Amanda Palmer Requests Volunteer Musicians, Chaotic Discourse Ensues

HornsFor her current tour, Amanda Palmer put out a call for volunteer musicians to "hop up on stage with us for a couple of tunes." This request led to widespread attacks from musicians, music industry pundits and music fans as well as a seemingly smaller number of supportive responses from those same sectors of the population. Negative responses pointed to Palmer's Kickstarter milli, her millionaire husband and the need for all musicians to get paid. Positive responses focused on the fact that even a milli only goes so far and that it would be fun to hop on stage with Palmer's band. From every vantage point, this controversy is a hot mess.

I'm certainly an advocate of artists getting paid though I think whether or not free is a fair price comes down to the situation. While I think it's up to individual musicians to decide if performing with Amanda Palmer's crew for free is worth doing, the fact that Palmer has become a symbol of DIY power places her choices in a different context. It's an excellent opportunity to dig into such issues and one that must begin by considering the wide range of opinions.

Amanda Palmer Requests Volunteer Musicians

Amanda Palmer requested volunteer musicians for her current Grand Theft Orchestra Tour, some for her opening act and some for her own act, promising simple rewards and a lot of fun:

"we will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make."

"we’ve had a blast putting people together this past summer…COME JOIN THE FUCKING ORCHESTRA. it’s almost as good as the circus."

Blog Post Comments Were Both Positive & Negative



Musician Amy Vaillancourt-Sals Wrote a Letter to Amanda Palmer:

"The naive ones will say 'sign me up!' I most certainly had that as my first response. But in looking at the whole picture, this time you're coming across as the 1% looking to exploit us. I'm guessing this is not the impression you were going for. If this is the case, please respect the musicians who are giving you their time and specialized skills. We would love to play for you!"

"Please do the right thing, Amanda. This all seems so contrary to your vision.
The future of music is musicians being compensated for their specialized skills and the beauty and difference that their craft brings to the world! We all know you can certainly afford it…"

Amanda Palmer Replied With An Open Letter In Response To Amy

Palmer responded to Vaillancourt-Sals' letter with an extensive post that covered a lot of ground including responses she received from musicians who took her up on her offer:

"prompted by your letter (and the following avalanche of comments on my blog) i did what i always try to do: go to the source.
i had a great talk backstage at the 9:30 club last night with the three string players from Classical Revolution DC who’d volunteered their time.
jherek and i asked them point blank what they made of this whole issue."

"they said they firmly stood by their decision to come play the gig. they knew what they were responding to, and they didn’t feel at all violated. one of them told me he often plays violin for heavy metal gigs, for free. they were happy to be playing with us. and we were really happy to have them."

A Volunteer Musician Penned Her Own Response

One volunter, Betty Widerski, shared her take including her perspective on Palmer:

"I see her as one of the many people in my community who I support, who has managed some larger success while holding onto more of her soul than is frequently the case. I’m willing to volunteer half a day of my time to support that."

Comments Were Also Piling Up On Amanda Palmer's Facebook Page



Both Crowdfunding and Crowdsourcing Became Topics of Conversation

In an interview, musician Chad Matheny who's often crowdsourced musicians on the road, said a lot depends on the circumstances and brand of the musician, saying he thought it would be ok for The Flaming Lips (even though they're on Warner Bros and Palmer's worked with them.)

He also pointed to her Kickstarter campaign.

"If she raised over a million dollars for this, she should have an itemized statement about where this money is going. People don’t understand that even with how much money is floating around the top levels of music, most musicians live in abject poverty. I have a fan base, I’m not a musician no one has heard of, but if you gave me 1% of that money it would immediately change my life. Those disparities are shocking, and that can really irritate people."

