Why I played for Amanda Palmer for free

Pricing yourself as a musician is an exhausting but vital lesson, writes BRENDAN MACLEAN in a week in which Amanda Palmer has been roundly criticised for paying musicians in beer, hugs and high-fives. For a full recap of Palmer-gate click here.

Beer, high-fives and thanks was all the contract offered when Amanda “Kickstarter” Palmer moved her focus from money to musicians in her never ending quest to crowdfund the entire planet. Boasting a library of international cult hits as a soloist and as The Dresden Dolls, catering daily to nearly 700,000 Twitter followers and playing God to a fan base no hyperbole can adequately describe, it wasn’t long until she found her players. These “professional-ish musicians”, as she put it, were happy to toot but score no loot, keen to blow but get no dough and other rhyming ways to say play for free.

And it was here, after months of basking in the glory of the most successful online music campaign ever, that questions were raised: Why, if she had indeed hit the generosity jackpot, was she was now unwilling to return the favour? There was an uncharacteristic backlash from her audience so well trained in accepting her unusual routes. Legendary producer Steve Albini labelled her an “idiot” who had “found her audience’s threshold”. A violinist of a prestigious American orchestra added his two cents with an e-mail that began, “Dear Amanda, you ignorant slut…”.

As with most things Palmer-related, the most accessible voice in the conversation is her own. So speaking online with her this week I asked whether or not in hindsight she had asked too much from her fans: “I feel like the fan often over-gives but so do I. It balances out. But [this time] I think our happy little family and ecosystem stepped on a big cultural nerve without meaning too.”

It seems fitting to call it an ecosystem: Her fans are fed by constant responses via twitter, often tweeting back and forth for hours at a time. This, coupled with lengthy and emotional blogs, has seen the Palmer beast grow so large there’s hardly space big enough for it to plant itself without rubbing up a few raw nerves – even if that nerve does happens to belong to Steve Albini.

Putting the fan beast to bed for a minute, would the perfect tour be one where everyone is always paid? “No. I’ve never felt that way,” she says. “The Dresden Dolls and I did a TON of opening for other bands without getting paid. And I’ve sung, danced and played on hundreds of other bands’ stages for no pay. It’s what we do.” In her original response to a fan questioning her musician sourcing method, Amanda notes out that her own low-paying and no-fee gigs have included acts from local school bands to Nine Inch Nails. It’s a path she’s taken herself and that didn’t turn out too bad.

Last year I supported Amanda Palmer at Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club for free. The room was packed, the crowd was all hers, the corsets are a dead giveaway. I was intimidated playing solo before to such a ravenous crowd, but seconds before I was due on, there she was, marching in her kimono with freshly painted eyebrows. She grabbed the mic and proudly bellowed: “Brendan will now start the evening! Listen to him! Buy his CDs! Download him!” I left without a single record in my bag. It was a spectacular evening but on paper I didn’t make a cent (Well, technically the tour manager slipped $50 in my ukulele case.) Amanda offered me the show and I flew from Sydney to Melbourne for one unpaid evening of music. No fee, no travel or accommodation but that night was worth every cent I spent, and I’m thankful for every one I’ve now made back from being exposed to her fanbase.

Whether you’re getting international gigs or playing your local, pricing yourself as a musician is an exhausting but vital lesson. Responding to a request last year it was a friend reading over my shoulder who screamed, “That’s what you’re accepting for a tour? Really?!” And so I doubled my price without the promoter batting an eyelid.

Indie musicians often forget we are a business, and no one is going to give you more cash if you’re known for settling for less. But for me gigs with artists you greatly respect are part of a small list of appropriate times to play music publicly for free. Others include playing for: the first radio station who playlists your music, because you owe them one; charities, because it’ll make you feel good; and your mum, because just shut up and do it.

“You get the feeling Amanda is purposely and lovingly over-giving whenever and however she can.”

Palmer has often called her methods “the way of the future”. However, in an industry that manages to morph and surprise us each decade, we can hardly pin our expectations on an artist who has already gone through the motions of signing to a label, dumping them, touring the globe and coming out on top as champion of the underdog. It’s an anomaly not applicable to your everyday band, or any other band really.

But as Amanda said in our chat, “Internally, and on stage, every time some kerfuffle like this happens it strengthens our community, because we’re forced to stop and define what’s important to us and why we do what we do.” For better or worse, what I think we can learn from this is that an artist’s dedication to communicating with fans can win them the key to peoples’ hearts, wallets and musical talents. Whether it be in the form of a “ninja gig” on the Opera House or giving her street team a moment of glory on The Enmore Theatre stage, you get the feeling Amanda is purposely and lovingly over-giving whenever and however she can.

If your method in music is more a “prepaid fees and contracts” thing than that is obviously a construct that will make everybody monetarily satisfied. But it makes no sense for people to become enraged when fans, who just happen to be musicians, offer themselves to an artist that in their eyes has already offered them so much.

Brendan Maclean is a musician, infrequent radio presenter and will be seen acting in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby if it ever comes out. Follow him @macleanbrendan.