Steve Albini Vs. Amanda Palmer: Round 2


“A crazy moebius strip
of waste”: In which the combatants subtly hedge their bets; producers of the
Maury Show rumored to be in negotiations to book both artists.


By Fred Mills


Ah, what a difference – or not – a half day makes. Following
yesterday’s bitch-slap to Amanda Palmer from Steve Albini (over her
crowdsourcing musicians to perform for her gratis on her current tour; read the
story at BLURT right here)
, Albini posted yet a new post at his blog to simultaneously soften any
perceived harshness on his part and affirm his assertion that the avant-diva is
“just plain rude”:


I don’t think Amanda Palmer is an
idiot, and it was rude and sloppy of me to make that impression. I’m sorry
Amanda Palmer, the internet is going to tell you that I think you’re an idiot,
and while that’s not true, it’s my fault…

I have no problem with bands using participant financing schemes like
Kickstarter and such. I’ve said many times that I think they’re part of the new
way bands and their audience interact and they can be a fantastic resource,
enabling bands to do things essentially in cooperation with their audience.
It’s pretty amazing actually.

It should be obvious also that having gotten over a million dollars from
such an effort that it is just plain rude to ask for further indulgences from
your audience, like playing in your backing band for free.

Fuck’s sake a million dollars is a shitload of money. How can you
possibly not have a bunch laying around after people just gave you a million
dollars? I saw a breakdown about where the money went a while ago, and most
everything in it was absurdly inefficient, including paying people to take care
of spending the money itself, which seems like a crazy moebius strip of waste.


Palmer, too, is simultaneously trying to appear not so
defensive while shoring up her own, er, defenses – not so surprising, since the
online community’s cadre of sympathizers at last count was definitely in the
minimum. Today she posted a massive open letter (here) –
shouldn’t she be doing soundcheck or something? – that has already generated
nearly 300 responses. The entire thing is posted below –  “this isn’t about money. for me, this is about
freedom. and about choices,” writes Palmer – but it’s also worth your time to
click on the link and read those responses, as they are a fascinating example
of “crowdsourcing” public opinion in preparation for one’s own next response to
a controversy. The comments seem to be running about 50/50 in favor of/against
Palmer as of this writing.




Amanda Palmer writes:


hola comrades!

     i am so happy that many of you
are deeply loving the record, the response has been absolutely out of
control….just amazing. glad that everyone’s getting their kickstarter
stuff.more on that later. for now….

     this is my response to a letter
that was posted a few days ago from a musician named amy, who was upset that
i’ve put the call out for volunteer horns and strings for my upcoming tour.
     you can read her entire letter here:
     please weigh in with your own
comments. as always: discuss, discuss, discuss. please be kind to one another.
there’s a million issues at play here, and per usual, i’m loving hearing
everybody’s opinion.



dear amy,

     first of all: thank you so much
for writing your letter. it’s definitely got me (and a lot of other people)
thinking and talking about what it means to ask a musician to volunteer their

     if my years working as as street
performer taught me anything, they taught me to accept
help in every way, to never be too proud or afraid to ask for it. i never got
pissed at a passerby for not throwing change in my hat. i stood there knowing
that maybe 15 people later, maybe 20, maybe 100…someone would. it’s literally an opposite strategy from someone deciding that they, on principle, won’t gig
for free.

     i’ve built my life as a musician,
like many many people in rock and roll, playing for free….a LOT.

      or playing for beer.

     playing for exposure.

     playing for fun.

     playing just to be able to sell merch.

     playing to do somebody a favor.

     playing a benefit to help a cause.

     sometimes even paying for my own
travel for the privilege of playing with my idols. (the dresden dolls lost a lot of money in order to
travel around opening up for nine inch nails. and good lord, were we grateful
to lose that money…it won us a huge bunch of fans).

