The Art Of Asking

amanda_palmerHere’s a quick review of Amanda Palmer’s book.

If you’re a huge fan you will read it anyway and you will love it, so this is for the rest of us. I like what she does and how she does it but I’m not a massive diehard fan.

I have blogged before about her TED talk. If you have seen it, seen the fallout or simply have a (possibly sceptical) view about TED in general, it might make you wary of this book. Don’t be.

Another theme of the book is the The Fraud Police from her commencement speech to The New England Institute of Art in 2011. If you enjoyed her TED you’ll like that too.

There are probably 3 things this book could have been. Thankfully it isn’t just fan fodder, and despite the title it isn’t merely an expansion of The Art Of Asking TED. It’s better than either of those would have been, it’s an autobiography with those aspects of her philosophy, and others, woven in.

It covers her experience of busking as a human statue, starting up her band (The Dresden Dolls), making her first CDs and funding an album, before getting signed and dropped. Then there’s her Internet career, the £1.2 million Kickstarter album, various controversies, marriage to Neil Gaiman and so on, up to date.

She’s had a really interesting career so there’s never a dull moment and the stories about her life, friends and fans are often very moving. As I tweeted when I finished it: I laughed out loud and I cried. She writes well.

I would like to have known more about her team and her management—there are key people around her we don’t hear much about (they are mentioned in the acknowledgements). But apparently it was edited down from over twice as long so maybe there wasn’t room.

So it’s a good music autobiography and if you have followed her ups and downs it fills in a lot of gaps. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in indie musicians and the many variants of DIY music biz.

About Amanda Palmer’s TED

I liked the video a lot but I’ve been rather perplexed by some of the follow-up commentary.

For sure, learning to ask may be important in some situations but it’s not a new religion. You remember when Brian lost his sandal in The Life Of Brian and his followers try to work out what it means? That’s how I feel about a lot of the responses.

I’m pretty sure Amanda doesn’t mean Asking is The New Way for everyone. It’s certainly not a golden rule from here on. She’s describing her experience and a solution for some of the situations she has been in, perhaps even her philosophy at this moment but there are no general rules.

Of course, some people are desperate to find general rules and ready-made templates that enable them to follow in the footsteps of greatness although we know there are none. That is the same flaw in the reasoning of all the haters who said she mustn’t be permitted to use volunteers after her Kickstarter. There are no rules.

Her TED was illuminating and very moving, and the message I take from it is a positive one. We can also see that she is a natural in today’s changing music business and instinctively understands how to develop her career. But this is just one part of what she’s done and why she’s successful, and it isn’t a general principle for everyone in DIY all the time.

Obviously, I don’t think for a moment my readers are searching for a guru—it just baffles me when other people mistake one powerful message for The Complete Answer.

© is good for artists, ask them

Today I was copied into a Twitter conversation about copyright. It began with an interesting article about The Limousines and a rather badly informed interviewer taking issue with crowd-funding. From there it developed into a downer on copyright in general.

Let’s consider the Torrent Freak article quoted here:

tweet

140 characters won’t do it justice, so here’s my reaction.

Rick Falkvinge says gatekeepers take 99% of the money. That’s true. I’m well aware of the Tamla Motown story and how artists are gouged by the record industry but that’s a feature of the record industry not copyright.

I’m not interested in labels, especially big labels, and I see publishers as largely incompetent. The future—for creative music at least—is happening outside of all that. Independent artists (the ones I’m interested in) don’t give up 99% of their earnings to gatekeepers. They rely on their copyrights.

Rick Falkvinge says “Eliminate those gatekeepers and those 93% of the money go to artists instead – or at least, a significantly larger portion of it.” But if the artists have no legal claim to their work how can they earn from it?

We don’t have to guess how big business would behave in the absence of legal ownership. Sam Tarrantino (Grooveshark) makes money out of other people’s work. So does Kim Dotcom (MegaUpload). And so, of course, does Google and many others. They pay the artists nothing.

Tunecore screens uploads for tracks that are simply copies but they still get through and often appear on iTunes and other retail sites. Without ownership of their work how can the money “go to artists“?

Rick Falkvinge says:

The myth that the copyright monopoly is needed for any kind of artistry to make money, or even to happen in the first place, is an obscene myth perpetuated by those who have something to gain from skimming off 90% of the artists’ money by denying them an audience in an old-style racketeering.

But I can point him to hundreds of artists without any record label who say otherwise. Perhaps he can tell us how composers who write for TV and cinema would get paid (composers are getting a PRS distribution right now). Without copyright that money wouldn’t find its way to artists, it would simply stay in the pockets of TV and film studios. How would artists get paid by radio?

The old mainstream system was and still is corrupt but because of greed not copyright. The new technology companies want everything for nothing and would rather see the back of copyright. The old and new mainstream are both playing the same game.

Steve Albini on Amanda Palmer

So, Steve Albini talked about the Amy letter on his forum, and later clarified his remarks in an interview with Stool Pigeon.

