Amanda Palmer on being criticized for enlisting fans to perform and paying them in beers, hugs

Update 9/20/12: Local string quartet Per Vita is slated to back Amanda Palmer this Friday at the Gothic Theater. The group reached out to Palmer immediately when she put out the initial call, knowing full well that it was volunteer only.

"We didn't care at all," says Laena McDonald. "We play a lot of different events, but the majority are classical. We fight to get paid what we're worth, though it's always a struggle with how little people value musicians. That said. I don't think it's about Amanda Palmer not valuing the volunteers' time/skill; it's a completely different thing. It's an opportunity to have fun and do something different. We love what we do, but always welcome opportunities to have fun on the side."

That in mind, McDonald and company considered it a bonus when they found out earlier this week that they'll indeed be getting paid for their efforts. Although McDonald declines to reveal how much her and the other musicians are getting paid, she says that, "Considering that we are only playing for a couple of songs, it's more than enough, especially since we are just doing it for the fun of it."

She also notes that Palmer offered her and her crews free tickets to the show, "in case the controversy had pissed us off and we didn't want to participate anymore," she concludes, adding, "I thought that was pretty cool of them."

Keep reading for our full interview with Amanda Palmer.

See also: - 9/21/12: Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra at the Gothic Theatre - Amanda Palmer pens Dear John letter to Roadrunner - For the Dresden Dolls, home is where the art is

Posted 9/14/12: Over the past few days, Amanda Palmer has come caught a lot of flak for the call she put out to fans to perform with her at stops on her current tour in support of her new album, Theatre is Evil (funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised over a million dollars), and then offering to pay them in beer, hugs, high fives and merchandise. Steve Albini scoffed at Palmer's efforts on his Electrical Audio message board, asserting that any artist who relies on their audience for assistance is professing to being an idiot, inferior to the likes of GG Allin. Palmer responded to the whole thing yesterday by posting an open letter on her blog. We caught up with her earlier this afternoon and she talked more about the situation, giving us her take and how she feels about her detractors.

Westword: That whole thing is kind of crazy the way it's blown up.

Amanda Palmer: I posted a long blog about it yesterday. I had a fantastic experience yesterday at NPR, and if ever there was a group a people who understand my position on this kind of stuff, it's the people at public radio who deeply understand the strange and flexible connection between art and money and communications.

I don't know how much you've followed it, but I ran into this girl Emily White, whose story I had been following a few months ago because she found herself in the same position I'm finding myself now. She became the poster child for a huge cultural battle. She was an intern at NPR who posted this blog about how she didn't own any music, and then someone else turned around and wrote that other letter.

And I thought, "Here we are, two human beings, who, you know, were going about our merry way and sort of sharing ourselves and speaking our truth, and all of the sudden we find ourselves as kind of human punching bags in the middle of a big cultural debate, and the cultural debate is deep and wide and very scary. Symphonies close, and governments' arts funding vanishes, and musicians who aren't as improvisational as most of my rock and roll friends, find themselves find themselves terrified of where their next paycheck is coming from.

And this is nerve I believe we have hit, which is what we're doing -- what we've always done -- we're in the long rock tradition. We play for each other for free all the time. That's the way we roll, and any rock musician who says, "I will not walk on stage without getting paid," you'll just get a look of extreme mystification from the other rock musicians in the room. It's just not the way we do business.

However, when you come up against union musicians and classical musicians, they have a different philosophy. And I don't think it's an incorrect philosophy, but you're seeing a collision of two worlds, and I just happen to be standing on the center line.

The one thing I do have to say about this is it's always very interesting being Amanda Palmer because every time I find myself embroiled in controversy I learn a little bit more about myself. I learn a little bit more about the world. I learn a little bit more about what people hold dear and what people fear, and I always appreciate it, even if it's difficult. I feel as if... I think if my life were easy it wouldn't be as interesting.

I also feel I never expected this to be part of the job. I find myself constantly mediating a cultural conversation, and I really enjoy doing that, even if means people attack me personally, even it means people say mean things about me. I'd rather be at a party where everyone's throwing at shit at each other than in an empty room. That rings true because that reflects my attitude toward life in general.

How do deal with the haters and people saying mean things about you? Does it bother you at all, or do you just shrug it off?

I don't think I'd be human if the personal attacks didn't bother me, but I always try to look one level deeper and ask myself what's really behind the attack. And I take all of the trolls and all of the hate and all of the comments, and I puzzle piece them together and try to figure out what the picture is.

The picture that I see right now is the musicians and artists, especially mature professional ones, are very afraid right now of what is happening because we're in a recession; giant musical infrastructures are collapsing and everyone is afraid. That's usually what sparks the hatred. In the case of Emily White, the same thing. It was musicians and industry people fearing for their livelihood, and when people are afraid, they start acting weird. That's what I pick up on.

