TOWARD a new economy of art

- AMANDA PALMER: THE TRUTH ABOUT CROWDFUNDING & the stalls of exchange-

        The Dresden Dolls have never had a pop radio hit and likely never will. But this punk-cabaret duo "specializing in tear-jerking seven minute songs with drum solos" has a lead singer who managed to raise $1.2 million dollars in backing from a crowdfunding campaign- the largest music crowdfunding success to date

 

        The music industry, in perhaps its greatest transitional crisis of all time, is battling to find ways to get people to pay for music in an age of piracy and digital access.  Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls decided to give away all of her music for free. In exchange, she asked her audience for help. Palmer tells us that we have been obsessed with the wrong question. It's not how do we get people to pay for music but how do we let people pay for music. This punkster says, for her, it was a matter of just asking. Born from her TED talk (currently has over 8 million views), Palmer's book The Art Of Asking  tells the story of the greatest crowdfunding success the music industry has ever seen. 

 

    Palmer's kickstarter campaign asked for $100,000 (an amount reached within 24 hours)and ended up with a backing of $1.2 million from 25,000 backers in. That is roughy an average of $40 per backer. How does a street-performer gone punk artist have a fanbase of 25,000? Palmer's answer: Authenticity and long, hard work in relationship building. The book The Art of Asking doesn't promise that this model will work for every artist. Nor does it promise a million  dollar fanbase. What it does say, however, is that crowdfunding in general can work. It might not million dollars work, but work it will. Paramount to her success is Palmer's insistence that we change the way we understand crowdfunding and "asking" for support. Palmer insists we consider crowdfunding a model of fair exchange, instead of charity; thus, creating a dialogue; a transaction, the value of which is determined wholely by the patron. Palmer's critics seem to miss the purpose of her book, assuming it is a how-to for all kickstarter aspiring money-makers. To Palmer, what's important is not setting up a recipe for cashflow but the politics of how we "ask." Palmer writes, "The very existence of crowdfunding has presented us all with a deeper set of underlying questions: How do we ask each other for help? When can we ask? Who's allowed to ask?" (2).  She continues, "Asking for help requires authenticity, and vulnerability. Those who ask without fear learn to say two things, with or without words, to those they are facing: I deserve to ask and You are welcome to say no. Because the ask that is conditional cannot be a gift (303). Palmer's book describes how one's personal and professional life can inspire an entirely alternative approach to microeconomics, crowd-funding, ethics and sustainability in the arts. It's a fantastic portrayal of the many big conversations today regarding the life cycles in the economies of art and services. Little did she know, that it would all start as an alabaster clad street performer on a milk crate, collecting dollars form passersby.

Integral also to her novel is the clearing up of many misconceptions regarding crowdfunding in general; namely, that a good product or service will inherently yield a financial return. Delivering a product or service, excellent though it may be, does not mean the the public will instantly recognize its value and pony up for it. Think of all the community-service based projects promising to clothe or feed the derelict, scratching for legitimacy by $5 increments. So how do you get people to care enough to contribute? This part, she claims, takes years, decades of relationship building. For Palmer, her kickstarter success is owed entirely to her alternative relationship with her fanbase.  Palmer writes, "My 'special relationship' with my fans wasn't some shtick that i came up with at a marketing meeting . . . [M]y fanbase has been like one big significant other to me, a thousand-headed friend with whom I have a real, committed partnership. . . We share our art with one another. They help me run the business by feeding me constant information. . . They bring me food and tea at shows when I'm sick. I visit them in hospitals and make videos for their friends' funerals. We trust one another" (89) . This fan and artist network (Palmer calls this The Net) becomes a playful, endearing expression of her art, entwined within it.  

 

       "There was no distinction between fan and friends(91)," she tells us, and "In the early days, we talked to people for as long as they wanted, about whatever they wanted. Once we started touring internationally, these signings would sometimes last longer than the show itself" (102). She continues, "Managing the band meant making friends with other freaks in other cities, finding performers to share the stage with, lining up couches to crash on, chasing down a gallery where a friend was hanging paintings and was happy to have a band play at the opening" (91). . . "Sometimes if we didn't have a place to crash, we'd just ask form the stage. HANDS UP IF YOU CAN LET US SLEEP AT YOUR HOUSE TONIGHT. We'd thank our hosts with CDs, T-shirts, tour stories, and our endless gratitude" (99). 

 

       To say the least, Palmer took these relationships seriously, maintaining email relationships with her fans.  "It was like having an infinite number of pen pals, and I eventually despaired when, after a few years, the number of emails coming in was more than I could keep up with. It made me feel like a bad friend" (115). She admits, though, "We got a lot of fan mail. Some of it was hate mail, and we built a special page on our website to feature the worst of it" (112). Palmer's hyper-transparency was effective for her as it complimented the intimate nature of her songwriting.

 

       All of these slow building relationships, a widening circle of friends, Palmer refers to as a net, but not in the economic sense. "It has to start with the art," she writes, "The songs had to touch people initially, and mean something, for anything to work at all.  . . The art, not the artist, is what fundamentally draws the net into being. The net was then tightened and strengthened by a collection of interactions and exchanges I've had, personally, wether in live venues or online, with members of my community . . . Nobody can do that work for me- no Internet marketing company, no manager, no assistants" (121). Palmer spend a lot of time caring and building connections and found the true pleasure of her work in seeing those relationships sustain and grow amongst other fans. This way of building a fanbase "seemed more effective than going out there and hollering on the radio to a group of unknowns, hoping to be heard by someone who might like us."

 

         Palmer compares this approach to that of Major Record Labels where each CD or ticket purchase stands alone as another ching in the register. "We were far more interested in serving our slowly growing, tight-knit community of weirdos than we were in topping the charts" (123). Effective crowdfuding is "not about relying on the kindness of strangers, it's about relying on the kindness of your crowd. . . There's a difference" (244). "There's years and years of authentic work, tons on non-monetary exchanges . . Then one day, the artist steps up and asks for something. And if the ground has been fertilized enough, the audience says, without hesitation: of course. But it isn't magic. That first part can take years. Decades." (235).

 

This is the essence of crowdfunding. For Palmer, it's about "finding your people, your listeners, your readers, and making art for and with them. Not for the masses, not for the critics, but for your ever-widening circle of friends" (222).

 

// The very existence of crowdfunding has presented us all with a deeper set of underlying questions: How do we ask each other for help? When can we ask? Who's allowed to ask?  //

// Like Amanda, I have learned that the best way to find light in the darkness is not by pushing people away but by falling straight into them. // 

                                          - Brene Brown, Foreward


The second misconception we read about is the notion that any crowdfunding effort amounts to little more than digital pan-handling. Some argue that if a service or product cannot sustain within the market, private donors shouldn't rush in to save them.  Shouldn't business productivity and profitability improve only when profits accurately reflect consumer desire? This controversial point has been belaboured by economists since the signing of the Declaration of Independence- the same year Adam Smith wrote about it in The Wealth of Nations and branded our notion of  free market capitalism. But, what if that machine is broken?  Can we rely on major record labels to find what consumers want? Palmer's answer is emphatically, no. She all but tells us where to shove that invisible hand.  

 

       It's never been easy for an artist, carrying your work through the stalls of exchange. But must it be embarrassing as well? Nowadays "a lot of apples get chucked at artists who try to get help through crowdfunding: Stop self-promoting. It's Shameless! (223). Crowdfunding isn't charity, as some people seemed to think, "My backers were buying things . .  It was a means for implementing a business model based on the currency of asking and trusting" (237). Instead, our writer explains that Asking is, at its core, a collaboration. Begging, by contrast, is "a less-connected demand: Begging can't provide value to the giver; by definition, it offers no exchange" (52). Begging is a function of fear, desperation, or weakness. Asking, on the other hand, "is an act of intimacy and trust" (52). In a particularly didactic moment, she writes, "Those who must beg demand our help; those who ask have faith in our capacity for love and in our desire to share with one another . . . Honest communication engenders mutual respect, and that mutual respect makes askers out of beggers" (52).

 

        Amanda Palmer is many things: a punk goddess, loudmouth, piano player, a vanguard perhaps, provocateur. But a pop star, she is not. The "Star System," coined by S. Rosen, is where a small handful of artists in the market earn a major part of its earnings (i.e. the Taylor Swifts and Beyonces). The Taylor Swifts and Beyonces charge only slightly higher prices than all the not so famous, but sell much higher quantities. Thus, making more money to become or maintain their status as a "star." Palmer's project takes a whole other route, opting for fewer buyers at a higher price point. 

 

        Take for example Palmer's experience with a major record label. The Dresden Dolls recorded their second album. This one was going to be the "one that made them big," the record company promised. The first week, 25,000 people bought the record. The Dresden Dolls were beyond ecstatic. But "the label was not so quick to celebrate. When the second week of sales didn't surpass the first week, they phoned to say they were cutting the entire promotional budget for the record . . . The album was considered a failure" (133).

 

       Once dropped from the label, The Dresden Dolls created a Kickstarter campaign asking for $100,000 to produce an album. Four hours later, $1,000. Terrified, Palmer went to bed. With Kickstarter, if you don't get the asked amount, you don't get any of it. What is the amount pledged is under the ask? How will she pay everyone back?

 

       In 24 hours, it had cleared $100,000. Near a month later, the pledged amount cleared $1 million. In celebration, Palmer uploaded a nude photograph with the caption, "I'm all yours." The most astonishing thing wasn't the number of dollars, Palmer writes, "It was the number of people: There were just under twenty-five thousand backers- Almost the exact number of sales that had constituted a failure in the eyes of the label" (237).

 

         The music industry still maintains a classical approach to managing artists and their finances. The music industry is known for separating the artist and the patron: musicians have agents, managers and marketing teams. Similarly, the music itself isn't priced according to the talent or fame of the artist. You can buy a song on iTunes from Radiohead at the same price as you can the garage band down the street on songkick. We see this as far back as the English Pre-Raphaelites in the 1800's. Their spokesman, Ruskin, argued for a "child-like, innocent position of the artist, who should not get involved in the business of art."  Rather than maintaining distance from the business, Palmer wants to dive deep into it and push it aside so she can focus on the relationship with the consumer- the aspect of art she finds the most valuable. Not that Ruskin's child-like innocence could ever describe the Amanda Palmer her audience knows and loves. It's pretty hard to pin the tag of innocence on a woman with shaved eyebrows, a corset and combat boots wailing on stage pounding on a piano about her inner most secrets. 

 

        Similarly, Ruskin wanted the prices of art to be low, "preferably pegged to the actual time spent by an artist on the production." To put this another way, Ruskin advocated that art production be a form of wage labor. Palmer's novel expresses a frustration with art production as wage labor. For her, the value of art is more than the time it takes and the materials involved. But Palmer goes so far to say that, when it comes to asking fans for money, it doesn't matter how much time or what materials are required to make the art. Assume the art is the lifestyle, fund the lifestyle in whatever amount you feel comfortable. So long as the product promised is returned, it shouldn't matter what happens in between. 

 

        Palmer writes, "If you're asking your fans to support you, the artist, it shouldn't matter what your choices are as long as you're delivering your side of the bargain. You may be spending the money on guitar picks, mai tais, baby formula, college loans, gas for cars, or coffee to fuel your all-night writing sessions. As long as art is coming out the other side and making  your patrons happy, the money you need to live- and "need to live" is hard to define- is almost indistinguishable from the money you need to make art" (177)

 

          Palmer's book is not a manifesto. Nor is it without a certain caustic humor.  "If Beck needs to moisturize his cuticles with truffle oil in order to play guitar tracks on his crowdfunded record, I don't care that the money I've fronted him isn't going toward two turntables or a microphone. Just as long as the art gets made, I get the album, and Beck doesn't die in the process" (178).  Palmer is the first to remind us that when it comes to art, the relative values are messy, and that Art and Commerce have never been easy bedfellows. However, reconsidering the rules of engagement offer a promising future for burgeoning artists. The conflicts inherent in "mashing together artistic expression and money don't go away, they just change form"(223). But it's this form that is molded by the consumer and the artist symbiotically.  The art of asking "can be learned, studied, perfected . . . The masters of asking, like the masters of painting and music, know that the field of asking is fundamentally improvisational. It thrives not in the creation of rules and ettiquette but in the smashing of that etiquette" (49).   

