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)