Alone or together? How do we like to face life in all of its disturbing craziness? The answer to this simple yet essential question probably appears to be obvious for you but in reality we often fail to see that and act like that. To quote the incredible Father John Misty: “I hate to say it but each other is all we got.”
I don’t know if Amanda Palmer and Josh Tillman ever met but she would probably agree on that. And she got a handful of things to say about that, this much is for sure. Amanda Palmer embraced the importance of togetherness and community far more than any other artist I have ever encountered in my long running career as a music journalist. The American songwriter is a restless figure of the international indie scene, first gaining attention as leader of neo-cabaret/punk duo The Dresden Dolls in the 00s before heading on countless solo and collaborative adventures following the band’s hiatus around ten years ago. She released three solo albums so far, the latest one – There Will Be No Intermission – came out earlier this year. And although she’s been quite productive all this time her art pop anthems tend to fly under the radar of the cool indie media ever since. She’s doing her own thing… literally because over the past years Amanda Palmer freed herself from conventional music industry structures and set up a foundation that allowed her to go almost 100 percent independent with her art.
Yes, that sounds quite paradisiacal, especially for all the countless independent musicians who struggle to make a living out of their music. I’m dealing with this issue on an almost daily basis and that’s not just because I’m publishing an independent music magazine. Running our small music-centred communication agency SUPERUNKNOWN me and my colleague Tine to this day are still shocked about how little young aspiring musicians are interested in getting their fanbase on board for their artistic independency. For me and Tine, Amanda Palmer is a role model and pioneer on that field. She took the risk, financed her 2012 album Theatre As Evil entirely via crowdfunding and rose over $1.2 million during that campaign. That’s still a record in the indie section of Kickstarter so she did something right here. Sometimes we got that internal nickname for Amanda calling her ‘The queen of community’ so needless to say we were thrilled and excited to get an audience with the queen ahead of her sold-out Berlin show recently.
The moment Amanda Palmer enters the room you get a sense of why she’s a people’s person. Open-minded, interested and light-hearted she treats you like an old friend and is willing to fully open up about pretty much every topic you confront her with. And in our case it’s this community aspect that really triggers us. Amanda thinks for a bit before saying: “There’s a part of me that gets really squicked and uncomfortable with the idea that connecting with our fanbase is a good business model” For her this was never the way she approached it even it was true in the end. “I wanted to communicate with my audience because I really wanted a community not because I was looking for a way to monetize my community although that was an important side effect.” So, yes, we make sure pretty quickly that this is not a money-grabbing business talk by some weird agency that’s looking for the next big marketing coup here. You can’t think of it this way and Amanda gets that. For connecting with her audience the acclaimed musician uses Patreon, a platform that is a bit like an even more dedicated version of Kickstarter. “If Kickstarter was dating, Patreon is marriage,” she jokes. Amanda’s so called Patrons pay her a monthly amount of their own choice which allows her and her collaborators to make art and to create all sorts of things like Amanda would phrase it, ranging from songs, videos, podcasts, webcasts, to albums and EP’s. Furthermore she’s a brilliant storyteller sharing her adventures, life and heart with her Patrons. And yes, this also includes revealing stuff her husband mumbles in his sleep.
As I’m writing these lines, Amanda got a little more than 15.000 dedicated Patrons who are in this committed relationship with her. And yes, she’s by far one of the most successful musicians on Patreon.
“I still think as a non-profit and my bank account actually looks like a non-profit. Pretty much all the money I make goes straight back to the community. And I don’t think that’s a crazy way for an artist to think. It can be pretty dangerous for the community if the artist is only interested in capitalizing these people.”