     i’ve passed the hat for myself at
shows and events where i wasn’t officially paid, and a lot of times i’ve
encouraged my openers to pass the hat to supplement a small or non-existent
opener budget. in 2008, i took the danger ensemble – four australian performance artists/actors
and a violinist (lyndon chester)
– on tour with me for no salary. i made sure they had places to sleep (usually
with fans) and food to eat (usually brought by fans). they passed the hat every
night at the gig. it worked really well. they were happy to take the risk.

     i’ve played a ukulele to hundreds
of people on a beach for hours, for free. and i’ve been paid thousands of
dollars for a one-hour show at boston
symphony hall. i don’t consider one more legitimate than the other. in fact, i
believe that the two experiences feed, inform, and compliment one other. pretty
much every seasoned rock musician i know has a pretty locked-in sense of what
their time and talent is worth, and it changes day to day, moment to moment.
david byrne came and sang with my band a few months ago. we never had a formal
arrangement…we paid him in thanks and beer which i’m not sure he even drank. a
few nights ago we played at bard college and the opening student band, dr. skinnybones, asked if
i would sing a song with them during their set. i drove over to their house and
practiced it with them the night before and hopped up with them for five
minutes the next night, before my own band went on.

     i didn’t ask them to pay me, and
everybody knew that wasn’t what it was about. it was about me thinking that it
was going to be fun, and them having the guts to ask me to do it. i could have
said no and spent that extra time in my dressing room, getting ready and
hanging out with my band. i don’t think they would have been pissed at me if
i’d declined. but i played for free. i was happy to do it.

     now: YOU don’t have to play for
free. but i hope you won’t criticize me for wanting to. and hope you would try
not to criticize or shame other musicians for making their own decisions about
how to share their talent and their time.

      there’s also been a general
misunderstanding that i need to put to rest: every person on my stage gets paid
differently – and not EVERY musician up there, even in the string and horn
corps, is a strict volunteer. when we mapped out this tour a few months ago, i
sat down with jherek
, my touring and recording bassist (along with being the string
arranger AND my opening act). jherek is, like the other permanent touring
members of my band, on a salary. part of his job is that he’s in charge of
email-organizing the string section, as he’d also be using them as his quartet
(as an opening act), and he wanted to make sure we got the best we could get
for what we could afford given our tour budget.

      there were cities like new york where jherek –
and everyone in the band – really wanted to make sure we had a 100%
tried-and-true string corps. he didn’t want to bank on possibly risky
volunteers that night. chad raines, my guitarist, who’s also in charge of
wrangling the horns, agreed on that front as well. so we called our more
professional horns and strings friends in new york, and we freed up the budget to pay
them. we’re doing that in some cities, and in some cities it’s a total grab-bag
of strangers on stage.

      it’s very important to me that
we clarify that – not everything you see on stage is black and white, and those
specific musicians in new york
(and in some other cities) who got paid shouldn’t be put in the same category
as the volunteers. WE called THEM personally because we had lots of experience
with them and knew what we were gonna get.

     so you know (and because a photo
of them has been circulating), in NYC, they were: sam kulik (who i know from
our co-touring days with nervous cabaret), matt nelson (who’s also in tUnE-yArDs), kenny warren, phil rodriguez,
and “moist”
paula henderson
(aka Secretary). as many people saw, they ripped it UP on
the webcast. sam and paula also showed up to play our kickstarter celebration
(and were paid in money…AND beer).

       in new york and in DC, three of the eight or
nine horn and string players were actually from our opening bands: kelly and
alec from the band Ronald
hopped in on sax duty, and jessie from The Simple Pleasure volunteered to play viola at any gig she was at. in DC, we had a combination of
people from the opening bands, a couple of horn players who were strict
volunteers, and three string players from Classical Revolution who also volunteered their time.

     the upshoot? every single city is
totally different. sometimes paid. sometimes not. it’s sometimes messy. sometimes not. sometimes slightly risky. and therefore,
in my opinion, fun.

