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Amanda Palmer And The Ethics Of Asking Artists To Work For Free

By Alyssa Rosenberg on September 19, 2012 at 5:03 pm

"Amanda Palmer And The Ethics Of Asking Artists To Work For Free"

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Update

When I wrote this post yesterday, Amanda Palmer hadn’t announced that she’d reversed course and was going to be paying the musicians on each stop of her tour. Now she has, saying:

for better or for worse, this whole kerfuffle has meant i’ve spent the past week thinking hard about this, listening to what everyone was saying and discussing. i hear you. i see your points. me and my band have discussed it at length. and we have decided we should pay all of our guest musicians. we have the power to do it, and we’re going to do it. (in fact, we started doing it three shows ago.)

my management team tweaked and reconfigured financials, pulling money from this and that other budget (mostly video) and moving it to the tour budget. 
all of the money we took out of those budgets is going to the crowd-sourced musicians fund. we are going to pay the volunteer musicians every night. even though they volunteered their time for beer, hugs, merch, free tickets, and love: we’ll now also hand them cash.

I’m leaving the post up because the point stands. It’s one thing to decide, independently, that you’ll play for free. It’s another to be a person with a lot of money who asks other people for free labor. Folks in the latter position shouldn’t confuse themselves with folks in the former.

Over the past week or so, I’ve been watching the back-and-forth between singer and performer Amanda Palmer and musician Steve Albini. The origin of the feud is this: Palmer used a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1.2 million to fund the recording of her new album. She then asked musicians to volunteer to play with her band on her tour, but didn’t guarantee compensation to any of the volunteers, though as she is paying some musicians at some stops on the tour, but not others. Albini criticized her request on the grounds that she could have found a way to pay musicians if she wanted to. “The reason I don’t appeal to other people in this manner is that all those things can easily pay for themselves, and I value self-sufficiency and independence, even (or especially) from an audience,” he wrote.

The thing is, I do kind of agree with Palmer that, as she puts it “YOU HAVE TO LET ARTISTS MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS ABOUT HOW THEY SHARE THEIR TALENT AND TIME.” And for the purposes of this experiment, let’s accept her argument that the funds for recording, designing, and distributing the album aren’t available to pay for touring, and Albini shouldn’t have linked the two. But Palmer is, after all, selling tickets for the tour, and in some cities, those tickets are reselling on sites like StubHub for figures considerably above face value. I understand if she doesn’t have $35,000 or whatever else it would have cost to pay the musicians she’s asked to volunteer on the tour right now. I’m not sure I understand why she couldn’t have adjusted the ticket prices, or her own take on the tour, to make sure she’d have the revenue to pay people who played with her.

And there’s a difference between between people volunteering their time without it being requested of them, or people creating their own opportunities to play even if it means playing for free or for donations, and someone who has money, or the clear power to raise money, asking people to perform for free. Palmer has the right to ask people to play for free, just as people have the right to busk or volunteer their time. But I think it’s rather ambitious of her to expect that people see her as praiseworthy for it, no matter how highly she thinks of herself and what it means to play with her in concert. If you started out playing for free and found models that worked for you, why wouldn’t it be more genuinely admirable to create a more viable and supportive atmosphere for the people coming up after you?

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