Thursday, September 13, 2012

Amanda Palmer - Everyone's Mad At Some Chick I Never Heard Of

This One.

Before looking at Facebook today I'd never heard of Amanda Palmer before, but this current pop culture spat highlights some of the points I brought up in yesterday's post.  Apparently she is a musician who raised a whopping $1.2 million on Kickstarter to record a new album. She used that money up, and now is asking if fans want to play with her (unpaid) during shows at various tour stops because she can't afford to hire any more professional musicians. I mean, it seems a little ghetto, but apparently the audacity of this has been getting her crucified by fans, musician's unions, and industry veterans like Nirvana collaborator-in-some-capacity Steve "Made His Career When Music Stores Still Existed" Albini.

The full article is here: New York Times , and Steve Albini's response is outlined here: Albini!

First thing's first: the unions. I suppose I can understand their outrage at something like this. Neither I, nor any of my friends I have or ever have had in bands have ever been members of a musician's union of which I'm aware. I can only assume therefore, doing no research on the matter, that these unions do not consist of a tight-knit affiliation of garage bands writing rock music, but more likely studio musicians, orchestra members, and freelance day jobbers. I get it. They're coming from a world where they're always compensated for playing because they're always playing with/for people who have money. Because they're used to this kind of treatment, they get pissed at people who play for free because they feel it devalues (both monetarily and otherwise) musicians in general. Like I said, I understand the sentiment. However, these people need to understand that they do not live in the same universe as the people Palmer is most likely reaching out to. They're probably not fans of the music, so they obviously would have no incentive to accept the job in the first place. Why then would they get incensed by an offer than in no way applies to them? The article states that Palmer can't afford the $35,000 it would take to hire the three more musicians for the tour, so they're basically complaining that nobody is being paid for a position that wouldn't even exist if nobody volunteered for it.

Think about it in other entertainment related terms: if a magician asks a member of the audience to come up and help him with a card trick, does anyone complain that the volunteer isn't being fairly compensated? After all, they're technically performing a portion of the labor that is necessary for the show to continue. However, that would be a pretty stupid thing to complain about because the volunteer is fully aware that they're not getting any money out of the deal, they're just doing it for the spirit of the event and to be a part of the show. The case is very similar here.

Moving on, its Albini's stance on this matter that really gets to me:
If your position is that you aren’t able to figure out how to do that, that you are forced by your ignorance into pleading for donations and charity work, you are then publicly admitting you are an idiot, and demonstrably not as good at your profession as Jandek, Moondog, GG Allin, every band ever to go on tour without a slush fund or the kids who play on buckets downtown.
This gets us to one of the potentially unforeseen effects of using Kickstarter I was talking about yesterday: apparently to some people, there's a huge fucking stigma attached to it. If you use Kickstarter, you're a pathetic, stupid, deadbeat musician pandering for change, and you need to get out there and be poor like all those obscure people he mentions at the end so that your band can be name-dropped by some asshole for street cred after you die in poverty. In fairness, Albini's Wiki page shows him to be a decidedly non-greedy studio engineer, but come on, would he be where he is today if he hadn't been getting paid with sweet sweet major label dollars while he was working with Nirvana, The Breeders, Helmet, Chevelle, Robert Plant, Fred Schneider, The Stooges, Mogwai, The Jesus Lizard, the Pixies, and PJ Harvey? It must have been nice to come up in the heyday of Tower Records when the Buzz Bin was overflowing and that rock star money was raining in, but things are different now. For a lot of musicians, the money isn't coming from the top down, it's coming from the ground up. Who the fuck is he to call somebody an idiot for cutting major label money out of the equation? God damn it, is this still rock and roll we're talking about?

This is another point I touched on in the other post. The Kickstarter money is raised and the album is recorded, but what about when it runs out before the tour? There's no company to borrow more money from, that's all there is. Don't get me wrong, $1.2 mil is a shitload of money, but its not like she put it in her pocket, she recorded a fucking album. First off, Kickstarter and Amazon take 10%, leaving about $900 grand. Out of that money you can be God damn well sure that plenty of studio musicians got their union-approved rates for the duration of recording. I haven't heard the album, or any of Palmer's music for that matter, but I'm pretty sure she didn't pull a bunch of jug-blowing hobos out of the rail yard and have them play backing tracks for nothing more than a hot meal, so let's get real. People got theirs.

So I can understand why spoiled musician's union members would get all self-righteous about this because they've never had to play for only beer before (as so very many of us have, so very often), and I can see why a guy who's spent his career on the receiving end of a ceaseless tide of big label cash would disapprove of someone getting money directly from the fans (you know, the ones who would have just had to spend money to buy the album anyway), but what I don't get is the reaction from the fans.

