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Interview: Amanda ‘Fucking’ Palmer Answers the Critics of Her Success (Part 3)

Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor — Read Part 1Read Part 2

(Part 3 of 3) Last, but not least, coming straight from the Hypebot comments section, “No major label, no commercial radio play. No commercial radio play, no major tour. No major tour, no wide fan base. No wide fan base, no online yard sales. Without the major label deal, she'd be playing to 100 scenesters at the Middle East Cafe.

How do you respond to the critics who say you have only been able to build an audience because of the money that your label—the one that you have publically stated you want to be dropped from—has spent on promoting you?

92813Amanda Palmer:  The label absolutely enabled us to grow, until they stopped helping. I need to be very clear about this: Roadrunner Records were incredibly helpful – in 2004. It's 2009. I have not been sitting on my ass in the 5 years in between, picking my ass and waiting for the label to come around…I'm not an idiot. I've been touring non-stop and on the internet for hours and hours every single day. Would I be nowhere without them? Hell no.

The Dresden Dolls had been touring heavily for three years and had made an incredible record – the one that has sold the most copies to date, by far, The Dresden Dolls – all self-financed, before the label came along and signed us. We were well-established and locally, had toured to the Midwest and down to DC and were playing to hundreds of people in Boston and New York.  I was really, really sick of emailing publicists and distributors 7 hours a day and I badly wanted a label to come in and save me from all that desk work. I'd even toyed with starting my own label, but I couldn't find a good partner. So I jumped. The label bought that first record from us for a flat fee and put a lot of energy into promoting us…until about 2005.

A few weeks after our second record, Yes, Virginia, came out they decided, sometime during a meeting around a very large desk in New York, that they weren't going to promote the band anymore. And they didn't. Overnight, they pulled promised funding out of our pockets, including cash of our own that I had fronted for an upcoming tour project. They, to put it plainly, fucked us in the ass a few weeks after the record dropped. When I confronted them with the unfairness, one the brass there literally replied, over the phone "Well, Amanda, we're a big bad record label. That's how things go." That enraged me. We'd been doing a lot of things ourselves anyway – paying for our own tours (we never took tour support), paying for our own indie publicist since the label wouldn't cover it, paying for our own internet marketing team (because, again, the label wouldn't cover it), organizing our own street team, making our own home-made videos with our own money….and on and on and on. Instead of applauding and encouraging this, the label just ignored us. The only thing we weren't doing was literally getting our albums into physical stores. (And that is now, as we know, irrelevant.)

When my solo record, Who Killed Amanda Palmer was being made, the label had the option of first refusal to release it. I had paid for the entire production of the album myself out of my own savings, with additional borrowed money from friends and family, to the tune of about $200,000. I was banking everything on the record being a success. When the label heard the album and decided to pick up the option, I assumed that at the very worst, I would get my money paid back and they'd at least get it in stores. I was used to doing all the promoting myself, anyway. I assumed that they would be proud and excited that I'd gotten Ben Folds as the producer (they weren't: most of the guys in the top offices didn't know who he was, I had to tell them.) In the end, it was the nightmare scenario. They paid for a few videos to be made, and that was the extent of their album promotion. They didn't even mail the record to most radio stations. It wasn't in stores. They simply did nothing. I wasn't surprised.

So any critics of my complaints should simply look over the past 8 years of my career. On average, I've done more self-promotion, touring, press and interviews (set up by ME and my team thought the magic of the net, not going through the average label channels) and put in more creative energy into my business in an average month than roadrunner has done in the whole course of my sad tenure there. So I don't disagree with these critics – of course the label has helped me build this empire. But they're only done a small fraction of the promotional work, and that work was done years ago, and that work wasn't any of the heavy lifting. Let's keep the story straight.

