Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review - The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

I was busking in Tottenham Court Road tube station the other night, playing my cover of Get Lucky, when a young man walked past me and commented, “You're not really playing that, mate.”

I was stung.

Yes I bloody am,” I replied. “Watch.” And I broke off from the melody to launch into a solo.

But it was too late, the guy had turned his back and was walking away.

Currently my busking act consists of playing lead guitar over backing tracks I have recorded myself into a loop pedal. It never ceases to fill me with a mix of horror and wonder that people less than five feet from me can doubt that I am really playing the melody they are hearing. What do they think my act is supposed to be? World's Best Lead Guitar Mime?

Of course, there's an extent to which such accusations are a form of back-handed compliment.

I like to think I make a pretty good sound when I'm busking, but for non-musicians who don't know what backing tracks even are, it may be easier to assume that the guy with the TfL busking licence hanging round his neck and the beat-up cheap electric guitar couldn't possibly really be playing any part of the music they hear as they pass, let alone the melody part they are singing along to.

And only I know that the backing tracks are all my own work.

There's also an extent to which it doesn't matter – plenty of people can see that I am indeed really playing and a gratifying proportion of them react generously. Generously enough that busking forms a large portion of my income at the moment, enough to fund my band and what I consider to be my 'actual' music.

But there's also an extent to which it matters a very great deal. It speaks to the massive disconnect that many people feel vis-a-vis art and artists and music in particular. To those for whom the only music that counts is what they hear on X-Factor or mass-market auto-tuned pop, mimed on TV and on stage, it must seem utterly impossible that a random guy in a hat standing – right there! – in a tunnel in Tottenham Court Road tube station, with a guitar, some pedals and a tiny 5-watt amp, could actually be playing something they both recognise and like.

Ergo, he can't possibly really be playing it.

Amanda Palmer's entire career has been about embodying the exact opposite of this disconnect.

From the very beginning her music has been about trust and about connecting deeply and directly with people. What she does is not to everybody's taste – her eclectic mix of punk attitude, freak aesthetic, Brechtian cabaret and erudite confessional lyrics is obviously not going to appeal to everyone. But for those to whom it does appeal, it really appeals very deeply indeed. By systematically figuring out how to find those people and stay in touch with them over time – often much more closely than has been usual in the recent history of musicians – she has been able to grow a large and loyal global fanbase.

Her fanbase was large and growing even before her band The Dresden Dolls got signed to a subsidiary of Warner's – a fact that would almost certainly be a great part of why they got signed. Predictably, after a few years of not enjoying being on a major any more than the majority of signed bands do – ie not remotely – she managed, after some struggle, to get herself dropped. Contrary to mainstream expectation, she has since gone on to enjoy even bigger and better success independently of any label, with highlights including the first million dollar Kickstarter campaign by a musician.

Palmer is currently without doubt the most successful independent musician on the planet. She can put out whatever music she wants, when she wants, how she wants. She can tour globally and fill good-sized venues pretty much anywhere, and her fanbase is large enough and generous enough to support her even in difficult times.

How on earth did she do this? Independent musicians around the world, especially singer-songwriter types like myself, are very keen to know. But anyone reading Palmer's book The Art Of Asking as an attempt to explain her success will be disappointed.

To be absolutely clear – it's a great book and a compelling read which I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in either Amanda Palmer or in the business of independent music making in the 21st century. Further, anyone in the latter category who is not also in the former category is frankly an idiot, even if they do not happen to be a particular fan of Palmer's music. What she is doing and the way she has managed her career is important and different and new and the rest of us have a great deal to learn from her. But this book is not the definitive account of the rise and rise of Amanda Palmer. Certain key details are elided or glossed over.

In a work that is otherwise characterised by extreme openness and personal honesty, the part where she discusses the time when The Dresden Dolls were signed to Roadrunner reads a little awkwardly. She describes them simply as a 'metal label' and, for no doubt extremely sound legal reasons, she does not name them at any point, nor mention the major label connection. Rather, she hints at it by discussing the travails of her friend Karen Mantler, who was signed to a major purely as a tax write-off and ended up forced to sell bootlegs of her own unpromoted album at gigs. Later in the book, to be fair, Palmer mentions being a 'refugee from the major-label system', but the part where she describes the process of getting signed omits the fact that Roadrunner is actually a subsidiary of Warner's.

She does however write the following: “The label helped us a lot in the early days. They went right to work making the band better known around the world, especially in Europe and Australia. What we'd been doing at a grassroots level had been effective, but it was slow. They worked fast. They got our music into stores, onto the radio and television. Soon we were flying everywhere, hopping on and off tour buses, doing interviews with bigger and bigger magazines.

