The artist occasionally known as Amanda Fucking Palmer would like to make one thing clear: She is not a charity case. Ever since she raised nearly $1.2 million through Kickstarter, though, people have been throwing around the dreaded d-word: donation.
“It’s been sort of crushing to see the headlines that say ‘Fans Donate a Million Dollars to Amanda Palmer,’” says the artist. “If you’ve ever run a small business, you understand how painful that is, because there’s nothing donation about it.”
As is dictated by the Kickstarter model, rather than simply bestowing money upon the artist, every single contributor paid to pre-order a physical good or service that Palmer will have to make good on, like any business. These contributions were purchases, not donations. But more than that, the fans making them were also voting with their wallets for a new system of paying for music from their favorite artists; one that bypasses labels and other intermediaries completely. And, in Palmer’s case, the vote was a landslide. With $1.2 million raised, Palmer set a new benchmark for music projects on Kickstarter. That result is exciting but it’s not really surprising. The platform is tailor-made for someone like Palmer--a recognized artist who has always cultivated a close relationship with her fans. Funding her album via Kickstarter just allows her to take that relationship to the next level, allowing fans to feel literally invested in the art and artist they love.
Palmer’s Kickstarter page went live May 1. The campaign video featured the kimono-clad artist communicating her intentions via hand written cards, Dylan style, and declaring that "This is the future of music."
The gist of her message and the campaign, was that Palmer wanted to raise enough money to mix, manufacture, distribute, promote, and tour the album she’d just recorded with her new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, without the aid of any record label. It would be her first album since 2008's Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, which she’d recorded with Roadrunner Records before leaving the label. The goal amount was $100K. It wouldn’t be enough to pay for everything Roadrunner would have paid for, but it would be more than enough to get her started.
A single dollar would buy fans a digital download of the album. For every increasing price point, there was another enticing extra; offerings included collectibles such as custom-painted turntables, the chance to eat donuts with Palmer backstage before a show, or having her and the band play a house party. Overall, 24,883 backers bit and the initiative made its goal back ten times over.
As a result, the record will see a traditional rollout in stores this September, with radio play, press, and all the other traditional trappings of an album cycle in the works. However, anyone who picks it up in stores will not receive the 30 pages of song-inspired album art or the thank-you card inside the $25 Kickstarter-backer editions. And they definitely won’t have the full art book from the $100 package, with new material from artists and musicians like DJ Spooky, Robyn Hitchcock, Shepard Fairey, and Palmer’s husband, Neil Gaiman.
Circumventing the middle man obviously creates a greater sense of intimacy with fans, but it also puts a greater onus on the artist to deliver what the patrons are paying for on their own terms. It’s a responsibility every artist has to deal with in one way or another. “A lot of the questions that are coming up because of the Kickstarter model end up being very personal questions about whether and how artists want to run their own businesses," Palmer says. "For a certain kind of artist, it’s much more comfortable to have someone else doing the wheeling and dealing and hustling for you, whereas artists like me would much rather be at ground control, directing the business.”
Despite her status as an avant-garde punk-cabaret firestarter, Palmer is also a born businesswoman; she just happens to have never wanted a career in business. Even at a young age, though, her performance proclivities hinted toward an entrepreneurial bent. At age 8, she was hosting art gallery shows in her parents’ living room, charging them for admission and beverages from their own refrigerator. At age 30, she was chafing against the strictures of a record label that wouldn’t take her marketing plans seriously.
“My independence is the mother of invention because I can boil all my business decisions down to the fundamental fact that I hate being told what to do,” she says. “When I was at a major label, I was punished for my enthusiasm. The bigger and stranger and crazier my ideas were, the more of a pain in the ass I was. Whereas through the Kickstarter model, I can get as big and weird and wild as I want and I don’t have to go somewhere for permission--I simply do it.”