It's a really exciting time right now. Every musician has more power. The audience has more power. I come from a street performance background and actually find joy, not shame, in putting my hat down for people to toss money it – literally. I've been doing that. The change is inevitable and I'm happy to be a part of it. I learned to feel safe and taken care of by the culture at large, by the passers-by, by the people who WANTED to stop and connect with me and support me when I was a busker. The other day, I took a handful of one-dollar bills that fans had tossed in my ukulele case at a flash-twitter gig and I bought a sandwich. I loved that sandwich. If only life were always so simple and perfect…but it's getting there, it really is. Soon, that handful of ones will be putting a down payment on a house…and everyone who threw in will be invited to the housewarming. That's the way it rolls.

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38 Comments

  1. Amanda, you may have been fucked by the record labels to begin with. However I think we can all agree, with your success you are clearly screwing them harder than they ever could screw you.
    You essentially helping render them (big bad labels) irrelevant.
    Awesome read btw.

  2. Thanks for the extended Palmer interview. Over the years she has been more forthcoming about the financial info of her business than just about everyone. That is really helpful.
    All the talk about DIY and reinventing the music business is fine, but we really need to see more numbers from bands to know what is “success,” how much it costs to get there. how it was financed, etc.
    So I don’t think her Twitter success is nearly as important to the music world as the fact that she shares so much practical info. I wish more bands/artists would.

  3. This s clear: Amanda Palmer is a fierce worker, and has achieved a huge amount.
    My question is this.
    If one believes that the following is vital 1) tour support 2) internet marketing 3) a publicist 4) creating videos (etcetera)
    then why does one sign a contract that offers none of the above?

  4. the big bad label doesn’t have inhouse publicists and inhouse marketing? All of her complainants sound like nonsense.

  5. I understand Amanda’s complaints, and I saw similar ball-dropping thousands of times when I worked for the majors. I saw it every day – great records being shitcanned because they weren’t easy. Some records are “work” records, some artists require long term development before they click in a big way, and those are the ones that usually have the hardest time in the major label system.
    But let’s be frank here – does anyone who has listened to the DDolls or Amanda’s solo record REALLY believe it is radio friendly? This is an important and relevant question in the case of Amanda vs. the record business.
    Record labels simply cannot get any internal enthusiasm built, or achieve any real success around records/artists that are not radio friendly. They might accidentally break a non-traditional artist occasionally, but 99% of the time, a major label only gets behind a record when there is a positive reaction from radio. Because it has been proven time and time again that airplay = sales. There is an ingrained, almost Pavlovian response built into major labels in this regard.
    Amanda has been in the major label system long enough to realize this, So, did Amanda delude herself into believing that she made a record that radio would embrace? Or did she delude herself into thinking that suddenly radio stations would change their apathetic approach to anything new and fit her music into their playlists?
    Reading the interview, it’s clear that the label people see the potential for mass appeal in Amanda, If she is willing to make compromises – a.k.a. make a “radio friendly” record. And they’re telling her, sometimes in crass, not so subtle ways, that they want her to give them something to work with.
    So I can’t figure out who’s more naive – the labels for thinking that Amanda Palmer would compromise her artistry for greater success, or Amanda for thinking that any major label would keep marketing her after it was clear radio would not play her record.
    Ben Folds had a huge song with “Brick”, and the album “Whatever and Ever Amen” was a big seller. Why? Because “Brick” was radio-friendly and Epic could work the shit out of it. That was in 1997. Has Ben Folds progressed as an artist and produced more brilliant work in the past 12 years? Unquestionably. Have any of his subsequent records achieved the mass appeal of “Brick”‘? No. Has Ben Folds or his management been 100% happy with the job his label has done on these records? I doubt it.
    Clear understanding between the label and the artists about expectations needs to be achieved before any records are pressed (or digitized…) There should have been a discussion on the front end between the label and Amanda BEFORE the album was released that went something like this:
    “Hey guys, this is my new record, I know it’s going to be almost impossible to get airplay on any of these tracks. I’m also going to make videos that no mainstream outlets will play (see “Oasis”). I know what my base wants from me, I know how to keep them happy and I don’t need your help there aside from maybe some logistics, so my question to your Roadrunner is this: how are you going to help me expand my base in light of the fact that I won’t get airplay, which is what a major label needs 99% of the time to break a record?”
    If they don’t have a good answer, then seek another partner, or better yet, DIY baby. Unfortunately, Roadrunner had the first option on her solo record, so it appears Amanda didn’t really have a choice here.
    Musician, know thyself. But also know what a major is, what they’re good at, and what to expect from them. Otherwise you will surely be disappointed.

