It’s almost midnight, and Amanda Palmer is naked.
We’re down to the final minutes of the singer-songwriter-provocateur’s month-long Kickstarter campaign, a crowdfunding effort that shocked the entertainment world by becoming the site’s most successful music-based project to date. The pledges--which had an official target of $100,000, and which had privately been budgeted to hit $500,000--have already topped a million dollars.
To celebrate the countdown, Palmer, who the Huffington Post called "the social media queen of rock & roll," is throwing a six-hour, block-party-style celebration in a parking lot behind some warehouses along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. To a surprisingly "classic pop" soundtrack (the Jackson 5, the Who, Ray Charles), she and her crew dressed up in old-time bathing suits and frolicked in an aquarium-style clear box on the back of a truck, scribbling the names of everyone who contributed on pages ripped out of phone books and holding each one up to the laptop that’s webcasting the event. In the end, it will be almost 25,000 names, each of whom pledged between $1 and $10,000 for a menu of products and experiences ranging from a download of her new album, Theatre is Evil, (out Tuesday, Sept. 11) to art books and customized turntables, up to private concerts and dinners with the artist.
There are stiltwalkers, a magician, a bicycle tricked out like a pirate ship. Some kind of elaborate, fire-based performance is happening in one of the warehouses, adding some danger to the evening, but it’s mostly good, clean backyard fun for a group of 500 or so fans that, other than a few Goth kids and lingerie-clad supporters, looks like a happy and fresh-faced group of Brooklyn creatives.
As the first seconds of June 1st approach, Palmer, who first rose to prominence with the "punk cabaret" duo the Dresden Dolls, scoots off to the side, peels off the bathing suit, and slips into a dress made of balloons that a fan brought to the event (fans are constantly sending her art and clothes inspired by her songs; a few weeks later, in the middle of an interview, she’ll try on some chain mail that had recently found its way to her). She carefully proceeds to the center of the party, and invites the crowd to pop the balloons; soon enough she’s naked but for rubber boots and a nautical cap, triumphant and beaming.
Her Kickstarter page features a photo of Palmer--“Amanda Fucking Palmer” to her fans, or usually just “AFP”--holding a sign that says, "This is the future of music." At this moment in Gowanus, it’s a startling vision of the future: a woman who has won complete control of her own creative work, in various media, encouraging her audience to strip her bare in communal celebration.
"Amanda Palmer is the future of indie artist, music business, entrepreneur creator, and self-made rock star," says Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, whose band recently recorded a duet with her. "If there is any new light that is shining the new way, it is her."
After the clock strikes 12, and the final Kickstarter total is logged at just shy of $1.2 million, Palmer and her three-piece group, the Grand Theft Orchestra, sprint a few blocks away for a last-minute performance in a loft space, a gift for several hundred of the more generous backers who pledged $300 and up. It’s her crowning moment, the culmination of a decade-long career, but Palmer uses the opportunity to emphasize the idea that her business plan is not the only way, that simply imitating her strategy won’t solve the crisis of the modern music industry.
During a spoken introduction to "The Bed Song," Palmer recounts how she was having trouble staying focused as she was writing the song at her home in Boston, and was taking breaks and sending tweets and writing other things and generally feeling distracted. She felt wracked with guilt, because she thought that this wasn’t the way the creative process is supposed to work. When it was done, though, she realized it was one of the songs she was proudest of, and it’s become one of her own favorites. The point of the story was that there are no rules--that in art and in commerce, everyone has to go with whatever works for them.
"I proselytize a lot of this stuff, but I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m up on a soapbox saying that everyone has to tweet and blog and Kickstart and run their careers like Amanda Palmer," she will say a few weeks later. "Every generation clearly has its advantages and disadvantages for different styles of artists, and I just happen to be really lucky that my personality and my predilection for being super-social are going to work for me now because the world is what it is."
To spend time around Amanda Palmer is to feel lazy. She seems to work all day, every day, with a blazing sense of mission. On this summer afternoon in New York City, her room in a swank Soho hotel looks like a teenager’s bedroom, with clothes and gear and flotsam strewn everywhere; she chomps on a hunk of watermelon as she scrolls through the to-do list on the laptop that serves as command center for her whole life. Highlights include:
- Work out how to break up the verses in "Burning Down the House" when David Byrne guests at her show the following night.
- Make a mix for playwright Tom Stoppard.
- Write the intro for Cory Doctorow’s book on copyright wars.