Reminding Us Of Palmer's Off-the-Cuff Budgeting Estimates

In fact, Palmer did estimate where her Kickstarter money would go, something I've never seen a band being funded by a label do, and by the end she's in negative territory. But she also pointed out that:

"we are committed to doing amazing things for all of you who pledged. sure, it’s going to cost more to make things extra fancy (and for us to ship things for FREE all over the world), but making this stuff amazing IS THE POINT. if i skimped on making the packaging and actual products INCREDIBLE, i’d be an idiot."

Apparently Amanda Palmer Does Outperform On Fan Rewards


But That's Not Enough For Steve Albini

Steve Albini supports crowdfunding but he's still not having it:

"have no problem with bands using participant financing schemes like Kickstarter and such. I've said many times that I think they're part of the new way bands and their audience interact and they can be a fantastic resource, enabling bands to do things essentially in cooperation with their audience. It's pretty amazing actually."

"It should be obvious also that having gotten over a million dollars from such an effort that it is just plain rude to ask for further indulgences from your audience, like playing in your backing band for free."

All these people say more. There are lots more comments on all these posts and articles.  The music industry pundits also weighed in but you know where to find them if you're interested in what they have to say.

I'm more interested in what YOU have to say!

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch) blogs about music crowdfunding at Crowdfunding For Musicians (@CrowdfundingM). To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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  1. I think, however small, she should pay a stipend to her performers. “Experience” is nice, but at what point does one consider what she’s doing stealing music, making it no different than someone downloading Palmer’s albums. Could the downloader simply say Palmer would be getting the “experience” of being listened to?
    The fact of the matter is, Palmer raised a million bucks at the drop of a hat, and her husband’s net worth is estimated at $18 mil. It wouldn’t kill her to slide her musicians a $50, or $100, dollar bill for their efforts. At that point she could say she’s looking for musicians, the pay is low, but the experience is great. I think something like that would have made her look great. It’s truly amazing how just a couple bucks can change perceptions.

  2. I’m big on participation in events and art, so I have no problem with what Palmer is doing here. However, when her Kickstarter project began, I posted some questions directly to her and elsewhere hoping to get some clarification/discussions going. Here in a nutshell is what I was asking.
    Since the beginning of Kickstarter, I have been curious about how cross-media collaborators share or don’t share in whatever money is raised.
    If, for example, a musician is offering something as a reward that the musician didn’t make him or herself, does he contract for it, creating a work-for-hire arrangement (e.g., he hires someone to make a design for a t-shirt and then owns the design and can sell multiples)?
    Or does the musician team up with others and they share in the income in some fashion? And if they share in it, how do they decide what each earns? Do they split it up equally? Do they get different amounts, depending on how much each contributes? And if that, how do they decide? By the amount of time put in? By the commercial going rate? By how much “fame” each brings to the project?
    Amanda Palmer has multiple people contributing to her Kickstarter project which is why I am focusing on this particular project (plus she is very open about her business, so I hope she will share info). I’m curious what was the arrangement going to be if they just hit their goal and what’s the arrangement now that they have greatly exceed their goal. Was there an original agreement to pay a certain amount to create a design, and then a profit-sharing agreement if the Kickstarter raised more money than the initial goal?
    There’s been so little discussion of music/multi-collaboration income sharing that I’ve wondered how various people divide it up. In some cases, the musicians may be hoping that the artists/photographers/graphic artists are donating their contributions in exchange for exposure, but if they are, I’m guessing that if the project is very successful, the volunteers are going to want some compensation, even if they don’t think about it until after the fact.
    And I think one of the interesting aspects of Kickstarter is the transparency. People can see how much money is coming in for each project. So if the various collaborators on the project didn’t work out an agreement beforehand but now see how much money is coming in, they may adjust their terms accordingly.
    Let’s say, for example, you were going to cut a musician a break because he had no money. But then he raised $300,000 on Kickstarter. I’m going to guess that now you know he has money, you won’t feel the necessity to give him your work for free or at a rock bottom price.

