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Amanda Palmer: From being a living statue to crowdfunding a $1.2m album

Years spent busking as a living statue taught musician Amanda Palmer a valuable lesson. One that enabled her to crowdfund $1.2 million to make an album. As her new book is published, she reveals what all of us could learn about the art of asking

Amanda Palmer
Tuesday 11 November 2014 20:27 GMT
Write stuff: Amanda Palmer at a performance in Berlin, 2012, where she stripped off and invited the crowd to scribble on her
Write stuff: Amanda Palmer at a performance in Berlin, 2012, where she stripped off and invited the crowd to scribble on her (Luis Pedro De Castro)

Dita Von Teese, a star in the contemporary burlesque revival scene, once recounted something she had learnt in her early days as a stripper. Her colleagues – clad in standard blinged-out club gear – would strip bare for an audience of 50 guys in the club, and each of them would tip a dollar. Dita would take to the stage wearing satin gloves, a corset and a tutu, and do a sultry striptease down to her underwear, confounding the crowd. And though 49 guys would ignore her, one man would tip her $50. That man, Dita said, was her audience. This is the essence of crowdfunding, and moreover, the essence of making it nowadays as an indie musician: you march outside the commercial marketplace into a clearing, show whatever it is that you've got, then you bond with those who decide they want... it.

Many are still suspicious of crowdfunding and new give-and-take-and-help systems where artists are able to connect with a whole new conception of patronage. Exchange and content are taking on entirely new definitions (what even is an "album" nowadays?), and it is becoming more and more important not to judge who's showing it, who wants it (or why they want it), and whatever pre-conceived values are assigned to whatever it happens to be. This is the lesson that I took from busking in the street, and later from using Kickstarter to fund my album: the key was not in aiming at the masses, shaking my fist at the heavens when they weren't interested, but rather to feel thankful for those who did pause to watch or listen and toss in their coins.

As another year in the freefall of physical record sales passes us by, a new set of battles heats up around the issues of streaming creative content. Pink Floyd just blasted U2 for force-sending their album on iTunes, saying that the move "devalued" music, and Bono even offered a mea culpa of sorts, admitting that the band had got "a little carried away with ourselves". But when we talk about value: what are we talking about? Value by whose measure? The musician's? The public's? The prospective paying audience's? Who decides?

When I write a song, play it for someone, and I get to see their feet tap, or their eyes well up: that's where – for me, the artist – the deepest value resides. The rest is necessary, yes, in order to make a living, but I'm not going to fool myself: my song isn't strictly worth $0.99 on iTunes; that would be too depressing. It's art: it's both priceless and worthless, depending on whom you ask, and in what moment.

Take to the streets: Amanda Palmer as an 8 ft bride, busking in New Orleans in 1998 (Katharine Mockett)

During my tenure as a silent living statue – painted white, in a bridal gown, handing out flowers – I managed to cover my rent (and my songwriting habit) for about five years. Like most buskers, living statues are a motley bunch of international weirdos; we're self-employed (save for a few brave comrades who tough it out in casinos and amusement parks), and because of the nature of our work, we don't spend a lot of time hanging out and talking to each other. We have a lot in common with small, indie bands: loudly ignored by the vast majority of human beings who pass us by on the internet or on the sidewalk. Taken at our best, we are inspiring flesh-jukeboxes of magical human encounter. At worst? Annoying beggars with stupid costumes.

I became friends with other buskers and found myself fascinated by our similarities and differences. We all had our own ways of making it possible for people to part with their money on our behalf: statues and cellists usually had a hat or a box at their feet. Jugglers and acrobats doing circle shows (skilfully gathering large audiences and performing for them in the round) would whip up a crowd, present a finale, and then give a loud, flamboyant pitch designed to persuade you to pay, retroactively, for the thing you'd just witnessed. My busking friend Jason Webley refused to take money in a hat: he insisted on selling CDs for $5. If you tried – generously – to give him a $20 bill and told him you didn't want a CD, he wouldn't allow it. He'd just thrust four CDs in your hand. Every artist has their own level of comfort, their own system.

When I started touring with my first band, the Dresden Dolls, we brought the philosophy of the street into the clubs: everywhere we toured, we invited our local fans to come with their talents and busk; to perform random acts of art in the lobbies, in the nooks of the theatres, or on the main stage before the booked acts started up. People set up typewriters and gifted spontaneous poetry in the bathrooms, amateur fire-breathers astonished everybody, belly dancers showed up and wiggled for appreciative crowds. Hats were thrown on the floor. The fans were happy to give money.

Other bands pissed off clubs because they would trash the dressing room and steal liquor from the stockroom. We pissed off clubs because the half-naked marching band busking outside the box office would elicit noise complaints, or because someone would leave a cage of trained mynah birds in the hallway, blocking the bartenders' path to the ice machine. Our fans loved the blurry, nightly art-circus, and threw change and notes into the local buskers' hats with generous abandon. They loved being asked. They loved... helping. But they had to be asked; they had to see the hat. They had to be given the opportunity to care.

