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.

Imagine there’s no copyright

I’ve been a musician and composer for nearly 50 years and always been aware of, and in favour of, copyright. It means I can decide how my music and lyrics are used. Since 1995, given the ease of copying material online, there has been a new debate about the nature, purpose and flaws of the copyright system. I follow this debate closely and study a lot of UK and USA legislation.

In the past couple of weeks (when I got involved in this particular conversation) I’ve been thinking about a world without copyright. Those involved in the discussion range from artists wondering how best to use the Internet, to free-culture fundamentalists who demand you agree with them before they even talk about their reasoning.

Fundamentalists are confused between copyrights and licenses. Copyright is set down in national law and different in each country. Licenses—such as Creative Commons, soundtrack sync, a blanket performance license, or a record label territorial sales deal—are individual permissions based on the national law.

Abolitionists protest, often quite rightly, about the behaviour of Big Content interests (movie studios, Major record labels and publishers) and blame copyright. If a Major label rips off their artists or customers that isn’t the fault of copyright. If you’re unhappy about Apple’s commission on iTunes sales that isn’t the fault of copyright either. Copyright simply gives the artist the choice, it has no control over what happens after the choice is made; after the record deal is signed or the tracks are submitted to an aggregator.

We covered most of the points in comments on the previous post but here’s one angle that’s worth bringing together.

Copyright abolitionists imagine that without copyright, artists would still be able to earn a living from their art while wider society enjoyed their work for free. That alone is quite a tricky argument to sustain but it doesn’t end there, they also imagine middlemen would be abolished. Let’s examine those 3 ideas:

Without copyright, artists would be able to earn from their art

If everything was public domain, everything an artist made could be copied. A great T shirt design could be sold in supermarkets. A box set of their music with special artwork and booklets could be re-manufactured in Asia. It is sometimes thought this would just be great publicity for the artist, but it’s hard to see how unrestricted copying doesn’t take food off her table. And would the middlemen pay her a cent? Why would they? Culture is free!

(Incidentally, I’m in favour of unrestricted music file-sharing but I draw the line at commercial third parties copying unique art without compensating the artist, unless that’s what the artist wants.)

Society should have free access to all artists’ work

Copyright doesn’t stop that happening—enlightened artists do share and it does help them.

Without copyright there can be no middlemen

Unfortunately you can’t abolish middlemen by abolishing copyright, unless you also ban the sale of goods and aggregation of content. There will always be shops and superstores. They will always need goods. A free supply of art and design ideas would be welcomed by big retailers. Many Internet sites make their living by aggregation (Google, YouTube, Grooveshark, and many others including the lyric sites Drew Stephenson mentions). Just consider all the places that copy your stuff now, then add the other commercial locations prevented by current law.

Abolitionists seem to think a level playing field would allow buyers to seek out the original artist rather than using a middleman but they wouldn’t. People pay a big mark-up for aggregation in a superstore and inevitably choose Internet aggregators over individual artist sites. That’s what they do now—the absence of copyright wouldn’t change that, it would just make art cheaper for the middlemen.

If you have a solution to these problems I’d be pleased to hear it, but copyright is designed to protect the artist in a world of commerce and unless you can change the world it seems we are stuck with it.

Copyright is not really complex for individual artists. If you want to do business in your own way it should be easy to describe it to customers. “Pay what you like.” “Buy one share one.” “Pay what you like, or nothing.” “Virtual tip jar.” “Free music, buy a T shirt.” The possibilities are as broad as your imagination, just browse some artist sites or Bandcamp. Lawyers will go purple, and they do have a point but only a small one. You need to make sure your licenses (“Pay what you like” is a license) are coherent and don’t conflict with other licenses but that’s just common sense. Don’t make two exclusive deals in one territory for example.

You can’t transfer your ownership without transferring your ownership, so don’t think you are endangering your copyright by offering your stuff for free. Don’t feel compelled to add legal mumbo-jumbo: “Pay what you like to enjoy unlimited personal use for yourself and your immediate family, limited to the tracks you have chosen, in the territory where you are resident subject to copyright law.” I don’t need to explain why that’s bad, do I?

(Some artists also fret about their best track being stolen by Sony and making millions for an X-Factor runner-up. That isn’t really a problem of copyright either. If you make your stuff widely shareable and it does get stolen by a Big Content user you have the problem of suing them. Your best bet might be to shame them on social media.)

You may prefer to use Creative Commons licenses but they are limited to certain specific uses and although many people think otherwise they too are based on national copyright law. Creative Commons is a set of copyright licenses.

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.