Earlier in the day, she finished an intro for a different book, a collection of her best friend’s short stories. Tonight she will visit a used bookstore to personally pick out and buy 100 books for the gift bags for a Kickstarter-backer gallery show later in the week. In the hotel room tomorrow, she’ll play keyboard into a MIDI for the Theatre is Evil sheet music; "pretty much everyone doesn’t do that," she says, "they just have a dude listen to the chords, but I want the fans to know how I actually play these songs, not just what the chords are." Throughout all of this, Palmer continues to steadily tweet and blog and maintain her dedication to the principle that every single person who emails her gets a response. "Sometimes they don’t get an answer for four months, but no matter how stupid the question, how small the outlet, how teeny the college fanzine, they at least deserve an answer."
Influential music industry gadfly Bob Lefsetz, who has been following and corresponding with Palmer about her methods, recently summarized her greatest differentiator in his widely read blog. "You’re just not willing to work that hard," he told his readership. "If she sleeps, it’s not for long … But that’s what it takes to make it today. Hard work. Are you prepared?"
Palmer, 36, counters that her drive and her work ethic are nothing new, and that’s why she is careful to remind people that the Kickstarter campaign didn’t come out of nowhere, but was the realization of a long-term vision. After graduating from Wesleyan University, she formed the Dresden Dolls in 2000 as a piano-drums duo--a kind of gender-swapped White Stripes in corsets and eyeliner--with Brian Viglione. Palmer financed the band’s early efforts with a series of jobs including work as a street-performing living statue called “The Eight-Foot Bride,” nude model, clothes-check girl at an illicit loft that threw sex and fetish parties, stripper, and professional dominatrix.
Meantime, the band was getting more recognition; in 2003, they won radio station WBCN’s long-running battle of the Boston bands, the "Rock & Roll Rumble." They signed to Roadrunner Records, a label best known for such heavy metal acts as Slipknot and Sepultura. Soon, though, Palmer started to figure out just how stacked the economics and creative restrictions of a label deal were against an emerging artist; she told Pitchfork that "Roadrunner don’t have the infrastructure to help me with what I actually need to do as an artist."
She put the band on hold and focused on her (more rock-based and New Wave-y but no less theatrical) solo work. After the label instructed her to re-edit the video for "Leeds United" to make her look slimmer, Palmer began performing a song called "Please Drop Me" ("Please drop me, what do I have to do?" she sang, "I’m tired of sucking corporate dick"), and she enlisted her fans in a protest to get the band off Roadrunner.
Palmer had already started turning to the possibilities of the Internet to engage her small-but-rabid following. She was booking her own tours, including unannounced, flash-mob style "ninja gigs" (leading bicycle clubs through the streets in New Zealand, getting arrested in Amsterdam), and securing her own lodging directly with her fans; she claimed that between food and sleeping accommodations, she saved $50,000 on her 2010 solo tour. That same year, she sold $15,000 of music and merch from her Bandcamp page in just three minutes. One Friday night at home, she came up with the idea for a T-shirt design, had it mocked up, and took $19,000 worth of orders for the shirt, all in three hours.
Palmer will turn up online taking song requests or running a live auction of stuff in her apartment or posting naked pictures of herself--anything to remain in constant contact with her audience, all the while sharing and trading thoughts and secrets with more and more smart, weird kids. "While you were sleeping," her webmaster Sean Francis has said, "Amanda Palmer built an army." "I tweet all day," she once wrote. "I share my life. My REAL life. The ugly things, the hard things. I monitor my blog religiously. I read the comments. I ask for advice. I answer questions. I fix problems … There is no marketing trick. There is human connection, and you can’t fake it. It takes time and effort and, most importantly: you have to actually LIKE it, otherwise you’ll be miserable."
By this time, the emphasis in her daily work had shifted from making music to some kind of larger project. She maintains, though, that this recalibration didn’t start with her embrace of social media, but with her initial commitment to becoming a professional.
"I stopped spending a lot of time making music the minute I started the Dresden Dolls," she says. "All of a sudden, my life went from being pretty lo-fi, bohemian, with lots of free time to trying to make a band happen. This is an uncomfortable topic for a lot of musicians--which is that making music isn’t the fun part, it’s a path to getting to the people. I think a lot of musicians feel like that, but there’s a lot of shame in admitting it. There’s this idea that an artist should want to make art in an empty room whether anyone is watching or not, and I think that’s total bullshit. And the older I get the more honest I can be about why I was driven to do all this in the first place.