That paragraph may come as something of a blow to some: turns out that even if you do gig your arse off, make multiple deep connections with new fans at every gig you do, and figure out how best to use social media to both keep and deepen those connections over time, no independent – not even Amanda Palmer herself – can compete with the sheer breadth of reach still enjoyed by the majors in terms of expanding the audience and reaching those waiting to be reached by that particular music.

But, tellingly, she also writes: “What quickly became apparent to us was that they [the label] didn't understand how to treat – or rather, not treat – our fans. It seemed simple enough to me: you work hard, you play for your crowd, you talk to, communicate with, hug, and connect with them in every possible way, and in turn, they support you and convert their friends into the fold. That's when music works best, when people use it to commune and connect with one another...

One of the strategies the label employed that always baffled me was wanting us to focus all the energy on casting the net elsewhere, to attract strangers, while ignoring our established fanbase. I loved new people. Of course. But it seemed insane to jeopardize the current relationships to find them.”

Worst of all: “The label didn't understand why they should pay for the band to maintain a website year-round. They thought it was something that only needed to be 'up' when we had a new record to promote, and wouldn't pay to keep the site active the rest of the time. I was baffled.

So it's a double bind. You can only build a fanbase in the early days by working just as hard on connecting with people as you do on your actual music, but if and when you do get signed to a major label entity capable of expanding your reach fast and far, they will do that, but they will also bend over backwards to stop you from connecting with your fans in that way.

Additionally, many details of how Palmer actually makes it all work are never mentioned. Right at the end, in the Acknowledgements section, she writes, “I feel like my team gets slightly short-shrifted in this book, because it was way less complicated to write certain parts without including the gory details of how things function in AmandaLand. But so much of my work would be impossible without the small, dedicated collection of people who have my back every single day as I heard off to work.

So no, open and honest as she is, Palmer is not going to tell you everything.

But that's fair enough. The Art Of Asking is not a How To manual for independent musicians looking to replicate her success. Some stuff – most stuff – you have to figure out for yourself. Even if she did go into the gory details, it would help no-one. There is no earthly reason to suppose that what has happened to work out for Palmer in terms of day-to-day Making It All Happen stuff would in any way be applicable to anyone else.

That's not what the book is about.

It's about trust.

It's about connections between people both very generally and very specifically.

The book is also very largely autobiography. Palmer has chosen to tell her story by dealing not just with the general philosophical theme of connection between artist and fanbase as she experienced it through her early busking days as a street statue, her Dresden Dolls experience, and her more recent solo career, but also with the very specific connections that are the most important close personal relationships in her life. A great part of the book consists of detailed accounts of two relationships in particular – that with her friend and mentor Anthony Martignetti, and that with her husband, Neil Gaiman. She uses these accounts not just to explain various aspects of the ups and downs of her career but also to illustrate the very real and often weird issues that occur in terms of actual trust over time even in the closest relationships. I don't feel particularly comfortable discussing those parts of the book in any depth; suffice it to say they are beautifully written and deeply moving.

As for her philosophy of connection between artist and audience, Palmer makes it clear – without quite saying so directly – that most artists do not connect enough and do not make enough effort. They get up on stage, sing their songs and bugger off. Then they wonder why no-one joins their mailing list, no-one buys their album on Bandcamp and no-one funds their Kickstarter.

By contrast, from the earliest gigs onwards, Palmer was making a point of hanging out with and connecting directly with those who her music had touched after each and every performance.

We hung out,” she writes, “and signed merchandise after every show in every town, Pink Dots-style, and a natural outgrowth of our beginnings in which the audience had blurred with our circle of friends. If we wound up getting kicked out of a venue because we'd hit curfew and hadn't finished signing things, we'd parade the remaining fans outside and finish in the street.”

Even more explicitly: “In the early days, we talked to people for as long as they wanted, about whatever they wanted. Once we started touring internationally, these signings would sometimes last longer than the show itself; we'd sometimes play for two hours and sign for two and a half.

This is no cynical ploy. It's a two way street. She writes: “Especially in the early days, when we were playing in small clubs, I was actually AFRAID of the audience. Not afraid they would hurt me... just afraid of their judgement.” And later, “Signing fixed that, because we got to meet a pretty decent percentage of the audience every night. They weren't judgemental... After hundreds of nights of signing, my instinct to fear the audience was worn away... But I never would've known if I hadn't made the effort to stand at the merch table every night; I might have stayed afraid for years. And when you're afraid of someone's judgement, you can't connect with them. You're too preoccupied with the task of impressing them.

