I played with Amanda Palmer
Who's saying what
Tim Byron is our resident music nerd who writes our weekly Music Dump and analysis of Australian Number Ones on TheVine. Here he discusses the recent Amanda Palmer media furore from the point of view of someone who has actually played on stage with her. And got paid.
Amanda Palmer recently put up a casting call on her blog looking for horn players and string players to play on stage with her. For free.
As the internet was quick to respond: there was something a bit uncool about this, considering how much money her fans just raised for her new album cycle - over a million dollars. Surely, she could donate some of that million dollars to paying her horn players, right? Various people have called her out on this, most notably recording engineer/Indiest-Musician-Alive Steve Albini. Albini said in a forum post that "Pretty much everybody on earth has a threshold for how much to indulge an idiot who doesn't know how to conduct herself, and I think Ms Palmer has found her audience's threshold," before clarifying that though he doesn't really think Palmer is an idiot (he was just talking shit) but that "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".
After then giving the media a serve for building this into a Palmer vs Albini thing, Albini then expounded further in an interview with The Stool Pigeon in which he clarified “I’m sorry Amanda Palmer, the internet is going to tell you that I think you’re an idiot, and while that’s not true, it’s my fault.” Palmer, in response to the controversy, has pointed out in further rambly blog posts that she herself is super-happy to play for free, and has long done so; she would busk in the streets before she was famous, and still plays 'guerilla gigs' where she has no expectation of payment. She's not forcing anybody to play in her horn section. It's probably fair to say that her philosophy in terms of the relationship between art and money is that money isn't the crux of the matter - people should just make art because it's what they need to do, and if money happens, great. If not, Palmer would probably continue making stuff. She sees herself less as a musician, per se, and more as a Capital-A Artist. Thus she does things like puts out a book filled with pictures of her pretending to be dead, thus the cabaret side of the punk-cabaret vibe that the Dresden Dolls had. For Palmer, you suspect, art is a wee bit magical, and music is just one way of doing Art. She seems very dedicated to trying to share this feeling of the magic of art with her fans, and most likely saw her 'casting call' as another way to share the magic with her fans.
But Steve Albini doesn't see himself as a Capital-A Artist the same way that Palmer does. Instead, he sees himself as a working musician. Where Palmer is at heart a hippie, Albini is acutely aware of the balance of power and money in music. For Albini, making music isn't a magical artistic thing, it's more of a ideological/political statement. In his music and production, he disdains (what he sees as) artifice and concessions to the false consciousness that the mainstream record industry tries to represent to the American culture in general. The way his music sounds reflects this (his abrasive work with the likes of Big Black and Shellac is confronting and uncompromising because he wants his music to avoid pandering, and because he wants it to reflect the ugliness of the world as he sees it). Seen from Albini's point of view, Palmer is wasting money on things that do not matter - stuff to do with the Capital-A Artist artifice which is her schtick - and not giving money to what ultimately matters most in music - musicians. Not paying money to musicians, from Albini's point of view, was dodgy when major labels did it in the 1990s, and is dodgy when Amanda Palmer does it.
These are two separate philosophies of what music is really about butting up against each other. There's no right or wrong, just different ideologies. I'm not sure that music has to be Capital-A Art or that mainstream culture is a false consciousness. I feel that music is just music, and that ideologies of music are mostly things that smart people use to justify why they like what they like.
Australian musician/Twitter fiend Brendan Maclean wrote for Faster Louder to say that he'd been the support act to Amanda Palmer recently, and did it for free. Maclean explained his reasons for doing so, which generally make sense - for emerging artists like Maclean, exposure is worth more than a gig's worth of money and will be until he's quite famous. So it makes sense that he'd do a gig for exposure, because it's ultimately a more important currency than actual money as far as emerging artists go.
Anyway, like Maclean, I've played on stage with Amanda Palmer. It was at the Sydney Opera House in 2009, and through a series of unlikely events I ended up playing keyboards in the band of New York cabaret artist Justin Bond, doing a show entirely devoted to covers of the impossibly hip (ahem) 70s band The Carpenters. One of the nights I played with Bond, he hosted a variety night. He played a few songs, but mostly acted as the host, introducing everyone from Max Sharam to a burlesque artist who took her clothes off to the tune of 'Moon River'. Inside a very large balloon. Amanda Palmer was playing at the Opera House at the same time, and was hanging around while we were rehearsing. I was testing out a new keyboard, and was trying to figure out what good 'electric piano' sounds it had. So I played the riff to 'The Logical Song' by Supertramp to test out the sounds, because the keyboard sound on the original recording of 'The Logical Song' is pretty awesome. Amanda Palmer, who was sitting in the venue focused on her computer, suddenly perked up, saying "I love that song!" So she did that song with us as part of the cabaret night (along with a Dresden Dolls song), and it was fun!
My point is this: playing with Palmer was different for me than it was for Maclean. I got paid. I'm not an emerging artist who wants exposure. I'm not a fervent Amanda Palmer fan whose dream is to be onstage with my hero (though I've liked her music here and there). This basically means that I probably wouldn't have done the gig if it was unpaid. It was a lot of work! I mean, I spent several hours making charts of 'The Logical Song' for the rest of the band, for starters. I was working as a professional musician. And it seems to me that the nature of being a professional musician is that the professional musician doesn't draw attention to themselves. The professional musician is an employee. The point is to support the talent and the people the audience have paid their money to see. It would be a shame if the current monetary decline of the music industry means that professional musicians are out of jobs, for both musical and political reasons, and I suspect this is what really concerns the likes of Steve Albini when Amanda Palmer doesn't pay musicians. Because that's what he identifies himself as: a professional musician. One with self-imposed high ethical standards, but a professional nonetheless.
So who's right? What should be done, you ask? Ultimately, it seems to me that the important question here is, is it better for the audience if musicians are professionals? And that answer depends. To Steve Albini, it's obviously better for the audience if the musicians are professional. After all, he's a recording engineer, and he's spent a lot of time trying to record musicians in the studio. Recording musicians in the studio can be incredibly painful if the musicians are not very good, and when Albini discusses his opinions of musicians he's worked with, he often says things like "they're not my style, but they were a tight band" - he respects musical talent and hard work. This means that Albini is unlikely to be sympathetic to amateur musicians who maybe can't play so well - for him, it's not only bad form but is likely to make the music worse. But Amanda Palmer clearly sees this differently, and many of her fans probably agree with her. Those fans have already bought into her Capital-A Artist aesthetic, and they might totally be into the idea that the people on stage playing the violins and trumpets are just there out of love of the music. It might well improve their enjoyment of the night. This stuff might outweigh the likelihood that the amateurs will mess up the parts here and there, that they'll make more mistakes than pros like me. Whatever the case, I'm fairly sure Amanda Palmer has committed herself to a long series of possibly tedious rehearsals with overly nervous people!
Palmer wrote on her blog today that after much deliberation she now plans to pay the musicians in question (she was always paying her touring back up band, just not the volunteers in each town). She doesn't say how much, but in the end she must want to avoid the perception of impropriety, whether or not she really feels she was in the wrong. The thing is, those volunteers are the people least interested in this whole story - they're just excited to play with Amanda. Whatever the outcome of the media discussion, this much is true: it's been fantastic publicity for Amanda Palmer. This week her album debuted in the Billboard charts at number ten.