Amanda Palmer redux

I did an interview this week with Amy Vallancourt-Sal of Classical Revolution PDX (Portland, OR) about the current state of classical music and also about Amy’s post regarding Amanda Palmer’s employment relationship with some of her musicians.  That story was moving faster than either of us thought–the day I posted the interview, Amanda Palmer “found the money” to pay the local players that she wasn’t intending to pay.  Amy had already written a supportive post congratulating Palmer and posted it, so be sure you read “Hooray Amanda” so the interview is in context.

Maybe it’s my sideman bias, but my takeaway from the entire tableau as well as what I learned from Amy about Classical Revolution has very little to do with Amanda Palmer.

1.  The Artists Got it Sorted:  The individual artists and musicians were able to express their ideas to each other and didn’t need any intermediaries.  This is really important (at least to me).  The artists are perfectly capable of expressing themselves to each other, and didn’t need a manager or lawyer to do it for them.  From Amy, to Jason Colletti, to David Lowery and back to Amanda this all worked out very well.

2.  The Unions Still Matter to the New Boss:  Having said that, it’s also important to recognize the role of the unions in this.  Remember–when you set yourself up as the star, you are also an employer.  There are rules that apply to all employers, and just because you once were a street performer, doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to you.

I have no idea whether any of this would have happened, but after looking at some of the shows Palmer was playing, I think I recognized some union halls on the list.  Meaning that particularly in states like California and New York, the halls where Palmer was playing were under the jurisdiction of the stagehands union.  If the American Federation of Musicians organized a picket line, such as an informational picket line, I seriously doubt that the stagehands would have crossed it.  And good luck humping trap cases up the stairs at the Fillmore without the stagehands.

This is what unions are there for–to help with the clout of solidarity when a sister or brother is treated unfairly by an employer.

3.  It Helps to Have Been Signed before 2004:  I wrote an article in 1999 titled “Why Free Agency Matters: The Coming Changes in Record Company Artist Relations” (remarkably prescient if I say so myself and I do) in which I argued that artists who have been signed to a major label and who “go indie” after becoming successful on a major (the “free agent” reference) are able to capture much of that record company investment in making them famous.  That’s more important than ever when entering the Billboard top 200 album chart at #10 now takes about 10% of the sales it used to in 1999 (depending on the competition that week).  So there are likely many factors at work with Palmer’s famous $1.2 million.

4.  Steve Albini:  Well…he’s Steve Albini.  Maybe a cruise on the Love Boat with Lefsetz would do them both some good.

5.  What if It’s Just About the MusicKillick is one of my favorite artists.  Killick hasn’t raised $1.2 million on Kickstarter, and frankly I don’t think that’s a very likely outcome.  To state the obvious–the most popular is not the best.  It’s like guns and butter, there’s a continuum between Tweeting every breath you take and practicing for hours under a bare lightbulb (which was how Nelson Symonds spent his days according to the legend).  I still remember seeing Nelson at Rockheads, but I couldn’t tell you a single Tweet by any artist, really.

Eric Harvey summed it up well:

It’s easy to position Palmer as the living embodiment of a successful 21st-century DIY musician, and many have. But such a designation leaves out the most important details. Amanda Palmer is a successful 21st-century musician/public figure/entrepreneur, each title feeding equally into her self-created brand. She has effectively translated the ideas that drove her as a street performer and cabaret act (no distinctions between audience and performer), and her more traditional, label-supported early-2000s work, into a new paradigm, much like Kickstarter has put the idea of community funded DIY projects on steroids. This makes Palmer an interesting subject for discussions of music and technology, but far from a workable model for up-and-coming artists. Appropriately, she ended her “trolls” blog post with a request that would seem self-evident for most musicians: “Do me a favor… keep talking about the music.” If the music were the most noteworthy thing about Palmer’s career to this point, that plea would be self-evident.

6.  Classical Music Merits Your Support:   The most important thing I learned from Amy in my interview is that it’s well to be reminded how much work it takes to be able to call yourself a classical musician.  To paraphrase a great daughter of Texas, classical musicians do everything Amanda Palmer does but backwards and in high heels.  While reading.

I highly recommend going to hear a full symphony orchestra if you never have, or do it soon to remind yourself of what it sounds like if you go infrequently.  It will give you a whole new perspective on amplification for starters, and musicianship for afters.