From her beginnings as a living statue performance artist in Boston (the Eight-Foot Bride) to her $1.2 million Kickstarter success, indie musician and songwriter Amanda Palmer has made her living off of one guiding principle: If you ask people for what you want, they just might give it to you. Her story broke out of the punk-cabaret circles she traveled in as one-half of the Dresden Dolls when her blockbuster crowd-funding project caught the attention of the mainstream press. From there emerged a TED Talk that's been viewed more than 6 million times. In the talk and in her new book, "The Art of Asking," she explains how her model of intense engagement with her fans translates into career success.
But Palmer has seen the other side of intense engagement, too — reactions to what she says and does publicly aren't always positive, and the singer has weathered her share of controversy as a result. "The Art of Asking" is also a personal memoir about self-discovery in close personal relationships, focusing on her mentor Anthony, a life-long friend who became ill with leukemia right before she began writing the book, and her husband, fantasy author Neil Gaiman. We spoke with her on the phone last week about the book and music industries, about the Internet and crowd-funding, and how she's learning to pace herself online.
First, I just want to ask: How’s Anthony? I got to the end of the book and it felt like a cliffhanger — how’s he doing?
He’s not doing very well. It was one of those really classic art-life collisions where as soon as I was wrapping up the final draft of the book and going into final editing he came out of remission and I had to add that epilogue. He was in remission for about 16 months while I was writing the book — it was this wonderful happy ending — he came out of remission in April, on my birthday, actually. He called me on my birthday and was like, “Hey, I have some news for you … tomorrow,” and I was like, “Uh, I can guess. Tell me now, please, you’re my best friend.”
Since then, he’s been going steadily downhill. He was supposed to get a bone marrow transplant this week and his white blood cell counts are so low they’ve put it off, and they’ve stopped treatment, and everything, at the moment, is looking particularly grave. There’s this weird irony, because I was heartbroken that he wasn’t going to be able to come to the book release because he was going to be getting a bone marrow transplant, and now he can come, but I’d much rather he be getting the transplant than at my show. It’s really strange. There’s so much of him in this book and the whole story is still playing out in real time and it’s … Life doesn’t stop happening.
Your relationship with him is really one of the stronger threads that ties the book together, along with the story of your relationship to your husband [author Neil Gaiman]. Your fans see a lot of you, normally — you write a blog, you’re on Twitter a lot. Is it unusual for them to get this much detail about those close, intimate relationships?
It’s not unprecedented. I do share some moments of my personal life — the complicated ones. For instance, when Anthony got really sick and I had to cancel my tour, I knew the only way my community would really understand why I was canceling the tour is if I told them the whole story. I had to tell them the significance of Anthony in my life for them to understand why Amanda would be canceling a world tour because her neighbor was sick. It’s one thing when it’s your mother or your father or your sister or your husband; when it’s the guy next door who happens to have cancer, it’s really necessary to go in and explain the significance of the neighbor, who’s my best friend and like a parent to me.
There have been those moments, but Neil and I learned a really valuable lesson early on in our relationship, which was not to bring our shit — our relationship shit — to the online sphere. A book is different because a book gives you context. You can put an argument or a dark moment or a conflict in a book because it’s sitting in the safety of the entire story. You don’t have that on Twitter, and Neil and I learned that. We had an argument one day and I sort of offhandedly bitched to Twitter that my husband had ditched me ... We had had this one little sliver of time to connect and Neil had blown me off and I vented my frustrations on Twitter, and everybody sympathized at me and sort of shook their fists at him. As we did the postmortem on that moment, later in the night, we realized that it was just really unfair for us to use our Internet communities as a relationship sounding board, because it’s all out of context.
The Twitter-sphere is a place that we live; Neil goes there on an hourly basis, I go there on an hourly basis. It is its own environment, and we do communicate there and get our information there. All of the things that play out on Twitter are the same things that play out in reality. We get jealous of each other's exchanges, we get pissed if we feel like we’re not getting proper attention — all the things that happen in normal relationships happen online. Neil and I, because we both wield so much power with so many followers, have tried to be really careful that we don’t use our powers for evil and instead use them only for good.
