Music Features

Joe Blogs #4: Palmer & Pals

In a bid to save costs of somewhere in the region of $35,000, Amanda Palmer has asked fans to play in her band on her upcoming tour, completely gratis. Rather than receive financial remuneration, these fans will be paid in “beer and hugs”. This has generated quite the storm in the music world, with Steve Albini, in particular, quick to strongly disagree with Palmer’s business model and treatment of fans.

But what’s the big deal? These people are fans of Amanda Palmer, they know what they’re letting themselves in for, there’s no corruption involved and no-one’s getting the wool pulled over their eyes. So long as the fans are happy to lend their time to the tour, no-one’s getting hurt, right?


In fact, this is wrong on many levels. First, let’s consider the fans. Not the fans who are potentially making up part of Palmer’s band, but those who are willing to hand over their hard-earned money in exchange for a concert ticket. They’ll get Amanda Palmer, true, the star of the show and the person they’re really paying to see, but you expect some degree of professionalism at a gig of this magnitude. What they’ll instead be getting is a professional artist backed by amateurs. Some of these amateurs may be extraordinarily good musicians, yes – and you’d imagine (and hope) there will be some kind of rigorous vetting procedure – but they are not people who make their living from playing music. They are the equivalent of competition winners, entirely in thrall to Palmer, who are doing the show for their own benefit. Don’t blame them, surely you’d jump at the chance to play in your favourite artist’s backing band too, but it’s not fair on the gig-goer. You’d be more than a little annoyed if you turned up to your local sports team to find they’d replaced all the professional players with fans, and this is no different.

Secondly, there’s the consideration of Palmer herself. Fiercely artistic and individual, her past experiences with recording contracts would lead you to believe she’d be the last person to exploit people. However, that seems to be exactly what she’s doing. We don’t have the full breakdown of her finances (nor should we), but it’s been much-publicised that her fans recently funded her new album to the tune of $1.2million on Kickstarter. To which the obvious question is: why the hell can’t she afford to pay her band? If she’s a recent recipient of $1.2million ($250,000 of which was reportedly to pay “personal debts” – more exploitation and a violation of the spirit of Kickstarter), shelling out $35,000 to pay some touring musicians is well within her means, you would think. Of course, it’s not for us to speculate on how Palmer spends each cent of her income, but after coercing a seven-figure sum out of your fanbase, it’s downright outrageous to ask them for more.

The third reason why Palmer is wrong is the most important – it’s symptomatic of a wider and worrying trend within the arts as a whole. You may think this is an isolated incident, but it feeds into issues such as piracy, funds cuts and internships.

How so?

Palmer’s actions have created a construct that says two things: artistic endeavours aren’t worth sufficient financial recompense and only the already-well-off can pursue them. For every person doing a once-paid job for free, such as playing in Palmer’s band, there’s someone that should be getting paid but isn’t. This attitude has been spreading through the arts more and more over the past few years and we find ourselves in danger of reaching a tipping point.

When you illegally download a record, you’re effectively saying you don’t think the work put in deserves payment. If it were just one or two people doing it, it wouldn’t be an issue, but recent data shows that in the USA alone, nearly 100 million torrents have been shared in the last six months. If we assume each torrent is one album and an album costs $10, that’s $1billion in revenue that’s going missing. Sure, not each torrent download would necessarily convert to a sale if the torrent wasn’t available, but the numbers still make for disheartening reading.

This means artists aren’t selling as many records as they used to and hence aren’t receiving the same income they would have done in years gone by. There’s a living wage threshold, and some artists that would have been able to survive on an income now aren’t able to because that revenue isn’t appearing. One of the results of this is that music becomes a pursuit that only the privileged can afford. Musicians have always led a life of struggle when starting out, but now they’ll need financial backing for longer from families, friends and the like. If this all sounds unlikely then consider this. What have Jessie Ware, Florence Welch, Jack Peñate, Felix White of The Maccabees and Pixie Geldof got in common? As well as all being musicians in their twenties, they all attended the same school. Not particularly significant, until you realise that school was Alleyn’s School in London where a year’s education will set you back a cool £14,601. Talent is no longer sufficient; you’re going to need a leg-up to make it big.

Of course, this extends to other areas of the arts too. Print magazines, faced with rising costs and dwindling readerships, offer internships to fresh-faced and eager young bucks hoping to make a living in the industry. But if these people can provide worthwhile input to the magazine (or day-to-day running thereof), they deserve a wage. If they can’t, then what do people actually do on these internships? Either way, the magazine is getting free labour and, again, only those with the most financial backing (as opposed to the most talent or aptitude) get this extra bit of help.

This comes back to the central crux of this article: these actions further reinforce the idea that hard work and good art don’t deserve adequate compensation. Consumers not purchasing newspapers and magazines means purse-strings tighten – take a look at The Guardian, for example: an established newspaper that retails for £1.20 from Monday to Friday. However, they’re falling over themselves to get their readers to contribute and produce content for them. It’s a win-win scenario for them, they foster a stronger relationship with those readers and they get extra traffic and articles for no outlay. However, both the consumer and the aspiring professional writer miss out. If The Guardian can get some passable paragraphs from a well-meaning amateur with time and money on their hands, where’s their incentive to pay a professional to write something of better quality?

Critics will say this is capitalism in action, that this is survival of the fittest and that the true cream will rise to the top. There is still money to be made from the arts and, indeed, many people do still earn a living wage or more for their work in the field. However, at the risk of sounding like a tantrum-throwing toddler, it’s simply not fair. As a species, we should be striving for equality, and it’s not a level playing field if one person is more likely to succeed in their chosen industry than another purely because of to whom they happened to be born.

Not all of this is Amanda Palmer’s fault, of course, but it’s yet another example of the devaluation of creative endeavours and another step towards art being a hobby rather than a potential career. What’s most galling about Palmer’s actions though, is that you’d think she wouldn’t do something like this. She’s not an unsentimental, money-grabbing businesswoman (or, at least, we didn’t think she was); she’s one of us – a music-lover who values art and sees its true importance. Perhaps the overwhelming success of her Kickstarter fundraising went to her head, but she should have known better. There was a time when Amanda Palmer herself was a struggling, up-and-coming musician, what would that Amanda Palmer have thought if she were able to look into a crystal ball and see the actions of her present-day self?

UPDATE: It should be noted that since this article was published, Amanda Palmer has backtracked and made the decision to pay the fans in her band (including retrospective payments for those who have already played). Find out more in her blog here.