Amanda Palmer confronts the 'current nightmare of the modern musician' (Q&A)

The controversial musician and performance artist talks to CNET about Spotify, Kickstarter, and whether the music industry is killing the musicians it needs.

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Musician Amanda Palmer talks about how musicians can thrive on the Internet at BitTorrent headquarters in San Francisco, December 2013. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Amanda Palmer is no stranger to controversy.

One of the first musicians to successfully use Twitter to spread word of her music, Palmer, 37, is known for her cabaret punk band the Dresden Dolls, her career as a solo artist, her performance art, and for engaging her fans in ways not easy to achieve before social media.

She's run several successful Kickstarter campaigns to fund her touring and album production. But her decision to not pay musicians who joined her onstage despite having raised about $1.2 million from one of her crowdsourcing efforts has made her many enemies.

The prolific musician, artist, and author, who's married to popular writer Neil Gaiman, decided to talk frankly about the music business last December at BitTorrent headquarters in San Francisco. BitTorrent, the company behind the file-sharing protocol, posted on Thursday the Amanda Palmer Town Hall conversation on the future of music and the music business.

The Town Hall video is being offered as a free BitTorrent Bundle, the company's experiment to provide people a way to make money from content they share through the service. BitTorrent holds weekly Town Hall-style conversations called "Tech Talks" to discuss issues facing the Internet.

In a wide-ranging, nearly two-hour long conversation, Palmer and musician Zoe Boekbinder chatted with an audience of around 100 fans and music lovers about the problems and new frontiers facing the music business: streaming music, pirating, record labels, and Kickstarter-style crowdfunding.

Afterward, Palmer sat down with CNET to answer even more questions. Here are combined, edited versions of both conversations.

Q: What works best for releasing new songs?
Palmer: Before we throw it out to the audience, I'd just like to suggest the obvious options that are open to me and Zoe right now. Obviously, I've had a huge success with my Kickstarter. It was definitely a success on paper. What I did on the back end is my problem.

The one big problem with Kickstarter -- as I've gone around talking to, especially, musicians -- is that you don't necessarily want to put all of your time and energy, every time you have a project, into convincing those same people, "Please Kickstart my record, and here are all the things you'll get; I spent all this time building this page; I spent all this time coming up with these fanciful rewards that you will get, and I spent so much time fulfilling them."

And all these things will go wrong, and things will be misprinted, and FedEx will not come, and that is the current nightmare of the modern musician. This is the recurring theme, that yes, Kickstarter works, but it's a ton of work and you have to keep doing it -- every time. You fulfill that one album and you're looking at the next mountain. And that doesn't make a lot of sense because a lot of those people are the same people.

And a lot of those people just want to support you. And will kind of go through the fiction of, "Yes, I will take the package, and I don't know if I can get another poster that's printed on silver paper of your band."

There's also the idea of subscription, which is the way I've seen a lot of my independent musician friends going, which is kind of taking it to the next level, which is: I know you're out there, and I know you love me, and I know you want to help me, and I know we don't need to have fictional packaging in order for you to help me. So can you just agree that when I put out a piece of art, you pay me and it's on a kind of rolling basis. I think Kickstarter is maybe heading in that direction, and there's things like Patreon, which is being used by bloggers, where you basically agree to pay 3, 5, 10, whatever dollars...for a monthly pass. [Some] fans are building their own subscription sites.

What's the difference between swag and music?
Palmer: The music is not a poster, the music is the music. The bridge that needs to be gapped or crossed or whatever is that we're using physical stuff to justify your giving me money. Is there a way to get around us having this relationship and for me to have more money for me to send you more s--t?

What are some of the problems in choosing appropriate crowdfunding incentives?
Palmer: When I did my first big proto-Kickstarter, which I actually did straight off my Web site, when I put out my EP of ukulele covers of Radiohead songs, and that was my first big independent: here's a bunch of levels, here's a bunch of options, and one of the options was a Skype call, I hated it.