Twitter can feel like you’re venting to the friend who’s having a cup of coffee next to you, but there are actually like a million people having a cup of coffee next to you, and they react so fast. Twitter demands a gut reaction.
I mean, I talk about that a little bit in the book, about learning how to not wield my power clumsily on my blog, which I learned the hard way in the early days by inadvertently hurting people and realizing what I’d done and pulling back and thinking, “These tools are really powerful and I need to use them safely.”
It’s also why I get really disheartened when I see celebrities and musicians ripping each other apart on Twitter or on the Internet. It pollutes the environment. Watching two female pop stars get into it like a bitchy catfight on the Internet just makes me bang my head against a desk, because nobody wins in a situation like that. People love that kind of exchange, but it really doesn't serve to tighten up the fabric of the music community and the feminist community. The tools can be so powerful when used to support each other, and it seems like everyone is constantly so outraged on the Internet all the time that people forget that these are also weapons of mass destruction.
You’re a musician who quite famously ditched her label to make and release her own records, you’ve been very outspoken about the need for freely available content, and you’re really experienced at self-publishing your own writing online. Has working with a major publishing house been a different experience for you?
Yes, and I considered self-publishing the book and quite honestly, having run my own label, I knew enough about what kind of office I would need to run to publish my own book that I had no interest in running a publishing house. I really wanted to just make a deal and spend my time and energy writing the book and letting some other entity do the heavy lifting. Quite honestly, that’s also why I signed with a major label, and had the major label actually committed to the relationship and done their job I never would have left. I signed because I didn’t want to spend my life running an office, I wanted to spend my life making art and touring and performing and connecting. I didn't want to answer emails about distribution all day, it’s boring.
The book industry is still set up differently … was there ever any discussion of there being a pay-what-you-will option for the e-book, or anything that pushes the boundary of the big publishing houses’ very traditional distribution channels?
They are really traditional, and I deliberately chose not to wage battle against the book industry. Quite honestly, if I weren’t married to Neil Gaiman I might have a really different perspective on this business of selling books. But I’ve stood in extremely close proximity for the next seven years to a guy who sells a lot of books, both traditionally and non-traditionally, and I’ve gotten to see the book industry through the perspective of his career. Neil’s really good at it, and he manages to ride the balance between doing some things the traditional way and some things more on the DIY side.
He’s been an inspiration to me because ... He’s in his 50s, he’s been writing books for 30 years, he’s already slogged through the swamp of which battles are worth fighting, so I’ve learned to have a real faith in Neil’s decisions and I go to him for a lot of advice. That being said, we disagree over things occasionally and I’ll go storming off in my own direction, but he has taught me almost everything I know about the book industry.
Generally, do you think there’s anything musicians could learn from writers or the publishing industry?
I think the publishing industry is already in a lucky position of looking retroactively at the catastrophe of the music industry post-Napster and realizing that barreling into the community and punishing people isn't necessarily the way to do it. By working with the community and encouraging people enthusiastically to buy e-books and devices and make things available, hopefully they’re learning from the music industry’s mistakes, and hopefully the film industry will learn as well. You cannot stamp your foot on the ground and insist that the past stay frozen; you have to evolve.
You were talking earlier about not wanting to run a label, and I was thinking about in the book when you say that after you graduated college you didn’t want to get a job but you did want to work. A lot of artists fight to have their work seen as a profession — this is my job — to have the culture value that work as much as they value accounting. But you are a business owner now, so do you still feel that your job and your work are two different things?