  3. The real issue here should be the AFM, and their knee-jerk reaction, and unacceptable muck-raking. The AFM is over a hundred years old, and is an international organization with 90,000 members… it’s got NO excuses for making rash mistakes that reek of inexperience.
    Creating a petition and posting a photo of Palmer at the top with the hashtag of “#indiegreed” emblazoned across it is not only insulting to the indie community as a whole, but it’s blatantly libelous and defamatory toward Palmer.
    Is the AFM really suggesting that anyone who asks for volunteers is only doing so out of GREED???
    To compound their mistake, they then began a defamatory Twitter campaign about Palmer using the hashtag of “#indiegreed:”
    “AFM Musicians Union wrote‪:‬ @amandapalmer is just another musician that achieves success & profits off the dreams & aspirations of others. PETITION http://ht.ly/dHIIT
    The AFM is unfortunately behaving like an anachronism, illustrating the ridiculous and pointless clash between rock performance and the world of conservatory-trained musicians supported by the union. For many decades now the AFM has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that many of their viola-playing members are also guitar-weilding rockers. By attacking an independent musician who has been fortunate enough to have achieved some success using the new indie methodologies, they are in fact, attacking one of their own, and needlessly disparaging an entire industry.
    I think the petition, by an organization that is supposed to SUPPORT musicians, was a knee-jerk reaction – poorly thought out and way too hasty. Instead of waiting to see how things fleshed out, and getting better sense of what is obviously a complex situation, the AFM rashly attacked a MUSICIAN. Not a wise move in my opinion. We all know that if Amanda hadn’t grabbed headlines with her amazingly successful crowdfunding campaign which raised a million bucks, that her call for volunteers would never have made a blip. However, now that she is enjoying some perceived “success,” all the ankle-biters are after her.
    What is the AFM thinking??? If they have a legitimate complaint against Palmer, they can state their case without false and inflammatory accusations. You’re 120 years old AFM, act your age!

  4. Noel, I don’t see your point.
    Yes, many classically-trained musicians are also in pop/rock/punk bands. But Amanda Palmer is asking for trained viola players (among others), not guitarists and drummers.
    Yes, asking for volunteers from the professional musician community while you make money selling tickets is greedy. The AFM is doing exactly what it should by educating people about this unfortunate expectation of entitlement.
    And yes, the reason Amanda is a target for this debate is because she is successful. As an artist who made herself the poster child of fighting against corporate greed and exploitation she should be setting an example by not falling into that mindset.

  5. Good God! She never asked anyone to “play in her backing band for free.” She was looking for fans – different ones in each city – to come play in an ad-hoc “orchestra.” It didn’t appear to me that the invite was restricted to “professionals,” but merely to competent players, which would seem reasonable given the circumstance that it still needs to sound good to paying customers.
    It was supposed to be… wait for it… F U N!
    What fan wouldn’t want to jump up on stage with their idol if they had the chance and the chops? Given the popularity of Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, I would venture to say the numbers – and the fees paid by the fans TO the artists – are quite high.
    I have no doubt that if Amanda Palmer had offered “the chance to rehearse with my band and play a couple songs with me onstage,” as a Kickstarter option, she could have priced it at over $250 and probably sold out in every major city.
    Lighten up, people.

  6. AFofM’s reaction to the controversy may be a little off-topic, but I think most folks, even if they aren’t conservatory-trained, can see that this issue hits AFoM where they live; professional string and horn players, hello?
    I read Ms. Palmer’s self-serving justifications RE where the massively over-funded (by over a thousand percent)Kickstarter campaign money supposedly went, and remain unimpressed with the math; unless she’s insanely overpaying for the merch, there’s no reason at all why she can’t afford supplemental musicians in select cities at scale.
    Nevertheless, I don’t see fit to question her business practices, nor the motivations of any volunteers. Since she’s not doing it on my nickel, I care not a fig; I only know I wouldn’t do as she’s done. It’s not so much that I consider it unethical, but it’s really bad optics for the champion of DIY to be stiffing musicians, volunteer or not.
    Ultimately, she didn’t “build that”, her fans did, and if they don’t care, who should? Probably nobody but AFofM; it’s their mouths she’s taking food from.