You seem to have made it work without dealing with the machine, which I would imagine that other people would try to pick up on that as well.

Well, they do. The nice thing about it for every handful of haters there's devotion of supporters, and it's been beautiful and inspiring to see my fans and my fellow musicians -- professional and amateur -- writing up a storm and posting their own blogs about their experiences. People who have cooked food for me sharing their experiences about why they did it and why they volunteered and why they enjoy giving their time and energy for free, and watching my community speak up is inspiring because it reminds me that we are a force.

The new school way of doing things is totally legitimate. It's clearly going to piss some people off, but we're a very strong grassroots faction, and we're articulate, and we are compassionate. The things that I love most about my fanbase is that they don't flame back. They follow my lead, and they try to keep the conversation very compassionate and open, instead of fighting back with their middle fingers up.

With Theatre is Evil, I know you had this vision for it. Was there any challenge of taking what was in your head and sort of manifesting that and making the songs? Does that make any sense at all?

I'm not sure what you're asking, but I can tell you something: This was the first album since making the first Dresden Dolls album that I felt was already fully realized as an imaginary entity before I went into the studio to make it. I could really hear the finished product in my head. That's where it's a different set of challenges than when you take a batch of raw songs into the studio wondering what's going to happen and being, you know, totally open to any production improvisation.

I love both processes, but this album was very specifically about getting right group of people together, the right producer and trying to serve what the songs seemed to be asking for, which, to me, was very clear, and it was also very clear to John Congleton, which is why I chose him as a producer. The minute he heard my demos, he said, "Oh my god, I know exactly what you're going for here. I completely get it. Let's get into the studio and do it."

My band as well. They heard the demos, and they knew what language that we were going to be speaking when we got into the studio, and they all spoke it fluently. It was a blast all around.

Can you talk about the visual elements for the album?

All the visuals for the album came together through the hands and the eyes of other people, which is my favorite thing about the way music is transmitted nowadays, which is always the visual element. I grew up that way. I grew up with giant gatefold vinyl and MTV and where every band had a strong visual statement and element to go along with every album.

I have so many artistic friends, again, both amateur and professional, and I banked on this Kickstarter being able to fund a lot of artwork. So, I borrowed a ton of money and commissioned thirty artists and gave them the opportunity to send me anything they wanted. Some of them sent dozens and dozens of hours on their paintings. Some of them did really beautiful, simple sketches, but all of it was valuable to me. I put it all into the art book, and I chose a lot of it for the LP. We took all these works of art and incorporated them in different ways in different places.

To me, that's the fun part being in this position. It's almost like the band and the album become the billboard, and we get to put a lot of friend's artwork on the billboard to get more artistic ideas than our own. I'm always very grateful that we can do that. To me, that's just much more fun just saying, "Let's take a photo of the band and slap it on the cover."

In a way, the whole cover art thing with gatefolds and inserts has kind of been lost to the digital revolution. It seems like a lot of people don't care as much about the artwork.

Actually, I've found lately that there's been a real renaissance of album artwork as musicians and artists become more and more connected via the Internet. I think that's really beautiful. I mean, I think artists are now seeing that bands are a really viable billboard though which to share their art.

The packaging of bands' CDs and LPs is also becoming more and more important as people want a beautiful artifact, and bands know that really if they don't offer something of value, it's just not worth it for the fan to spend cash money on it, if it isn't a beautiful object.

Bands are really stepping up to the plate and working with artists to create beautiful packaging so that they can really offer something of value on Kickstarter when they say, "Buy our CD for $20." Instead of sending a shitty jewel case with some shitty photos people are getting these beautiful cardboard boxes with incredible paintings and sketches done by friends of the band, and therefore, they really feel like a part of something instead of just getting some slapped together product.

I was reading about when you were sixteen, your choral teacher told you couldn't sing. What kind of effect did that have on you?

It devastated me. I mean, my ego may still be fragile, but when I was sixteen, it was crystal thin. But you know the driving certainty I had even as a teenager that I could do what I wanted if I was disciplined enough to create my own reality, which was very strong. Sure, I was afraid, and sure, I was uncertain, and sure, I felt often belittled and often insecure in the face of accomplished singers and accomplished pianists.

But it's also why I was drawn to rock and roll. I never wanted to be a classical pianist, and I never wanted to be an opera singer. That job seemed as boring and as unsatisfying to me as being a lawyer or a doctor, you know, all of which are noble professions. But I knew that I wasn't cut out to live in that kind of world.

I was too much of an improviser, too much of a party person, and I was too much of a make-shit-up-as-you-go-along person. I knew that my personality was not going to be welcome in those worlds. However, rock and roll seems to be an appropriate container. So that's where I was drawn.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon