Sunday, 16 September 2012

Amanda Palmer and the Great Orchestra Swindle

This post is the first of two that will examine the use of unpaid artists and interns in the arts industry. Here, I look at the recent controversy surrounding Amanda Palmer's decision to use unpaid string and horn players on her Grand Theft Orchestra tour; the second post will look at the wider issues around employment in the UK, and the problems of asking people to work for free.

I have placed this post under a jump because it's quite long, so I suggest you make yourself a cup of tea before you start.

Losing a band or musician in your life can sometimes feel like the end of a relationship – even, in extreme cases, a bereavement.

I won't bore you with lengthy accounts of my grieving process when some of my favourite bands broke up, or musicians I love died or announced their retirement. I just wanted to put that fact out there, because it's important for what I'm going to say next. And my next statement is addressed to one Amanda Palmer.

Amanda, we need to break up. It's not me, it's you.

I've followed your career for a long time, Amanda. I saw you live as part of the Dresden Dolls at that tiny weird cinema show you did in Edinburgh in 2006. I have all the Dresden Dolls albums, and I cried when you and Brian Viglione parted ways. I was overjoyed when you announced your solo career; I devoured the concept art for Who Killed Amanda Palmer, and I love the album. It's one of the best works by a solo female artist of its time, and there's not a shortage of solo female artists these days.

And then you did Evelyn Evelyn, and things began to change.

Look, every artist does work that's controversial. Sometimes that edge to a piece works, and sometimes it doesn't. Lots of people loved Evelyn Evelyn. I found it pretty gross, to be honest. We can argue till the cows come home about disablism and what have you, and I know you don't buy that the album is problematic (though we'll come to that in a minute). If nothing else, I found the idea of actively misleading your substantial audience into believing, until the last moment, that you and Jason Webley actually were this pair of conjoined twins kind of ethically dubious – at best, it's a pretty limited gimmick, and at worst it's exploitative of people who genuinely are conjoined twins.

I think you made a mistake with Evelyn Evelyn. Regardless of what you think, you offended a lot of people. When FWD – Feminists with Disabilities respectfully pointed out that the project was perhaps in poor taste, Jason Webley apologised, and you went on Australian TV and squawked about how disabled feminists were “crucifying” you. You also essentially sic'd your entire fanbase on some pretty vulnerable people, which is not cool.

There was also the fact of the story, which read kind of like A Series of Unfortunate Events reimagined by Frank Miller. Again, the repeated employment of rape and child abuse as a narrative device for the sole purpose of shocking people is exploitative and made a lot of us feel icky. As an abuse survivor, did this seriously not cross your mind at any point?

Then, after that, you recorded Do You Swear to Tell the Truth..., at the start of which you use a quote from Fuck Tha Police by NWA. Great song. Good quote. Except it's not about you, Amanda. It's about the mistreatment that black people endure at the hands of the US criminal justice system, and you turned it into a song about your success – complete with the refrain “you can bet your black ass that I'm going to”. I'd like to be optimistic here, and say “I hope you understand how this could be seen as throwing your black fans and other fans of colour under a bus”, but judging by your reaction to criticism for Evelyn Evelyn, it seems unlikely that you would.

When you released Map of Tasmania with Young Punx, I almost dared to hope that the old Amanda was back, but now there is Grand Theft Orchestra. And with that, I'm afraid you've lost me.

For those not in the know, Amanda Palmer is not signed to a record label. Her latest album, Theater Is Evil, was funded via Kickstarter, and thanks to Amanda's popularity it raised in excess of a million dollars – far more than what she had originally budgeted for the project. And yet, somehow, there was no money left to take a full band of horn and string players on tour with her. More on that story here, where the maths is done. So she asked professional level musicians to play at each location with her for free.

Amanda, it must seem odd that, of all the things you've done that I disagree with, this should finally push me out of your fan base, so let me explain. I am a semi-professional musician. My musicianship has come at the price of 18 years of singing lessons, one year at conservatoire, many hours of personal practice, and a hell of a lot of hard work trying to establish myself anywhere in order to get paid. As a singer, I regularly get asked to pay not inconsiderable sums of money in order to perform at this thing I have dedicated much of my life to. It's not a sustainable way of getting new talent into the music industry at any level, because it excludes people who can't afford to perform for free. It’s common practice, for sure, but much like unpaid internships, that doesn’t make it ethical or a good idea. And you specifically asked for volunteers on the grounds that you "couldn't afford" musicians, not because you thought that it would be neat to work with some musicians on the ground where you tour. The latter would have been kind of a cool idea.

You, of all people – an independent, self-funding musician – should know this. And still you ask. And lots of people have volunteered, because they love you that much. For all your flaws, you have a loyal and dedicated fan base who will gladly do for free what they should get paid for. What gives you the right? Couldn’t you use some of your considerable excess to pay them *something*? $30 each, even?

For further context, I have also done a performance project paid for through crowdfunding. Most of the money we got went on the venue, which meant that we got the ticket sales to play with, and as a result, everyone on the project is getting paid. They’re not getting anything like as much as they would from a full professional production with sponsorship money (and neither am I), but they are getting a tangible reward for their considerable efforts. If I can do that with £1,250, you can do it with $1.2million. Or you could, if you cared enough.

I probably sound bitter. In a way, I feel almost personally betrayed by Amanda Palmer. I was so excited when she split off from the misogynistic assholes responsible for her contract at Roadrunner Records. From where I was sitting, it looked like she and Trent Reznor essentially wrote the book on how to self-start as a musician - and unlike Trent, Amanda didn't have a 10-year multi-million dollar recording career behind her. She communicated constantly with her audience via Twitter and her blog, organised secret gigs, ran live chat sessions, engaged with the body positivity movement, and now it looks like her professional integrity has just vanished. She's becoming another of those stereotypical musicians who find success and lose their soul. It's not even selling out – there's no reason to believe that she's making masses of money out of this. She's simply been swallowed by her own hype.

There’s a discussion to be had here about continuing to like things that are problematic. I don’t stop consuming media just because it happens to be far from the political ideal. I still listen to classic rock. I still listen to Smashing Pumpkins even though I can’t stand Billy Corgan. I still watch movies with Sean Bean and Sean Connery in them even though they’re known or suspected to be domestic abusers. I still watch Coupling even though Steven Moffat has, to quote his own show, “the sexual politics of a Viking attack”. For me, awareness that these things are problematic helps to keep me from internalising their oppressive messages. But it is that quasi-personal feeling of crushing disappointment that makes me want to take a step back from Amanda Palmer. In a way, it makes it worse to know how much better she could have been.

Amanda, I wish you all the best. Maybe one day you'll have a moment of clarity, and if it happens I'll be back at your side again. But right now, it's over.

1 comment:

  1. I gave AFP a fairly substantial sum of money for the Kickstarter campaign, and went to the backers' gig in London. The fact that some of the supporting artists weren't paid bothered me, but what bothered me more was that she seemed to take them for granted, at least on stage. If someone were doing something like that for me, for free, I'd like to think at least I'd put a decent amount of effort into showing my gratitude to them publicly, to putting their names out. Perhaps her and the GTO were massively grateful backstage, but it didn't show to me in the audience.

    Claiming she's doing this because she can't afford it seems massively disingenuous to me. Possibly, now, she can't, but she certainly could have done if she'd wanted to.

    The Dresden Dolls' first album was the first album I ever bought, and like you I'd hoped things would improve after Evelyn Evelyn with the advent of the Grand Theft Orchestra and the Kickstarter campaign. Sadly, apparently not.