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.

8 thoughts on “Should Amanda Palmer pay her musos?

  1. Except that she’s asking them to send in auditions and rehearse. That’s apparently what she means by “professional-ish.”

    It doesn’t really matter whether she can afford it or not. If she wants musicians, she should pay for them. It might mean forgoing her own portion of the gate, but guess what? That’s what owning your own business means. You can’t make a profit by stiffing employees, even if they volunteer.

    In other words, as has been said in a different context, it’s not the pro musicians’ fault that she has a bad business model.

    • Do you think all volunteers are “stiffed” then? How about touring musicians who sleep on fans’ floors? Would you say these fans should get standard B&B rates even if that means the artist played for nothing?

      It is volunteers who support a wide range of DIY and indie musicians, pro and semi-pro, allowing fans to hear, see and meet artists they otherwise wouldn’t. Do you think all these volunteers (and it’s a lot more than the odd string player) should stop? Isn’t that kind of a Soviet Union approach to having fun?

      Pro musicians are always free to not offer their services, just as the fan is free to withhold the use of their couch for the night, and to eat breakfast alone.

      In the modern world there is a going rate for most work that adds value. It’s only right workers get paid. I’m not arguing musicians should play for nothing. I vehemently oppose pay-to-play for example. But I can’t see any reason why a fan who is a musician wouldn’t want to play with an artist they love (auditions and rehearsals go with the territory, nobody wants to see an unrehearsed band of tone deaf loons do they?).

      And I can’t understand why people who would never volunteer are so upset by the ones that do.

      • Except that she is going beyond the DIY approach to making this her business plan. At what point does it stop? Can other artists who free themselves of their labels plead poverty when it comes to paying backup musicians? She’s no longer at the stage where she needs volunteers for putting her, up, etc. So why screw some of the most important people in the experience, namely the people onstage?

        This is supposed to be the new model that is the “future of music,” and if we’re going to talk about Palmer’s success, it shouldn’t be with asterisk that she did it by cutting corners in such a shameful way.

        She’s making demands of them to be at essentially a professional standard but treating them like amateurs. (And it’s not part of some grand DIY experiment, because in major centers she IS paying musicians.)

        It’s setting a horrible precedent in which other artists could easily decline to pay musicians because, hey, it’s DIY, sell your own CD at the merch table.

        Frankly, I’m dying to hear what ani difranco thinks of this.

        • Are you assuming DIY has no business plan? I’m glad you mention Ani di Franco, she’s a great example. I don’t know if she gets any support from her fans beside label, gig and merchandise income, but she will certainly have a business plan.

          You say Amanda Palmer is at the stage where she needs no volunteers, but none of us has her full accounts to support or refute an argument like that. Maybe, as she says, the volunteer strings are an extra she would like to add to her show but where she can’t she’ll do without.

          I don’t see how this can be a precedent for artists declining to pay musicians. In the volunteer economy (think hospital visitors, citizen’s advice staff, etc. – there’s a lot of it) all the power is with the volunteers. Choosing to do something for the love of it is the same wherever it crops up. Nobody makes volunteers work, and if they do work for free they are doing a job that would otherwise not be done.

          Have you ever played with musicians who didn’t get paid? I know I have. The difference is some were promised money and didn’t get it and others weren’t promised a bean and were happy to do it.

          I strongly suggest you read Amanda Palmer’s breakdown of her Kickstarter money and her response to Amy, if you haven’t already. The answers to many of your questions are there. As she says, this is not THE model for the future of music, this is just one example.

          At the end of the day, if this ongoing debate deters small bands from providing a better show by gigging with volunteers we will all be worse off.

  2. She’s no longer just a musician, she’s her own business. It’s only ethical to make payroll before you pay yourself.

    She’s far beyond the stage where she needs to crash on people’s couches.

    • Dave, you dodged that question. Do you think touring DIY musicians should pay B&B rates? They too are their own businesses, unless they are semi-pro (and maybe a semi-pro musician – one who is earning a wage too – has even less justification asking for favours like this).

  3. There are any number of professional musicians with whom I would gladly play for free, irrespective of how much or how little they have in their bank accounts. I think Amanda Palmer’s blog entry covers most things but ultimately it’s a simple matter of choice, no-one is being forced to play and a bunch of people are having a barrel of laughs.

Don't just sit there fuming, write something!