My Thoughts on Amanda Palmer and Musicians Playing for Free

In the last couple of days I have seen many people posting about the recent controversy involving Amanda Palmer.

On August 21st, Amanda put out a call for volunteer musicians to join her and her band-mates on stage in every city of her tour. She offers to pay them in beer, t-shirts and hugs.

Several news outlets such as Prefix and Digital Music News have published articles either bashing this practice or talking about how people are bashing this practice in light of the huge amount of money she raised using Kickstarter. There are some pretty harsh replies in the comments.

But when I read the articles, I was not outraged. I didn’t see the fault in this request.

I thought from the headlines that I would be upset. After all, I am a musician who has had to play plenty of shows for no pay. Instead I was given the meager compensation of being allowed to operate a merchandise table, sometimes only during my set. I was even asked to play a show this past summer at a very large convention where my perks were so non-existent, I was not even privileged enough to be able to attend the convention!

Needless to say, I turned that one down.

I am lucky that my fans are generous and I usually make enough to cover gas and tolls, and can stash a little away for my next big equipment purchase (I am so close to getting new monitor speakers for the studio!!!)

I get the outrage though. I get that musicians are insulted that somehow people expect them to perform for free while everyone else involved in a production gets paid. I am not sure how or when this started, but it seems pretty common these days.

In fact, a former band-mate of mine, who has a new band and is playing regular (paid) gigs, recently posted a response he wrote to a request for his band to play for free. I might have clapped after reading it. I certainly shared it with anyone who would read it. This is what he posted on his facebook page:

Got an e-mail asking The StraightJackets to play a corporate affair…for free. They promised us “exposure” via their website and videos posted on YouTube that would be far more valuable.

Oh, by the way, they wanted us to bring the PA, too!

My response:

Thanks for contacting The StraightJackets.

Corporate shows start at $1500. Outside shows cost $1000 more because of the added PA necessary.

We will add your event to our calendar which gets THOUSANDS of hits and will add videos from the show to our video page giving you incredible exposure for your product. Literally millions of hits per month. You will have more clients than you have product for. That will more than offset the fee we charge to play for your event.

What…you don’t think that the exposure is worth the money?

Neither do we.

But, we are glad to provide you with this exposure since you have asked us to rehearse until we are good enough to be in demand, buy a full PA big enough to handle an outdoor event, travel to your event, set up our PA, play for your event and entertain your clients and friends, tear down, and load out our gear for you…all for free. I guess you are also wanting us to be skilled, talented, and professional, also for free.

Sorry.

You don’t give your pools away for free and we don’t give our music away for free, especially to corporations. You will be paying someone to pick up the garbage for your event, the least you can do is pay the musicians, too.

Good luck on your upcoming venture.

Stuart

So yeah, if this email got me all riled up, you would think I would be outraged by Amanda Palmer, right? Nope. Why? Because if I was reading Amanda Palmer’s blog, it would be because I was a huge fan. And if one of my favorite musicians gave me the chance to play with her on stage in my home town, I would take it without a thought. Beer, a t-shirt, and a hug as payment? Bonus.

She has a paid band backing her up. This call for volunteers is a way to incorporate her fans into her art. It is something she is known for. There is a reason she has a HUGE following and can do spontaneous shows and pack the place.

The controversy apparently arose from the fact that she raised a huge amount of money from Kickstarter. They wonder if she has all this cash, why can’t she pay these musicians?

I think people are missing the point.

Yeah, she did raise over a million dollars from Kickstarter, but since she breaks down where that money is going in her blog it is clear to see that this money is allocated to her amazing Kickstarter rewards and to creating and distributing the album. It has nothing to do with whether or not she has money left over to pay musicians; she IS paying her touring band. Instead, it is about her fans having a once-in-a-lifetime experience to become a part of her show rather than just watching it from afar.

So yes, I think musicians should be paid, but sometimes you take a freebie because it is something that is so cool, you just can’t pass it up. It might even lead to a future paying gig. There is a big difference between being asked to be the main entertainment for a private party and asking if any fans would like to be a part of their favorite musician’s show.

So you just keep doing what you are doing, Amanda Palmer.

***UPDATE*** (9/20/2012)

Digital Music News posted an article yesterday called Amanda Palmer Agrees to Pay Guest Musicians. The article quotes the blog, but does NOT post a link to it. I always like to read things in their entity, so I searched for it on my own, and now you can read it for yourself.

While searching, I also located a blog from September 14th that further explains Amanda’s personal experiences with volunteering or having to pay her own way, and the benefits she received from it.  For example, I learned about an experience she had with her former band:

“…sometimes even paying for my own travel for the privilege of playing with my idols. (the dresden dolls lost a lot of money in order to travel around opening up for nine inch nails. and good lord, were we grateful to lose that money…it won us a huge bunch of fans).”

Amanda makes many, many good points about how different things work for different artists, no matter how famous or how obscure. I really recommend reading it!

My opinion on the matter still remains that there are situations in which I volunteer my time, and others in which I do not. I guess it depends on whether or not I feel I am being taken advantage of, or if perhaps I am gaining some sort of advantage (even if small) for doing so. Only good can come of her decision to pay these musicians, but I still do not fault her for asking for volunteers. After all, I am in the middle of recording a CD at the moment, and where would I be if I didn’t have musician friends who were willing to work for peanuts?! The good will comes back around, my friends.

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