Her art has a value and her fanbase gets that because she’s not afraid to share these thoughts with them. Amanda explains to us: “There is nothing wrong with an artist being literally rewarded for the service they provide but it’s a fucking uncomfortable conversation barely any artist wants to have.” And that’s the big question we’re asking here – why aren’t there more artists who free themselves from traditional outworn music industry structures and use an opportunity like this? Amanda gets furious (in a friendly way) when she thinks about it. It’s been seven years since her successful Kickstarter and not much has changed at all. “These are the moments where I started wondering if I’m just a unicorn,” she says with this dismantling smile. “I don’t want to be a lonely unicorn grazing at the side of Patreon mountain.” Amanda wants other artists to taste and see what’s truly possible. She reveals: “Every couple of months I get an e-mail or text from an artist who’s also on a similar level like mine where they nervously reach out to me and thank me for my inspiration or ask me for my opinion.” Our dear unicorn queen wouldn’t mind to get joined by anyone from PJ Harvey to Rihanna on her journey but she also knows that a lot of artists are afraid to take the leap and she understands the fear of the unknown, the transparency etc. She explains:
“I get why it’s tough for many artists because you do have to live in a constant state of discomfort by capitalist standards to do this kind of work with no shame. You have to be willing to stand up and say: ‘I am of value and so is my art and I’m very happy to take your dollar for that.’ And it’s a huge leap to take. On one hand it can feel very vulnerable but on the flipside is that you feel truly entitled. It’s a trust fall; you just close your eyes and make it happen.”
A scared society
And quite quickly we start to see the issue from a broader perspective, one that goes beyond the music industry. The problem we are facing here is a systemic one. “People are so scared,” says Amanda Palmer and according to her that’s what it always comes down to. If you think it through you’ll always get to the point where you answer this “Alone or together?” question with the latter option. Humans are a social experience in their nature but over the last decades (and maybe centuries) we slowly but steady forgot about that. “Marketed capitalism has sold us this insane fantasy that if we’re just good enough at life we won’t need anybody else,” Amanda explains to us with quickly pointing out that this is dangerous bullshit. She continues: “First of all: it’s not true, second of all: it’s a really unenjoyable way to live your life and third of all: it’s no wonder that everyone’s swallowing that feel down with pills while feeling so isolated. Everybody feels so disconnected.” And if you are aware of that you can start to look around in your environment but also at yourself to see if that isn’t at least a bit true. We’ve gotten so competitive and suspicious of each other, so cynical and jealous because the capitalistic society has told us to take care of ourselves first before we can take care of each other. A liberal market will find its own rules? Well, yeah, there’s only the concept of competition because we are all trained to enter one. Fifteen minutes into hour talk we are already hitting pretty existential territory.
Amanda isn’t slowing down on this. “I was so naive and I was shocked at how uninterested the world was on being in a community. I sometimes wanted to cry every day because it appeared so obvious for me but so ridiculous for others. And to me all these people who were questioning my motifs sounded crazy. Why didn’t you want to be part of a community? That’s how fucked our world is.” Out of this self-doubt and frustration she went into fighting spirit because in the end she knows that she’s right. We all know. And a fundamental change has to start somewhere to not head for full extinction and music and art can be great allies here. Having it shared with a community can result into a spiritual relief as the songwriter explains to us on this sunny late summer afternoon:
“Alright, it’s a dangerous metaphor but I’ll go for it. It’s not that different from people who want to be involved in and connected to a religious community and enjoy the benefits of having specific people to talk to, a community to fall back on, events to attend etc. And if people tell you that they are not interested in going to that church or being part of certain events than it’s a bit the same with artists and their fanbase. You don’t have to but it’s kind of hard to see the benefits of being in an interconnected community if you are not a fucking part of that community. You just need to make the decision whether you want to be part of such a religious connection. When you’re going through a hard time everyone in church recognizes you, they bring you a casserole when your husband dies. If this is not happening, you’re not leaving the house and you sit there grumpily in your home. You simply didn’t invest time and effort to be part of such a community. The danger of this metaphor is that it can sound quite transactional but that’s how human society has always worked. We are fundamentally tribe and interconnected mammals that have to rely on each other.”