I kind of hate Skype, mostly because when I talk on the phone, I pace and move, and in front of the screen it makes me feel really awkward. If we're here, I know how to take my environment into account. But when faced with Skype, I felt kind of paralyzed, and I felt like the technology wasn't really there in terms of being with the person. Being with someone is different than being on Skype with someone. And to sell it as the same product is kind of a con.

An audience member asked about the value in fans sharing different versions of the same songs, especially those from concerts.
Palmer: There was a site started by basically my favorite Deadhead. We encouraged [music sharing].

Bringing up the Grateful Dead is always interesting in this case, because one could make the case that [Deadheads] were the original file-sharers via tape. The band was smart enough to not shut it down and to encourage people to plug into the board. It created not only sales, but it created community of awesome people.

The Dresden Dolls didn't hire someone on salary to track all this stuff down, although I tried. It was always someone from the community who was, like, I actually care enough about this to do it. Which actually ties back into torrenting and people who want music to exist, and are very happy to share and happy to hook it up.

People who don't want to necessarily go out and use the cutting-edge technology to make all the profit, but actually just want to make music and hopefully get paid, which is most musicians, you run up against this weird ball of artists versus technology.

Getting a bunch of artists to agree to converge their separate islands into one continent is impossible.

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Amanda Palmer at BitTorrent headquarters, December 2013. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

What about albums as apps? How can they change fan engagement with the musician?
Palmer: Seeing albums released as apps seems really interesting to me, but also again seems really limiting. My app, which came out around a year ago, turned into a therapy session. And I didn't guide it, didn't suggest it. But all of a sudden I turned around and the comments section, the community section -- and I think that happened because it was not on the Internet.

It wouldn't have happened anywhere that the general public could come in and pooh-pooh it and snark on it. It happened in a place where it was, like, oh, we're all alone here. We're totally safe, we can talk about our f---ed up problems and our families and our body issues and our suicides and our friends dying and whatever. It was, like, I can't believe what I'm reading, I'd log into my app and it was, like, walking into AA and I'm not even there.

And what does that say to you about the general Internet that it's gotten so muddied and f---ed up and sort of fight-y that people don't open up. LiveJournal used to be a little bit like that, and people would open up a lot, and there's no longer a lot of places to go on the Internet where people are real... they're so afraid of being judged. It's gotten insane.

How do we get people to buy into paying for music all the time?
Palmer: Paying for s--t on the Internet is kind of a pain in the ass.

I psychologically have felt way better about torrenting, downloading, asking my friend to email a ZIP of the artist who is giant and doesn't need the money. I'm going to illegally download Miley Cyrus' new album because clearly going to iTunes and giving her the $10 is not going to make a difference to Miley Cyrus. The artist who is huge doesn't need your community support. If they're rolling up in a limousine, you giving them your hard-earned cash isn't important.

And I think that's kind of a problem because if every audience member of that particular artist felt that way period, that artist would clearly sink. But to me, that gets to the big question: as an audience member, how do you feel about the music you're listening to? What responsibility do you feel to the person whose music you're singing in your kitchen or listening to in your car? What do you feel to that person for having made that music? And what if they're dead?

I grew up in the '80s and it was all simple. I took the bus to the mall and I went to Musicland and I either shoplifted or bought that Depeche Mode record that I wanted, but I never thought about Depeche Mode. I never once in that time thought about how much money Depeche Mode was making. It was just all laid out for me. It was some unknowable, complicated system.

Teenagers now are reading the Internet and know that there's a system behind the system, and need to be educated about whether the musicians are or are not making money, based on that one decision.

Are you making anything off of streaming?
Palmer: Nope. I wasn't expecting to.

An interesting story that I wasn't expecting was when I signed with Roadrunner records. It was the dawn of social media, the dawn of fan forums, we were offered our major record label contract the same year that we bought a CD burner, a tower, one of those toasters that could burn three CDs at a time. Brian [Viglione, Palmer's partner in the Dresden Dolls] and I were sitting in my kitchen and cranking out 100 CDs at a time. We'd sit there all night drinking and listening to music and burning Dresden Dolls CDs and stamping them with cool stamps and putting them in xeroxed artwork and selling them at our shows.

