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Amanda Palmer's Mistake (and Why it Will Hurt Working Class Musicians)

Amanda Palmer's Mistake (and Why it Will Hurt Working Class Musicians) - by Robin Yukiko

I am a big fan of Amanda Palmer. I contributed to her Kickstarter campaign (which broke records at $1.2 million) and think she is leading the way of the future of the indie artist. That is why it is so upsetting to me that she is using her fame and influence to damage that future by exploiting her fellow musicians.

Beer, hugs, and merch. Oh, and a “thank you”. That is what Amanda Palmer, champion of the working artist, has offered to pay trained orchestra members to play for her Theater is Evil tour. When I went to her website to see if it was true, her blog post was reminiscent of a Craigslist ad.

Don’t we all hope for a big break? For the chance to play for someone huge, because that’s where the money is? Amanda Palmer is now just like that bar manager that says “Play for free. It’s good exposure.” We expect it from club owners that don’t understand that some of us go to school for music. We get degrees in this stuff. We’ve invested many thousands of dollars in lessons, gear, and R&D. We expect these people to be ignorant and not respect the years and money we’ve put into this so that we can make music a career.

We don’t expect it from one of us.

We don’t expect that someone with a background in busking and asking for tips would be stingy the other way around. In 2009, Palmer wrote a blog called “Why I am Not Afraid to Take Your Money”. In it, she says, “artists need to make money to eat and to continue to make art.” We thought this meant she supported artists like herself. Now it’s clear that she only supports herself.

Many people have brought up the fact that Palmer often plays for free herself and gives away her music. It is her music and that is her choice, just as it is every musician’s choice. But as many people have pointed out, asking for favors, especially in the wake of collecting such an amount, is a little crass at this point, regardless of where the money went.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand why she did it. Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are the way things are being done now, but the repercussions for the working class musician could be detrimental. I applaud her chutzpah (it got us all talking about her), but maybe she should run her ideas by a few people (like a Musicians Union rep) to suss out the consequences before posting.

She claimed, after we raised a stink, that this is just a jam. But that’s not how she approached it. She said she NEEDED players, asked people to “apply” and send in resumes or video performances to prove they can play. If this is just a jam, for fun, then what does she care? She already called the desired result “a big noise”. Instead she’s asking for professional-ish level players to devote time for rehearsal and the show. She says, “basically, you get to BE the opening ACT”. It’s not just fun, it’s an honor! Yes, I would open for Amanda Palmer for free if I were playing my own material. But in this context, musicians would be SERVING the opening act. Instead of an semi-open invitation (which I’m sure was her intention), it came across as begging for favors. It doesn’t help either that she shames those who might want to come but might not be good enough by telling them how embarrassed they’ll be.

One of her supporters made the argument that musicians play the “unfun” gigs for money so that someday they can play the good ones for free. Having done this for about 15 years, I was under the impression that it was the “unfun” gigs that don’t pay. That’s what paying your dues are. So where are these magical paying gigs? Amanda said she does have a core of paid players. But at what point does our talent warrant payment? When we cross over into the elite? There are the starving artists, then there are the rock stars. The group she is exploiting is the working middle class, mid-level musician that she WOULD have hired, if only she had $35k.

Yes, music is a labor of love. We don’t do it for the money, we do it because we are called to. But if no one got paid for a job they loved, then no one would bother raising themselves to a professional level.

What is there to look forward to as a career musician? Soon, other successful artists and bands will be crowdsourcing their tour musicians as well as their tracks because there will always be people willing to do it for free. Rivers Cuomo (Weezer) also did this, never paying the “volunteers” for the performance, nor paying residuals for the released recording. We should have made a fuss then.

When everyone has paid their dues, there will still only be a small amount of paid work for the elite. And not even at elite wages. The “viable career” that so many of us hope to attain is becoming even more difficult.

But we can combat it. The positive things we should take from Amanda Palmer’s actions are her innovativeness, her boldness, and her inclusiveness. But we always need to consider our actions and our work ethic. We musicians must be incredibly professional, incredibly good, and start standing up for ourselves as working musicians. We’re swimming upstream and the current just got stronger.

Robin Yukiko is a Berklee College of Music grad, singer-songwriter, pianist, and music educator in San Francisco. She hosts the SF Singer-Songwriters’ Workshop at the Musicians Union Local 6. Learn more at


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