When I first began this blog, I never envisaged writing two articles about something that Amanda Palmer had done. As I pointed out out in the first one, I’m no fanboy. Nevertheless, I’m starting to think quite highly of her philosophy, after I watched this TED talk:
If you, like me, are interested in making money (indeed, potentially making a living) from your own music, this makes for very interesting listening. Amidst the countless articles telling you that the “music industry” is collapsing; that record companies are only out there to screw you over; that it’s nigh on impossible to make a living from music; or that piracy is making it impossible to sell music, Palmer’s attitude and approach are a refreshing change. If you don’t have the time or inclination to watch the talk, her point is thus: that the “old model” was to make people pay for live and recorded music, and her model puts more emphasis on letting people pay for music. Most importantly, it’s about creating a direct connection between the artist and the fan. If you want to pay for the music, you give the money directly to the artist, as opposed to giving it to a record company and hoping they’ll give a fair cut of it to the aritst.
Obviously, Palmer is not the only person who has tried this idea. Radiohead famously caused a stir with it – I still remember hearing that they were going to release an album on a “pay-what-you-like” basis. It’s a bold move, but the philosophy seems to be:
“Well, if people have to pay, somebody will pirate it. If we give it away for free, people can get a bona fide copy (with no risk of lousy quality, attached viruses, etc) and hopefully most of them will be grateful enough to make some small donation in return.”
It’s a similar idea for live performances.
“Maybe charging for tickets is putting people off coming to our gigs. If we let them in free, and pass a hat round afterward, perhaps we’ll draw a larger crowd and make a little money to boot.”
You see, a lot of people will take their music for free if they can. Shock and/or horror. If the alternative response to this is to police the internet in a vain attempt to crack down on piracy (and presumably some kind of monitoring of what people copy to their memory sticks or recordable CDs), then it seems we have two potential cures. One treats the symptoms, the other attempts to treat the cause of the problem. Trawling the internet for illicit copies of your record will no doubt catch and close down a few potential sources of pirated music, but it does nothing to diminsh people’s sense of entitlement. But if you give people the option of having it for free, not only do you directly address that sense of entitlement, but suddenly the whole point of sharing unauthorised copies online is removed.
It makes a lot of sense to me, at any rate. But it’s been interesting to see how mixed people’s reactions are to this idea, and to Palmer’s talk. The main – and, I suppose, obvious – argument used to dismiss it is that Palmer already has plenty of money and can afford to experiment with things like this: “great idea if you’re already a famous millionaire,” seems to be the gist of it. An argument which, of course, assumes that she, or any similar artist, just winked into existence in a state of great wealth and is now telling the rest of us that we shouldn’t charge money for our music.
I can understand this line of objection: the UK, for example, is currently lumbered with a government comprised mostly of people who were born into wealthy families and given the most priveliged education and upbringing money could buy, who then went on to tell the rest of us that an untold number of cuts were going to be made to the social welfare and public services that many of us depend on, while they continued to suck on their silver spoons. “We’re all in this together,” my arse.
The difference is that none of these artists have that background. Maybe one or two of them did, but the vast majority were not sent to Eton or Harrow and guaranteed a place at Cambridge University because their daddy was quite chummy with one of the dons. Just look at how Palmer’s career started: busking as a “living statue” of sorts. People didn’t have to pay money to watch the eight-foot bride, but some of them did, and that allowed her to keep doing it for a living. It has worked for her. Sure, she had a few strokes of good fortune along the way – being backed by a record company was probably a very useful boost to her career while it lasted – but it sounds as if she has been able to depend on the kindness of her fanbase since then. You like the music, so you give something back, whether that’s by paying for the album or by giving the artist somewhere to stay while they’re on tour.
There, of course, is the real difference between Palmer, or Radiohead, and the rest of us. They already had plenty of fans. If Radiohead release an album for which payment is optional, plenty of people will know about it. If Palmer goes on Twitter and announces she needs a small favour, somebody will answer. But I would say this is where your job begins: surely if enough people start to pay attention to your music, then you’ll build a fanbase who will do the same for you? Saint Jude, for example, a band who have enjoyed a reasonable amount of success so far, but are still languishing in relative obscurity, have just successfully crowdsourced their latest EP. The question is, how did they acquire enough fans to make such an idea a success?
I’d be grateful if you could wish me luck at this stage. Cherry White’s new album has been recorded and is pencilled for release in a few months’ time. I’m seriously considering releasing it on a “pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth” basis, but there are several hurdles. One is convincing my bandmates that it could work. One is convincing myself that enough people care about our music to make is work. The other is how we can ensure that enough people care about our music to make it work.
Of course, if I had a definitive answer to that last question, I’d be writing a very different post right now. As I say, this is where it requires some innovation on your part. If the question is, “how can I make money from my music?” then the sub-heading is always going to be “how can I make people pay attention to my music?” Amanda Palmer has given you an answer to the main question, now you need to find an answer to the secondary question. You can’t expect her to do everything for you.