Former Hüsker Dü front man Bob Mould writes in his autobiography See A Little Light, "Indie rock culture wasn't invented on the Internet, or in Williamsburg, Brooklyn." Back in the day, the independent hardcore punk rocker traded information about fellow like-minded artists, labels, and indie-musician friendly places to play through word-of-mouth and spiral-bound notebooks filled with data gathered while on tour.
Flash forward 30 years or so to what may be one of the most frightening and exhilarating times to be an independent musician. For better or worse, with the tools we now have at our disposal, it's easier than ever to create, promote, and distribute a fully realized piece of music and build a community of fans, be it 20 or 20,000 people. Artists from all genres of music, not just indie-rock, are using these tools to survive and in some cases, thrive.
Singer, songwriter, and blogger Amanda Palmer, who as one half of The Dresden Dolls once opened for fellow independent and Internet-savvy musician Trent Reznor, is dragging indie-rock kicking and screaming into the 21st century. She is praised as both a "social (as in social media) musician for the crowd-sourcing era, and damned, in her own words, as "a force of evil who is miseducating the public to think that music should be free.”
The proverbial shit hit the fan this month when Palmer put out a call via her blog to enlist the volunteer services of "professional-ish" horn and string players in each city where her tour to support Theatre is Evil is stopping.
In June, Palmer became the first musician to raise more than one million dollars using the online platform Kickstarter. Her campaign began as a call to fans to help crowd fund the release and facilitate pre-sales of her latest album Theatre is Evil. The album is her first with a full band: The Grand Theft Orchestra, featuring Michael McQuilken, Chad Raines and Jherek Bischoff, and has since been released worldwide in a variety of formats, including a pay what you want download, on Palmer’s own 8-ft. records.
Yes, you read that right: Over one million dollars for the creative effort of a creative, independent musician. And anyone who's played a gig for free, passed the hat or been underpaid by a club or record label can all get behind Palmer, who has paid more than her share of dues as an artist. Regarding past tours as an opening act, Palmer writes, "The Dresden Dolls lost a lot of money in order to travel around opening up for Nine Inch Nails, and good lord were we grateful to lose that money. It won us a huge bunch of fans."
However, the proverbial shit hit the fan this month when Palmer put out a call via her blog to enlist the volunteer services of "professional-ish" horn and string players in each city where her tour to support Theatre is Evil is stopping. And yes, you read that right: the call was for musicians to volunteer to play.
The call for volunteers included the following pitch from Palmer: "We will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily!" Palmer goes on to say, "you (the professional-ish musician) need to know how to ACTUALLY, REALLY PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT! So please include in your email some proof of that."
Many instrumentalists across the nation were quick to take Palmer to task in the comments section of her blog, as well as on their own blogs, returning again and again to the same question: "Why not pay the guest musicians in each city with some of that one million you raised on Kickstarter?"
But just as quickly, musicians, including myself, starting asking each other when and why it may be appropriate, even beneficial to one's career (or at least fun) to play a gig for free. These are questions every professional, gigging musician struggles with. After years of practicing and mastering an instrument, when is it OK to agree to play a gig for no or very little pay and for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that your phone bill is two months past due.
Palmer has broken down where all that Kickstarter money is going, and composed a thoughtful, respectful, and lengthy response to those who took issue with her call for professional volunteers on her blog. And more than a handful of musicians around the country got in her corner, expounding upon the issue, and bringing to light the subject of the economic survival of the independent musician. Most folks who don't play an instrument don't even think twice about this stuff.
See Amanda Palmer's music video of "On an Unknown Beach" shot in Galveston
Tuesday night at Fitzgerald's
Taking a short pause after a few songs into her Tuesday night show at Fitzgerald's, a beaming Amanda Palmer told the audience, "I think this is going to be a really good show!"
Houston certainly showed Palmer a lot of love, and in return, she and her band stepped up and gave back a dramatic yet raw and rockin' performance that combined elements of Weimar-era cabaret with 80s-era new wave.
Houston certainly showed Palmer a lot of love, and in return, she and her band the Grand Theft Orchestra, with guests hometown heroes Two Star Symphony and the Boston saxophone duo Ronald Reagan, stepped up and gave back a dramatic yet raw and rockin' performance that combined elements of Weimar-era cabaret with 80s-era new wave, all delivered with the passion and intensity of the best of industrial music.
Palmer easily shifted gears throughout the set, one moment vogueing with all the choreographed drama of a drag queen while performing her single "The Killing Type," the next, talking directly to the audience about the controversy surrounding her call for professional musicians to volunteer their time to play. Perhaps not surprisingly, she told the audience she much prefers interacting with a live audience as opposed to spending time on the Internet.
At one point, Palmer took a graceful stage dive and crowd surfed the audience, while a long, translucent cloth trailing behind her like undulating waves on an ocean's surface. Several songs were accompanied by projections of photos and home movies uploaded by fans to Amanda's website in advance of the show.
The one "what the f---" moment for me occurred when Palmer produced a box containing pieces of paper on which members of the Fitzgerald's audience had written a short description of something bad they'd experienced as a child or as a teenager in their bedroom. Using an iPhone, Palmer recorded herself reading what people had written, which ranged from the truly traumatic, somewhat amusing ("A friend had to spend the night in my closet").
For me, the effect was more confusing than depressing, although I was humbled by the fact that we rarely realize how little we truly know the strangers around us. However, later in the set, Amanda used that iPhone recording to great effect as a sort of disembodied background vocal for her performance of Yaz's "In My Room." As crowd sourced photos of bedrooms projected behind her, she managed to create an atmosphere of disquieting and deep blues.