What that meant was that when we were offered a major label contract, I didn't see it as a locked cage. I knew that they weren't going to be able to lock up our content the way that they locked up the content of my forefathers in the millions of interviews that I'd read, where they get to just shelf your record. I knew in the worst-case scenarios, we'd just bootleg our own music.

In a weird way, that's kind of what happened. Because the minute that things went south with the record label and they stopped promoting us, we just took to the Internet with more fury and encouraged our fans to share our music. And they did.

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Amanda Palmer on where social media, the music business, and music itself collide. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Do you think that was a turning point with your fans that they saw that you could get your music out no matter what the record label wanted?
Palmer: No, it wasn't. Because from the very dawn of the band, we encouraged the fans to connect with each other and share our music. It didn't change overnight because we thought it was a clever marketing tactic.

And I think for that very same reason, the fans knew that we were genuine about it and just wanted everyone to share with each other. And it was partly that attitude that made it all possible.

What do you do if you're Zoe Boekbinder, and you love the making of the music, but the idea of being at all involved in its promotion makes you want to die?
Palmer: You have two options, and you take them both. You need social help and crutches and advocates, barkers who are willing to step out in front of your tent and tell people to go in it.

And you also need to accept the fact that part of the agony of being an artist in today's age is connecting. It's never been easy. No introverted artist has ever gotten a free pass, you've always had to do it one way or another. Today it just happens to be prescription X.

How do you discover music?
Palmer: I have a dirty secret. I don't listen to music anymore.

I have friends and the general Internet. Twitter, honestly. If three of my fans on Twitter are like, Amanda I think you'll like this artist, this video, and I know they know me, I'll go look at it. And the music of friends.

But this is the thing: The mainstream has become a niche. And the mainstream -- Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Rhianna, whatever's on the radio, and whatever the mainstream decides to pick up from the underground and transmit -- is only a narrow piece of the spectrum.

Will distribution ever flatten out into one service?
Palmer: Probably not.

One thing that Neil, my husband, is always harping on is the fact that as bad as the major label system was, at least it redirected money and resources and energy back into content creation. Which Apple doesn't do, and Spotify doesn't do, and YouTube doesn't do. As sleazy as those labels were, there was at least a window and a system in which content continued to be supported and created.

Are the problems better or worse than when the labels ruled the ecosystem? It's still a problem of distribution, finding your audience.
Palmer: I don't think there's an answer to that question. I think it's like saying, are people happier in 2013 or in 1756? I think every era has favored certain kinds of artists. Technology and environment have dictated and informed who we listen to and who we like. Is it good, is it bad? It doesn't work that way. We know that. That's like saying, is literature better now than when it used to be? Is science better than when it used to be? It's not better or worse, it just keeps changing.

That's why it's so troubling to see people looking at the music industry so linearly. The music industry isn't dying, music isn't dying. Artists aren't disappearing, everything's in a constant state of flux.

We would do better to actually look at what is changing and respond to it in a positive way, rather than running around like chickens with our heads cut off, saying, it's changed, it's changed, holy f--- it's changed.

What does that mean, to respond to things in a positive way?
Palmer: The biggest overarching thing that's changed is the fall of the middleman. If I was a teenager, if I wanted to get my music out to the masses, I had to work through somebody else. That somebody else wasn't an ISP, it was a music-industry gate, a music-specific gate. We still have bizarre middlemen, gatekeepers, in the forms of Google and YouTube and etcetera. One thing that's really ironic is that when people think that they're totally free. It's not f---ing free! If you're logging on to the Internet and downloading it, paying a service provider and using bandwidth that you don't control, it's not f---ing free -- there's still somebody out there controlling the airwaves. It's just not the way you're used to.

And this is what worries me. Especially with the younger artists. They're just like, I'm totally free! I can do whatever I want!