  6. Artists don’t have to sign the contract.
    What a complainer Amanda is. Nobody forced you to sign on the line.
    You should be grateful you had a shot.
    Too bad nobody cares about your band anymore. It happens all the time. Artists get a shot and blow it.

  7. And let’s try and remember that the contract was written with the provision that Roadrunner can drop her this summer, if they so choose.
    And why might they choose to? Well, besides the fact that she herself doesn’t want to continue this business relationship (has keeping artists against their will ever worked out for a label?), there’s the question of whether they are currently making or can reasonably expect to turn a profit off her future albums. Judging from their unwillingness to spend money promoting non-radio-friendly material, that seems unlikely at best; they do not seem to feel that Amanda Palmer is a good place to invest any more of their time and money.
    Then there’s the question of whether Roadrunner’s business would be hurt if they lose Amanda Palmer. Looking at the other bands they represent, I think that’s a pretty clear NO; she doesn’t fit in with the rest of their bands, so even if she goes on to become a huge megastar and sells billions of albums, she won’t be cannibalizing sales from death-metal acts to do it.
    I’d think that the smart business decision would be for Roadrunner to happily sign the papers canceling the remainder of the deal and pat themselves on the back for having the foresight to include that clause in the contract. (But I guess that the music industry is not well known for being about making smart business decisions, so who knows what will happen?)

  8. I don’t think anyone would be bitching if Amanda sold a ton of albums, including Amanda.
    I just don’t get the bitching when nobody forced her to sign with Roadrunner.
    I am sure they will drop her. Then, she can do what she wants.

  9. I imagine the bitching is for the reasons she gave in this very interview: it was a good deal to sign with Roadrunner back in 2004, and it is not a good deal to be signed with them today.
    If she complains today that it is not a good deal and she would like to end it and move on, Roadrunner gets another good reason to exercise the option to cancel the contract. She wins, Roadrunner wins. If she keeps silent out of some misguided sense of decorum or misplaced loyalty to the label that isn’t doing anything for her today, she loses and Roadrunner loses. Hell, I’d be bitching, too. I’d be surprised if anyone in a similar situation wouldn’t.

  10. this is a really cool account and very instructive. but if other bands think about taking it as a model of how to do things themselves, they should make a note of the part about “scraping together $200,000 of my own money” – in my experience most bands don’t have $200,000 of money from self, family, and friends, to gamble on their music career.

  11. From Wikipedia, I think this is the key line:
    “On December 18, 2006, Warner Strategic Marketing signed an agreement to purchase a majority in shares (73.5%) of Roadrunner Records’ parent company, Roadrunner Music Group B.V.[1] This deal became finalized on January 29, 2007 after receiving regulatory approval in Germany.”
    I don’t know any more about Amanda’s career than what I have read in the interview here and dug out of Wikipedia. But it sounds like the independent Roadrunner label that she willingly signed to, and was happy with, morphed into a major label wannabe with a different vision (lots more metal music?) probably around 2006 — the time of the YES VIRGINIA album, but also the time Nickelback was breaking huge for Roadrunner — and then became a fully-absorbed “Big 4” imprint at the end of that year, 2006.
    (I only know of Roadrunner from a couple of twangy Americana albums I got in the past. Looking at the Roadrunner web site, it seems clear the label shifted gears at some point.)
    But, as always, I’m throwing rocks from the outside here.