"I spent a long time in my 20s feeling really guilty, not so much that I didn’t play the piano well, but that I didn’t want to learn. It wasn’t that I was lazy, I was doing lots of shit, I just didn’t want to do that. And finally, after years and years of struggling, I got to the point of who gives a fuck? If you don’t like practicing the piano, just don’t, because whatever you’re doing is working. If the piano is just a tool like everything else for you to pound on, just use it that way."
Palmer’s greater concern now seems to lie in demystifying the process of creativity and what it means to be an artist. She is prone to starting her blog posts with "Hola, Comrades!" and recently signed off on a post with “We are the media, mofos!” In her irresistible manifesto "Ukulele Anthem," she sings, "Quit the bitching on your blog/And stop pretending art is hard/Just limit yourself to three chords/And do not practice daily."
As Palmer’s following has grown, it’s become an increasingly interesting question: Are her fans there for her music, or to be part of her movement? And does it matter? At the Kickstarter party, she debuted the new album for the crowd during the last hour. Mostly, they didn’t seem to stop what they were doing to listen too closely, preferring to keep the festivities going.
Yet her credentials are impressive: performances with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall, a residency at the Spiegeltent at Edinburgh, a fever-pitch performance at the 2009 Coachella Festival, and the role of the Emcee in a sold-out 2010 run of “Cabaret” with the American Repertory Theater.
"Despite her album title, I loved that she was bringing some theater, alt-cabaret, and a little healthy anarchy to the pop music world," says David Byrne, who remembers first seeing the Dresden Dolls open for (he thinks) Nine Inch Nails. "In the era when recordings are becoming less viable as a way of making a living, the performance increasingly becomes something folks will pay to see--if there is indeed a good show. I think Ms. Palmer knows that."
That’s not to say plenty aren’t impressed by her recordings. Nerd-pop star Ben Folds, who produced Palmer’s last album, 2008's Who Killed Amanda Palmer, took to his Facebook page in July when she first sent him Theatre is Evil. "This album is a classic," he wrote. "It’s inventive, expressive, free, dangerous, sad, funny, outrageous, well executed, full of accidents and intention, unique, beautiful, ugly, loud, quiet … She’s a technical monster, a hard worker and courageous. And I’m not worried about giving her a big head--she fuckin’ high fives herself after every take anyway haha."
When she returned to New York a few weeks after the Kickstarter event, one of the stops was the private show for big-ticket backers at Brooklyn’s Momenta Gallery. In dizzying summer heat and surrounded by about 50 of the art pieces commissioned as part of the multi-media Theatre is Evil project, Palmer gives a performance so stripped-down that she sometimes sings without a microphone and her drummer is literally banging on pots and pans. She plays some of the new songs, and covers from her canon of heroes--Nirvana, Radiohead, Lou Reed. No speeches, no business talk; she’s here with her true believers, who already know the deal, and she sounds great, and they love it.
And at the end of the night, once again, Amanda Palmer stands on a chair, drops the vintage dress she’s wearing, and asks her fans to take out the magic markers she gave them and autograph every inch of her naked, sweaty body.
For her first album since breaking with Roadrunner, Palmer assembled a new band, went to Australia, and recorded at her own expense. Only when it was done did she turn to the fans she had been cultivating for all these years and mobilize all of the goodwill she had built up through genuine human contact.
"since i’m now without a giant label to front the gazillions of dollars that it always takes to manufacture and promote a record this big, i’m coming to you to gather funds so that i have the capital to put it out with a huge fucking bang,” she wrote on March 31st. “i think kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms like this are the BEST way to put out music right now--no label, no rules, no fuss, no muss. just us, the music, and the art. i’m also making sure EVERY PRODUCT sold through this kickstarter is unique to this campaign, to reward all of you who KNEW ME WHEN and were willing to support me from Day One."
The response to her announcement of an album, art book and exhibit, and world tour was immediate and thunderous, taking in $250,000 in one day, and blowing past $500,000 in a week.
"Amanda Palmer has pulled off the biggest music hack to date," said music industry entrepreneur and author Jay Frank, who called her campaign "a veritable stew of ideas feeding off each other all focused in one place."
Also immediate was a backlash, with many observers sniping that Palmer was somehow exploiting her audience--that she already has high-power management and publicity and a distribution deal, so she doesn’t really need all this money, especially since she is now married to fantasy/graphic novel superstar Neil Gaiman (the Sandman series, Coraline, American Gods). When she taped a podcast for nerdist.com’s Comic Book Club at a Lower East Side bar, the first question from the audience was good-natured but barbed: “So you can buy and sell us now? You’re rich, right?”
