Why I Volunteered To Play With Amanda Palmer

The web was abuzz yesterday after a New York Times Arts blogger published this article about how for her current tour Amanda Palmer is soliciting volunteer local string, sax and brass players to perform with her in each city’s show.

Other bloggers piled on bemoaning that musicians should be paid. Facebook threads got acrimonious. People who don’t understand what it actually takes to pull off a tour and album release (never mind Kickstarter rewards fulfillment to nearly 25,000 people) with NO corporate support complained that she was being a cheap “millionaire.” My personal favorite snipe was the person who claimed she “owns an expensive condo in the South End” – they had obviously never been inside the Cloud Club, which is two 4-story narrow brownstones cobbled together out of found objects by owner and outsider artist Lee Barron. He lets upcoming artists live there for free – AP was one of those (and the last time I was in that part of the house she still seems to have rooms there).

The controversy appears to be fueled by people who view AP in the same way they view Lady Gaga – a top-tier famous musician with lots of fans touring a massive show. They may have heard of AP when she was in the Dresden Dolls, they know she tweets a lot (as does Gaga, but AP’s tweeting is several orders of magnitude more), but basically she is seen by non-fans as another greedy (some adding “untalented” since her music is not to their taste) superstar trying to take advantage of fans desperate to have any contact with her.

Add to this that she is recruiting volunteers from instrumental groups most often associated with the Classical genre. Members of this group are more accustomed to getting paid a decent wage for any professional activity – though it’s becoming a different economic world for them recently (several orchestras have locked out their players after failed contract negotiations). Aside from top-tier record company-sponsored bands, Rock musicians hardly ever draw a salary and consider themselves lucky to earn gas money most nights from a club/bar gig.

As a string player with a foot in both musical worlds I make my choices on where to perform based on who is asking, what is being asked, and is it fun? Some examples:

GB (“General Business”) gig for strangers: This could be providing background music for a party, wedding, corporate event, etc. I charge my full rate ($100-150/hr), plus mileage if outside of Route 128, plus additional if I’m asked to hire other players or arrange specific non-standard music (e.g., cover a Pop song). This is pure business for me – no advantage in doing it for cheap or free.

Donate my performance for a benefit/cause: If this is to benefit someone I know personally (e.g., the friends recently burned out of their home) I just do it. If I’m requested to play at a benefit with which I have no other connection it’s a little trickier – the IRS does not consider performing to be a “donation” for tax deduction. Assuming it is a registered charity I need to be officially paid for playing as a GB gig, then donate that amount to the group and receive a receipt from them that I made a cash donation.

Ringer for an orchestra: e.g., the local community orchestra only has two violists, so more are hired just before the concert to beef up the section. The rate for this is usually $25 per service – “service” being one rehearsal or one concert. So for two rehearsals and one concert I’d be paid $75. I don’t bother doing these anymore, as that $75 means 10-15 hours of my time depending on location, and I’m not into playing Classical for fun.

Session player: i.e., a musician/band wants to record string parts on some songs for their album so a bunch of us show up at the recording studio for the session.

  • For people I don’t know I charge a rate similar to the GB rate, amount depending on whether I’m just to read a score they have written or am requested to write a string part based on being given a rough mix of the songs.
  • For people I do know whose music I like and want to support I’m willing to take a smaller honorarium (usually $25-$50) for several hours of work, or sometimes in-kind pay (food, copies of the album, tickets to their show, etc), especially if they are people I know I can call on in turn when I’m working on a project that requires their expertise.

Auxiliary/emergency band member: I’m a music slut and like to be challenged. So sometimes I will agree to perform with a local band when their usual string player can’t. This can be a time challenge (e.g., “can you learn 8 Whiskeytown covers for our Halloween gig tomorrow?!”) or an opportunity to play with a group I admire/am friends with (e.g., subbing for some 28 Seeds shows with Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys). My “payment” for these gigs is frequently exactly what AP is offering: some drinks, a band tee shirt or albums, gratitude for helping the band put on a kickass show.

From my perspective Amanda Palmer is a member of the Boston music community, the same as me and my other musician friends who support each others’ projects. She’s a friend of my friends. After working her ass off for many years she has climbed a few rungs further up the ladder, and done so while doing her damnedest to remain a human being in touch with other human beings outside of her band.

She works hard NOT to be put on a pedestal – so in that respect her Kickstarter success works against her. People for whom she has just come into view see her though the lens of that million dollars. I see her as one of the many people in my community who I support, who has managed some larger success while holding onto more of her soul than is frequently the case. I’m willing to volunteer half a day of my time to support that.

