Some thoughts about Amanda Palmer’s thoughts about how fans support artists

I’m going to play to my small blog audience here and post again with regard to Amanda Palmer, who in addition to being a stellar songwriter and performer has some pretty interesting ideas about the music industry and ways in which artists can be supported by their followers and keep doing what they do (more here as well). My overall response is that I quite appreciate that she’s breaking new ground, creating new models, and that I don’t object to anything she’s doing (even though I, despite being a fan, have no interest in buying photos dug out of a shoebox somewhere). Her emphasis on building relationships with fans and thus feeling justified in unabashedly asking for support (and having to strike that delicate balance) actually reminds me a lot of nonprofit fundraising. I do believe that she deserves every bit of support and material reward that she’s getting: because she’s given so much of such great value to so many; because I take her at her word that she’s not living lavishly; and because I believe that she will ‘re-invest’ it in her art.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how a society should support artists. To me, art and entertainment (let me for a moment blur the aesthetic distinction between the two, and ignore the latter’s transformation in our consumerist society) are positively fundamental to the spiritual well-being of a community, and I become outraged anytime I consider how little support artists receive in ours. It seems absurd that artists are expected to work full-time day jobs and cram their expression into all the other hours of the day and night. Romantic though this might seem to some, I believe this prerequisite of suffering and, again, self-sacrifice is a recipe for creative burnout; pursuing one’s dream becomes inextricably linked with drudgery. It bears repeating that I am not opposed (or a stranger to) to hard work, and in fact I believe every able individual should be devoted to lifelong service. But that’s just what art is: service. Of course, not every would-be artist has talent, and there are some very talented artists who fuck around and shouldn’t necessarily be given a free pass. So maybe even hardworking artists should volunteer a reasonable number of hours a week at their community organization of choice, doing something objectively and tangibly beneficial. But the notion of having to have a ‘real’ forty hours a week job to be considered a legitimate citizen is preposterous; across corporate America every day there are millions of respectable workers not doing a fraction of the good that artists are doing to enrich and improve our world.

But this isn’t really what I meant to rant about. Let’s read a little excerpt from Amanda:

it’s also not a matter of whether an artist is starving or cruising on a yacht.
i would hate to see my fans turn on me once i actually have money in the bank with a “well, i would support you if you were starving, but now that you’re eating, no way.”
fuck that.
accept a new system.
feel ok about giving your money directly to paul mccartney. he may be rich, but he still rocks. show you care.
feel ok about giving it to fucking lady gaga if you’ve been guiltily downloading her dance tracks for free.
rejoice in the fact that you are directly responsible for several threads in her new spandex spacesuit.
it shouldn’t matter.
it’s about empowerment and it’s about SIMPLICITY: fan loves art, artist needs money, fan gives artist money, artist says thank you.

I don’t agree with all of that. Well, hang on: I do believe that artists deserve not only to be supported by the community, but also at more than a subsistence level. I certainly wouldn’t want to be Amanda Fuckin’ Palmer, paying my dues in a serious way for a decade, only to find that the more fans I get, the thinner the support gets, the more diminishing the returns. I do believe that for an artist like her, clearly creating something of great value to a large number of people, deserves to live comfortably enough to focus on art most of the time. (Perhaps at a certain point the ten-hours-of-volunteering-a-week is waived?) However, I object to the capitalistic notion that I feel is implicit here, that the number of people willing and able to pay your price for your product (the demand) is intrinsically equivalent to the amount of material return you are entitled to.

Here’s something that one of her responders said, and her follow-up:

i noticed lots of people commented apologizing “i’d love to give you money but i’m a poor student/artist/bastard”….

this is important:
i would never begrudge anyone who can’t give me money. never.

I appreciate that, but I would take it one step further: I would never want anyone to deny themselves my art because they didn’t have the money, or even because they didn’t feel like that was their priority. I create art for myself, yes, but I am a working artist because it’s what I give to the world. People who appreciate my art deserve to have it, even if they can’t or don’t want to pay for it. I’m serious. You know how many Tom Waits albums I own? Three. I love Tom Waits; I want to have his entire collection, to enjoy, to be inspired by (in art and in life), to share with others. You know why I don’t have the entire collection? Of the three albums I have, two of them I acquired the ‘honest’ way. Lemme ask you this: do you think Tom Waits, Shareef Ali, or anybody else benefits from the fact that I’m not able to buy his albums?

Anyway, Amanda is certainly right on that each artist needs to find their own way that is comfortable and effective for them. I’d say that my challenge will be to find a way to ask for support from my followers in a way that doesn’t dissuade people from enjoying the music even if they have nothing to give in return. One thing that’s tricky is that it’s a lot more challenging to leverage people who really could help out a little bit in a trust-based system such as this. There’s an analogy I could draw here about the models of private enterprises in public-oriented sectors, like education, versus non-governmental organizations, but it’s sort of an unnecessary tangent to an already rambling post. Plus, you’re smart folks; you get where I’m going with that, right?

Teenaged Trauma and Salvation Through Music: reflections on Amanda Palmer’s “Oasis”

So as much as I enjoy it when Amanda Palmer writes music to songs penned by her literary giant beau, I LOVE her as a lyricist and pretty much think she’s tops. One of my faves off her solo effort from last year Who Killed Amanda Palmer? was “Oasis”, which I first saw her perform at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco last summer; come to think of it, I recall that concert being an important moment for me re-realizing that I needed to place no other gods before music.