      and sometimes there’s a grey
area. Ronald Reagan is getting paid to be our opener, but they also happily
volunteered to join our horn corps on top of their opener duty…plus they’re
making money selling merch, and we donated two bunks on our tour bus so they
could travel with the band and not have to follow us in a van. does the math
all work out? who knows. but we’re all happy with the situation. we feel
blessed to be on tour with people like Ronald Reagan who are willing to make it
up as we all go along and play this many-hats game on stage. those are the
people i love playing with.



     your concern reminds me of the
complaints i’ve seen from musicians who insist that i’m “devaluing” their own
recordings by giving my music away for free and encouraging people to pay what
they want for it (which is how
i just released my new record
). i get the impression that they see me as a
force of evil who is miseducating the public to think that “music should be

     here’s what i think about all
that, and it also applies to this paid/non-paid musician kerfuffle:


     especially in this day and age,
it’s becoming more and more essential that artists allow each other space to
figure out their own systems.

     the minute YOU make black and
white rules about how other artists should value their own art and time, you
disempower them.

     anyone is allowed to crowdfund a
record. and anyone is allowed to crowdsource a musician.or a pair of socks. or
a place to crash. or a meal. anyone. the band at the local pub can do it, i can
do it, tom waits can do it, and justin bieber can do it (his fans would FLIP to
be up on that stage making music with him. i’m imagining a crowdsourced
belieber playing violin on “boyfriend” right now and loving the image, truly.
it’s also fun to think of tom waits wearing fan-knit-socks.)

     i could ramble on about my
million-dollar Kickstarter and where that million dollars actually went
(actually, i already did that, in a blog over here)…and i could tell you that i wish i had
enough money to hire a second tour bus and put eight full-time musicians on
salaries. but the funny thing is: i actually don’t. i don’t wish that. not
right now.

     because this isn’t about money.
for me, this is about freedom. and about choices.

     you see, with this tour, i
originally fantasized that we’d write super-easy-to-learn parts, and then
musician volunteers – of varying backgrounds and skill level – would join us to
play them, in every city. as an experiment, as the concept
behind the grand theft orchestra. we are the media. we are the orchestra. it
sounded like a really FUN way of doing a tour, and so far, it really has been.
it has worked out great for all involved. it’s pretty much worked out the way
we envisioned, with some changes here and there (using paid pros in some
markets, using our openers, etc).

     here’s another good way of
thinking about it: we constantly crowdsource food. across the world, our fans
volunteer to spend a whole day, sometimes more, cooking and arranging to get
warm food to the venue: it’s a truly magical feast sometimes. and it’s a simple
exchange: we ask them to volunteer, they volunteer joyfully.

     these people (some of whom are
real-life professional chefs) have to actually lay down money, sometimes
hundreds of dollars, for all the food they cook and bring us. they choose to
spend their talent, time, (and money) cooking for the band. then they come eat
with us. our gratitude is huge. we don’t have to order take-out from the
falafel joint next to the venue, we get to meet cool people instead. i’ve made
some great new friends like that. it all works out pretty great.

     is it always perfect? hell no. do
we sometimes end up with a five-course gourmet feast one night, and a sad/bland
potato salad the next? hell yeah. is it worth it, and do we eat our sad potato
salad with a smile? you bet we fucking do.

     i’ve never come under fire for
crowdsourcing food…but can you see the parallel? you could call us out for not
putting our money to the local falafel joint, or for not hiring a cook for the
tour. but that’s not the way we see it. we just see the joy around the table
backstage as the rider wine flows and everybody involved has a good hang.

     it’s an inexact, unpredictable
science. and that’s part of why it’s great.

     the volunteer musicians have been
the same. we’ve been doing this for over a year now.sometimes we get seasoned
pros, sometimes we get people who barely play at a high school level.sometimes
it’s a lot of work. and every night, we work with who and what we’ve got.

