2. Amanda Palmer Vs. Steve Albini, Unpaid Musicians
Prior to 2012, Amanda Palmer was not exactly a household name — sure, she had a devoted fanbase from which she sourced a record $1.2 million via Kickstarter to finance her last album, Theatre Is Evil. But this year, Palmer achieved notoriety far beyond her cult following
It started in August, when the ex-Dresden Doll posted a blog entry titled “WANTED: HORN-Y AND STRING-Y VOLUNTEERS FOR THE GRAND THEFT ORCHESTRA TOUR!!!!” in which she requested horn and string players of “professional-ish” ability join her touring band on stage. By way of compensation, wrote Palmer, “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.”
The request for unpaid labor by a musician who’d just raised $1.2 mil caught the attention of Chicago-based engineer/poker enthusiast Steve Albini; in a
Albini wasn’t alone in his outrage; on 9/12, the Times ran a piece on the backlash resulting from Palmer’s request. Palmer fan and classical musician, Amy Vaillancourt-Sals posted her own reaction to Palmer’s request for unpaid volunteers, pointing out the ways in which Palmer’s actions could negatively affect the greater music community. Among other things, Vaillancourt-Sals wrote:
Artists are feeling desperate. I confess, I have found myself giving free performances in order to get ahead and perhaps have something notable to put on my resume. You’d think that this would help, but it doesn’t and in fact it’s made my position worse. Volunteer opportunities have effectively lead to more volunteer opportunities. Very very seldom have I found it leading to compensating gigs.
Palmer responded with a 2,800-word open letter to Vaillancourt-Sals, with the following declaration at its center:
your concern reminds me of the complaints i’ve seen from musicians who insist that i’m “devaluing” their own recordings by giving my music away for free and encouraging people to pay what they want for it (which is how i just released my new record). i get the impression that they see me as a force of evil who is miseducating the public to think that “music should be free.”
here’s what i think about all that, and it also applies to this paid/non-paid musician kerfuffle:
YOU HAVE TO LET ARTISTS MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS ABOUT HOW THEY SHARE THEIR TALENT AND TIME.
Meanwhile, the Albini-Palmer feud continued. In an interview with Australian website Moshcam, Palmer said, “I adore Steve Albini and I’m a huge fan of his work, and I know he is a grumpy fuck.” Albini then did an interview with UK blog the Stool Pigeon, where he expanded on his feelings, saying:
On the part of the fans, I totally understand and sympathize with this impulse [to want to play with an object of their fandom regardless of compensation]. That’s starkly different from a millionaire asking people to do things for free, under the guise that she is giving them something by indulging them. It’s cheapness repainted as generosity and it’s gross. Using people in this way, exploiting their good nature for one’s own benefit, is a cancer that taints many enterprises and it always reflects poorly on the exploiter. It’s one of the things I hated most about the old-school record business, the practice of fucking with people who loved music so much they would put up with endless greed and abuse just to be a part of it. A new music business paradigm, if it is worth anything, should strive to be free of exploitation and be honest about its motives … Nobody’s an idiot, some ways of conducting business are just uglier and more exploitative than others.
Finally, after what seemed like months of controversy, Palmer relented, agreeing to pay her sidemen. She made the triumphant announcement on her blog:
for better or for worse, this whole kerfuffle has meant i’ve spent the past week thinking hard about this, listening to what everyone was saying and discussing. i hear you. i see your points. me and my band have discussed it at length. and we have decided we should pay all of our guest musicians. we have the power to do it, and we’re going to do it. (in fact, we started doing it three shows ago.
Still, like the Lowery-White beef, Palmer’s story resonated throughout 2012, as pundits and musicians alike wondered (often aloud) how to make money making music — using services like Kickstarter, yes — while being mindful of the modern economy and the fragile ecosystem that is home to both musicians and audience.