There is a fundamental truth that’s a bit hard to deny the longer you think of it. Yes, as a cynical person one might argue that humans itself are destined to ruin everything due to their egocentric nature but nobody is born bad; even insane maniacs like Boris Johnson or Donald Trump used to be innocent children. We are born into a different belief system and it takes guts to step out of this system, to question it and to get rid of the fear. Amanda Palmer did that. Was she scared when she chose that way? Hell Yeah! Is she now? Well, maybe a bit less. She says: “Now that I’m partially back at the promo cycle, doing media, promoting shows and stuff I find myself thinking: How do I want to spend my time on this planet? Shall I spend these precious hours convincing people outside of my circle that this is a system worth believing in or should I just stop trying to educate and convince people that this is a really wonderful way to create art by shutting the door and focussing on my community?” Of course, answering these questions is anything but easy and for her finding the right balance here has been bizarre. “I thought by 2019 these worlds would have already merged and everybody would do crowdfunding,” she confesses. “People would have gotten over all their shame and fear; I would have done my little TED Talk but otherwise would have remained a little footnote in the history of crowdfunding. And the fucking opposite has happened!” Amanda Palmer is angry but also furious to keep on fighting. “I hope that if I stay out long enough I’m gonna be this proof of concept. But I also think the music industry needs at least twenty years to catch up on this.” People fear the system change because it will also affect them and of course, that weird ongoing transitional state of the music industry only underlines that. “All these promoters, record label owners and oldschool people need to find their space in the system because right now if the system moves they probably lose their jobs and lose their power so they are trying to avoid progress here.” But of course, it needs brave and fearless pioneers like Amanda to make this change happen. She continues:
“I also live with the fantasy that in a few years artists like PJ Harvey and Radiohead are capable of simply pressing a button, saying ‘Hey everybody, I’m not going to post anything here but once every three years I’m gonna drop an album so will you promise me to support me on this by giving me fifty bucks?’ And I’m pretty sure that once one of those not-internet-centric acts will go for that people will definitely follow. People are ready to take that leap but you need artists who are brave enough.”
Freed from the industry handcuffs
Actually Radiohead once did that with their ‘pay what you want’ album but returned to the old structures later again which makes you really wonder why they – of all bands – are still part of the system, right? “There used to be a time when I didn’t have the strength of this community and where I was struggling in-between this battle with the label, the media and those traditional structures,” she says and continues her fascinating, really hypnotic analysis of our modern day media landscape: “I struggled my way out of these handcuffs and I still think the best way of getting things done is through the people. They are the only ones who aren’t full of shit. Facebook is full of shit, Instagram is running on a full-profit algorithm and everybody knows that a publicist doesn’t necessarily like the artists who they are working for. You can buy an Instagram influencer but you are an asshole by doing that. And you surely can’t buy a community. I won’t work with brands, advertisers or corporations and people might argue I fucked my career with that but no, the opposite happened: I freed myself from those chains, my community trusts me exactly for the reason that I don’t do it that way.”
Hell yes. In the end, it all comes down to people. And it’s her community that cherished her with a never ending standing ovation after she’s given them everything during her intense, powerful, pure and honest three-hour long live show on this night in Berlin. And of course she also encourages her audience to recommend her concerts in the same honest and direct way she puts her art into the world as she explains: “During my show you’ll be plead to text someone you know in the other places I’m about to play and recommend them my show. Don’t go to Facebook or Twitter or something, just text one person personally. My audience is my most valuable asset here. If each person does that it’s more worth than paying thousands of dollars to any publicist.”
Once you listen to Amanda Palmer speak you are two hundred percent sure that she means every word in the exact same way she says it. This is no marketing trick or insane idealism, it’s the living proof that a different society is possible and that we as humans can have a different attitude towards music, art, culture and ultimately to each other. “If people will embrace that notion it could extend way beyond Patreon,” she says towards the end of our in-depth conversion. “It could turn into a joyful interdependence which is something this planet could really need right now. This whole idea of isolationism our politicians are currently spreading is never gonna work out.” These days it’s gotten harder to convince people that generosity still exists but here we sit in front of the living proof and I’m not exaggerating when I say that this meet-up was quite inspiring on multiple levels, making us reflect on the way we like to approach our lives, this music blog, the agency, our clients and – most obviously – the world we live in. Nobody is alone in that but we need to be more fearless to embrace the idea of a community, we need to be more open-minded, fragile and less scared of failure. If we surround ourselves with people who are willing to support us, nothing can harm us. That’s the message Amanda Palmer is sending out to the world. And she will continue to help others overcoming their fear. “Any artist of certain repute who wants to come to me and ask for help is welcome,” she says as we are already halfway throughout the door on this sunny September Friday. You know where to find her and you know what to do. All it takes is just one small leap of faith in the end.
All Photos by Jana Legler for NBHAP
Amanda Palmer‘s album There Will Be No Intermission is out now and she’s currently on tour. If you can make it to one of the following cities please do so, it’s quite a spectacle.