An artist on the bleeding edge of DIY survival and prosperity in the digital age
BY BUD SCOPPA
IN CERTAIN ways, Amanda Palmer and Lady Gaga have a lot in common. Each is a provocateur who challenges her fans, defies the conventional role of the writer/performer and makes a living from her art. But while Gaga’s albums and tracks sell in the millions, Palmer manages quite well on a tiny fraction of those numbers. And while Gaga has the full resources of the traditional music business going for her, Palmer—formerly signed to Roadrunner Records as half of the Dresden Dolls—now does it all herself. During the past couple of years, this outspoken, opinionated artist has become the poster girl for conducting a rewarding and profitable DIY career in extremely challenging times by personally connecting with her fans—she has 30,000 Twitter followers— who buy music and merch directly from her. In the following Q&A, Palmer reveals the secrets of her success, and explains what you can do to follow in her footsteps.
It’s been said about you that there’s really no separation between your art and your life. By the same token, I suppose there’s no separation between your art and the marketing of your art.
Yeah, that line between the art and the putting out of the art becomes increasingly more blurry as time marches on. I was a street performer for six years, and people don’t fully understand what it feels like to stand on the street and know that your rent money is going directly from people’s pockets into a box. That’s as basic as it gets, and it’s how I lived for several years.
You’re still doing the same balancing act now, just on a more sophisticated level.
The difficult thing about being an artist is you have to maintain these two functions at all times—and it’s just as true for anyone in the business. You have to make decisions about how to spend your time and energy doing what you actually feel passionate about, and spending your artistic time and energy wisely—and you’ve also got to eat and pay your rent. That’s always been the conundrum of the artist, and nowadays it’s a special brand of conundrum where you’re sitting there in front of your computer and your brain says, “Okay, should I write or should I Twitter? One is going to indirectly market me and be a fun distraction, and one is actually going to create art, but we can’t have one without the other, so what the f**k do I do?” That’s what I see happening with a lot of younger artists, and it requires an extreme kind of self-discipline, especially now that you can basically run a business from your phone. It’s all pretty confusing.
You’re in the vanguard of a revolution that hasn’t completely coalesced.
The mistake everyone keeps making is, everyone keeps asking, “What is the future of the music industry? When is this process going to be finished so we can know what the new rules are?” I hear that and I just laugh, because it’s so obvious to me that this is an ever-morphing, unfinishable business. If you’re trying to figure out what the rules are for what someone did six months ago, you’re not paying attention to the right shit. What you should actually be doing is figuring out what is relevant now, who is your audience now, what tools are they using now and what can you do right now? F**k what everyone else is doing—that’s a backwards way of thinking. Which isn’t to say you can’t learn from how people have operated, but it’s deluded to think that there is a single answer. There are as many answers as there are artists, and there are as many solutions as there are fans.
What’s your individual answer?
Honestly, I make it up as I go along. And I feel like the entire process is a work in process—constantly. And then the big question is, where are the trusted sources? Where are people actually going to find the music that they will hopefully love? Those are the interesting questions. It’s going from friend to friend to friend—a fi ltration system that helps people discover good music. It’s becoming a much more level playing field. The Lady Gagas of the world will always exist. People love fashion, they love gossip, they love icons, they love the idea that there is one unifying thing that you can talk about with your mailman and the guy at the water cooler. People need that. But how much relevance will superstars like Lady Gaga have to the music people are making? That’s a totally different question. I don’t think teenagers are buying guitars and writing songs because they picked up The Fame and it changed their lives in that particular way.
Let’s bring this down to ground level. Your ability to define yourself as an artist depends not just on creating things that are interesting, but also letting people know that these things exist. And for that you’ve made use of social media, particularly Twitter. How is what you’re doing online applicable to people who are trying to get where you are?
With social media, your content and your message need to be interesting to begin with. Engineers and producers come to me for advice about Twitter, and I always ask them, “What do you have access to that’s unique to you? What do you have access to that may seem totally mundane to you, but is actually really interesting to people? That’s what you should be Twittering.” You need to get some perspective on what your life actually is as viewed by other people, and see your routine as possibly ordinary to you, but extraordinary to other people. In order to work, Twittering needs to be highly personal. A lot of my friends who are writers throw their hands up saying, “Twitter just seems so inane. It just seems so boring.” The challenge is how to make it not inane and boring. The advice I usually give is, “Share things that make you uncomfortable,” because if it makes you uncomfortable to share it, it’s probably interesting to someone else. I also advise people to not dwell on the negative. Twitter is a place where it’s like being at a party or a bar, and no one wants to stand around hanging out with a person who’s making bitchy comments about everything—it just gets boring, and people will tune you out.
Is there any other key component that people in your shoes need to be aware of?
For musicians, engineers, and producers alike, one piece of advice I can give is, “Don’t act like a serious professional. We all know you’re just a dude sitting behind a computer.” So the more human and conversational a tone you can take, the more people will actually trust what you say. If you have a business tone, it’s a real turn-off . What you need to do is just talk to people in real language that is truthful and understandable. The Dresden Dolls have been doing that since day one. And even when we were signed to a major label, I had no interest in the major label communicating to my fans. If fact, I wanted them as far in the background as possible, doing what major labels do well, which is put those pieces of plastic in the stores so that people can buy them, and leave us alone, because we know what we’re doing. Our fans don’t want to talk to a record label, they want to talk to us, so create a space where we can talk to our fans and then get out.
Your whole thing seems to be predicated on cutting out the middleman.
No, just cutting out the unnecessary middlemen. For example, the idea that you need physical distribution is becoming questionable. Those sorts of middlemen are gonna hopefully die a natural death, like bad music. But there are a lot of other middlemen who are completely necessary. I mean, I don’t sit around doing all this shit by myself; I would go crazy and I wouldn’t get any sleep. I have a staff of four people who help me run this business, and they count in that grand sea of middlemen who help me get music to my fans. No artist should have to bear that responsibility alone. The more help you can get, the better, but the help has to really be help—not some kind of dictatorship that strips you of your artistry, but a support system that helps you flourish as an artist. And then everyone’s happy. You’re happy, the people helping you are happy and your fans are happy. Hopefully, that’s where we’re headed.