[Addendum: later today AP blogged her own reply to this controversy]

[Addendum 19 Sept: AP will pay prior and upcoming volunteer musicians for this tour]

 (Disclosure: I did submit my information volunteering to perform in AP’s Boston shows, but as of this date I have not been asked to do so as of 9/24 I have been invited, and have accepted)

[Addendum 20 Nov: And I did play at her 3 Boston shows last weekend] (photo by Adam Solomon – all rights reserved):

Amanda and Friends

(That’s me to the right of AFP, in the tie)

23 thoughts on “Why I Volunteered To Play With Amanda Palmer

  1. and I just want to note RE 28 Seeds – Betty went WAY above and beyond on volunteering to help us for those performances where she pinch hit! She came to several rehearsals and transcribed the music AND wore a corset (also she contributed to the kickstarter that helped produce the actual production) AND loaned us equipment to help us be able to hear ourselves during the show – really above and beyond and no amount of money could ever express our deep thanks for that (in fact it COST her $ to do it)


  2. Awesome post. Clearly written, well assembled. You can write AND play an instrument? You are awesome. AFP would be lucky to have you!

  3. Here here! Betty, you have eloquently given us food or thought! Thank you for your textual and musical offerings. What does Betty know? A hell of a lot.

  4. I’m sorry, I’ve done spec work before, for magazines with no budget who were having trouble surviving week to week.

    If any of those magazines suddenly got 1.2 million dollars to put out an issue, donated from it’s readers, and they still couldn’t budget to pay their writers and illustrators, there’s a word for the people who still contributed content:


    Don’t be a sucker. Amanda is exploiting you.

    • Or sadly, maybe musicians and artists are so used to being underpaid and exploited that they now can’t see a truly egregious case of exploitation when it’s there.

      In the long run this mistake will cost Amanda a lot of fans. I hope it was worth it to save a few bucks on a tour she should have budgeted for to begin with.

      • 1. Is Amanda getting paid on this tour?
        2. Are all of the people who are helping Amanda get paid, getting paid?

        Pretty simple equation people. Don’t devalue music.

    • If you have not read the breakdown of where her Kickstarter money went, please see here.

      Re your magazine analogy: I’d compare AP’s project to the Twenty-four Magazine projectthey did a Kickstarter to fund their initial issue (1) and paid contributors an honorarium , but for the subsequent issues their plan to get advertising and subscription to pay contributors did not work out, so contributors have “volunteered”.

      (1) – No, it was not for $1.2 million – yes, a million dollars will buy you more than a cup of coffee, but the emotional effect of hearing “a million” affects most people’s ability to then think rationally about how far that actually goes in the current economy for the scope of her project.

      • I should say that I support your right to volunteer for whoever or whatever you want, and to feel about it however you feel. I also don’t have any knowledge of Amanda Palmer as a person as opposed to a crafted media image (which seems, fairly or unfairly, to have sustained some pretty serious damage) so I don’t know the whole truth. I still have some problems with this whole thing though.

        The big number for me in her breakdown wasn’t actually 1.2 million. It was $250,000 on paying off some debts and staff costs. That sounds like a lot to me.

        The other point I found troubling was comparing the touring budget that she set herself of $20k, compared to the massive amount of money spent on all the other promotional stuff (payments to artists, fancy books written by her genius husband and photographer friend), which dwarfed the music costs entirely.

        The problem with music, to use Steve Albini’s phrase, is that the musicians hardly ever see any of the money which is poured into the creative process. It all gets siphoned off into lot of peripheries and musicians are almost an afterthought. I kind of find it a shame that she’s claiming her approach is the future of music whilst replicating a lot of the problems of the old way. I love Kickstarter’s potential and the idea of crowdfunding records. I just think there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

        Promotion seems to be her main priority. That would be why she’s paying musicians to perform with her in the big media markets with her like New York (where more journalists will see if anything goes wrong) and not the smaller ones. That would seem to go against her stated aim of trying to keep it real and be down with the Kids.

        The bottom line is that if she couldn’t afford to put on a big-scale show, she should have simply done a smaller show. It’s called working within your means. I saw Richard Thompson on tour a while back. It was just him and a guitar, and it was absolutely spellbinding. He had his own soundman with him, I’d have thought that was about it for touring crew, maybe a driver? Brilliant show. No need for all the other nonsense if you’re actually really good.