Later, as the line between fans and friends and family becomes increasingly blurred, Palmer, now with over a million followers on Twitter, finds herself able to crowdsource pretty much anything. The energy flows not just bi-directionally but multi-directionally. Palmer does the work, makes the music, plays the gigs, stays in touch via her blog and Twitter, and the fans / friends / family get to be constantly involved in almost every part of it.

Not only that, but the fanbase get to connect with each other and with the wider AmandaLand; busker fans get to perform outside her gig venues, other artists get involved in various ways, people exchange flowers etc. This is a far deeper connection between artist and audience than most artists enjoy, and the book is littered with examples of the multi-directional crowdsourcing thing in practice: places to stay with fan-friends around the world, an impromptu gig when unexpectedly stranded in Iceland, all manner of small and large ways in which Palmer acts as a conduit for fans to help each other, and, in London one time, the prompt return of Palmer's stolen red ukulele.

The ukulele thieves were fans. They were very drunk and very remorseful. Palmer forgave them.

Contrary to what Palmer-haters may believe, she's well aware that it's not all rainbows and kittens and flowers and seemingly effortless crowdsourcing. At approximately the point in the book when I was wondering how on earth she can trust people so much without getting burned, she answers directly:

I'm often asked: How can you trust people so much?

Because that's the only way it works.

When you accept somebody's offer for help, whether it's in the form of food, crash space, money, or love, you have to trust the help offered. You can't accept things halfway and walk through the door with your guard up.

When you openly, radically trust people, they not only take care of you, they become your allies, your family.

Sometimes people will prove themselves untrustworthy.

When that happens, the correct response is not:

Fuck! I knew I couldn't trust anybody!

The correct response is:

Some people just suck.

Moving right along.

She doesn't pretend that trust is easy or without risk. In fact, for Palmer, they go together. After describing a far worse incident than ukulele theft, she writes, “I guess the point is, there is no trust without risk. If it were EASY... I mean, if it was all a guaranteed walk in the park, if here wasn't a real risk that someone would cross the line... then it wouldn't be real trust. Now I know it's real. She proved how much I could trust everybody else. Her stupid drunk move just reminds me how safe I am

And her later career has by no means been a guaranteed walk in the park.

The same internet that fuelled the massively successful expansion of Palmer's fanbase both in size and in proximity has also enabled a newly harsh form of backlash and hatred from non-fans, from other musicians jealous of her success, and from straight-up trolls.

When her Kickstarter campaign reached a million dollars, there was a lot of press, and a lot of concomitant backlash. People said absurd things like “I REALLY USED TO LIKE AMANDA PALMER UNTIL SHE STARTED BEGGING HER FANS FOR MONEY.” Palmer makes the very salient point that there is absolutely no reason why she shouldn't be allowed to use Kickstarter. Sure, she has a headstart, but that's actually pretty much the point.

Elsewhere in the book she discusses in some detail the way that Kickstarter – and crowdfunding in general – actually works. First there has to be a crowd, a fanbase, for which you have to work your arse off by producing something good. Then, when you have a crowd, and not until then, you can crowdfund. It's not magic money that comes from nowhere, it's micro-patronage from people who already know they want to support you and are just waiting for you to give them the opportunity.

Following the success of the Kickstarter, Palmer launched a tour, and planned – as she had done many times in the past – to crowdsource members of the fanbase to join the band onstage at each venue to play some of the strings-and-horns arrangements.

Palmer clearly describes what happened next: “The payment for volunteering onstage was the usual crowdsource currency: free tickets and guest list for friends; merchandise, backstage beer, hugs, high-fives and love. The fans knew the drill. The first few shows worked out perfectly.

Then a French horn player wrote me an open letter on her blog, saying that while she was tempted to join the tour, she felt that the lack of payment was unethical. The blog post went viral, the New York Times ran a story, and within days a controversy had blown up.

And gotten distorted to boot. A lot of critics on the Internet were starting to claim that I'd made a million dollars and I wouldn't pay my band.

People are still making the latter claim, despite the fact that it is demonstrably untrue. The band were always paid; the local volunteer fan strings and horn section had always been a part of it. In the end, on this occasion, Palmer did end up paying the volunteers just to defuse things. Some of the volunteer musicians then donated their surprise paychecks to charity, saying they'd volunteered and wanted to keep it that way.

This is a minefield. There is a genuine crisis among musicians over the fact that so many of us find it so hard to get paid at all for anything and so many people constantly try and get music – including live music – for free, as if our work were worthless. But to accuse Amanda Palmer of doing something wrong here is to wilfully ignore the context of what she was asking for and to entirely misunderstand what she was asking for.