This song created quite the ruckus last year when the video came out, owing to the flippant treatment of the subject matter of teenaged rape and abortion. I’ll direct you to Amanda’s own comments for a thorough breakdown, but also add a few personal notes about why despite its apparent off-the-cuffness, I believe this is a remarkably thoughtful and well-executed piece.

when I got to the party
they gave me a forty
and I must’ve been thirsty
cause I drank it so quickly

when I got to the bedroom
there was somebody waiting
and it isn’t my fault
that the barbarian raped me

when I went to get tested
I brought along my best friend
Melissa Mahoney
who had once been molested

and she knew how to get there
she knew all the nurses
they were all really friendly
but the test came out positive

I’ve seen better days but I don’t care
I just sent a letter in the mail

when I got my abortion
I brought along my boyfriend
we got there an hour
before the appointment

and outside the building
there were all these annoying
fundamentalist Christians
we tried to ignore them

I’ve had better days but I don’t care
Oasis got my letter in the mail

when vacation was over
the word was all over
that I was a crack whore
Melissa had told them

and so now we’re not talking
except we have tickets
to see Blur in October
and I think were still going

I’ve seen better days but I don’t care
oh I just got a letter in the mail
Oasis sent a photograph
it’s autographed and everything
Melissa’s gonna wet herself
I swear

I realize that as a man commenting on a song like this, I’ve got to tread very carefully. I’ve never lived through the traumatic experiences of the song personally, nor will I ever have to contend with the facts of rape and abortion as ever-present hazards in the landscape. That said, the story told here is one very familiar and even personal to me. More than once I knew girls who were sexually assaulted; one time in particular, a friend’s resulting pregnancy scare prompted me to skip school and walk several miles to buy the test she was too freaked out to get herself. This kind of awful ordeal related in the song has a very clear antecedent from my own history, and the very first time I heard the song I was startled by how real it seemed.

The reason the blunt delivery never struck me as being in poor taste is because I found it so terribly true-to-life. In my experience, teenagers who suffer grotesque losses, violations of self or other indignities are rather prone to blurting about it loudly and plainly in ways which make adults uncomfortable. Also incredibly authentic was the portrayal of her friendship with Melissa, who thinks nothing of breaking confidence about her friend’s hardship to the entire school (the speaker is not necessarily any more loyal, spilling the beans to us about Melissa’s own mistreatment within a breath of introducing her). I quite clearly recall my early best-friendships being marked with mutual betrayals–being old enough to want a close friend for selfish reasons, but not yet knowing how to care for them in return–still they remain BFFs, with an unspoken understanding that their falling-out will be amended by October.

The reason for which, of course, is music. Acknowledging again my removal from the hardest-to-face aspects of it, but isn’t that what the song is really about, what she returns to each chorus, what makes all these unbearable things bearable? Isn’t it about the fact that music quite literally saves people’s lives? When nothing and no one else could do it? I know it did for me. Parents didn’t understand, teachers didn’t care, friends cared but didn’t know how to be real friends yet. In those times, when no one, not you or anyone you knew, could say a single thing to give a name or shape to the fiery hell you were feeling, music was all there was. Without music, would we have screamed until our heads exploded? Bloodied our knuckles against the walls? Well, I did both, but I surely would have with greater frequency if I hadn’t had music to collapse into.

So when I hear this cheery tune, so incongruous with its grim account, I have to say that my main emotional response is gratitude: for music, a true BFF to me and so many who needed it.

Shareef Ali joins the company of Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and Kate Miller-Heidke: Web 2.0 Love Songs

Last year I wrote a tune titled “Wikipedia Brown”, using the format, policy and idiosyncrasies of that wholly addictive interweb entity as a literary vehicle to illustrate various aspects of my romantic past and present.

I did not realize at the time that my title was shared with some bigshot actor-comedian jerk named B.J. Nor was I aware that I was soon to become a pioneer in a groundbreaking new sub-subgenre of love songs: those making explicit mention of Web 2.0 phenomena.

Exhibit A: “Google You”, a forlorn lament penned and set to music by art-star couple Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer:

Exhibit B: “Are You Fucking Kidding Me? (Facebook song)”, by Kate Miller-Heidke (who admittedly is otherwise unknown to me):

Despite the surprise and humor of hearing references to relatively new fixtures in our cultural landscape, there’s nothing extraordinary about communications technology making an appearance in our popular sentimental songs. 1899’s “Hello! Ma Baby” mentioned the telephone, developed a mere thirteen years earlier (I hope you’ll presume with me that new gadgets did not pervade our common life so swiftly a century ago). More recently, I recall cocking my head when Billy Corgan sang about Caller ID, or when ‘Licia said in the love rap to “You Don’t Know My Name“: “Hold on, my cell phone breakin’ up”. Though I suppose it’s worth noting that these newest works are distributed virally by the very media used as subjects.

Each of the two examples, however, seem to have clear antecedents in terms of sentiment. “Google You” is a stalker song, not unlike “Every Breath You Take“, while “Are You Fucking Kidding Me?” has clear strains of “I Will Survive” in its lyrical code.

Not to toot my own horn whatsoever, but I’m having a hard time identifying the ancestor to my own number. Can anybody think of a song that obsessively catalogues one’s amorous trials and triumphs without analogizing to an interactive, collaborative, user-oriented information hub? Do you know of any other Web 2.0 love songs, so that our new musical movement may have more than three hallmark compositions?