer invites other musicians to join them on stage for certain songs, making each performance unique. They are the talented superfans, rewarded with tickets and beer and love and applause for helping make the experience more special. From limited-edition book covers to reading events, writing experiments to other forms of interaction, the worst response that a publisher can get from an invitation is 'no'. (NB this isn't an encouragement to crowdsource content that publishers might otherwise pay for - this is about a different kind of transaction, designed to enhance instead of replace the conventional creator-audience interaction.)
Last year, the publishing industry's largest event BookExpo America invited leading book bloggers to buy tickets for one of its days, as "Power Readers". Many in the industry reacted extremely nervously. "But, who are these people?" said one senior figure at a major publisher. "They could be anyone." These people aren't anyone, Major Publisher. They are fanatical readers who are prepared to pay $49 to hang out with publishers because they love what you do. Stop backing away and looking suspicious. Just hug them.
The person who donated the crate and hat for Palmer's talk got to supply a photograph of him with both, saying Hello. This was no small print nod for a service rendered but a generous response to a human exchange. Make literal or metaphorical eye contact. Be grateful. You know you're doing it properly when people only want to help more as a result.
Success leads to snark, especially online. But that's ok - snark is how the internet asks questions. The important thing is to have good answers. If your goals are respectful, thoughtful, honest, and you react to the snark accordingly with respect, thought and honesty, then you'll find that what starts as a cheap laugh actually brings more people to your side. Most people I know in publishing are in it because they truly believe in the importance and power of distributing stories. That's a heck of a powerful starting point. Focus on that, be honest about your mistakes, and don't panic when the snark starts to come. The thing most people don't realize about the internet is that it has an attention span of about half a day - and its snark is usually worse than its bite.
At no point in Amanda Palmer's talk does she say, "All musicians need to do this." She also doesn't say "all musicians should leave their labels." She understands the reluctance of others to adopt these methods, and accepts that there are other forms of musical celebrity. Her methods might not scale or be easily replicable. Many artists may be too afraid or unwilling to be as honest, approachable and public in their vulnerability - and their music might only appeal to an audience too small to make it a viable economic proposition. Amanda Palmer seeks out a particular kind of engagement with her audience, and has found that the traditional economic structure of the industry inhibits, rather than enables it. So she found one of many possible ways around it, one that worked for her and her band, and fitted perfectly with their live and recorded musical experience. There are others.
Yes, she raised a lot of money, but her talk isn't about 'how to make a living as an artist'. It's about how meaningful, two-way encounters are far more likely to come about when an artist dares to trust their audience, and thinks beyond a formula-driven financial transaction. For those writers brave enough to try it, publishers could help to enable such encounters - and those who dared to do so would be more likely to attract other such authors. If you're in it to make stories matter in people's lives, then perhaps the readers could help make it happen - if only you let them.
Palmer stripped off all her clothes and gave a self-selected group, who had paid for the privilege, complete trust. And a pen. It was a highly controlled environment, but also a breathtakingly risky idea. What would it look like if a major publisher followed that path for a project or two? What kind of book might be published as a result?
“That moment of asking for help can be seen as something in the form of a gift,” she said. “Certain people in certain situations like being asked, love helping artists, love feeling involved, like feeing useful, like feeling helpful. There's a real difference between being like, 'can you give me five bucks?' and 'could you help me do this thing, and how could you help me, and maybe if you did this, I could help you in this way.'
"The musicians that I see and the artists that I see that are successful at it understand that if it’s between force and openness and trust, the ability to ask someone means that you trust them and it builds the relationship, and it is kind of a gift."
In 2012, that openness came back to bite Palmer.
After raising $1.2 million via Kickstarter, she became the target of criticism after it was reported that she was recruiting volunteer musicians to play on the tour that followed the release of "Theatre Is Evil" for free. Steve Albini was perhaps the loudest, harshest critic, but there were scores. Owen Pallett took a swing at how the money was spent (i.e. not on musicians), though he ended by writing, “I believe, in my heart, that you mean well here and you are not trying to rip anybody off. But it reads all wrong.”
To many, Palmer’s trust factor went from mountain high to valley low in a matter of months. Lefsetz asked her about the experience, about her side of it.
"It was really painful," Palmer said. “That happened the day my record dropped. I was at Webster Hall soundchecking with my band when I got a call from the New York Times saying ‘there’s a petition saying that you asked all these volunteers to come onstage with you to play songs on tour and you’re not paying them. Can you comment?’ I was like, ‘yeah, sure, no problem,’ not expecting anything bad to happen, and then within a week it was all the world was talking about, and it was a giant pain in the ass. And like any controversy that I've been involved with, the hardest part and the most painful part was feeling so deeply misunderstood by the outside world, because all of the musicians that were literally there at the shows who volunteered their time [weren't upset in the least].
"I had been doing this for years with the Dresden Dolls, asking painters and musicians and performance artists and buskers to come to our shows, usually unpaid, but they were always happy to be there because they either got paid in tickets or in merchandise or, you know, buskers would come to our shows and pass the hat and make plenty of money, and it was this ecosystem that just worked. We never questioned it.
“But all of a sudden because of the million dollar sign over my head, something had changed and it was really frustrating because I felt that these people who knew nothing about me, who hadn’t been watching my community functioning for ten years, were all of a sudden casting judgment on us. And we were okay. The musicians coming to the shows were fine and were like ‘yeah this is really fucked up, sorry, we volunteered and wanted to be here.’”
In the end, Palmer started paying the volunteer artists. Not necessarily because she felt she had done anything wrong, but more because she understood that there was an optics problem and she had to fix it.
“Any time the world crashes down on you and says 'you're an asshole,' it's never easy," she explained. She ended up talking to her band about how best to put the pin back in the grenade, about dealing with what Lefsetz described as how "we live in an apology world'" where everyone has to be sorry for something.
“It was a really difficult week,” Palmer said. “The flames outside the door were growing and the story now was getting misinterpreted to the point that the Twitter meme was 'Amanda Palmer Never Pays Her Band' and things that were just untrue. And I was so exhausted by it, and I think it's also important to remember the context — this is now on Day Five of the first week of a four-month international tour and my record had just dropped, my record that I had spent two years making and was really, really proud of, and no one was talking about my record. All people were talking about was this controversy. And I think against my better judgment, my team basically took a vote and said 'you need to do whatever you need to do to just make this go away, and move the conversation on.'
“I knew from talking to the musicians who'd volunteered that none of them were going to be unhappy with getting paid $100 at the end of the night."
Boom. Optics problem solved, sort of.
But now, years later, in front of a room of people who are part of communities still talking about whether she was right or wrong, Amanda Palmer said the most Amanda Palmer thing ever.
"In retrospect, I think I did it wrong. I kind of wish I had stuck to my guns. But I also look back compassionately at the artist who was trying to deal with this between sound check and four-hour shows and two-hour signings and a phone call in the morning going 'oh my god what do we do about this problem?’ and going to the internet and seeing #amandapalmerisanasshole every day, you get to the point where you're just 'make it go away, make it go away.'"
If that’s not a "Sorry Not Sorry" I don’t know what is. In other words, it’s a quintessentially Amanda Palmer thing to say.