'Volunteer Corps': Albini weights in... does David Byrne too?
This week, Amanda Palmer started her recruiting the "orchestra" members of her Grand Theft Orchestra Tour with an announcement: she'd be drafting "professional-ish" quality horn and string players locally at each gig. "We will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make."
Let's be clear about something: Amanda Palmer did not invent the notion of paying musicians in drink tickets and a good hang.
Palmer fell under fire for her pay structure regardless, and for a few reasons.
According to the New York Times, the Boston-based songwriter will be paying her three regular touring members, but still wants seven or eight unpaid performers for each night: a string quartet and three or four saxophone players.
The songwriter made headlines earlier this summer for raising a record-breaking $1.2 million through Kickstarter, to make and promote her next new record "Theatre Is Evil." That album bowed on Tuesday and Palmer claims those funds were used in promoting and marketing and creating the set.
She also said that paying seven or eight musicians for three dozen tour dates would amount to $35,000, which she does not have or has not delegated or does not want to delegate. Plus, she told the Times, "If you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument would become invalid. They’re all incredibly happy to be here," she said. “If my fans are happy and my audience is happy and the musicians on stage are happy, where’s the problem?”
Not all of her fans are happy, and some have thought the move was unfair to musicians. Musicians Unions are not happy, saying her recruiting method devalues working musicians' work.
But, indeed, many of her fans are fine with the move: the $1.2 million is evidence of their loyalty and acceptance of this other type of "crowdsourcing."
Palmer's path -- even when she was on Roadrunner -- has always been unique, and these days, firmly DIY. Her music isn't my cup of tea, but I admire her enterprising and intimate connection with her fans. In my interview with her in 2010, she admitted to the tendencies of her "hardcore" fans, and then the need to recapture new fans' attentions after an album drops.
It's more than just the hardcore fans that will make the Grand Theft Orchestra Tour successful. And have no doubt: it will be really, really successful.
And that's where I break with her decision. Her logic says that her rotating mini-orchestra should get paid $0 or $35,000, and suggested no number in between. But Palmer is going to kill this tour. Murder it dead. She's playing mid-sized ballrooms and theaters, and she will sell many of them out. And she will have $35,000 and then some to spare by the end of it.
If Palmer says it took $1.2 million to make this album, sure, fine, it's totally fine. Blow it on catering and payroll. The math may bother me, but spending it on what she wants doesn't bother me, and I don't think the many fans that paid to make her album "possible" would disagree. But it's misleading to say that at the end of this tour, she can't afford to pay her players, even if $35k is high.
In her Tumblr, she noted the "poetic placement" of an article about David Byrne was next to her Times article. David Byrne even name-checked Palmer in his article, "as an example of someone who creatively crowdsources things," she posted. Plus: "when david byrne guested with the grand theft orchestra a few months ago at the music hall of williamsburg, we paid him…in beer."
Halt. Stop right there. I think Amanda Palmer knows that David Byrne is compensated for his music, and deserves to be. David Byrne played Palmer's show for a drink token not just because he likes Amanda Palmer, but because of a little something called good will. Generosity. Good will and generosity helped to raise $1.2 million, and not solely just because people like her previous albums.
To answer Palmer's question "where's the problem?", I'd say the move, more than anything, is tacky. Palmer could have listed "Play with my band" as one of the "rewards" for donating to her album fund. She, instead, experienced the love and generosity of her hardcore fanbase's outpouring of good will and vibes, and then dipped into the pot again, in a very public and tactless way. Her fans' exceptionalism is no excuse.
There are musicians and Amanda Palmer fans who would love the exposure and the fun of playing with her. There are musicians and Amanda Palmer fans who would love to play with her, but believe they deserve to get paid. Those who will play for free will get the gig, whether or not they are better players than those who decline the opportunity (and, at that, the lottery). Palmer will value you as an "Orchestra" member if you play for free, so what does that say about how she values all performers and touring artists, beyond how happy they are?
Chronic crank and brilliant record engineer Steve Albini, in his discussion online at the Electrical Audio board, used the word "waste" toward what happened with Palmer's Kickstarter fun. Furthermore, I'd call this tactic a waste of good will. Of course some of her hardcore, professional-ish fans would play for free. That doesn't mean she should let them.