If you’ve found this post, chances are you already have a rough idea about all this. You may already have your own opinions. If you don’t have either, then to summarise: Amanda Palmer raised some $1.2 million through a Kickstarter project. This funded an album and the infrastructure for a tour. She put out a post asking for horn and string players to play with her on stage when the tour comes to their local city. A lot of musicians are (understandably) upset that if they volunteer their services, they will not be paid, and this lack of payment has erupted into a massive argument across the internet. Amy VS gave one of the more eloquent responses on this subject. TalkBass attempted to start a sensible debate on the issue, which sadly degenerated into sarcasm, insults and a secondary debate over whether or not they would “do her.” Nataly Dawn has defended Palmer’s approach but, I felt, missed a couple of important points, which I wanted to raise here.
Now, before I attempt to wade in with my own thoughts, let me clarify some key facts about my own perspective: I am a bass guitarist. I do not play an orchestral instrument. I know that it’s bloody hard to make money playing music – I’ve tried/am trying, and I had to get a day job because I couldn’t find enough work. I also appreciate, however, that the market is different depending on what you play. As such I do not presume to know what it’s like to eke a living from a violin or a tuba. I am also based in London, a city in which I’ve come to realise that there’s a bit of a system to how and where you make music and/or money. From what I’ve read, I think this “system” differs from city-to-city. As for Palmer’s music: I quite like it. I haven’t heard much of it; the only complete album I’ve heard is the Dresden Dolls’ début. Just so we’re clear, this isn’t being written by a fanboy.
The obvious argument against playing for Amanda Palmer for free is that you would be working, and therefore you should be paid. I see the sense in this argument: I’ve had people contact me in the past, asking if I could do a couple of rehearsals with them, then play bass on their record or gig. If they then revealed that I wouldn’t be paid, I told them where to go. The one difference that a lot of people seem to miss here is that Palmer has not directly asked them to play for free. She asked for volunteers to play, and she has laid out the terms from the beginning. I realise gigs with a famous figure are hard to come by, but is this really so different from your friend asking if you’ll do a gig with his band in exchange for a couple of drinks? If you couldn’t spare the time or money to do it, you’d tell him so. If you can’t spare the time or money to do Palmer’s gig, you don’t volunteer.
The argument that usually follows is that this is arrogant: that Palmer knows she can crowd-source a band for free because she’s Amanda Fucking Palmer and therefore people will want to do it. Damn right, she can – when I first heard about this, I went to the site to see if she was looking for a bass guitarist. I don’t doubt that there are an awful lot of people who would love to play with an idol of theirs. And this is where you need to ask yourself why you’d do such a gig. I’m sure very few musicians would turn it down if there were money involved. But as there isn’t, the pool is reduced to those who just want to play with one of their heroes. It’s a gig for fun, to have a memory you’ll cherish. If you don’t think it’s worth it just for that, you don’t volunteer.
What really made this seem less outrageous to me was realising that the volunteer musicians are only playing on stage for about 15 minutes. Throw in maybe a couple of hours’ rehearsal and you’re only really giving maybe three hours of your time to this woman. Again, is that really so different from playing with your friend’s band at some show where you’ll be on stage for half an hour, and you don’t have to stick around to hear the other bands if you don’t want to?
Finally…the money. All that money. Lest we forget, AFP made $1.2 million from that Kickstarter. How dare she not share it? Well, Nataly Dawn, as I mentioned earlier, has pointed out that most of that money was likely spent on making the album which begat this tour. And this tour is going through a hell of a lot of cities in a fair few countries. It’s conceivable that, if the venue is sold out, they might turn a profit. I don’t know what the overheads are for getting everything there in the first place; maybe she could afford to pay them from any surplus at the end of the night. Without seeing the accounts, we’ll never know.
I hope I’ve made clear the size of the pinch of salt with which you’ll need to take my opinions here. My main point is that if Amanda Palmer has not directly asked you to play for free. She has given you the option of volunteering your time. If you don’t think it’s worth it, don’t volunteer. If you’re concerned that it doesn’t pay, and doesn’t help your CV, book the gigs that do. I know that’s often difficult in itself, but that’s not Amanda Palmer’s fault. Unless there’s some massive conspiracy I’ve missed out on, it’s not Amanda Palmer’s fault that it’s difficult to make a living from music generally. Yes, it would be great if she did pay the musicians who volunteer; whether she can is for her to answer, not me. I object to the idea that people should have to work for free (particularly regarding the unpaid internships currently being forced upon many young people in the UK), but the difference here is that nobody is telling you to do this job. The option has been put in front of you, the terms are clear, and you are not obliged to accept. If you don’t like the terms, don’t volunteer.