On a personal note, it so happens that I did volunteer my services on sax for the London gig, though I didn't get chosen. There was a long comment thread on Metafilter, where I wrote:

It's an Amanda Palmer gig, not a LSO gig. The art-related goals are different, and maybe something that bit more raggedy, that bit more jam-like, is what she is after. That she's getting randomers off the internet to sit in on a couple tunes after one rehearsal the afternoon before the gig should be a clue.

I get paid for some of the music I do and I don't get paid for other music I do, and most people I work with are the same. I'm not earning much from music to say the least. But I'm always particularly grateful when people play with me for free even though they often get paid elsewhere; it's partly because they know I can't afford to pay them, and it's also - I like to think - partly because they actually like my music and perhaps it's important to them to do stuff like this to remind themselves that they play because they love it and not just because of the money.

In the past I've felt bad about this and attempted to pay people (who really ought to be paid, in terms of the calibre of their work) whatever I can afford, even though it's way less than it should be, and had them refuse it - the attitude is something like 'either you pay me at the full rate or not at all, and if not at all it's because I'm into the music, so don't insult me'. That seems fair enough.

One might argue “but she had a million dollars for the tour!”

Firstly, that doesn't actually go all that far in funding a large-scale world tour, which this was. Secondly, and much more saliently, there is the point made later in the same Metafilter thread, where damehex, another musician wrote: “For the record, hopping onstage for a couple numbers, YES EVEN HAVING HAD TO SHOW UP FOR SOUND CHECK TO RUN THROUGH IT FIRST, is not something you ask payment for. If you don't feel like working that night, you don't agree to do it. If you like the person who asked you to do it, you do it for free. Every single working musician I know has done this exact thing dozens or even hundreds of times. I know I have. And many dozens of musicians have done it for me.

And this, a point to which critics seem entirely oblivious, goes way beyond the context of AmandaLand.

Not all musicians – especially those from the classical world – are actually capable of showing up at a jam session and joining in. But for those of us who are, it is a must of musicianship. I've had busy phases where I've had lots of paid gigs and done lots of busking because I needed the money and haven't been able to find time to just sit somewhere and play something random with a bunch of friends and strangers just for the sheer joy of it. I get really frustrated and miserable when that happens. Not only that, but I then play less well when I am being paid. Staying in touch with the sheer joy of playing for the hell of it, because you can, is an absolute must for many of us.

Yes, there is a problem around musicians and money and getting paid. But that's not Amanda Palmer's fault. Offering fans the chance to jam with her band on stage isn't remotely related to that problem.

It's worth reading The Art Of Asking through to the end but perhaps the most powerful section comes right at the beginning, when Palmer describes her time as a busker and the way in which it hardened her as a performer and clarified her thinking about the connection between artist and audience, between art and commerce, and about the difference between asking and begging.

Her act was The Eight Foot Bride – she would stand on crates, dressed in a wedding gown, her face painted white and wearing a black wig. But there was more to it than the usual human statue shtick: she also had with her a vase of fresh flowers. Whenever someone donated she would unfreeze, and ever so slowly hand them a flower.

Once in a while a recipient would refuse it. She writes, “... they didn't understand that they were breaking my heart. Gifting them my flower – my holy little token – was what made me feel like an artist, someone with something to offer, instead of a charity case.

Over the years, though, I got used to it, and instead of taking it personally, I began to understand:

Sometimes people just don't want the flower.

Sometimes you have to let them walk away.

And here is, perhaps, the key to Palmer's whole thesis about art and the art of asking, whether the field is music, fiction, videogames or whatever. Artists of all kinds labour long and hard learning their craft and creating their work, but when they offer it up to the public, something else happens. What is going on now is quasi-mystical - something to do with the connection between giver and recipient.

That connection is a fragile and delicate thing in the beginning. It is up to both sides to tend it and nurture it if they want it to continue. Not every artist will do this the same way – Palmer's book gives a good account of how she does it, but that does not mean that the same thing will work for you. Or for me. Similarly, every recipient of art will be different. Just as every human relationship is different.

But cracking the nut of sustainable success for artists in the internet age is all about making those connections. It's about giving and about asking, when those connections are present. And it's about sustaining those connections over time.

And at the same time, it can't be forced. Connection isn't always there. Sometimes there simply is no connection.

When a man standing five foot away from me does not believe I am actually playing the guitar, when I am actually playing the guitar, that's absolutely fine. This is not a problem I should waste a single ounce of energy being concerned with.

Sometimes you just have to let them walk away.

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