By now, most musicians have heard that Amanda Palmer has gotten into some hot water over her refusal to pay string and horn players on her current tour. She has instead asked “professional-ish” musicians to volunteer and join her for free on each stop of her tour.
To be fair to Ms. Palmer, I have to admit that I am a big fan of volunteerism. I volunteer for public radio stations like WNYC and WFMU, and I volunteer for an alternative arts venue called Vaudeville Park. I even run a volunteer music production magazine called Trust Me, I’m a Scientist.
But there’s a meaningful distinction at play here: These are not-for-profit entities, while Ms. Palmer’s tour is a for-profit expedition — And a cash-rich one at that.
On top of her $1.2M Kickstarter campaign (which was a full $1M more than budgeted for) Ms. Palmer’s CDs and downloads have been selling briskly. So have her concert tickets at $30 and $60 a pop.
I’ll be the first to admit that there are certainly times when volunteerism is noble. Many of us should do more of it. But where does volunteerism end and exploitation begin?
Is it noble to volunteer for a cash-rich for-profit enterprise? And what about when taking the gig means that you’re taking food from the mouths of people whose day job it is to play these kinds of high-pressure, high-profile concerts and ensure that the audience won’t be let down?
Is it noble to devalue the role of musicians by suggesting that their years of training and their tens of thousands of hours of practice is worth little more than a beer and a high-five?
Is it noble to support musicians only with “exposure”? Exposure for what? So that they might be selected to play the next cash-rich tour for free as well? Or are we talking about the kind of “exposure” that musicians will be subject to when they can’t pay their rent?
Let’s not make false equivalencies in this debate. It’s important to remember that we’re not talking about a friend of Ms. Palmer’s jumping up on stage to play a guitar solo or sing backup on a song. Rather, we’re talking about working or aspiring musicians who are expected to send in an audition tape, learn the material in advance, arrive punctually for a high-pressure rehearsal, and then arrive punctually again for a high-profile performance in which they will be an essential part of the emotional and aesthetic impact of many of the songs.
This kind of work deserves compensation — even if its just a token sum from an artist who cannot afford to pay a more traditional rate.
But at this point, it’s worth remembering that Ms. Palmer can afford it. Remember her $1.2 Million, which was a full $1 Million above her budgeted goal? And do you remember all the Amazon downloads and ticket sales in the past two days alone? She’s shot up near to the top of Amazon’s charts, and that’s taking all of her Kickstarter pre-sales out of the equation.
The way Palmer is playing her cards here, it’s hard for even a well-wisher like myself not to be convinced that she is falling deep into hypocrisy.
Palmer is paying her promotional team and her management team handsomely, but not the musicians? In doing this, she is becoming the very thing that she has told us she is railing against.
If a concert stands to make no money at all, or if it does stand to make money but the proceeds are meant to go to a humanitarian cause, then playing for free can be a very noble thing to do. But it’s important to remember that Amanda Palmer is not a charity. She is now running a significant for-profit entertainment business. And she’s doing a very savvy job of it. Other entertainment entrepreneurs would be well-advised to learn a lot from her. But not this.
When I did sound for Ms. Palmer’s Kickstarter party, I was paid, and deservedly so. It was hard work with long hours. I accepted the gig, even though I knew the pay was far lower than it should have been. I did this because I believed that she was trying to do an interesting thing, and because I was told she had a “DIY” budget (Although in the end, that term turned out to be a little misleading.)
But I was paid. I’m an audio engineer, and a pretty good one. But compared to a good musician, I’m practically a leech. It’s the musicians who make my job possible. And even more than that, it’s the musicians who make my whole life possible. Without them, I would be lost emotionally as much as I would be lost professionally. If I’m worth my keep, then so is a reliable, capable and spirited violinist, cellist or trombone player.
So, Amanda Palmer: Compensate your musicians like you compensate your publicity team, and your managers, and your tech people, and your accountants. The musicians are the ones who are doing the most important work of all. The rest of us are just in the “support” business.
I’ve heard you do a lot of talking up until now, and I’ve worked hard to be supportive of you in the past. I’ve even written articles about your work that have been read by many tens of thousands of musicians across the globe. But now is the time to put your money where your mouth is.
Do what’s right.
A final note:
Currently, the counter-argument from Palmer and her fans has been that if the musicians know what they’re getting themselves into — then hey — no harm, no foul, right?
Well, not exactly. Indentured servants and sharecroppers and sub-minimum wage workers and poor families signing on to sub-prime mortgages all tended to “know what they were getting themselves into.” These are all complicit arrangements. But that doesn’t make them right.
It has taken hard work to end these abuses, and that hard work has paid off, bringing us things we take for granted, like the weekend, the minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, and until they were repealed, financial regulations that were pretty darn good at preventing catastrophic financial collapses like the one we’ve just been through. Hard work and advocacy ended the kinds of devastating factory fires that killed hundreds of young girls, who were often about the same age as many of Ms. Palmer’s fans.
Whenever we fail to properly compensate and care for working people, we’re on a very slippery slope. I don’t say this to be sensational. I say it to be accurate.