Why the FUCK would fans be pissed? Speaking as a fan myself, if Iron Maiden came up to me tomorrow and said, "Oy, mate! We've run outta pounds for our US tour. We need YOU to come up to a show and sit in on the drums for a few numbers. We can't pay you, but you'll get free merchandise, and you can get bloody well pissed with us all night! I mean really knickered!", I would rob a gas station and throw my great grandmother down an open sewer grate to get to that show. Are you fucking kidding me? How could a true fan be anything but honored to share the stage with their idols? Sure, its not as an equal, but let's face it, you're not an equal. You just volunteered, so what can you expect?

And really, that's my point. Amanda Palmer isn't riding into town with a paramilitary junta and taking slaves to play sax for her. She's not (to my knowledge) fucking over the contracts for musicians that are already in place. She simply ran out of money after meeting expenses, and tried to come up with a solution so that the show could go on. She's asking people to play. It's voluntary. If you're too good for that shit, go back to your first chair in the Sioux City Philharmonic or whatever and shut the fuck up. Nobody has a gun to your head. None of you rock pundits out there seem to remember the fact that there are millions of musicians out there at all levels who will never make money or be famous, and many of them may not even want to. But maybe they do want the thrill of playing to a large crowd for once in their lives and sharing the stage with touring musicians, so who the fuck are you to tell them they should be insulted for being asked?

And another thing: Weezer did this exact same thing a few years ago! They had a contest and put a bus full of kids onstage to play Beverly Hills or whatever that stupid song was. I don't remember any media storm about how Weezer was exploiting child labor on their tour. They even have a tour video in Japan where they do the same thing. Why was everyone cool with it then, but now its an outrage? I really don't understand.

Play it right, slaves, or you'll be sorry!

So all in all, even though I've never heard a single note of music from Amanda Palmer, I find the level of criticism going on here absurd. How these critics can sit in their ivory towers and pass judgement like this is ridiculous. If you're a union musician, you don't fucking know what it means to take on risk and self-produce a project. You probably just show up at the venue that pays you, play your parts, go home, and cash your paycheck (because you get a paycheck instead of wrinkled $5's based on the number of friends you brought to the show). So shut the fuck up. If you're an iconic big wig like Albini, granted, you may be a patron fixture of the rock scene, but you also are who you are because bands paid you with corporate money. Money that came from companies that have ruined brilliant musicians financially, and that to this day fight with armies of lawyers to keep song rights away from the very people who created them. How does that give you any moral leverage to call someone an idiot for cutting a few corners while you reference these obscure underground bands who "made it the hard way" from the comfort of your top end studio? So shut the fuck up.

And the fans... how dare you? Who the fuck do you people think you are? This band is on the road to entertain you! They're doing whatever they can to make sure they can play the songs accurately at the show, cause you can be damn sure your ass would be booing if they sounded like shit. They try to make ends meet in a way that's already been done before (Weezer!) but this time its a scandal. How dare they run out of money and ask for help! It makes you wonder why people would bother to dedicate their lives to entertain a bunch of ungrateful pieces of shit who bash you at the first sign that you're not some uber-rich rock star, but just a person making some tough choices to try to keep doing what you love. I'd like to see your asses out there on a 36-date national tour.

News flash: unless your favorite music is auto-tuned pop-country performed by minors, your favorite musicians are getting poorer and poorer. The time of the rock star is over. The time of super groups selling out stadiums is going to be finished within 10 years. You better get used to bands "pleading for donations and charity work" on Kickstarter. Get used to fans on stage, because without them there might not be anyone on stage at all. Trust me, when the "artists" from the Billboard Top 20 are the only ones left with the resources to make music that you'll actually hear about, you might be yearning for the days when Bill the fuckin salesman was up there jamming with Amanda Palmer.

So please, shut the fuck up.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Kickstarter - Maybe Not As Good As We Think?

I've been thinking about Kickstarter for a while now. More specifically, what it means for artists, for fans, and what its impact will be on society as a whole. Make no mistake, the advent of Kickstarter and similar model websites is huge, but time will tell who benefits the most. I'm banking on big corporations, but hey, you know me.

I first heard about Kickstarter about a year ago. Somebody was telling me about this website that allows artists to raise money for their projects. Of course, I was skeptical at first. "Oh, right,"  I thought,  "A website where everyone just gives you free money to achieve your dreams. Sounds legit." However, I researched it a bit more and found that as long as people kept their fundraising goals reasonable, many projects were actually being fully backed. So then, when it came time for my band to record a new CD (having no money as we'd been minus a guitarist for a while and unable to play shows), I thought, what the hell? Let's give it a shot.

So, we got a few friends together, spent about $60, and made an hilariously awesome video: High Council Kickstarter Video . A good time was had by all, but also, it worked! Family, friends, acquaintances, and some guy from France all pledged to the project, and we were able to raise enough money to get it off the ground. I even went on to donate to a friend's band's recording. I thought that this was really going to revolutionize the way that musicians make money, and that it was a very positive thing. I've even heard that Kickstarter projects raised more money last year than the National Endowment for the Arts (but I haven't researched the validity of this).

