Amanda Palmer, the media-savvy princess of agitprop pop, produced a high-profile piece of work this month. At the same time, she released a new album called Theater Is Evil, her third solo project, which made the Top Ten of the Billboard album chart on the week it was released. The high-profile piece of work was not the album, though. It was the controversy Palmer stirred up by organizing a tour of concerts performed in part by musicians she solicited to play for no pay. As she wrote in a social-media invitation to would-be participants, “We will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.”
The ensuing noise included cries of complaint from defenders of musicians’ right to fair compensation, chief among them Raymond Hair, the president of the musicians union. “If there’s a need for a musician to be on the stage,” Hair told The New York Times, “then there ought to be compensation for it.”
Eventually, on September 19, Palmer announced that, under pressure she portrayed in the language of persecution, she was changing her policy. As she wrote in the blog she maintains fastidiously,
I’m sad to realize that our creative intentions of crowd-sourcing—something that I’ve done for years, and which has always been an in-house collaboration between the musicians and fans, never a matter of public debate or attack—are getting lost in the noise of this controversy. … The fact that we all have access to each other and CAN discuss this stuff in realtime is what has MADE my success possible, even if it means I’m tied to the stake every once in a while.
A conceptualist and provocateur, Palmer has made the making of controversy part of her art, if not her dominant form. She’s great at it, and I don’t mean that as an insult. A musician and performer of limited means, Palmer has a gift for making people mad, and that’s one of the legitimate functions of music as an art. About four years ago, she got in a much-publicized fight with her record label, Roadrunner, over the way her stomach looked in a video. After that, she got herself in a squabble over the video for her song “Oasis,” which, according to Palmer, was censored for its treatment of the subjects of rape and abortion. Palmer is engaged in a kind of guerilla performance pop. In her work, which is something more expansive than her music, she makes no effort to be liked, and she succeeds.
The matter of fair compensation for musicians has been a hot one since the collapse of the record business. One does not need to know much value theory to appreciate that, in a capitalist society, the prevailing measure of the worth of any work is the capital it earns. I’m no socialist, and my wife and I support our family by being paid for our singing (in her case) and writing (in mine). Still, Palmer is not wrong to recognize the legitimacy of wanting to make music (or any art) for reasons other than the money—for the pleasure, the creative gratification, the beer, and the high fives. They’re not all poisons. Indeed, just as it’s degrading to musicians to deny them pay, it’s degrading to all art and artists to conceive of their value only as market value.
Palmer has been acutely susceptible to charges of exploitation through non-payment, because she can afford to pay and pay well. While many musicians are struggling to make money without CD sales, Palmer’s career is the model for monetizing new media. In the Kickstarter campaign to fund her new album, Palmer attracted some 24,000 donors, and she collected more than $1.2 million, the record for Kickstarter. I can’t help but suspect that degrees of envy and resentment underlie some of the criticism of Palmer for mobilizing volunteer musicians. The unspoken question is not “Shouldn’t those people get something?” It’s “Shouldn’t she get less?”
I can base my answer only on her work, which, as I said, includes but is not limited to the album itself. Theater Is Evil is a good, not great, work of aggressively arty pop music. It is more ambitious than it is original. So, is Amanda Palmer worth a million two? Sure! And so are a couple dozen other musicians I’ve seen perform this year. Besides, my cousin Brian, the builder, makes considerably more than a million in a year, and he doesn’t make quite as many people as mad as Amanda Palmer does.