If you don't protect the freedom that you think you have, you're going to be f---ed. Somebody is still running the traffic, it's just not who your parents are used to.

What should younger artists do?
Palmer: Tour. Meet their fans. Suffer.

Should an amazing artist, who just can't deal with the road, suffer?
Palmer: If you're not willing to go play the music for the people who are willing to [pay for it,] your options are severely limited. There are other options, but they're not easy.

Why do you make art?
Palmer: Honestly, I've been struggling with that question since I married a rich guy. I've had to really face having done 10 years of hustling, hustling, hustling and my band has to make money or I'm f---ed, to all of a sudden I'm married to a rich guy and I have a safety net. That's been very f---ed up for me. First-world problem, fine, but that has changed and confused my approach to things.

I did [made art] because I loved making music and I loved being on stage, and I didn't want another job. I didn't want to have to keep working at the coffee shop, because it was boring. I wanted to do my band. I didn't want to have a s---ty job. The obvious thing to do was to make money writing songs for the band.

I would get confused and irritated when journalists would ask, "why do you make music?" I dunno. Why are you a journalist? I dunno. Something happens, and then now this.

Having a safety net, whether that safety net is that my husband is a rich author or my fan base is so fanatic that I actually feel like I could make totally experimental piano music without merits that I feel I could totally survive.

That question, it never stops. I don't have an answer. I'm glad I don't have an answer. If I had one specific answer, and that answer stayed static, that'd suck. It would be boring.

Getting back to the social capital or being with people, I look back at the 12-year-old Amanda who wanted to be a rock star and wanted to write songs and wanted to play piano because looking at Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, that was, like, that was the best job, it was because I wanted to find a community of people that I liked being with, because I didn't like where I was, I wanted to go there, wherever "there" was...[I]f I strip everything down, take the money away, take the Internet away, take everything away, I want to be with people that I like and that I can talk to and that don't judge me.

It's probably the same for most musicians that I know.

Zoe Boekbinder pointed out that many reporters don't want to talk about how good a musician may be at her music, but that they want to talk about how good she is at the Internet.
Palmer: I suffered that greatly in the last year. I haven't done an interview in the last year that wasn't 90 percent about the Internet and Kickstarter and crowdfunding. And my album, which I thought was great, suffered a deep death at the hands of the Internet.

Do people recording shows on their smartphones change how you perform?
Palmer: Being at shows has its own educational learning curve. I have learned to accept it. I still get irritated at it. I just did a year-and-change-long tour where I crowd-surfed every night. And often, I crowd-surfed into a sea of people, who didn't seem conscious of the fact that I needed their hands to hold my body up, because they were all so fascinated by the image on their phones.

And I started taking their phones, and I think we're all like gaga right now about technology because it's exciting, it's cool, it's exciting that on your phone you can take a really decent picture and share it. But do we need 150 s---ty, blurry pictures of a singer on stage in a badly lit nightclub?

...[W]e know how much social capital and help it provides for a fan in the front row to take a great photo and send it back to us so that we can put it on our blog. That has value, and you don't want to just shut everyone down. A lot of my viral YouTube clips, most of them have been from fans, not some person I hired for $500.

So you want to appreciate it, but at the same time you don't want everybody's experience to be minimized.

What about "community supported music," where fans pay to get a song per month or something similar?
Palmer: I have to [play] devil's advocate. One of the things that musicians don't like, artists don't like, is the idea that they are production machines, and that the way art works is that we put out a thing every month. Artists don't necessarily work that way.

They can, but do you want to be the kind of patron that insists that your artist works in a sort of weird capitalist structure where they have to put out a product like a factory every two weeks to your liking or you're going to take away the money?

As a content creator, what can you give to an audience...some kind of appreciable token of your time and energy? Because something has to happen. If you are a quiet, soulful, very, very introverted banjo player and want to write amazing songs and slip them under the door, probably you're just f---ed. You have to do something, you have to open the door occasionally. And historically, you've always been f---ed.

 

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