  7. Well, uh, no she said she was looking for “professional-ish” players. The “ish” gives her some wiggle room, but for the most part, the “professional” part probably is what got people all riled up.
    What she did isn’t all that unusual. However, she did it kind of a poorly-timed, poorly-worded, tone-deaf kind of way

  8. My take on it is that, well, yeah, she’s free to do what she wants this way, but we’re also free to call her out on being really tacky about it. I mean, when you ask for pro-level volunteers and plead poverty after making 1.2mil on Kickstarter, even if the money’s all spent already (which it apparenlty is), it looks kinda bad. She coulda done this in such a much, much more tactful way that would’ve stirred up little to no controversy, but instead we have Steve Albini calling her an idiot and her defense of “hey guys I totally used to busk for free too!”
    It’s all just distasteful.

  9. Just so we’re clear on this:
    Asking people to volunteer money to help an artist that they like produce an album that will be sold, thus benefiting the artist financially: Good and Innovative.
    Asking people to volunteer their time and talent to help an artist perform at venues where tickets will be sold, thus benefiting the artist financially: EVIL AND OPPRESSIVE!!!!

  10. That is a good summary. But there is another point that you didn’t touch upon.
    Asking for money when you don’t have it is one thing. Asking for volunteers when you appear to have money (since you raised a lot of it on Kickstarter) is another.
    That’s when other creatives (i.e., writers, designers, photographers, musicians) start getting testy. When they are asked to contribute for free to an entity that has a lot more money than they do, they start to ask why.

  11. Here are some other ways to look at this.
    Let’s say I, a musician myself, am having a party at my house. I invite other musicians over and tell them to bring instruments if they want. It’s a jam session. Lots of fun; no one gets paid.
    Let’s say I have a performance and invite some musicians to come play. The band and I will get paid; you volunteers will not. You are, in other words, fans, not professionals like us.
    Let’s say I am organizing a performance for charity. Lots of professional musicians will be playing for free. No one gets paid.
    So you can see a lot depends on who is getting paid and who isn’t. If no one is getting paid, then it is cool. If some are getting paid and some aren’t, then presumably the ones who aren’t getting paid fall into the “fan” category or in the “do it for exposure because it’s good for your career” category. In other words, the volunteers are a step below the stars, even if that wasn’t the intended message. It’s a status thing.

  12. If somebody is getting paid everybody should get paid (at least something). We will work with anybody that we have a creative connection with. If there’s money made based on the project we would expect we would share in that. If it’s a project we’re doing strictly for the love of music – it doesn’t matter if we’re not getting paid. We’ve done it before and I’m sure we’ll do it again.
    Rubber Clown Car

  13. Um… Considering that she tries to dominate twitter, I don’t see the problem with using the same media. (the total tweets for #indiegreed last I checked was… Four)Also, greed is not exactly libelous. It’s fair comment.
    The other option would be picketing the concerts, which would be fun to watch.
    It’s precisely because she’s a musician that this matters. She’s the boss now, and she’s acting like a bad boss.
    Christ, didn’t anyone read animal Farm?

  14. HeRes something else to ponder: she’s now her own company. She’s the boss. Arguably, all her income from her shows should go back into the company (shes not incorporated as far as I know, so this isn’t legally binding).
    Basically, I think that if youre a small business, you should make payroll before you take your own cut. If you don’t break even, too bad, thats life.
    What bothers me is that she’s trying to spin this as “giving back to the fans,” when it appears to be out of convenience.

  15. She isn’t trying to steal anything from anyone. She asked for volunteer musicians. Musicians who want money aren’t volunteer musicians and need not apply. People should be happy to network with Amanda and be seen by that many people. That in and of itself is payment.

Comments are closed.