        Actually, I heard about a literary tour this obscure bunch of authors did recently. It sounded fairly good. A nice unpretentious, simply wonderful tour which involved performers just communicating directly with people with no fluff, no fanfares, no pointless excess. Maybe Ms Palmer should talk to one of them about how they did it:

        • I don’t know if you already know this – and if you do, I apologize for not catching on to that fact – but I imagine that Amanda Palmer is already familiar with the literary tour, given that her husband is involved.

  5. pro bono publico in latin legal speak, or as expressed in this post “helping the band put on a kickass show”. attorneys also tier charges according to the size of the client (who doesn’t want to help the feisty start-up) and even an asshole tax for difficult clients.

  6. I speak as another string player with their feet firmly planted in the rock world and classical realm respectively: I have played with nationally touring bands, been a session musician for film scores and albums alike, and cut my teeth in local Boston area bands. As such, my experience gives me this perspective:

    I have played for enough larger entities to understand that it is not an uncommon occurrence for performers to undercut their backing musicians, whether they are part of a union forbidding this sort of behavior or no. Anyone who has put their energy into the arts, turning a love into a career, knows this happens. An important detail is how this action is viewed: people do not proudly proclaim their intention to take advantage of their performers. Amanda has spun the backroom cut-throat behavior of “professionals” into something inclusive and positive. Because of the debate Amanda’s call to perform has sparked, I already have seen performers coming forward to say, “shouldn’t you be performing for the love and the music?”
    I love my art, my music is everything; but I am a musician in the real world, not a happy bohemia fantasy where I can eat and wear music (as delightful as that would be). The arts should not be considered a luxury.
    Amanda is sending a message to the powers that be, showing a very clear “how to” guide in cutting costs. Making a living in this day and age is difficult enough as it is without being in the arts; behavior like this is part of the problem. More importantly even, her message devaluates the very thing she on surface appears to be so passionate about. If crowdfunding is such a better business model than working through a record label, then WHY can she not afford touring musicians?

    Further more, those who assert that this “play-for-lulz” is intended for fans and not pro’s have never truly dealt with a nationally touring entity, or with pro/semi-pro musicians doing whatever they can to gain traction with an audience or beef up their resume.
    Grand Theft Orchestra seems rather apt to me.

    To be clear I do work for free on occasion, if it is a cause I believe in, or a situation where I know I am not being taken advantage of. I do not consider an internationally touring entity with a sold out tour and $1.2 Million kickstarter to be a “cause I believe in.” The way Amanda breaks down her crowdfunded capital is all well and good, and yet…: is she planning on selling no merch on tour? what about ticket sales? The math does not add up.

    It appears to me that you have made the personal decision that you need not be financially reimbursed for your time. Which is your decision.
    I also believe it is a dangerous decision, as it sets a precedent. I continue to advise the artists I know to not give away their talent for free, and I would advise you to do the same.
    There are enough ads on craigslist begging for free labor, Amanda really need not join the rabble.

  7. BTW, I want to thank all those commenting for keeping it civil even when expressing strong feelings. My main reason for moderating this blog is to double-check the spam filters, but so far I have not needed to refuse any real response.

  8. Pingback: Why Amanda Palmer Sucks.

    • Ironically, when growing up as a classical player I looked forward to the day when I was “pro” enough to be able to join the musicians’ union. I was even awarded a full 8-week scholarship for a summer string program they used to run (on viola, which I’d played for 8 weeks at that time, on 3 days notice to leave – because my friend’s father the Local president had been told he had to dig up a teen violist from somewhere). But when I looked at the Local 10 yrs ago (and just now) I saw:

      • A performance calendar listing one member’s concert
      • A hiring list whose “Rock” category listed 3 options, one of whom was a cellist listing it among many genres.
      • A membership info page listing one meeting this year

      My choice only effects other musicians if they are not offering something a buyer wants at a price they will pay. Seth Godin’s post today says it well IMO:

      If you want to get paid for your freelance work
      …then saying “how dare you” is no longer a useful way to cajole the bride away from asking her friend to take pictures at the wedding, or the local non-profit to have a supporter typeset the gala’s flyer or to keep a rock star from inviting volunteers on stage.

      …then you ought to find and lead a tribe, build a base of people who want you, and only you, and are willing to pay for it.

      …then you need to develop both skills and a reputation for those skills that make it clear to (enough) people that an amateur solution isn’t nearly good enough, because you’re that much better and worth that much more.

      …then you should pick yourself and book yourself and publish yourself and stand up and do your work, and do it in a way for which there are no substitutes.

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