     and it’s a risk, a game we love
playing. it isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. and i wouldn’t have it
any other way. i’ve met some fantastic people through it.

     and honestly: i’d take a less
experienced horn player who was overjoyed to be on stage for the fun and
experience over the pro who’s clocking in to get paid and doesn’t care about me
or my band any night of the week.

     i talked with jherek about this a
lot yesterday, and he noted that there HAVE been a handful of people who he’s
reached out to – friends of friends – who’ve responded in the vein of “love to
do it if it was a paid gig…but here’s the email of someone who might be game!”
jherek always invites those helpful folks to be on the guest list anyway.

     and prompted
by your letter (and the following avalanche of comments on my blog) i did what
i always try to do: go to the source.i had a great talk backstage at the 9:30
club last night with the three string players from Classical Revolution DC
who’d volunteered their time.

     jherek and i asked them point
blank what they made of this whole issue. they said they firmly stood by their
decision to come play the gig. they knew what they were responding to, and they
didn’t feel at all violated. one of them told me he often plays violin for
heavy metal gigs, for free. they were happy to be playing with us. and we were
really happy to have them. and YOU’LL be happy to know we gave Classical
Revolution (along with the players) a big shout-out from stage. we’re grateful.

     as the musician in charge of the
show, the reality – not the theory – is always more important to me.

     this has been the onstage
checklist since i first started touring, and it’ll probably never change: is
everyone on stage happy – both the salaried musicians and the volunteers? does
everyone feel welcome? appreciated? respected? is everyone enjoying themselves?
and most importantly: does everybody have a drink/wp-content/photos?

     the reality of the players and
the feeling in the room is more important to me than anything.

     i have close friends who are
selling their albums on bandcamp for $10, whereas i keep my stuff at $0 or $1,
and it doesn’t get in the way of our friendships: in fact, we compare notes
about how business is going. we share, we muse, we know that there’s no correct
solution, only a collection of thousands of paths.

     this collection of paths, not a
singular truth, is where the future of music and art is headed, i think. and
the biggest service we can do for each other, as artists, is to respect the
differing path of our fellow artists, because believe me…it’s going to start
happening a HELL of a lot.

     jherek and i (and my whole band
and management team) are going to keep trying to figure out how to pay people
how and where we can, as we have been already, and your letter will help kick
our asses further in that direction. for that, i thank you.

     and as my touring budget changes,
i’m sure so will the onstage configurations, and every night will continue to
be a work-in-progress. jherek has done GREAT on merch the past few nights (his
new record is HERE and is incredible) has decided to give part of his road-merch profits towards
the musicians each night until we are at a point that we can consistently pay,
since he feels like he’s getting a lot of mileage out of the players. and i’ll
keep looking at my own budget and paying people as much as i can, where and
when i can. we may talk to the bands about hat-passing. and we’ll figure it out
as we go. we’ll grow.

     so, in closing:

     i would never criticize or judge
you for drawing your own lines and deciding how to value your talent and time.
more power to you, for real. it takes a strong commitment to do that, and i
wish you luck.

     in exchange, i’d ask that you not
criticize us because we belong to a different culture, where we’re playing a
different game, with different rules.

     and we’re making a pretty joyful
noise, and we’re happy to welcome those, with no judgement, who want to hop on
stage and make it louder.

     from one musician to another
     with loads of love and respect,



p.s. cello-fiend and friend zoë keating wrote “I would not be where I am
today if not for years of playing concerts & opening slots, for free or for
expenses” (and a lot more) on her twitter (follow her at @zoecello)
AND Unwoman‘s guest
editorial HERE for SF Weekly was a lovely musing about all these

      p.p.s. if you want a perspective
from someone else from the classical music world explaining why they were happy
to volunteer, this just came in and is a good read:

     p.p.p.s. amy, if you’d like to
come watch our show in portland
on september 28th, we’d love to have
you. drop us a line if
you would, and we’ll put you on the list.

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