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?