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Amanda Palmer Shares Her Secrets

Hypebot readers had a special opportunity to ask indie artist Amanda Palmer questions about her unique approach to d.i.y promotion. Digital music marketer Jim McDermott (a former major label digital and artist development guy who consults for The State Theatre in Falls Church, VA and a variety of other music clients) hosted this special event and shares what happened.

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Watch the video after the jump.

THE SETUP: Last Thursday, November 19, Amanda Palmer played a show at The State Theatre, an 800-capacity independent venue in Fall's Church Virginia, ten minutes from downtown D.C. I provide marketing and digital business development consulting for The State.

The State aims to offer a great live music experience, affordable tickets, food and beverages to concertgoers. Parking is free. Some venues pursue an alternate event revenue model where the customer is charged high prices and/ or service fees for all of the above; this approach increases margins and funds aggressive radio, TV and print advertising. Because of The State's fan-friendly approach to doing business, we have to be creative in generating awareness for events. The first step in this is always motivating the artist's fan base via their email list, website & social network presences. We work ideas thru their management and/or label, although nine out of ten times, the label does not get substantially involved in marketing a show. This is somewhat understandable, as labels usually don't make money directly from an artist touring. So we either get artist management on board with an idea, or it doesn't happen. Often, artists and management express surprise that a venue is driving these kinds of marketing efforts.

The ideas we present are fairly simple, and usually involve some kind of fan-artist interaction that is internet driven. Once we settle on the idea, we ask the artist/management to tell their fans about it via their various web presences - Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and their official site. 

The State also sends out a weekly email to subscribers about events where such promotions are highlighted. Often, we look to partner with 3rd party music or entertainment oriented sites that are relevant to the artist, outside of the DC market. Sometimes, it's a genre-based site, or perhaps a fan-run blog. Really, what we're trying to do is encourage word-of-mouth awareness at a grassroots level - what used to be referred to in the music business as "field marketing". It's simple: if the idea is good, and the artist works with the venue to promote it to their fanbase, you sell more tickets, and fans come away feeling positive about the artist and the venue. Done properly, awareness for the entire tour is generated.

To do this effectively, you need an artist that is enthusiastic about engaging with fans. When we booked Amanda we felt she'd be more willing to think outside the box than most, as she's been highly vocal about artist/ fan engagement offsetting the diminishing role of record labels. We contacted Michael Hausman Artist Management, who represents Amanda, and pitched a fan conference. The idea was simple: on the night of her performance, Amanda would give a free chat about her experiences in the music business for ticketholders, and answer their questions. The chat would take place at the venue prior to the opening act's performance.  We hoped this would be a win for everyone involved; we'd sell more tickets because we had something unique. The early start time of the event meant fans would come thru the door much earlier than normal, they'd have more time to eat and drink and buy Amanda Palmer merch, and the fans themselves would win because the chat was a value-add to the ticket. We got a positive reply from the Amanda camp almost immediately. Hypebot was our primary online marketing partner, soliciting questions from their global readership and generating online press. We also asked our Twitter followers to submit questions, and Amanda Palmer tweeted about the event as well. This was all done in addition to our standard traditional offline promotion (print, flyers, etc.)

When I enthusiastically mentioned to colleagues in the music business that I'd be interviewing Amanda on the night, some were surprisingly negative. "She'd be nowhere without Roadrunner Records", "she's the Queen of T.M.I" - stuff along those lines. One or two felt that the hype around her was unwarranted, relative to her commercial viability - "none of her ego-driven social networking bullshit sells records, the Emperor has no clothes." I have to admit, I follow her Twitter page sporadically, and wondered about the benefit of some of the posts. Information can become white noise, even to the most die-hard fans, unless it is delivered in a measured fashion, and Amanda Palmer didn't seem to have any filter. I really didn't know what to expect when she showed up - how much of her public persona, her "24/7 disclosure" was REAL, and how much was artifice? We'd soon find out.

image from farm4.static.flickr.com WORKING WITH AMANDA:  Doors opened at 7PM, and despite the rain, there was a line down the block of fans waiting to get into The State. Amanda's chat was starting at 7:45, and we felt we'd get a decent turnout. But we were quite surprised that probably 90% of the people who purchased tickets turned up for the free chat, 2 1/2 hours before the music. The fans were clearly excited, rushing to secure a spot at the front. She hit the stage on time, and spent 40 minutes taking questions. Her answers were incredibly patient and giving, with a healthy dose of good humor.  