I still feel like I don’t have a job. This is the blessing, the curse of my life, because the self-assumption that I have no job also means that there are absolutely no boundaries in my life, because I don’t clock on and off like some people do. I work all the time, and sometimes my work is Twitter; sometimes my work is doing an interview with you; sometimes my work is writing a song; sometimes my work is writing a book; sometimes my work is promoting that book, but I never really feel like, “OK, I’m going to clock on today at 11 and clock off at 4.” I never clock off.
That can drive other people crazy. It certainly drives my staff crazy because they very much want to have a job and they want to have weekends, but the thing about rock 'n' roll and touring and social media is that it’s never a 9-to-5 job. If a concert that’s taking place four months from now is announced in Australia at 3 in the morning our time, somebody needs to be up interacting with the fans and answering questions, and it’s often me.
Neil and I have both learned that lesson, and many artists who run their own business learn the lesson, that at the end of the day no one is going to care about your career and your art as much as you do, and that can be a really bitter pill to swallow. You can hire all the staff you want, but they are always going to be looking at their position as more of a job than you are. It’s like having someone take care of your child — they might really, really want to help out, but it’s never going to be their kid.
So as the job has grown, have you adjusted how you approach your level of accessibility and engagement with the public? When the Kickstarter passed $1 million and suddenly the mainstream press started really paying attention to you and then other people really started paying attention, people who weren’t necessarily already fans of your music and of you. Have you had to make any adjustments there? It goes from a party where all of your friends are, to a party where you only know five people and everyone else is a stranger ...
I do have to spend more time considering who’s watching me. Although, even in the early days of the Dresden Dolls we already had our peanut gallery of angry Boston critics who thought that our band was stupid. We got a lot of grief in the early days for being weird …
The gay mimes, is that what they called you?
We were the gay mime band and I was the fat, hairy, obnoxious attention-getter and Brian was a great drummer and poor him for having to follow around this narcissistic diva … Our fans loved us and our community was really wonderful, and we sort of peeked out at the outside world shrugging our shoulders and thinking, “ehh … their loss.”
As people started viewing me as this fictional Amanda Palmer entity, especially when the Kickstarter came out, a little bit of the magic drained out. One of the most wonderful things about my Internet community is that it was a totally crazy, safe space. Everybody could do what they want, say what they wanted; there wasn’t a sense that there were watchful eyes in the room ready to pounce on us and judge us for how or why we decided to do things.
That being said, I also feel like I’ve gone over that mountain and come down the other side. This book has given me such an incredible sense of self and of faith in my core beliefs about what is and isn’t fair. I’ve been criticized for so many things so many times by so many people, and I’ve also watched shit storms swirl and attack other people, other women, other musicians, other writers. I think I’ve finally learned the lesson about how to not take certain things personally. It’s taken me a long time to get there, and it can be really hard to stand in the middle of a storm and not let a million screeching voices convince you that you’re a terrible person and you’re making an awful mistake and you should have done this and you should have done that and why didn’t you do this sooner and why did you talk to this person …
The more you weather that, it’s like all of that noise somehow centers you to actually tie yourself to the mast of your own personhood, and you realize that you can either let the world dictate who you are and how you should do things or you can just make your work, do your job, stick your stake in the ground and say, “Listen, this is how I do it. I’m not going to scream back at you, I’m not going to get angry in return, I’m just going to continue doing my work.” Especially the female role models that I look up to, when I look at how they deal with controversy, they don’t fight back so much as stand back and hold their positions and wait for the storms to blow over.
Talk about having a job — one of the most interesting parts of my quote-unquote job in the last five years has been to really deeply understand how to manage and stay out of other people’s outrage. Because it’s not mine, it’s theirs. It can be really tempting to crawl into that pit, and my life’s work has been to learn how to not do that.
Let’s talk about two of the high-profile events you write about in the book that did garner a lot of outrage: the outcry over not paying the local volunteer musicians you invited to sit in on your shows after the Kickstarter, and the poem you published after the Boston Marathon Bombings. In the book, you write very thoroughly about how you felt, especially about the criticism. There’s a lot of high rhetoric and insult-flinging on the Internet, but I think there are also probably critics who were making measured, rational points about where they disagreed with your decisions. Was there ever a time during either of those episodes where you thought, “Yeah, maybe I didn’t think that through?”