I like Steve. He often makes a lot of sense and has a down to earth approach to engineering and production.

He mentioned a range of different music economies and says he favours self-sufficiency and efficiency. Fair enough.

Then he said:

“Given that the typical budget for albums I work on is less than $10,000, you can take your pick of line-items in her budget, divide by ten and still have an order of magnitude worth of waste from my perspective. I haven’t looked at the breakdown since I first saw it so don’t quote me on it (haha, “don’t quote me”, I just said something funny) but I recall that she skimmed a couple of hundred grand off the top for her pleasure prior to beginning to make the record.”

“Don’t quote me” isn’t particularly funny when you’re providing information for people making up their mind on this. Steve is well aware of the shortcomings of the media and I’m sure he also knows the Albini brand carries a lot of weight. Remember AFP is getting hate mail, this is no laughing matter. Here’s what she said originally:

“for the past 8 months or so, i wasn’t touring – and therefore wasn’t making much income – but every step of the way, there were expenses. so, during that time, i borrowed from various friends and family who i’d built up trust with over the years.

i had to pay my staff and crew to get this album ready as well as keep the ship afloat and headed in the right direction. i also needed to come up with the cost of the recording itself (which was pretty whopping), and any other expenses the band racked up in the meanwhile.
to put a number on all of that behind-the-scenes stuff which just got us to DAY ONE of kickstarter: $250,000.”

Steve says she “skimmed a couple of hundred grand off the top for her pleasure” because he works on albums with a $10,000 recording budget. Electrical Audio Studio doesn’t record an album for $10,000 including living expenses for the band and artist’s staff for 8 months.

On the basis of a flawed recollection about recording budgets he happily extrapolates every line-item in her budget. The gigs, the art shows, the downloads, the CDs, mailbox invasion, the vinyl, the book, the world tour, the USB record players, the one-to-ones… He could have done the lot for 10% (specifically $120,000, and that figure will include an “order of magnitude of waste”). Will someone be checking his budget for that in the press? Sadly not.

I think Steve forgets he has a day job. Amanda has one too but this is it, she is just an artist. When Steve goes on tour to Australia with his band—self-sufficiently and efficiently of course—he owns a recording studio and has a job as a producer to go back to.

That doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Maybe Amanda Palmer did pay over the odds for recording the album. I haven’t seen the recording budget and Steve doesn’t claim to have seen it either. We just don’t know. Does it matter? I thought this debate was about paying volunteers. Is everyone now expected to record albums for no more than Steve Albini? How many classical string players does he include in that $10,000?

What started with one disgruntled musician has returned to the question of “Amanda Palmer millionaire”. Well, I grew up loving music. From Eric Burdon and The Animals to Steely Dan, through XTC and The Bevis Frond, to Amanda Palmer. Why do I care whether she got her studio time for a competitive rate? Did Yes get stiffed by Advision? Or maybe Eddie Offord played it straight but Atlantic A&R fiddled the budget? I’m pretty sure Ahmet Ertegun wouldn’t rip-off his artists or their fans, maybe we should look into the Accounts Department? I always suspected Steve Ross was living beyond his means. Hold on a sec, what kind of car does Chis Squire drive?

All these years I’ve been getting artists completely wrong. Instead of loving the music I should have been scrutinising their ledgers for self-sufficiency and efficiency. Now I think about it I’m sure I could’ve got giant polystyrene dinosaurs that worked properly, and for less money.

Should Amanda Palmer pay her musos?

The debate about Amanda Palmer’s money and volunteers

No week would be complete without a music biz storm in a teacup and this week we saw an open letter from Amy Vaillancourt-Sals protesting Amanda’s request for classical musicians to play live for the fun of it.

The media and commentards chipped in copiously of course: On Amanda Palmer’s unpaid orchestra: A DIY-crowd-sourcer’s take

Everyone makes good points but their generalities and over-statements quickly swamped the specific case.

  • Should pro musicians be paid? It is blindingly obvious they should.
  • Will pro musicians be paid every time they play? It is equally obvious they won’t.

I could make 83 points about this too but let’s stick with two or three.

Amy raised the question of Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter $1 million and the media churned out this nonsense: The kickstart millionaire singer who won’t pay her musicians. Most global albums cost well over £2 million these days. Amanda Palmer is not a millionaire—that Kickstarter money has to pay for pledgers’ goodies (see Where All This Kickstarter Money Is Going by Amanda Palmer) and a lot of globetrotting. There is no more $1 million. Trust me, it’s been spent. In fact AFP has raised additional money from investors just to keep going. When she flies her band to Japan, Australia and Europe it costs money.

So how about the full time band? Of course they get paid, and AFP’s inner circle—I don’t pretend to know the details but she has a permanent staff and they too get paid. Forget the social media wankistas, this is DIY. It’s not about doing every last thing yourself on a shoestring, it’s about running your own show and it takes a team to launch a global release with a D2F campaign and world tour. That doesn’t come free.