The Urban Institute recently polled Americans about their relationship with the arts, and the study found that while 96 per cent of Americans value the role of art in their lives and were "greatly inspired" by various kinds of art, only 27 per cent of respondents believed that artists contributed "a lot" to the good of society. It's like turning a blind eye to where your sausage comes from. You know you enjoy it, but you'd really rather not consider what had to happen for it to wind up on your table. At a certain point, you need to face it: art comes from artists.

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Crowdfunding is, in essence, online busking. After I left my label and launched a Kickstarter campaign that took in more than £700,000 worth of album pre-orders, business magazines that had never heard of me came calling, wondering if there was some secret. How did you do it? they asked. How did you make all these people help you? And the answer was pretty simple. Sure, I worked hard, and I wrote and performed songs that people enjoyed, and I'd been touring pretty constantly for a decade. But the fundamental truth was that I hadn't made anybody help me: I had asked them, with enthusiasm, and I thanked them, with even greater enthusiasm. And as I had toured over all those years, I'd created an ecosystem of asking. Asking for couches to crash on. For rides to the airport. For fans to busk in the lobbies, to announce their local causes on stage, to bring their kazoos to the shows, to bring food to the gigs.

Palmer during her 2013 TED talk (James Duncan Davidson)

When help came, I loudly and publicly (often from the stage) thanked those happy to help, and then when the internet came along, I thanked them over the web airwaves. I still do this, on a daily basis, mostly nowadays on my blog, Twitter and Facebook. It's slow, steady work. The larger public doesn't see it: the fanbase does. And while the internet platforms change (before there was Twitter and Facebook, there was the band forum board, MySpace, LiveJournal, and my blog), the philosophy doesn't: Ask. Without shame. Allow graciously for a Yes or a No. Show gratitude when you get a Yes. Don't judge if the answer is No.

Buskers embody this philosophy every day: when you busk, your art is fundamentally pay-what-you-want and thrust into the public domain. There is – on any metropolitan street in the world – a narrow but consistent slice of the population who will enthusiastically engage with a street artist, happy to dive into a perfectly fair two-way exchange that bears little resemblance to the sort of exchange occurring in the brick-and-mortar shop next door, where coins and notes are traded at a fixed price for a concrete product and the human encounter isn't all that important. The exchange and the relationship doesn't have to be a human one: it begins and ends with the exchange of cash for a product.

But with busking, as with crowdfunding: asking is the relationship. The trust and humility created by the artist with their hat out on the street, and the generosity of the person tossing in their coin, is all part of the art form.

If you're going to survive in the arts there is a certain sense of indiscriminate gratitude that is essential to hone. You can't really afford to be choosy about your audience, nor about how they wish to repay you for your art. In cash? In help? In kindness?

Back when I busked, it took a few months of statue work to really find my footing and understand this sense of deep gratitude for that sliver of the population, however small, that was willing to tune their head-frequencies to the art-channel for a moment, interrupting their daily march to work. That ongoing sense of appreciation shaped my constitution in a fundamental way. I didn't just feel a fleeting sense of thanks for each generous passer-by on the street; I had been hammered into a gratitude-shaped vessel and would never take for granted those willing to stop and engage.

And I carried this attitude into the music business, where I couldn't have known how useful (and also how controversial, still) it would be. Even with the amount of money exchanged for art now reaching billions of pounds per year, many critics still dismiss crowdfunding as a form of "digital panhandling" or "e-begging".

I wonder if these same critics see talented buskers as "beggars" or "artists". If you love art, you also need to appreciate the role of the artist who's cranking out the content that is winding up in your earbuds: then let the artist decide how to ask. Giants such as U2, Lorde, Beyoncé and Radiohead, the band in your local bar and everyone between: they're all simply trying to find a place from which they can safely busk in the new digital village. Some are loud. Some, not so much. They all have songs to offer, and the genie is long out of the bottle: digital music is emailable, streamable, YouTube-able to a generation which expects to hear music for free, on demand.

It's not anybody else's choice or prerogative to dictate to an artist how they should and should not value their own time, energy and talent. When talking about artists who choose to give music away for free versus charging for it, or talking about artists who choose to live loudly in public versus those who wish to remain quieter in their dealings with their audience, we have to allow for every approach.

Show me a thousand artists and I'll show you a thousand ways to do it. And whether it's Trent Reznor's decision to return to a major label, Taylor Swift's decision to pull her content from Spotify, Thom Yorke's decision to partner with BitTorrent, or your local garage band's decision to use Kickstarter to fund their new recording session – it seems to me the only rule that means anything is: let the artist decide.

'The Art of Asking', by Amanda Palmer (Piatkus, £13.99), is out now

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