Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk: What We Learned

Last week, Amanda Palmer was one of the speakers at the TED2013 conference, and she delivered an affecting 13-and-a-half-minute speech titled “The Art Of Asking,” in which she detailed her rise from a “living statue” mime working the streets of Boston to an internationally known musician whose current revenue model relies primarily on the direct support of fans. Palmer drew strong correlations between the two professions, noting that each depends on interpersonal connection. As a mime, says Palmer, she would regularly interact with “lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks,” and then, “we would sort of fall in love a little bit.” For Palmer, the wordless exchange went something like this:

My eyes would say, “Thank you. I see you.”

Their eyes would say, “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.”

That same connection, argues Palmer, is made between musician and fan, and in her TED Talk, Palmer recounts such exchanges, including one in which she and her band crashed at the home of an 18-year-old fan and her family — undocumented immigrants from Honduras. The family, says Palmer, slept on couches so Palmer and her band could take the beds; an arrangement that caused Palmer to wonder, “Is this fair?” The next morning, says Palmer, the fan’s mother took the singer aside and, “in her broken English,” said:

“Your music has helped my daughter so much. Thank you for staying here. We’re all so grateful.”

And I thought, “This is fair.”

This, argues Palmer, is an example of how the music industry will evolve — with musicians not demanding fans pay for music, but asking them to contribute, monetarily and/or otherwise. Palmer has of course been at the forefront of this evolution: Among other things, she raised a record nearly $1.2 million via Kickstarter for her last album, and requested musician-fans of “professional-ish” ability contribute to her live show in exchange for non-monetary rewards — the latter of which, as you might remember, became the source of some scrutiny and criticism, causing Palmer to respond at length, but after some hedging, eventually offer money to those fans chosen to contribute.

Palmer addresses this, too, in her TED Talk — to some extent, anyway. She never explains why she chose to finally pay those musicians to whom she initially offered no payment, but she does offer a theory regarding the initial criticism: “[Those critics] weren’t with us on the sidewalk. And they couldn’t see the exchange that was happening between me and my crowd: an exchange that was very fair to us, but alien to them.” (For at least one member of her crowd, that exchange was not “very fair,” which played no small part in the initial coverage of Palmer’s gambit.)

For Palmer, the music industry’s attempts to make money are wrongheaded. She notes that after wriggling out of her seven-album deal with Roadrunner Records in 2010, she encouraged file-sharing among her fans. She says, “The media asked, ‘Amanda, the music industry’s tanking, and you encourage piracy; how did you make all these people pay for music?’ And the real answer is, I didn’t make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you.”

To be fair, Palmer makes some powerful and passionate arguments in her presentation; however, she leaves unaddressed the work done by Roadrunner to promote her, starting in 2004, when they signed her. In a 2010 open letter to the label — written after they finally agreed to drop her — she stressed the significant impact the label had on her career at its nascent stage:

no other label in america would sign us, but you did. all the cool, hip, indie labels didn’t think enough people would like us. they passed.

you saw our potential. for a while you worked very hard for us. you spent money on us, and you helped people find and hear our music.

when we first toured in europe and australia, you made sure that the radio stations and the magazines in those countries got our record.

now there are millions of people around the globe who know my band and my name. i am so, so grateful for that help.

i don’t know how far i would have gotten on my own steam in that same amount of time.

The need for that sort of deep-pockets assistance is not included in Palmer’s TED Talk, which she closes with what I’d consider a pretty empty platitude in the context she presents it: “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?'”

Watch Palmer’s full TED Talk below.