Monday, March 25, 2013

Amanda Palmer's TED Talk: Too much to ask?

There's been a lot of discussion lately about how the way musicians make money has changed. One question that has risen to the forefront: can the new system even support musicians? This is a question Amanda Palmer tackled in her TED talk "The Art of Asking," which posted a few weeks ago. It's had 1.6 million views so far and caused quite a stir.

Here's the video, if you haven't seen it.


Amanda Palmer's main idea is that we shouldn't make people pay for music (or other art), but instead we should let them pay. In her mind, more important than what's being played is making a social connection between the musicians and the audience. She gave as an example her time working as a living statue. In that role, making social connections was how she made money, and she claimed that she made a pretty predicable income this way, despite relying on voluntary donations. When she presented, Amanda Palmer had just raised a fair amount of money on Kickstarter for an album project. Her point: if passing around a donation hat at a concert is okay, than what's wrong with doing virtual online hat-passing?

Amanda Palmer continues: Making social connections is hard and scary. You have to put yourself out on a limb when you present your personal music, exhibit yourself on stage, couch-surf (as she did), or ask for money. Her conclusion: It's okay; ask without shame. Donations are the way musicians should be funded. As a bonus, in the new system, the artists now maintain creative control of the music they produce, which didn't always happen with the labels. Now, artists are only beholden to their fans.


But there's some who say there are problems with this new approach to arts funding that Amanda Palmer espouses.  In David Lowery's "Meet the New Boss, Worse Than The Old Boss?", a story he published on The Trichordist and discussed on NPR's On The Media last week, Lowery argues that as bad as the old label-based system was, most musicians were doing better under the old system. Tech lobbies (the new music controllers, Amazon and Apple and others Lowry calls the Digerati) fund the studies that claim musicians are doing better now, and these studies misconstrue the real state of musician remuneration. In the old system, labels still paid musicians advances even if their music didn't sell, because it was considered a normal risk. The new post-label regime says something like: "You should give your music away for free, let us profit, and I hope you sell some T-shirts on your tour". Lowery also claims that these tech-sponsored studies are wrong about recording costs, too; recording costs are not lower, and they are still labor-intensive (and time is money). He continues: if these tech companies want musicians to give up their music for free, why don't they give up their software patents, too?

Lowery also asks if the new system is really a return to an even older system, the model of patronage, where musicians have to find a wealthy donor to support their livelihood. Some might say that today's patronage is different because groups can now fund a project instead of one wealthy person. Yet, unless a musician has built up a reputation like Amanda Palmer (who had the help of the old system), there's very little chance they are going collect enough capital without label support to get off the ground. And how do artists build that reputation without capital? At least in the old system, there was a small chance a label could do it for the musicians if they just convinced the gatekeepers. 

Can artists succeed by themselves?

To Lowery's response, I add a question of my own: Would Stevie Wonder have made it big today without Motown scouting him out? Though he was pretty good at busking at 11, it seems unlikely to me, even with YouTube. The only music artists who have built up their audience from scratch without any type of label have succeeded by marketing themselves almost exclusively to internet natives: mostly the young, male, geeky type. Perhaps the internet will be more democratized in the future, but it's skewed at the moment.

And no one in this debate has yet to mention health care; how can musicians even get any in the new system? Ever wonder why British musicians are over-represented in the pop charts? This is just speculation, but maybe it's because more musicians decide to go part-time or pro because they are not worried about where their health care is going to come from; the government's got them covered.

There's another problem Amanda Palmer's vision: when we're vulnerable, it means we could fail. And it's true, musicians could fail asking for money. She said "do it," but by all accounts, failure is still very likely, even if you work really hard. I guess that's not any different than the old system, in which bands worked really hard until they were picked up by the label but could still fail. But it seems even easier to fall on your face now.

So what do you think of Amanda Palmer's vision for the history of music? Is this the new system, and is it better than the old, or worse?

Vocab: counterpoint


  1. Amanda Palmer's vision only works if you already have a fan base to ask money from. Otherwise, you're still just asking friends and family to loan you a few bucks so you can record a demo and somehow break through. Somehow. Because there is no clear path to breaking through anymore, even getting a kickstarter-funded CD made doesn't mean anything at all. What do you do with it? Doesn't lead to anything.

    The other problem with the no-label state of the industry is flooding. Listeners are absolutely flooded with music, much of which has not been vetted by anyone. It's much, much harder now than even 10 years ago to get someone to click the link and listen to the songs, even if they're free, because we've all heard so much that was so mediocre-to-bad (or even mediocre-to-good) that you have listener fatigue. When you're asking potential fans to be the ones who dig through the slush pile, nothing rises to the top except--ha! surprise!--people with label support.

    So the eternal question (at least at our house, where music is our only source of income and has been for many years now) is HOW do you get people to listen? How do you build up that fan base without going with an agent/label system? I don't think Amanda has the answers.

    1. Thanks for your first-person input. I was thinking about your situation as I was writing the post.

  2. Last year Amy and I went to go see Wye Oak and Dirty Projectors in a tiny little club. To the cool kids who read Pitchfork and other hip indie music publications, they are superstars. However, the site of Wye Oak carting off their own equipment into their humble van was a sober illustration that indie superstardom usually doesn't translate into material wealth.

    1. I wonder if magazines such as Pitchfork could somehow morph into the new labels, or at least be more important in sorting through the flooding? They often are the taste-setters. But their business model would have to change quite a bit, as journalism isn't doing too hot, either. And then there's the whole journalistic impartiality problem.