Monday, October 29, 2012

Nothing But Trouble: Amanda Palmer and the Gift Economy

Over in my column at the Clyde Fitch Report, my piece on the recent Amanda Palmer controversy has reportedly set a record for the most widely read article since the website's relaunch this past summer.

For those of you who are unfamiliar: Amanda Palmer is the musician, songwriter, and performance artist who used to front the Boston-based punk-cabaret, duo The Dresden Dolls. After breaking with her record label over reasons that I don't cover in the article, she decided self-produce, mobilizing her fan-base to crowd-fund her new album, tour and other related projects to the tune of US$1,192,793 (she had only asked for $100,000.)



Though the amount was itself record breaking, the fundraising scheme is not what was at the center of the controversy, websites like Kickstarter have become a means by which arts patronage has been democratized, and simply fulfills the promise that the internet has offered in bridging the gap between the working artist and his or her fans and customers.

What was controversial was Palmer's (since rescinded) request that while on tour with her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, musicians in selected cities should play in her string and horn sections with only beer, high-fives, hugs, and swag as payment. Depending on to whom she was addressing, she either claimed that this was an experiment, something she was doing for her fans, part of her determining her own way of conducting her business, or simply that she could not afford to pay musicians.

Ultimately, the position one takes on this controversy depends on where one draws the line between the gift-economy and the market economy and whether or not you believe the line needs to be redrawn when one individual has the sort of star power to be simply handed $1.2 million by her fans:

The upshot is that musicians were unpaid when it was convenient and paid when it was seen as necessary, also claiming that when musicians were not being paid, that they were happy with the situation. She further responded to her critics by noting the times she had played for free, or had famous musicians sit in with her and concluding that “YOU HAVE TO LET ARTISTS MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS ABOUT HOW THEY SHARE THEIR TALENT AND TIME” with the implication that there was an equal playing field between an artist who is capable of raising over a million dollars from enthusiastic fans and one who may very well be struggling to make ends meet. The underlying argument was that the market (that is the employer, that is Amanda Palmer) should set the wages and working conditions and everyone should be happy for the opportunity to play with Amanda Palmer no matter their pay-scale. Shockingly, it is the same argument that free-market libertarians make against labor unions and health and safety regulations. It was also quite at odds with her decision to perform Leon Rosselon’s song The World Turned Upside Down at an October 6, 2011, Occupy Boston event.

Disclaimer: I do not claim to know Palmer well, but I traveled in some of the same circles for many years, and even performed in a few of her projects.


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