Being onstage with Amanda Palmer was an incredible experience, because the adoration emanating from her fans was so powerful. Every artist gets this to some degree from their audience, but Amanda Palmer and her fans seem to have a very deep bond. Connecting the dots with Twitter winners, who were present to ask questions, really made the online aspect of this event tangible.

Later, after giving an exuberant performance, Amanda went to the merch table to meet fans, and another long line gathered. When I left The State sometime before 1:00 am, she was still chatting with fans and signing things. Some stood outside the venue, six hours after they first arrived, relating to each other words they had exchanged with her. You couldn't help but be impressed by the sustained energy level of both Amanda Palmer and her fans.

In the good old days of artist development, careers were built over the course of several albums. You established a base, and focused on expanding it, not necessarily by spending tons of money, but by encouraging word of mouth awareness. Of course the music needed to be great, the artist needed some degree of inherent appeal. But when you had a core fanbase that was motivated and passionate, when they proactively converted people who hadn't heard the music into new fans, that was magic. Because you had an army of people who would make your job easier - they wanted to spread the word about an artist they loved. Record labels used to have whole departments of street focused people whose sole job was to create and encourage the spread of grassroots awareness amongst tastemakers. And I can say based on personal experience that in the good old days of artist development, a fanbase like Amanda Palmer's would have only been considered marketing treasure, but more importantly, as an indicator of her ultimate potential. These days, artists have to generate that word of mouth themselves.

Amanda Palmer's biggest publicly-stated criticism of her label has been that they stopped helping her. Having worked for major labels for many years, I've seen both sides of this complaint, there are two sides to every story. Sometimes, despite everyone's best efforts, radio and retail just don't respond to a release. Or perhaps there's been a regime change at the label, an act's A&R rep leaves, and they get lost in the shuffle. Certainly there have been artists who've committed career suicide thru substance abuse, or simply being unwilling to work their record. I can say, based on working with Amanda for this performance, that the woman works her ass off, and does it with a smile. I've worked with very few artists over the course of my career that worked so hard, yet remained good natured throughout. When an artist put in this kind of obvious effort, the vibe is infectious, and everyone around her performs at a higher level.

Her outstanding opener/backing band, Nervous Cabaret are a band I saw many times at loft parties in Dumbo Brooklyn back in the early 00's, back when that neighborhood was about art, not condos. Their leader, Elyas Khan, an artist whom I respect a lot, had the highest praise for Amanda Palmer. "She's the real deal, man. It's really incredible how great she is to work with, and how she treats everyone, no ego." Before their opening set, Amanda came onstage to tell the audience that they'd be passing a hat for Nervous Cabaret to help finance their tour, and implored everyone to donate and help them
- a class act.

No one other than Amanda Palmer and her label know the details of why their relationship broke down, and of course, we only had her for one night. But I have to say - I don't get it. This is an artist with a hugely loyal fanbase, who works her ass off, who personally uses all the modern tools available to grow and retain her audience, who puts on an incredibly musical show with no autotune, lip synching or any other bullshit crutches. Someone who has time for every fan, who helps develop worthy upcoming artists, who has visibility on the upswing, who is tremendously clever - and the record industry can't support or build on this? Palmer, who seems to bear no grudge towards any record label, was stoic about it, basically stating that labels just aren't set up to support artists like her anymore, that they can't help. That they're too focused on the selling records part of it, they still haven't adapted.

There have been tons of articles written about how the labels are dinosaurs, soon to be extinct, to the point where that conversation is not interesting anymore. If you want to see something really interesting, go to an Amanda Palmer show. I say this especially to those who may be doubtful of her sincerity, wary of the value of her online efforts, cynical about the attention she generates for herself.  See her perform, look at the audience, observe the relationship, the give and take. See how much work she puts into it. Forget the technology, social networking, Twitter, 360 deals and all the other baggage of the "new music business". Go to an Amanda Palmer show, and observe. You'll learn a lot more about where things are going in music than you will by reading articles.......including this one!

Special thanks to Hypebot and reader Kevin J Ryan for his question, and also to Michael Hausman Artist Management for their help in putting this event together. The following Youtube videos were shot by one of our Twitter winners, Wojo4hitz.

Fan Q&A Part 1:

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