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Why I played for Amanda Palmerfor free

Pricing yourself as a musician is an exhausting but vital lesson, writes BRENDAN MACLEAN in a week in which Amanda Palmer has been roundly criticised for paying musicians in beer, hugs and high-fives. For a full recap of Palmer-gate click here.

Beer, high-fives and thanks was all the contract offered when Amanda “Kickstarter” Palmer moved her focus from money to musicians in her never ending quest to crowdfund the entire planet. Boasting a library of international cult hits as a soloist and as The Dresden Dolls, catering daily to nearly 700,000 Twitter followers and playing God to a fan base no hyperbole can adequately describe, it wasn’t long until she found her players. These “professional-ish musicians”, as she put it, were happy to toot but score no loot, keen to blow but get no dough and other rhyming ways to say play for free.

And it was here, after months of basking in the glory of the most successful online music campaign ever, that questions were raised: Why, if she had indeed hit the generosity jackpot, was she was now unwilling to return the favour? There was an uncharacteristic backlash from her audience so well trained in accepting her unusual routes. Legendary producer Steve Albini labelled her an “idiot” who had “found her audience’s threshold”. A violinist of a prestigious American orchestra added his two cents with an e-mail that began, “Dear Amanda, you ignorant slut…”.

As with most things Palmer-related, the most accessible voice in the conversation is her own. So speaking online with her this week I asked whether or not in hindsight she had asked too much from her fans: “I feel like the fan often over-gives but so do I. It balances out. But [this time] I think our happy little family and ecosystem stepped on a big cultural nerve without meaning too.”

It seems fitting to call it an ecosystem: Her fans are fed by constant responses via twitter, often tweeting back and forth for hours at a time. This, coupled with lengthy and emotional blogs, has seen the Palmer beast grow so large there’s hardly space big enough for it to plant itself without rubbing up a few raw nerves – even if that nerve does happens to belong to Steve Albini.

Putting the fan beast to bed for a minute, would the perfect tour be one where everyone is always paid? “No. I’ve never felt that way,” she says. “The Dresden Dolls and I did a TON of opening for other bands without getting paid. And I’ve sung, danced and played on hundreds of other bands’ stages for no pay. It’s what we do.” In her original response to a fan questioning her musician sourcing method, Amanda notes out that her own low-paying and no-fee gigs have included acts from local school bands to Nine Inch Nails. It’s a path she’s taken herself and that didn’t turn out too bad.

Last year I supported Amanda Palmer at Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club for free. The room was packed, the crowd was all hers, the corsets are a dead giveaway. I was intimidated playing solo before to such a ravenous crowd, but seconds before I was due on, there she was, marching in her kimono with freshly painted eyebrows. She grabbed the mic and proudly bellowed: “Brendan will now start the evening! Listen to him! Buy his CDs! Download him!” I left without a single record in my bag. It was a spectacular evening but on paper I didn’t make a cent (Well, technically the tour manager slipped $50 in my ukulele case.) Amanda offered me the show and I flew from Sydney to Melbourne for one unpaid evening of music. No fee, no travel or accommodation but that night was worth every cent I spent, and I’m thankful for every one I’ve now made back from being exposed to her fanbase.

Whether you’re getting international gigs or playing your local, pricing yourself as a musician is an exhausting but vital lesson. Responding to a request last year it was a friend reading over my shoulder who screamed, “That’s what you’re accepting for a tour? Really?!” And so I doubled my price without the promoter batting an eyelid.

Indie musicians often forget we are a business, and no one is going to give you more cash if you’re known for settling for less. But for me gigs with artists you greatly respect are part of a small list of appropriate times to play music publicly for free. Others include playing for: the first radio station who playlists your music, because you owe them one; charities, because it’ll make you feel good; and your mum, because just shut up and do it.

“You get the feeling Amanda is purposely and lovingly over-giving whenever and however she can.”

Palmer has often called her methods “the way of the future”. However, in an industry that manages to morph and surprise us each decade, we can hardly pin our expectations on an artist who has already gone through the motions of signing to a label, dumping them, touring the globe and coming out on top as champion of the underdog. It’s an anomaly not applicable to your everyday band, or any other band really.

But as Amanda said in our chat, “Internally, and on stage, every time some kerfuffle like this happens it strengthens our community, because we’re forced to stop and define what’s important to us and why we do what we do.” For better or worse, what I think we can learn from this is that an artist’s dedication to communicating with fans can win them the key to peoples’ hearts, wallets and musical talents. Whether it be in the form of a “ninja gig” on the Opera House or giving her street team a moment of glory on The Enmore Theatre stage, you get the feeling Amanda is purposely and lovingly over-giving whenever and however she can.