 

         It's high time to reconsider the assumptions we have made about the economy of art. The Art of Asking implores us to forget where the rules come from and to create our own. And if you can't  figure out what rules to create, start by smashing the ones that have been forced upon you- And dare to do it differently. 


Curated sections from the art of asking

Hiding in the lines of each anecdotal splendor, Palmer's books leaves her readers with something akin to advice for the rising artist. Curated from the novel, below are some words from Palmer on aspiration, success and hard work. 

On Imposter Syndrome & The Fraud Police:

 

The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of 'real' grown-ups who you believe- at some subconscious level- are going to come knocking at your door in teh middle of the night, saying 'We've been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU'RE DOING. You stand accused of teh crime of completely winging it, you are guilty of mkaing shit up as you go along, you do not actually deserve your job, we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY (43).

 

"When are you going to grow up and get a real job, and stop fucking around? What makes you think you deserve to earn money playing your little songs to people? What gives you the right to think people should one shit about your art? When are you going to stop being so selfish and start doing something USEFUL...?

 

If you take all those questions and turn them into statements, they look like this: Artists are not useful. Grown-ups are not artists. Artists do not deserve to make money from their art. "Artist" is not a real job" (76). 

 

On Becoming an artist:

 

There's no "correct path" to becoming a real artist. You might think you'll gain legitimacy by going to art school, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it's all bullshit, and it's all in your head. You're an artist when you say you are. And you're a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected (43). 

 

On Various forms of exchange:

 

These are new forms of patronage, and it's messy; the artists, and the patrons, are making up the rules as they go along. But whether these artists are using crowdfunding ("front me some money so that I can Make A Thing!"), subscription services ("pay me some money every month so I can Make A Thing!'), or pay-per-piece-of-content pledge services ('pay me some money every time I Make A Thing!'), the fundamental building block of all these relationships boils down to the same, simple thing: trust.

 

On Twitter:

 

Twitter is the ultimate crowdsourcing tool for the traveling musician; it's like having a Swiss Army knife made up of a million people in your pocket (190).

 

On Taking advantage of resources:

 

I've been called the "Queen of DIY," but . . . I think a better definition might be UWYC: "Use What You Can. It is, unfortuantely, not a  very catchy term. Everybody has access to different tools, people, resources, situations, opportunitiies. If you're privileged enough to have a family well-off enough to loan yuo money for your first recording? TAKE IT. If you have a friend with a shack on teh beach who's ofering you a quite place to write? TAKE IT. There's really no honor is proving that you can carry the entire load on your own shoulders. And . . . it's lonely (100). 

 

Effective crowdfunding is not about relying on the kindness of strangers, it's about relying on the kindness of your crowd. There's a difference" (244).

 

On Public scorn and reputation: 

 

We got a lot of fan mail. Some of it was hate mail, and we built a special page on our website to feature the worst of it. I hand selected some choice excerpts . . . The hate mail page became the most heavily trafficked spot on our website. People started writing me to thank me for being brave enough to display the nastiness. But I didn't feel brave; it felt like the only option, the only way I could deal with the pain. I still practice this same style of Internet jiujitsu to this day: I grab the hate and air it out, try to laugh at it, and share it back out into the world, so it doesn't eat me alive." (113) . . . The blog (Which I titled "On Internet Hatred: Please Inquire Within") still lives online and now has more than two thousand comments. Every time someone reads it and adds their own story, the net continues to tighten . . .The blog started feeding my songwriting: (129).

 

On Listening to your fanbase:

 

Instead of selling that record straight from one of our websites, we decided to r using Kickstarter, which indie artists were just starting to use as a way to finance and ship records. I chatted constantly online, and listened to input and feedback form the fans. If they wanted high end lithograph posters, I made high-end lithograph posters. If they wanted 180-gram vinyl, I made 180-gram vinyl. If they wanted Things- pillowcases wth hand-drawn art on them, T-shirts that came in gray in size XXXL- I made the Things. The only department where I wasn't open to input was the writing, the music itself. That's my job, not theirs, but i tried to involve them in eery other facet of the new world of independent artist-hood. (163).