By Erika Meyer
It was suggested I discuss my response to the Amanda Palmer issue in a Collapse Board post. The one where she attempts to “crowd-source” string and horn players for her upcoming tour. Meaning, she’s looking for professional musicians who want to rehearse and play for beer, hugs, high-fives, and merch. Because she “can’t afford” to pay in money. The full story is summarized pretty well here at kotaku.com. And here is the original (GRAND THIEVING IS UNDERWAY) post. In reality, I think many commenters have expressed my feelings better than I could have, especially on Amy Vaillancourt-Sals’ original Letter To Amanda Palmer.
Part of me really wants to focus on the positive – which means ignoring this completely. Part of me knows it’s sheer folly for a musician to ever show anything but pure joy and celebration at any and everything about the music business. Another part of me feels like I have nothing to lose. All I really want is to bring another perspective to the table.
It’s honestly really difficult for me to understand where Ms. Palmer is coming from, not just financially, but philosophically. For example, this interview in the Denver Westword Blog.
We play for each other for free all the time. That’s the way we roll, and any rock musician who says, “I will not walk on stage without getting paid,” you’ll just get a look of extreme mystification from the other rock musicians in the room. It’s just not the way we do business.
Actually I find this statement pretty mystifying. Most rock bands expect to be paid from the door (after the sound engineer and other staff), and split the money between themselves. I know some established rock bands who will not play for less than a guaranteed amount. Negotiating payment is a matter of knowing your band’s worth to a venue, and knowing the worth of a gig to your band. There are situations where bands play for free – but those tend to be benefits and house parties – not supporting a national or international touring act.
However, when you come up against union musicians and classical musicians, they have a different philosophy. And I don’t think it’s an incorrect philosophy, but you’re seeing a collision of two worlds, and I just happen to be standing on the center line.
My understanding is that most classical musicians belong to a union. The union does nice things for them, such as helping them find gigs and get paid fairly. This offer to play for beer and hugs basically undercuts the efforts the union makes on behalf of their members. Not only did it not occur to Ms. Palmer that this approach could backfire, but when it did, she just dug her heels in.
The picture that I see right now is the musicians and artists, especially mature professional ones, are very afraid right now of what is happening because we’re in a recession; giant musical infrastructures are collapsing and everyone is afraid. That’s usually what sparks the hatred.
I don’t feel fear or hatred, but honestly, there are a lot of us who are literally going hungry. So, yeah. This hits a nerve. And for me, the nerve may be extra raw due to a Facebook exchange I had last week with an organizer of a punk reunion show for the old Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco which is going on right now as I write. (I’m sure it’s great fun, too.) This Mabuhay Gardens punk reunion is similar to the Amanda Palmer situation in that money is being taken in at an event centered around musical performance – with (according to the organizers) all musicians receiving no financial compensation.
In these situations, the musicians who don’t want to play for no pay, or who are unable to pay the costs associated with it (gear, transportation, time off the day job, lodging, etc) and who say so, are often shamed. They are accused of not loving their music or their fans enough. They are accused of only caring about money. They are accused of not being punk rock enough. This, to me, is absolutely infuriating. If anything, the organizers of such an event should be the ones feeling shame – shame that they didn’t figure an appropriate compensation into their budgets. Let’s face it – in the United States at least, financial payment is a form of respect. Even a small payment is meaningful in that it shows honor and respect to the art, craft, and commitment of the musician.
More and more it seems that music is the realm of those who can afford to lose money year after year: those who are already well-to-do. And worse, no one (save a few hungry musicians and maybe some long-suffering organizers at the musicians’ union) seems to have a problem with this direction.
Here is how the Mabuhay Gardens reunion exchange went:
ME: Hello… I have a question regarding the Mabuhay Reunion. I hope you can help me straighten it out. I heard a crazy rumor that it’s sold out at $30 a head, that it was sold out within days, and that there is no guest list of any kind, not even for spouses, and many, or even most, of the bands are not going to be paid or have their expenses covered. I have a really hard time believing this last part. It’s not true is it? If it’s true, where would all that ticket money go?
ORGANIZER: Have you ever tried to rent a space in San Francisco for a 2 day event? And equipment and Porto potties? No one is getting paid. No staff, no security etc. This is a labour of love, and whoever made money from punk rock? We have been working on this event for 5 months. Without pay.
ME: Yeah, I do know San Francisco has long been awful for rent!!! That’s cool of the musicians who are able to do it. I do know the dilemma, being a DIY musician myself – we have to cover rent costs for practice space, pay for gear maintenance, transportation, lodging, etc. Still, my fiancée, Chris, has performed several similar punk reunion shows here in Portland with his band Napalm Beach, and they tend to make several hundred dollars per show (after sound and door payouts) at a club with a paid staff and at a much lower door charge.
Regarding punk rock – At some point, punk rockers did grow up and work on their music and hone their craft and when someone original comes back to ROCK THE FUCK OUT at the age of 50 or 60 – it’s worth paying for! – and people DO pay for it, and that’s one reason your show is sold out. You could have switched to a bigger venue and continued to sell tickets, or have reduced the number of bands to make it easier to pay out. I am guessing this is an issue of how many bands were booked in what size venue for how many days. This kind of show should have taken in enough money to pay the bands.
I know you are probably a person who gives a lot to your community, and I hope you’re not offended by my sharing of my opinion. I imagine there are some bands who are just grateful to play, and that some who have decent jobs, and perhaps others are punk monks who even in old age just fly by the seats of their pants. But most musicians I know appreciate a little money in their pockets, even a token amount that doesn’t begin to make up for their lifelong investment.
It’s a mistake to write musicians and band out of the payment equation, and it’s a complete insult to do so when you’re making money off of their work. Stiffing the musicians who make you look good and put money in your hands is not punk rock, and it’s not crowd-sourcing. It’s just old-fashioned exploitation.
Letters from Rosie 9 – Amanda Palmer and the naive sleeping beauty scene kids
10 Questions for Amanda Palmer – Are you simply being penalised for your transparency?
It’s Amanda Palmer day, here at Collapse Board