If your method in music is more a “prepaid fees and contracts” thing than that is obviously a construct that will make everybody monetarily satisfied. But it makes no sense for people to become enraged when fans, who just happen to be musicians, offer themselves to an artist that in their eyes has already offered them so much.

Brendan Maclean is a musician, infrequent radio presenter and will be seen acting in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby if it ever comes out. Follow him @macleanbrendan.

Comments arrow left

gumbuoy said on the 19th Sep, 2012

"Amanda Palmer, it's just not right that you don't pay your musicians. Now if you'll excuse me, the bittorrented albums I was downloading are nearly finished" - the Internet.


JavidvanderPiepers said on the 19th Sep, 2012

surely the backlash is primarily from the disenchanted majority of musos who never got selected. if you ask me this idea beats the hell out of reality tv. and the first comment just could not have said it better. why not get musicians who want to play for the love and opportunity instead of soulless voids who, talented or not, merely want that paycheck. i would play for free with an internationally-recognised muso any day of the week. good on you, brendan, and good on amanda. in a world controlled by the dollar its notions like these that make me remember why i started playing in the first place.


gumbuoy said on the 19th Sep, 2012

I dont think so. Considering most of the press has been around Albini's opposition...

I'm not sure what that means...


gumbuoy said on the 19th Sep, 2012

I should probably clarify my comment from above - I don't think that Amanda Palmer is absolutely 100% right and everyone who thinks otherwise is stupid. I think it's a grey area.

I just find the irony of the Internet calling out someone for having money but not paying for one specific thing highly amusing.


kaydee said on the 19th Sep, 2012

I've been to 2 Amanda Palmer ninja gigs where she plays basically an entire set for free and if I was a musician with any talent at all of course I would play for her for hugs and beer or whatever (actually I'd take the hugs, she's smoking hot). What goes around comes around.


doubtfulsounds said on the 19th Sep, 2012

It is really just a very temporary musical internship in the same way that media, design, marketing and many other sectors seem to be increasingly using free labour with the excuse/explanation that it is a 'great opportunity' for the person selected. They are essentially generating monetary profit in exchange for someone's time and (possible growth). In the context of running a business it is a safe and clever employment policy.
I write for a number of publications and many times that work is unpaid. I'd love to be (and feel I deserve to be) paid for it all but the reality is there are non-monetary benefits (enjoyment, exposure, experience) that justify the time spent writing those articles that I choose to take. As long there is the opportunity for those good at their craft to do both paid and unpaid work and it works for them then those industries will continue to use those methods.
At the very least Palmer should be actively promoting all of her crowd sourced musicians to those 700,000 Twitter followers and her blog subscribers, providing links to their websites and where to check out and buy their music.


berlinchair101 said on the 19th Sep, 2012

Why are they soulless voids? Session musicians who will play for anyone who offer sound like the kind of people who love playing their instrument. isn't getting paid to do your dream a goal for most people?

I think Brendan made some great points here. There is nothing wrong with playing a show for free if you want, for any reason. I've played unpaid gigs all the time. I don't think anyone is, or at least I'm certainly not, angry at the lucky guys and gals who get to play with their hero. That's actually really awesome. I also have no issue with crowd funded projects. I think they are great as long as everyone is getting something for their input.

I do think this makes Amanda Palmer look cheap and greedy (whether she is or not I'll never know) and makes her fans look like idiots and suckers. She doesn't seem bothered by this though and neither do her fans, and really that's the only people this will concern.

I think Amanda Palmer knows the power she holds over her fan base. She's aware people will do something for her for the privilege of being around her. Did Brendan's recount of Palmer's kind words before his set not make anyone else think of a cult leader commanding her followers. No slight on Brendan's music, which I enjoy, but would he have sold so many cd's without Amanda Palmers say so?

I don't think I've really made a point here. Gumbuoy is right, it's quite funny for people who notoriously steal albums to call someone cheap, but then again two wrongs don't make a right.

The only real victims, if any, are Amanda Palmers fans. And really, isn't being a fan of Amanda Palmer punishment enough.


zaphodm said on the 19th Sep, 2012

and she does. i wouldn't know about brendan without hearing about him through amanda. or kim boekbinder, or zoe keating, or michelangelo & st clare, or tom dickins, or the jane austen argument, or the bedroom philosopher, or helen perris, or becca tilley, etc ... all of which i have purchased cds of theirs or tickets to their shows.

while i can understand the concern, it comes from a place of assuming that amanda takes your service to play that night, and then kicks you to the curb. which isn't the case.