(There are undoubtedly solitary social media junkies working 24 hours a day in a garret stubbornly in pursuit of their artistic dream with no help from anybody and no funding. When the first example from their ranks sells 1,000 albums let me know.)

Finally there’s the question of AFP’s fans. I did some quick arithmetic on her social media audience, I’m not talking about the headline numbers, just the 1 in 20 who are real fans. The ones who buy her records, attend her gigs, submit artwork, post ideas and feedback—the audience and friends who helped her over the past decade. When she asks for volunteers she’s talking to these people who care enough to chip in and go out of their way for her. It’s preposterous to imagine professional musicians without that commitment would give their time and skills for free.

So it all boils down to this. Should Amy get paid? She’s a pro musician, yes she should be paid for her work. Should everyone who works with Amanda Palmer get paid? Not if they volunteer. Should Amy work with Amanda? Obviously not. Should Amy be offended Amanda even asked? Getting offended by people is not their problem, it’s yours.

The social media exchange rate

KickstarterAfter a couple of months on MySpace we all knew there was a new game in town and it wasn’t networking—it was collecting friend-counts. And there was a new social behaviour that went with it: swapping “likes”. Then came rumours that a certain number of “friends” would get your band noticed—more gigs, more publicity, and maybe a record deal. Then came the crash.

I logged in to MySpace recently to see what was happening with my 100 or so friends (mostly people I met elsewhere online). My post went unanswered, nothing was happening.

I didn’t collect MySpace friends because I knew the value of online metrics. Since my web site was indexed by Google in 2002 I checked stats. The common measure of site popularity is “unique visitors a month” but most move on after a few seconds. To get a more useful number I learned to divide, at least, by 10.

And that’s a good rule of thumb to carry over to Twitter followers or Facebook page likes. On Twitter you can count re-tweets, and clicks on your links with a URL shortener. If you’re banking on your follower count being interested you’ll be disappointed. It’s the same on Facebook. My guess is people still play the MySpace game, why else would they follow someone but not read their posts?

So, what is a Twitter follower or Facebook page like worth? At the risk of mentioning Amanda Palmer again I think her Kickstarter offers a good way to find out. Her social media story is all about herself as a musician, performer and artist so it’s reasonable to expect her network would largely be fans. And whether or not we think they should spend a dollar on her new album, book or tour… we can see how many did.

Her Kickstarter raised $1.2 million from 24,883 people.

Twitter

  • followers = 580,000
  • maximum average spend = $2
  • number who bought nothing = 555,000
  • highest possible ratio of buyers to non-buyers = 1 in 23

Facebook

  • followers = 145,000
  • maximum average spend = $8
  • number who bought nothing = 120,000
  • highest possible ratio of buyers to non-buyers = 1 in 6

My experience of Facebookers is most spend their online time on Facebook—the overlap between Facebook page likers and Twitter or my web site is small, less than one third. So it’s likely the real numbers are much less than these “highest” figures.

Obviously, this isn’t scientific. We can hope the missing buyers will buy downloads, CDs, books or tickets when they’re available and she probably has fans not on Twitter or Facebook. But even so this rough calculation shows chasing social media numbers is not very effective.

Nevertheless, people will still chase numbers in the hope they mean something more.

Are record labels evil?

Aimee MannI saw this question on Twitter the other day. Given that Amanda Palmer’s $1.2 million Kickstarter album is roughly what a big record label would spend—what’s wrong with the record label anyway?

Well, just three things: control, recoupment and accounting.

(That’s Aimee Mann by the way not Amanda Palmer… all will become clear.)

Control

With a record label you couldn’t choose the studio or the producer. Your album would be vetted for radio-friendly sounds and safe lyrics. You might get some input but the last word on content, design and marketing would come from the label. Media interviews would be set up by the label and under a 360° deal even merchandising and gigs would be decided for you.

Maybe you came to the label with 50,000 fans but the record label isn’t thinking about them, they’re thinking about how many other fans buy records like the ones in the charts. As Aimee Mann said of her time with big labels: they say they really love what you’re doing but they’d like you to do something else. And of course, you pay the bills.

Recoupment

A record label might give you an advance (a small one these days) and pay expenses but everything they shell out simply adds to the recoupable amount they recover from sales. That studio and producer they chose? Recoupable. The artwork you didn’t really like? You’re paying for that too.

Accounting

Recoupment wouldn’t be quite such a scam if record label books didn’t come from the banana republic school of accounting. Every artist who has audited their accounts has come up with some “overlooked” money in their favour. Even The Beatles had to take EMI to court to get their label accounts paid in full.

Of course record labels aren’t evil in the same way as Stalin, Hitler or Satan himself but there are valid reasons to avoid them. It goes without saying—so I’d better just say it—not every record label is the same. XL hasn’t handled Adele the way UMG would. And there are artists like Justin Bieber who don’t (yet?) have the creative breadth of Amanda Palmer or Aimee Mann. For artists like Justin a major label deal really is the best thing.