I must confess to not really getting Amanda Palmer for some time. There’s something about the whole cabaret / burlesque scene that I don’t entirely engage with – even lumping this American musician and performer into the genre bracket signals both my ignorance and my distance.
However, over the last six months or so, Amanda Palmer has started to grow on me – and it isn’t her music that’s turning me on. Instead, I’ve become fascinated with her persona, primarily via her lengthy, passionate blog posts – all of which weave a wildly illuminating tale of life as an artist.There’s nothing Amanda holds back in her blog – all facets of her artistic life are on show, all emotions land directly and often brutally on the page. It’s visceral story-telling at its most energetic and free. It’s for good reason that she refers to herself as AFP, or “Amanda Fucking Palmer”.
There’s few public figures who would so boldly lay it all out for us, in real time, as it happens. The allure of Amanda Palmer seems to be that there is no mediation, there is no filter – Amanda’s blog is the real thing, 100% undiluted, direct from the source, direct to the fan. No managers, publicists, agents, editors, marketers and such like. It’s raw and honest and often bordering on the hysterical. And I love it.
In a recent article with Techdirt, she writes: “I tweet all day. 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 … I don’t try to hide behind a veil of fame. I don’t want to be anything more than totally human. I make mistakes, get called out, and apologize. I share my process. I ask for help SHAMELESSLY. I sleep at my fans houses. I eat with them. I read the books they write. I see their plays and dance performances, online and in real life. I back their own crowdfunding projects. I get rides home with them … They don’t just get a photoshopped snapshot of my every time I have an album to promote. They see the three-dimensional person, in motion, in real-time. Living and working.”
At the beginning of May, Amanda set up a crowdfunding project on Kickstarter, hoping to raise a mighty $100,000 to manufacture, promote and market her upcoming album – her first “proper” solo album in four years, and the first to be released outside of the long shadow of her former project, The Dresden Dolls. Palmer had split from her “traditional” record label many years previously, and had no financial backing or marketing clout to fall back on. Instigating the Kickstarter project was a way to circumvent the old industry system, and to work inside the new paradigm of fan-funded artist development.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t traditional artistic patronage or an ‘investment’ as such – Kickstarter is often simply a guaranteed pre-order for a product or experience that has yet to be created. That said, the popularity, and indeed success, of Kickstarter within the creative and arts community cannot be under-estimated. Indeed, as The Huffington Post pointed out in February, Kickstarter is set to distribute over $150 million dollars of fan funding to projects in 2012 – “more than entire fiscal year 2012 budget for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA)” ($146m). Crowfunding usurping federal funding for the Arts? It seemed unthinkable a few years ago, yet here we are.
Within days of launch, Amanda Palmer’s $100,000 target had been surpassed, and as of tonight – less than three days before the project deadline – Palmer is now sitting only a few bucks shy of one million dollars (ten times the intended target), a sum contributed by over 20,000 fans.
So how did she do it? “Every person I talk to at a signing, every exchange I have online (sometimes dozens a day), every random music video or art gallery link sent to me by a fan that i curiously follow, every strange bed I’ve crashed on…all of that real human connecting has led to this moment, where I came back around, asking for direct help with a record. Asking EVERYBODY. Asking my poor fans to give a dollar, or if nothing else, to spread the link; asking my rich fans to loan me money at whatever level they can afford to miss it for a while. And they help because they know I’m good for it. Because they KNOW me.”
So what can we learn from this? There’s no inherent trick here, no miracle luck coming into play. Watching Palmer collect $1m is watching someone collect on their investment – the time and energy she has spent cultivating, supporting and connecting with her fans and followers has literally paid off. It’s a victory for openness, honesty, determination and bloody mindedness – a life lived and shared online. It is, as Palmer notes in her Techdirt article, “the era of the social artist”.
She notes: “It’s getting increasingly harder to hide in a garret and lower your songs down in a bucket to the crowd waiting below, wrapped in a cloak of sexy mystery above. That was the 90s. Where an artist could be as anti-social as they wanted, and rack up cred left and right for shoe-gazing and detaching. It’s over. The ivory tower of the mysterious artist has crumbled.”
If we as organisations or individuals are to hit metaphorical pay dirt in the same way, we too need to understand what it means to be open and human and honest online. I often refer to this as the ‘Wizard Of Oz’ moment, when we peel back the curtain and see what lies behind the grand facade. We are, after all, simply people – turning the wheels of the machine. And we can prosper online by revealing that truth more and more. We need not lose our strength, integrity or authority in doing so – quite the opposite. We’re simply being true to ourselves – who knew that could be so radical?
UPDATE 8:00am MAY 30TH: After I wrote this article, I went to bed. I woke up a few hours later to discover that Palmer has topped the million dollar mark. This is how she chose to celebrate. NSFW – as her husband, Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), tweeted: “NSFW celebratory photo from @amandapalmer – pure joy: WARNING: breasts. And joy.”