Amanda Palmer is known for her crazy antics as the leader of the Dresden Dolls and the Grand Theft Orchestra. But Palmer started her career doing something a little more stationary. She worked as a living statue, painted all in white, wearing a wedding dress and giving people flowers.
In her time as a street performer, she learned valuable lessons that she later applied to her music career, which became a popular TED Talk she gave last year. Now, she's back with a brand new book called The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help.
Whether she's sleeping on a fan's couch or taking to Kickstarter to fund her last CD, Palmer has built her career around asking for help. And she's received it. Her Kickstarter campaign raised almost $1.2 million, or twelve times the amount she had asked for. She talked with Westword about her street performing, the risk of asking, and the future of the music (including the Taylor Swift vs. Spotify debate).
Westword: Can you tell me a little about being a street performer?
I was in my early 20s and didn't want a real job. I looked around at other people doing living statues and thought, 'What's going to stop me from doing that?' So I just stood up and tried it one day, made five times more money as a was making at my shitty barista job and never looked back.
How did the lessons you learned as a street performer translate into your music career?
I really learned how to trust in a sliver of the population to support an artist. I think the poetic parallels between performance art and crowdfunding are incredible. The entire world doesn't need to support you and pre-order your album, you only need a few hundred or a few thousand people to have a sustainable career as an artist. The most important part of the job is to focus on that sliver of a percentage who are stopping and engaging, while you let the rest of the humanity walk by and ignore you
Why do you think there's a stigma against asking people for help?
I think people fear asking deeply because asking makes you feel incredibly vulnerable to another person. It's a larger cultural problem we have.
I found have that when you risk you can get incredibly rewarded and also incredibly hurt, and that's why it's a risk. But it turns up the volume of your life experience. I think you live a much richer life, if you take those risks in trusting other people. Just like in human relationships and love relationships, you get as good as you give. If you refuse to open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable to a lover or a partner or a friend, you don't get a lot back.
How does the Internet affect the art asking concept?
I think it's an incredibly two-sided coin. The internet has made new forms of asking powerfully possible with crowdfunding sites and the ability for artists to directly ask their audience for support. On the flip side, the same communities that use the internet for asking are making themselves vulnerable to critics and naysayers. The Internet is such a powerful tool for positivity and negativity, and I've stood in the center of both arenas. I love my ability to speak on Twitter to a family of hundreds of thousands of people. I love my ability to roll into town and ask who's around and is there's a place to sleep.
In your TED Talk, you say people have been obsessed with the wrong question of how do we make people pay for music, and you think we should ask how do we let people pay for music. How do you propose the music industry change?
I think the recorded music industry as we knew it is pretty much over, and an entirely new entity has sprung up in its place. It's no longer about the five major labels or the huge distributors or the store you walk into to buy your twenty-dollar CD. The systems that are springing up in its place are not centrally located. There are thousands of ways for artists to create, record and distribute their music now. The world should embrace it. I see so much criticism levied at so many artists for "not getting it right." I think that's backwards. If U2 wants to partner with Apple and if Taylor Swift wants to pull her music from Spotify and if I want to use Kickstarter we should be allowed to do whatever the fuck we want. It's our music, our art, and it's our decision to run our business how we see fit. I think the world's task is to accept that we're all going to create our own system and there needs to be a very wide playing field that allows for everything.
So tell me how the book came about.
The book came about after the TED Talk. I wanted to expand on the ideas that I spoke about, which had a surprisingly large resonance. I had aimed it musicians but it hit a universal nerve with people and that captivated me and I wanted to explore more. I drew on my own life as a street performer, musician and a wife and a human to try to tackle these issues. I didn't want it simply to be a memoir
What do you hope people get out of the book?
It's funny you should ask that. Someone just asked me if it's a self-help book, and I don't like self-help books at all. And I told another journalist if anything it's a self-hate book with an accidental silver lining: self-help if you're looking for it. The books that have touched me haven't been self-help books; they've been the books that made me realize I wasn't alone. I hope that if this book does anything, it may not answer anyone's questions about how to ask or how to be fearless or how to be vulnerable, but it may lead people to feel less alone, and I think that might possibly be more powerful.
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