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

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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.

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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