Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pass the Hat...and the Plate

My favorite rock-cabaret chanteuse, Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls, has conducted a reportedly successful economic experiment on her recent tour swings through the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Touring in support of her new solo CD, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, Palmer enlisted The Danger Ensemble, an Australian theatrical art performance company, and featured string instrumentalists Zoe Keating and Lyndon Chester as accompanists.

One problem: the tour economics for a live performer, with travel, room & board, tour bus rental, equipment managers, etc., did not allow for salaries for the supporting cast. A veteran of street performing, Palmer's solution was to have The Danger Ensemble pass the hat (or rather, two burlesque boots) around the willing audiences. Supported generously during her modestly priced shows, The Danger Ensemble performers made more money through voluntary donations than they would have on salary.

Palmer and her traveling team have also solicited donations-in-kind: food, lodging, even driving errands such as last-minute deliveries of boxes of newly minted CDs and band merchandise ("merch") to tour stops, in exchange for tickets, merch, and time with the performers. Her advance teams of fan volunteers distribute promotional posters and flyers, and a semi-organized group called The Brigade arranges amateur performance artists, such as living statues and costumed models, to greet concertgoers outside the clubs. Friends and fans appear as extras in her music videos.

Palmer, a prolific blogger and interview subject, has written openly about the business aspects of her occupation in a time of chaotic transition in the music industry. She believes voluntary patronage of artists of all types will become the new business model for working musicians, and she cautions new singers and bands that the rock band fantasy of simply showing up for a gig, getting paid, and leaving without fostering a close, continuing connection to the fans is no longer possible.

Fortunately, the Internet bolsters that connection. Palmer's close, caring, and technology-enabled relationship with her fans -- an intentional decision from the early days of The Dresden Dolls -- has yielded her the goodwill, social capital, and email lists that allow her to go to her audience repeatedly for voluntary, tangible support. Will it last? Is artist patronage, not by foundations but by average fans, a sustainable business model?

In "Christopher Lydon", an early Dresden Dolls song, Palmer's girl protagonist torches for the mellifluous NPR interview host, who ignores her on-air declaration of love for him. Jilted, she sings, "Thank you for everything, but I'm not listening anymore/Nor do I plan to contribute to NPR!" If Palmer's right about the new role of patronage at all levels of the music industry, there's a lesson in that lyric for all working musicians.


  1. Bob -

    I find these kinds of things really really interesting. It's in the same vein as open source, wikipedia, public radio/tv or even blogging (for bloggers popular enough to make money at it). It's so contrary to the corporate mass production/mass market model, in a good way. The whole producer/consumer dichotomy is breaking down!

  2. BG - Thanks for the comment. You're right, it's very much like the public radio/tv donations model, albeit fragmented even more. Think of how many decades NPR stations have had to build their operations, generate recurring grants, fine-tune their fundraising approaches, etc.; these bohemian-type artists and musicians don't have such security (much less health insurance). They're having to find new ways to engineer their sustenance and support on the fly, in the midst of music industry turmoil, filesharing, etc. This is the bleeding edge, for sure! BW



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