  12. They may have both of those, the point is they didn’t want to “waste” their time and money on providing those services.

  13. the traditional radio is dying (just like newspapers) Radio friendly is a whole mess in itself.. if major record labels would quit pushing “shit” music and invest in artists again they would have a better chance at surviving.. but they dug their grave and they are intent on shutting the coffin lid it seem

  14. Good point Old Record Guy. You have to know what you are getting into.
    When you don’t sell records anymore, you are not much use to Roadrunner.
    It happens all the time. Artists are not as viable as before and labels have to put out artists who sell.
    Music biz is not really complex, but making great music is complex.

  15. Ray – it’s an interesting song, but I don’t agree. From a production standpoint, the vocals, which sound on the verge of overmodulation, probably wouldn’t sound that great on radio. And the commercial appeal kind of goes out the window when the track gets all bombastic at the end. I don’t think this would ever be a big hit on radio, given everything else being played.
    But hey – who cares if it’s not a great radio song? It’s a great SONG, and that’s probably a lot more important to both Amanda and her fans.

  16. Oddly enough — “Backstabber” and “Sing” did really well in Seattle, and there were even bus billboards which used Dresden Dolls _Yes Viriginia_ to promote the station (the End/KNDD). I don’t know if either of those songs have made it to Gold categories (and, sadly, I’d guess not), but it seemed to really be playing them quite a bit. I think AFP/Dolls’ niche is in Alt. Rock radio and AAA, in addition to the obvious College stations. She probably wouldn’t ever get onto top 40 or CHR or anything like that, but hey.
    (and oddly enough, I don’t think “Shores of California” was ever serviced as a single to radio — too bad, as that was probably the most friendly of alla ’em from Yes Virginia.)

  17. Who listens to radio anymore? It’s pretty much irrelevant today. I don’t listen to radio, yet I have Amanda’s solo CD.
    I don’t think she thought she was giving Roadrunner a “radio friendly” release as much as a “fan friendly” release, plus the the growing momentum behind it. The record company could’ve notched up decent sales if they would have promoted it to her fanbase, but they ignored a cash-in-hand audience willing to buy it and to play it for their friends who would also buy it. Amanda is all about WORD OF MOUTH, not radio play.
    Amanda’s recording is brilliant! Radio is the 8-track tape of today. Who needs radio when you have the internet?

  18. Old Record Guy has it.
    Record companies are in the business of making money. They do this by releasing records that need to sell. As ORG said, it seems the expectations of both parties was misconstrued or just not discussed.
    Theres a great book called Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business (http://tinyurl.com/nnpv4r)that covers this in varrying detail. I just finished reading it. I know I’m plugging the book but it seems relevant for anyone interested in this article.

  19. Amanda sounds like the perfect candidate for a fan-sponsored career. She might set the sponsorship level depending on the size of her fan base/needs of her career.
    Suppose that comes down to $20/year per fan. Do ya think she delivers $20 worth of pure entertainment every year? I’d say I got about a quarter of that just from this interview.
    Unit sales of “things” like records, downloads, tickets are a tough way to go. Giving those things to fans in exchange for sponsorship is much healthier for everyone involved.
    Liv Pooleside
    http://www.somewhereoutwest.com

  20. The sponsorship idea is a good one, but I’m not sure she’d want to shut out fans who aren’t sponsors. So her current way to go, where everyone has access and the ones who want to tip or buy a shirt or come to a show can spend the money to do so.