(why does the forum keep stealing my capital letters?)


Braveheart81 said on the 19th Sep, 2012

and makes her fans look like idiots and suckers. She doesn't seem bothered by this though and neither do her fans, and really that's the only people this will concern.

And really, isn't being a fan of Amanda Palmer punishment enough.

So nothing has changed really.


gumbuoy said on the 19th Sep, 2012

You need to get to a certain number of posts before you can use caps. That way we know you're not a filthy spammer, or someone who yells all the time.


illnut said on the 19th Sep, 2012

brendan, this is a totally different issue. you played for free for yourself - in order to promote yourself- so you can sell cds, garner a bigger fanbase. this is akin to a small business operating at a loss until it builds clientele. perfectly sound & reasonable. however ap is aking people to play free for her - so she can sell cds, garner more fans etc this is akin to a small business not paying their staff for the startup period until they start making profit, then waving the same staff goodbye. not on.


Braveheart81 said on the 19th Sep, 2012

People should choose not to do it then.

Everyone is free to make a choice.


helenperris said on the 19th Sep, 2012

thanks for the shout out, zaphodm, and to gumbuoy & kaydee for drawing my attention to this thread.

as a singer-songwriter, i probably wouldn't have a career right now if it wasn't for amanda palmer. it's a long story, and not for this time and place, but if you're interested, i'll tell you. my performing career is still in its infancy and i'm in the middle of a steep learning curve in marketing and promotion. that said, do i have the musical chops? you bet your bippy. i've played music all my life, and have two university degrees to show for it and have been teaching music for longer than i'd like to admit. would i play on stage with amanda palmer for free? definitely. would i do it for anyone else? maybe. it would depend on the situation.

the other weekend i played at the tedx canberra event. for free. i then gigged the next day at a venue that doesn't have a door as such, but has donation buckets. to be honest, that's been my most profitable gig ever (though still way below what i would command doing a corporate gig). this made me wonder if perhaps the musicians who play with amanda will probably profit more from a situation where a hat is passed around (something amanda herself said is likely to happen) than if they were paid a minimum wage.

when i launched my ep in march, i lost money on that gig. the venue took their cut of the door, i split what was left with my two support acts and i paid my band members the amount we'd agreed (which to be honest, was way less than industry rates, but they came up with the numbers, not me) and even with some cd and merch sales, i still didn't even break even. it was really disheartening, especially after i was still (am still!) in debt from self-funding & crowdfunding my ep. when i hear people argue against what amanda has done, using the phrase "for profit, it makes me wonder if they really understand that when independent artists, even successful ones, perform, they themselves are the last to get paid. i don't have the contacts to find out if amanda has budgeted a salary for herself on tour, but i certainly doubt that if she has, it'd cover much. sure, she could raise ticket prices and pay the musicians out of that. but would the musicians actually get a better deal in the end? i'm not sure. this is why i don't exactly agree with how she's asked for these musicians, but i don't disagree either. in the end, it's up to the musicians to choose whether it's worth it to them.

the problem is there is no panacea for the state of the music industry. what works for some doesn't work for others. it's a messed up and broken industry and all players are merely trying to navigate their way through in a way that works for them. i chose to crowdfund, to regularly engage with fans and to play for little/free because at the moment, it seems to be working for me. i'm building an audience. i still have to teach and i'm still in debt, but i feel this is working for me more than waiting for paid opportunities would. even if i sang harmonies on amanda's songs on stage with her, and not my own material, i could guarantee i'd end up with an increase in my audience, just because the audience would want to find out who i was. so to me, it'd be worth it. to others, who are professional musicians but don't create their own material, maybe it wouldn't be. and to others still, who perhaps were good enough to go pro but chose a different career instead, maybe just the buzz of playing with someone like amanda palmer would be enough.

so in the end, it really has to be the choice of the musician. because only the individual can decide if it's worth it.


gumbuoy said on the 19th Sep, 2012

I think you've got your points of view mixed up.

Amanda Palmer asked Brendan to play for free. Brendan considered it, and said yes.

Amanda Palmer is now asking other musos to play for free, and they are considering it, and some are (presumably) saying yes.

If your small business metaphor applies to Brendan, it applies to this situation too. These musos will be doing the same thing Brendan did - "operating at a loss to build clientele."