Sure. I’ve always tried to stand back and understand the critics’ points of view so that I understand where I exist for them, if that makes sense. As with any argument in a relationship, usually the easiest way out is to learn how to empathize with the other person. When I made the decision to ultimately pay the volunteer musicians I was mostly curious to see how they would react to being paid, which, at the time, did seem the easiest way to step out of the controversy and to move forward with our work. There is this kind of zeitgeist, especially on the Internet right now, for the outraged crowd to speak up for those who are not them, and that can really backfire. I’ve been seeing lately disgust in response to other giant news stories going around right now, but you cannot assign victimhood to people who don’t feel like victims.
Are you talking about Lena Dunham and her book?
I might be talking about any number of things, but there is something powerful to be said there about people’s right to claim and own their own stories and their own narrative. I definitely felt that moment with these musicians because with everybody screaming and hollering that these people who had volunteered either shouldn’t have volunteered, which I found was insulting to the intelligence of the musicians, or should now be paid retroactively, which I was happy to do so that we could move the conversation on, because it was easy enough to allot some budget to pay these volunteers — seeing how the musicians reacted spoke the loudest.
The truth at the end of the day was that they mostly thought the controversy was insulting to them, and a handful even took the money that I gave them and gave it away to charity because they had wanted to volunteer and they felt weird about taking money for the position they had volunteered for. For them, the payment was the free ticket, the ability to bring their girlfriends, hanging out backstage … And that was a smaller story that I didn’t wave around in the press going, “see? see? see?” but when it came down to the actual human beings involved, I think that spoke the loudest. The fact that we all still got together, made our music, had a wonderful time, and left the outrage of the world outside the door was the biggest lesson.
That was so interesting to read because that zeitgeist outrage tapped into artists’ anxiety over their work not being valued by the culture, people saying, “Oh I’m always asked to play for free, like my dedication and my training and my artistry is worthless.”
This was an interesting tie-in with the theme of the book. For the critics who came at me grumbling that they feel that I’m devaluing musicians and that it was terrible that musicians were always being asked to play for free … The answer is simple: I’m constantly asked to play for free. I get 12 emails a day asking if I’ll do a benefit for this charity or that person’s birthday party or the opening of this art gallery and I don’t find it insulting at all. I find it flattering; sometimes I say yes, and sometimes I say no, and sometimes I say, “I’m happy to do this gig but you’re going to have to pay me or pay my travel.” I’m never insulted.
The truth is, in the early days of the Dresden Dolls, we must have played 100 gigs for free. We just felt that it was part of a continuum; we were paying our dues and we were getting our music out. We were taking every gig possible, paid or unpaid, because we were in that phase of our career. I still occasionally play for free nowadays, but not that much, and I measure every decision. If you’re upset or angry at someone for asking you to play for free, then I feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong in your view of the exchange and you can always say no. This is what I was pointing out about the situation with my volunteers: Nobody was forcing them to volunteer, they volunteered because they wanted to come to the show and play trumpet for free.
I can certainly understand deeply, especially with the economy the way it is, that it is a frightening economic landscape for a lot of musicians out there right now, especially if you’ve just thrown down for a classical music conservatory and you’re $100,000 in debt and you graduate and you are terrified about your actual paying job prospects. But I don’t believe the answer is to withhold yourself, I think the answer is to play and share your art creatively and find the opening that will lead to paying work. That’s certainly how it worked for me and my band.
Do you find yourself having to engage with these public dust-ups more frequently now that so many more people outside of that tight-knit family are paying attention?