Palmer is forced to repeatedly remind everyone that Kickstarter pledges aren’t donations, but advance sales of tangible products and events. In the latter days of the campaign, she even wrote an extensive blog post that spelled out the project’s accounting, and showed that after paying off the money already sunk into the project and delivering the packages to backers, she will be left with something short of $100,000 in the best case: Her expenses include Kickstarter’s 5% cut; $250,000 in recording costs; touring and promotional expenses; and hundreds of thousands of dollars to design, manufacture, and ship the deluxe editions she offered fans, along with paying taxes on any income. (She also promised that "If I wind up truly loaded someday, it means I’ll probably buy an abandoned church somewhere and turn it into a free 24-hour circus brunch bar for everybody.")
Still, the fact that she covered the costs of the album before its official release in September, prior to revenue coming in from touring and record sales (at a higher royalty rate than artists signed to a label would get), is a major accomplishment for an artist whose last disc sold fewer than 40,000 copies.
Palmer says she knew the Kickstarter campaign would be a lightning rod, for better and for worse, which was exactly the point. “I could have done this back-end on my own website and kept more money,” she says, taking another slurp of watermelon. “I think the fact that the number was public was a giant advantage. Without showing the total, the PR machine would not have been able to hop on it and say ‘Look what she did.’ We decided that any dollar that my fans are going to spend on me in this period of time, let’s drive it all to the Kickstarter, so that we can show people with one number, on one document, how awesome this is. People won’t sit up and pay attention until you say ‘She made a million dollars.’ And then we did it.”
We talk about Fiona Apple, another piano-playing, high-intensity woman, whose own album was released the week Palmer was in New York, and who has said in her own interviews that her label begged her to start tweeting, but she just didn’t feel like it was right for her. “I think the Fiona Apples of the world--woman of mystery, non-tweeter, non-blogger, great songwriter, soulful deliverer--will be just fine, as long as they have good songs, and as long as they have help,” says Palmer. “The question is, what happens today with the next 19-year-old Fiona Apple who doesn’t get discovered and picked up by Sony? If she isn’t tweeting and blogging and putting her music out there, how are people finding it? You have to have a champion or a team or a pushy friend who’s willing to carnival-barker on your behalf, which is basically what labels used to do. Neil and I were actually just saying that this might be a good time to start a charitable foundation for shy artists.
“But I also have this faith that anything that is awesome enough will be crowd-surfed, held aloft, by humankind. I think about [reclusive Neutral Milk Hotel frontman] Jeff Mangum--that album needed no marketing, it was just awesome. As long as you’re not a total idiot, you can have somebody collecting on your behalf, and the goodness of humankind will float you. If your music is good--but that’s a big if.” With the album released and the deluxe packages delivered and the private concerts around the world being scheduled, Palmer has followed Louis C.K.’s lead and is experimenting with direct ticketing for her shows. She successfully sold about 10% of the seats to the first round of tour dates through her site, and intends to keep increasing that number.
Meantime, she is still recruiting local horn and string players for each show, and alerting her fans to “expect to be called upon to participate…we’ll be hunting you down and asking you for help.” She says that the only practical difference the million-dollar Kickstarter haul made was increasing the international marketing budget, so while Amanda Palmer may point the way to the future, for right now, as usual, it’s all systems go.
"Her Kickstarter success is phenomenal, and now legendary," David Byrne says, "but I’m not sure everyone else can use her success as a model--she’s sort of one of a kind and seems to have a following not every indie act can presume to have. That said, it is a beautiful model of just one of the many ways musicians can work outside of the traditional music business model. Maybe she shouldn’t be copied but rather serve as an inspiration … one can be inspired to think of all the unexpected ways one can make a life in music."
Wherever her business plan takes her or others she might inspire, Palmer is navigating a shifting industry. “There are these moments everybody talks about, where things take a little turn. There was Radiohead and there was Nine Inch Nails, these things where everyone says ‘Oh, my god, is this the next thing?’ And of course it’s not the next thing--the next thing is happening in a thousand places all the time, as bands try to figure out what particular weird set of tools is going to fit them and their personalities and their fan base at this particular moment in time."
“A lot of people are talking about me, but nobody’s asked me to be the poster child because there is no poster. It really is just a bunch of people on the Internet doing shit, like always.”