I get that they won't be playing their own songs, but Amanda's done a pretty good job in the past of promoting her supporting players, so it's crazy to think she'll just dismiss them out of hand while they're doing their thing.


pluginbaby said on the 19th Sep, 2012

are they turning down a paid gig to go and play for free with amanda? i think that's a question nobody has thought to ask. if they're turning down a paid gig for a free one, then maybe reassess their priorities in terms of making a living out of music. but realistically, if they're not busy, and get an opportunity to play with a musician they respect and admire, why shouldn't they? they can always not volunteer if they feel that they are being exploited. it's not up to us to decide whether they are being exploited or not.
people have the right to make their own choices. if that means playing for free, who are we to criticise? they are making that choice of their own free will, and know going into it that they won't be getting paid cash to do it. it's not up to people on the outside to make decisions and rulings on whether or not it's right.


kaydee said on the 19th Sep, 2012

And after all that Amanda Palmer has announced she will be paying her guest crowd sourced musicians.


doubtfulsounds said on the 20th Sep, 2012 read her full about-face statement here.


grattan said on the 20th Sep, 2012

my management team tweaked and reconfigured financials, pulling money from this and that other budget (mostly video) and moving it to the tour budget. 
all of the money we took out of those budgets is going to the crowd-sourced musicians fund. we are going to pay the volunteer musicians every night. even though they volunteered their time for beer, hugs, merch, free tickets, and love: we’ll now also hand them cash.

i hope this does two things: i hope it makes the volunteers surprised and happy (they’ll be getting some dough they had no idea was coming) and i also hope it makes our family circle feel good about speaking out.

when we handed the musicians their surprise cash backstage in new orleans the other last night, they laughed like mad and said “after ALL THAT, you’re going PAY US??!!”


retrovertigo said on the 20th Sep, 2012

steve albini should pull his head in. as if he hasn't had mates help him out with shows in the past where they didn't get paid!
no-one is getting hurt here, amanda is being totally upfront with everything - the volunteers know what they're in for - and i bet they're completely stoked they're getting a chance to be part of their heroes live show.
all those precious "career muso's" who're whining are just jealous that their own sour-grapes-holier-than-thou attitude towards music hasn't earned them any friends or fans who actually give a shit.


Demosthenes said on the 21st Sep, 2012

Not necessarily to "build clientele". Some -- perhaps many -- might do it because it's a cool sounding project to be involved in. Not everyone who plays music aspires to be a professional musician, and even professional musicians don't necessarily want, or have to turn a profit. They have other ways of paying the rent.

In the same way I could be said to be a professional gig photographer and reviewer, even though I don't make a single cent from it. Guess what? I don't care: my rent is covered.

Ian Rogers (once of Iron On, and now of No Anchor and Ambrose Chapel) phrases it far more elegantly than i could, so I'm just going to outright nick his words:

I started studying the people around me. Some were aspirant professional musicians. Some were professional-amateurs (they earned, they were professional, but only ever part-time). Some were hobbyists. The hobbyists didn’t really seem to care about music careers – and they weren’t just saying that! These people were not anarchists or artistes. To the contrary, they had jobs and relationships and children and home loans and interests and they juggled these concrete everyday things with playing in bands, sometimes really weird and noisy bands. And they seemed pretty happy about it. They seemed especially happy with music in the doing: booking and playing shows, recording at home, screening t-shirts, updating their websites and being a part of a community of like-minded bands.

This was music as an advanced form of leisure. Like touch football, but not as lame and with more parties.

As soon as I looked at these people in a detached scholarly way, I realised something that never seems to be said often enough:

[Commercial success and professionalism sits on the fringe of music, not in the centre. [//b]

In today’s world, the big commercial bands are actually the marginal product. That’s part of what makes them seem so extraordinary, sure. But that stuff is not what music is about. That ‘superstar’ end of music is not the dead centre or the overriding theme or the core story any more. Being in a crappy local band, that’s what playing music actually is for most of the people, most of the time. That type of music-making is a huge part of people’s everyday lives. And while local band music may not be popularly celebrated or as listened to by Joe Public, in the world of musicians it’s the majority product by a huge degree. It’s the typical experience.

Seems to me that a lot of folk who are happy to help Amanda Palmer fit this mould.


neoanderson004 said on the 3rd Oct, 2012

some companies provides their own printer t-shirts for their employees. but some big organisations provide their own name printed on the business shirts to their employees. business shirts gives a feel to an employee that he is working for the company,


CASK said on the 5th Oct, 2012

i would easily have done it for free, just for the pure experience and chance to perform with a professional act


nos235 said on the 5th Oct, 2012

You'd think Neil would make enough to completely fund her.