However, by virtue of the fact that I work at a comic store, I started hearing about companies that already exist running Kickstarter projects, like this one: Reaper Miniatures . The first thing to note about this project is that out of a $30,000 goal, the project raised $3,400,000. This company already has brand name recognition, and by offering an insane rewards package (if you're into the model thing), they secured what I'm willing to bet is the biggest one-time influx of cash that they've ever received in the history of their company. Sounds pretty good, right? I'm not so sure. For the moment, lets overlook the fact that this shit is for nerds. What this company has done in order to fund a new product line is to effectively pre-sell their merchandise directly to customers at pennies on the dollar. Furthermore, because of the sheer quantity of rewards they gave out at such low prices, its highly unlikely that these customers will a) need/want more of it any time soon, or b) ever be willing to pay full retail price at any point in the future when such a glut has been produced (hello Ebay!).

Now, whether intentional or not, this project has most likely cut retail stores like mine out of the equation for the foreseeable future. Why would anyone want to carry this product line when anyone who could possibly have wanted to buy it will already have more than they could ever use upon the moment of its release? Perhaps now this company has unwittingly transformed into an online, direct-to-customers outlet. Or, perhaps they've priced themselves out of their own market, and what really seems like a 3.4 million dollar blessing has burned all of their bridges in the retail world and led the company to die a slow death. Its hard to say, and time will tell.

What this project and others like it further tell us is that Kickstarter seems to have no qualms about letting pre-existing companies create projects. Is developing a new miniature model line an artistic project? Uuuhhh... I guess. I mean, you do need an artist to make that kind of thing. But where is the line drawn? How long will it be before Pepsi runs a Kickstarter to fund a new logo for their 20 oz bottles? That's technically artwork, and it will make Kickstarter an enormous dump-ton of money, so I can see no reason why they wouldn't allow it. Pepsi could then just reward donors with unending gallons of slightly discounted Pepsi, effectively just giving a new venue to just sell the same old stuff. On that line of reasoning, what's stopping political candidates from starting a project to design a new campaign banner, or record a self-congratulatory campaign song? Surely we'll all be rewarded with plenty of bumper stickers, pamphlets, buttons, lawn signs, and all manner of propaganda decorated with the new logo we donated to create. How long will it be before the front page of is simply loaded with pet projects from the advertising branch of every major corporation in the world?

New mascot for McDonalds? Funded! Thanks for the Big Mac coupons. New logo for Shell Oil? Funded! Thanks for the mesh-backed baseball cap. Mitt Romney's Autobiography? Funded! Thanks for the autographed copy that someone else signed. New fuckin raincoat for the Long John Silver's guy? Funded! Thanks for the six piece fish n' chips meal. Isn't art wonderful?

Let's get back to music for a minute before I bring this home, as this is the aspect I care about most. It may seem like I'm kicking a gift horse in face by examining all the negative potentialities of the website that's been very good to me, but its important to understand here that I don't matter. As a musician, I never have and probably never will make any money. I'm looking at the big picture here, the real American dollars. Back in the day, it worked like this:
  1. Record label signs you.
  2. Record label lends you enough money to record an album.
  3. Record gets released and they promote it. You hope it sells enough copies to pay them back with some money left over for yourself.
  4. You go tour to promote the album to help it sell enough copies to pay back the record label, and hopefully make some money for yourself.
That was how rock stars were made. The ones that made the company money were the ones who lived the life. These days, with the advent of Kickstarter, it might look something like this:

  1. You make a Kickstarter to fund your album.
  2. You hit your goal and get the money. Hooray!
  3. You use all the money to record the album and create/ship all your rewards to the donors.
  4. There's no record company to pay back. From here on out, it's all profit, baby!
Or is it? Even if you are a recognized musician or band, chances are that your Kickstarter goal didn't include funding for a national scale promotion campaign. Are you ever really going to be able to reach as many people as you could have with the record labels? In addition, what's the post-Kickstarter incentive for people to buy your album? If you're a real fan, you probably already donated and received the album plus some kind of bonus track, live recording, T-Shirt, etc, etc that the band offered as a reward. At this point, the only people left are probably the ones who are just going to pirate the album anyway. Its true that you're not in debt to anyone, and don't get me wrong, that's great, but the opportunities for you to actually make a living off of that album might be greatly reduced. Musicians might have to start adding personal compensation to the total dollar amount of the goals they set on Kickstarter, and that could make some of the goals unreachable.

In any case, Kickstarter is still very young, and its too early to gauge the long term effects it will have on music and the economy in general. However, once it gets big enough to show up on Corporate America's radar, you can be sure that things will change. I believe this site was started with good intentions, and in practice it has raised a lot of money for legitimate artistic projects. It has also produced a lot of shocking, million-dollar grand slams that can't help but raise the eyebrows of those who are keenly aware of how to profitably exploit such things. Yes, Kickstarter may have hatched as an indie, artist friendly hub to fuel our imaginations, but by the time its fully grown we could be looking at a website full of commercials that's just another place to do our online shopping.