The recent influx of cash has freed Palmer from the need to convince a boardroom that her ideas have merit. Although the technological means of procuring these funds are new, crowdfunding is something she’s had experience in for a long time. Before they were signed to a label, her former band The Dresden Dolls pre-sold big packages for their debut album before taking that capital and actually manufacturing the product. Also, later, the band would unhappily buy their unsold albums back from Roadrunner and repackage them in special fan editions. Palmer and her bandmates were able to keep the profit from these sales since they were now on the ledger as merchandise, which the label couldn’t touch.
Since those days, Kickstarter has established a new way for Palmer and any like-minded artist to pre-sell their wares on a mass scale. “Kickstarter has given a safe, reliable way for fans to give their money,” she says. “If I had been doing this just off the back end of my own website, the hardcore fans would be in like a shot, but I think the more casual fans might be suspicious of giving me their credit card information.”
While Kickstarter has helped plenty of fledgling artists get their projects off the ground, the $10K-per-contributor loan-ceiling could be potentially stifling for established artists whose grand, track record-supported ideas required more money. Amanda Palmer figured out an innovative way to get around this limit.
Earlier this year, she established The LoanSpark Collective , an organization that facilitates interest-free loans in exchange for "creative interest." Her Kickstarter page linked to LoanSpark, where wealthier patrons could arrange meatier loans that Palmer would pay back after the album cycle, along with performing an additional private show or benefit as interest. She was inundated with offers. Eventually she had to start refusing them so as to not take on any more loans.
Offers ranged from trust funders in their early 20s who had really connected with the artist on some level over the years, to the venture capitalist from London who had never heard of her until her Kickstarter made headlines and introduced him to her music; he gave a $50K loan the next day. A domino effect had begun and Palmer’s momentum soon netted bigger contributions.
“A lot was really riding on the energy of the Kickstarter,” she says. “The beautiful thing about a project like this is that the voice of the masses of people who were giving $1-$25 inspired trust in people who were willing to loan me $50K—because they were watching the story unfold, and they felt like something legitimate was happening.”
The only problem now is going to be coordinating all the promised engagements. “We had an 18-month touring schedule already planned out for Amanda that we built before all this,” says Kevin Wortis, director of label services at Girlie Action, the New York City-based company that manages Palmer. “There are 34 or so private shows she promised to do during the campaign, and we’re having to look creatively at the world map to coordinate trips to Australia from South Africa and over to Israel, but she’ll do them all.“
Taking care of a 10-person crew’s salaries and travel expenses over the course of a lengthy tour is going to eat up most of the money that Palmer received. (She has a detailed breakdown of where it’s all going up on her blog.) In addition to making the products more beautiful, filming some epic videos, paying Internet staff, and making sure all the Kickstarter supporters are taken care of, Palmer made sure there was room in the budget for at least one arguably well deserved extravagance. She spent $10K throwing a typically theatrical thank-you party in Brooklyn on June 1st to celebrate with some of the people who made it possible. This move is endemic of the close relationship Amanda Palmer has with her fans.
"Mutual communication between [Amanda] and her fan base is extremely high,” says Wortis. “ It’s more than I’ve ever seen from any other client or artist I’ve ever been around."
Now those fans get to feel like they’ve made the kind of contribution to an album that the artists who’ve helped support manic collaborator Palmer have over the years. A big incentive for Kickstarter backers was just getting to be part of the story, and knowing they were instrumental in putting out a new record by Amanda Fucking Palmer.
“People love supporting artists,” Amanda says. “That is a fundamental truth the music industry has overlooked as they’ve tried to figure out ways of tricking people out of their money. They work on the assumption that people would rather rip artists off, and it’s absolutely not true." She adds: "You just have to make it feasible and convenient for them to kick back to the artists they love, and they will do it in a heartbeat.”
In the kind of coda rarely glimpsed outside of third-act montage sequences in bad movies, within days of Palmer’s successful experiment with a new industry model, a certain arm of the old model met with an ominous blow: The artist’s former label, Roadrunner Records, laid off staff and shuttered its global office after a corporate buyout. There could be perhaps no clearer case made for the benefits of fierce independence.