It’s all just part of the job, and it’s fine. I’m very happy with my lot. I would much rather be doing this job than pretty much any other job, and as with the musician controversy, as with my decision to even use Kickstarter — when I launched my Kickstarter I was immediately attacked by critics for even using the platform because they found it distasteful that Amanda Palmer, major label refugee, should be hanging out with the likes of the Kickstarter people. I didn't respond immediately. I gathered my thoughts, I looked around, and I made my decision very deliberately and then messaged my community when I felt ready.
Outrage on the Internet goes at the speed of light, and nowadays everybody does expect an answer on Twitter within 20 minutes from me or Lena Dunham or … name a person coming under attack. It’s not very fashionable nowadays to take a day to respond, but I stand firmly by my right to take a day to gather my thoughts and compose a blog to my community. I think it’s within the realm of everybody’s realm to not have to travel at the speed of Internet outrage. That’s often where we get in trouble, because making absolute snap decisions can get us in trouble.
Indeed, I wish I hadn’t made a snap decision about [not dropping] Jian [Ghomeshi from the book tour] the minute I saw that he had been fired from the CBC. I knew nothing about the situation and my initial instinct was to maintain my invitation to him because I am not one who shuts doors on people. I reversed that decision a few days later when I found out what was really going on, but I think the Internet is really dangerous this way. Even a few tweets here and there or a comment here or there can spiral so quickly into outrage. I fear for all of us using the Internet that we don’t start self-censoring so deeply out of fear of constant reprisal.
Is there a difference between self-censorship and prudence or discretion? Where is the line for you?
The line for me is different from where the line is for any other artist. The Internet has amplified a lot of things, but the fundamentals stay the same. Where I draw my line is different from where PJ Harvey draws her line, Taylor Swift draws her line, and Lena Dunham draws her line. The public’s reaction to our own personal narratives … its very face is changing, considering what is possible now using social media. The Internet can be such a wonderful tool of celebration and support and sharing and education and really kind, compassionate truth-bearing. It can also destroy a person, and I don’t like watching anybody get ripped to shreds at all, no matter what they’ve done.
Criticism, yes; violence, not so much. It is why the violent, radical brand of feminism that I see proliferating on Facebook and Tumblr where, instead of having an intelligent, compassionate discussion about progress, you’re instead seeing women demanding that certain men have their dicks chopped off and be put on a rocket to the moon ...
I just don’t believe any human being deserves violent treatment, and that’s my personal philosophy. I do believe people need to be taken to task if they’ve hurt others, I think that’s really important and I do believe in justice, but I don’t believe in violence.
I believe that words on the Internet, to the effect of “we should hang this person” count as violence and shouldn’t be tolerated and shouldn’t be celebrated. It breaks my heart to see people celebrating violence on the Internet right now. I see it with #Gamergate, I see it with Lena Dunham, I see it with Jian Ghomeshi, and in all of those cases, seeing violent murder levied toward these people is something I find incredibly sad.
Given all of that, in what you’re calling the “age of the social artist,” crowd funding may offer an answer, but the Internet can be a toxic place sometimes and a dangerous place. So many artists are introverts, who find energy in making the book but not talking about it, but this model of asking and receiving that you’re describing in your book really depends on opening yourself up to strangers. What advice do you have for an artist starting out who maybe doesn’t want to be on Twitter?
I wrote about this recently on Twitter regarding Taylor Swift. I think everybody needs to allow artists the choice to engage at whatever level they’re comfortable with and allow for any artist to choose their path. That path may be making a deal with Apple, deciding to take your stuff off Spotify, using Kickstarter, signing with a major label … all of these paths are totally legitimate. I wish that instead of spending all this time and energy levying criticism at Taylor Swift and Trent Reznor and U2 for experimenting and trying to find a sustainable path for their particular careers, people could simply celebrate the strange diversity of the new digital age and accept that there’s going to be a hundred different paths for a hundred different artists and that that is fine in itself.
People seem to have a hard time doing that; I think people want to believe that there is going to be one giant, shining, magic-bullet system that we all use and we all agree upon and I just don’t think that’s going to happen.