  21. Most of the guys in the top offices don’t know who the big name producers are. Bummer!
    As a listener and music lover, I have been following the careers of a few favourite producers (who all in a way have got their characteristic and recognizable sound), at first with the help of credits in album booklets and rock journalism, later by doing my own research in online discography listings. And contrary to the so-called “music recommendation software” that is or was the big thing for a while, which always ends up converging towards the same kind of soundscape, following such a producer’s career broadens the sound instead. For example, Ry Cooder’s production work has opened up “my sound”, my musical taste, for a lot of different musical cultures that I hadn’t even known they existed. OK, world music might not be for everybody, you might argue, but this method of music discovery with the help of a producer did work for me in mainstream pop, too. An example would be Don Was, who branched out into online territory a while ago with his Wasmopolitan Cavalcade Of Recorded Music (That website was sponsored by Chrysler, among others, and led to quite a few good albums being released.)
    I guess it’s natural for music lovers to read the booklets, so everybody can start this fascinating process of music discovery of their own.
    But if labelheads just don’t recognize what a worthy asset for music discovery they have or could have in producers and musicians’ musicians, and instead waste their cash on the latest teen fad or format war or etc., you cannot really help them.

  22. Why does anyone believe a word of what Amanda Palmer says? She is an ambitious narcissist and nobody wants to work with her. Like any pied piper, she’ll gather around her an audience of damaged kids who don’t know any better. Amanda Palmer is a mediocre performer and that’s being kind. By her own admission, she can’t write a song, play an instrument or sing and her lyrics are idiotic. Instead of learning her craft she makes a spectacle of herself. Amanda Palmer is a vulgar human being, a bore, with nothing worthwhile to say so she subjects the world to every detail of her existence from her menstruation to the length of her bowl movement because she is so damaged she doesn’t exist without an audience. Palmer is drawing the same reaction a circus geek draws when he/she bites the head off a chicken…. meh. gross. Turn the channel.

  23. I am enjoying this discussion tremendously. The vitriol makes for good theatre, but it is almost beside the point. The Big Bad Boogies are simply making corporate economic decisions that go to the risk/ROI side. But because they are walking overhead corpses and the current media tools make the entire business model questionable (See “Ripped”) it creates opportunity for Amanda Palmer. In addition, the previous, generally male gate-keepers are failing to recognize the individual power, and audience that respond to Palmer, Michele Shocked, Jonatha Brooke, Cat Power, standing on the shoulders of Dar Williams, Tret Fure, Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and others. The mistake we make is the lingering thought that the Big Sugar Daddy will allow us just to make music and he will take care of the rest. Well, the pimps have been outed and now musicians must be the troubadours and pass their own hat again. Hopefully, the computer/internet saavy will continue to develop that possibility for us.

  24. Kate,
    You can “turn the channel” all you want.
    Thats your human choice.
    However, not much is more vulgar than character assassinating another person for a full paragraph and deriding those that hold a contrary view and enjoy her music, personality, or perspective. They’re all adults, they can figure things out for themselves.

  25. Despite the length, I think “Jeep Song” from the first DD album has radio potential.
    The theme of the lyrics definitely fits radio play relationship standards, and with the “Paint it Black” reference, well, I loved that from the moment I heard it.
    (and got to teach my little sister about the Stones!)
    You don’t need to be damaged to enjoy Amanda’s lyrics.
    It probably helps to know the feeling of being an outsider, though. ;p
    Great interview!

  26. Amanda Palmer cannot sell records. It’s that simple. She is one of the most untalented “singers” I have ever had the misfortune of hearing. Will power cannot make up for lack of talent. Amanda Palmer is terrible, just terrible and she’ll never sell records because she is a haughty ego maniac and won’t learn her craft.

  27. Amanda Palmer is lame. The internet allows hacks like Palmer to create the illusion of popularity. Palmer sucks!

  28. Lemmy still thinks that record labels can “give you a shot”
    That’s not true anymore….and it might never have been. See Fugazi.
    bbb
    wheatus.com

  29. Amanda Palmer, you suck. You are a terrible musician and your songs are crap. You won’t listen to anyone. Go get some therapy and leave the poor internet alone.

  30. I know this seems like a tangent, but the person who did this interview with her on stage took a photo of her with the crowd, and I was wondering if it was posted anywhere?

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