Yeah, it is yet another post about Amanda Palmer. But it’s also not a post about Amanda Palmer.
Lady Gaga was interviewed not too terribly long ago; most of the exchange was pretty forgettable, but there was one question and answer that stuck with me (paraphrasing): Q. “What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?” A. “I’d always be doing this. I might not be as successful, I might be playing on tiny bars and street corners, but I’d always be doing this.” And in my mind and especially in my heart, I felt this was an accidental admission, that the question had elicited an unexpectedly honest response from a performer renowned for her theatricality; that for a small moment, the interviewer had pierced the veil and gotten the truth.
And the answer made me happy. “I’d always be doing this.” Meaning that this is what makes me the happiest, this is what makes me feel the most fulfilled, and there is no way I’d listen to voices telling me to join the mundane world.
Amanda Palmer is one of those rare people who never listened to the voices. Only instead of putting out radio-friendly albums and easily-digested dance tunes (and don’t think I’m criticizing – there is absolutely a place in the world for damn good dance music, and Lady Gaga’s is among the best), Amanda has stuck to her left-of-center roots and put out songs and albums steeped in old-school punk, cabaret, performance art, theatre, and what can only be described as dialectic progressive rock. Doesn’t sell multi-platinum albums, doesn’t sell out multiple dates at Madison Square Garden, doesn’t make videos with Beyonce – just keeps making her art her way and refusing to join the mundane world.
IMHO, there is a major misconception about the recording industry: that their job is to find and nurture new performers and new music. This is not true – the music business is in the business of selling music, period. Finding the Next Big Thing is part of that process, sure, but so is putting out a dozen acts imitating existing performers, which is often faster and more profitable that hunting for an unknown quantity. And since the dawn of the audio recording age, the industry is littered with stories of amazing talents being all but robbed blind by their label: contracts written in such a way that 90% or more of a record or album’s sales go to company and not the talent; that the talent pays for managers and lawyers and video directors and video shoots out of their own pocket from that 10% or less. And if the talent happens to be a band, that maybe 10% gets split equally among all the members of the band, so almost 10% very quickly turns into a little less than 2%.
(Example: TLC’s biggest success was 1995’s CrazySexyCool, a runaway fueled by the single “Waterfalls” that eventually sold over 11 Million albums – yet at the height of those sales, the group was forced to declare bankruptcy.)
The music industry has long held the belief and long put forth the argument that since the initial investment in the relationship is made by the label – giving the artist(s) advances for living expenses; fronting the bill for the studio time, mixing time, audio tape, and other recording expenses; paying for actual production of the album, album art, distribution and transportation – that a contract that gave the label 90% or more of the profits was only fair. And since nearly no artist(s) had the kind of money and resources to make the records without a label, this was the contract the artist(s) had to accept and contend with until such time they had enough hits generating enough sales and clout they could negotiate a better deal (and that was the exception to the rule, as most performers had their one or two hits, or run of one or two best-selling albums, then fell off the radar as the public moved on to the Next Big Thing – again, the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame is littered with stories of inductees dying all but penniless, having been forgotten by the public). The way most acts make their money is on tour, where the majority of profits from ticket and merchandise sales go to them – lose money making the album, make money touring to support the album; break the cycle by going on vacation or worse, producing a no-hit album, and the whole enterprise collapses like a house of cards.
The personal computer changed that truth – it is now not only possible for an artist(s) to record their own music without a large outlay of up-front money, it is completely possible to manufacture and distribute the resulting album with little cost as well. For the past few years, regional and indie acts have sold their original tunes on CD’s on the web and at their shows right beside the t-shirts and bumper stickers. Once a decent computer and recording software is purchased, a CD can be produced for as little as $1 – sell it for $2 and the CD paid for itself with 100% return on investment. Might not get rich, may never get as big as U2, but an artist with business savvy could definitely make a comfortable living doing what they love, and many do.
Kickstarter takes this one step further.
Many people mistake Kickstarter as an online scheme to beg for donations – it is not: it is an online scheme to take pr-orders. The artist(s) set a goal and interested patrons make pledges towards that goal – if the goal is met, the money is collected, and the resulting art is shipped to each patron. Depending on the project, pledges can be as little as $1 to the site maximum of $10,000; the more money a patron pledges, the bigger and better the artistic package. Best of all, if the goal is not met, the money is not collected and the patron has lost nothing. All sorts of endeavors are being funded by Kickstarter – comics and graphic novels are perfect for this kind of crowd-funding, but novels, plays, and even films are being financed. Most are looking for relatively small goals – a few thousand in pre-orders – but some of looking for the big bucks.
Amanda Palmer and her band, The Dresden Dolls, was a signed act, with a contract and all that drama that entails – it wasn’t long before she became disenchanted with the relationship. Instead of sticking with the unhealthy partnership until such time she could renegotiate a better deal with better results, Amanda lobbied to be dropped by the label. Banking on her amazing efforts to generated and maintain her loyal fan base through social media, she wrote, recorded and mixed a new album, then placed the project on Kickstarter on May 1st with a goal of $100,000 by the end of the month – she reached her stated goal in under 7 hours. As of today, she’s raised over $650,000 in pre-orders with over 2 weeks to go. $1 million raised is not inconceivable.
Amanda Palmer and everyone on Kickstarter and the other crowd-funding sites are doing what was unthinkable a decade ago – they are changing the paradigm. They are cutting out the middleman and making their projects for their patrons with the help of their patrons. Singers, songwriters, bands, writers, illustrators, playwrites, directors, producers… ARTISTS… are on the cusp of no longer being at the mercy of industries that have profited from the endeavors while hobbling their creativity.
We’re looking at a new dawn in actually making money being creative. And that answer makes me happy.
Go Here: AFP on Kickstarter
UPDATE: With just under 8 hours to go on her Kickstarter, the lovely and amazing Amanda Palmer is at $1.1 Million and over 23,000 backers. She’s received phone calls for interviews from Rolling Stone, Billboard, Time and the Wall Street Journal. She and her cohorts are throwing a huge block party to celebrate the end of the Kickstarter campaign tonight.
It’s an amazing time to be a musician, singer, artist, author, or in some folks’ case all of the above. Know Hope.