On Identifying as a Musician, Amanda Palmer, and Volunteer Gigs

Though most of my income at this point comes from writing, I still self identify as a musician. There was a time where I could have called myself a professional musician. I was gigging on regular basis for money and for experience when I lived in NYC. What I gigged on--voice, piano, woodwinds--I had extensive experience in. I can sing and I can play. For me, having a paycheck was not as important as performing music as well as I could. Unfortunately for me, I began experiencing terrible anxiety from gigging more nights than not and had to walk away from that lifestyle before I could make it a career. When I found out that Amanda Palmer put out a call for volunteer instrumentalists, I was intrigued. She was giving her fans a huge opportunity to play with her. They just had to have the ability to really play their instrument. Here's the key details from the call on her blog:

you’d need to show up for a quickie rehearsal (the parts are pretty simple) in the afternoon, then come back around for the show! 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... you need to know how to ACTUALLY, REALLY PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT! lessons in fifth grade do not count, so please include in your email some proof of that (a link to you playing on a real stage would be great, or a resume will do. just don’t LIE…you’ll be embarrassed if you show up for rehearsal and everyone’s looking at you wondering why you can’t actually play the trombone.) we’ve had a blast putting people together this past summer….COME JOIN THE [redacted] ORCHESTRA. it’s almost as good as the circus.

i think the intentions are clear. Amanda is inviting fans who actually play their instruments to hang out and perform a few songs with her. Unfortunately, that's not how a lot of people read it.

I found out that the New York Times was going to cover the controversy while stuck on a bus going into NYC to see the concert. Apparently, some musicians were crying exploitation and vilifying Amanda Palmer for asking her fans to join her onstage for free. She explained her side of the argument in terms of fan satisfaction and that should have been enough to end it. It didn't. It just got bigger. Why? Kickstarter.

The New York Times mentioned the figure Amanda quoted for paying the musicians, $35000, followed by the total money she raised from Kickstarter, $1.2million. You can imagine how that went over.

For full clarity since the Kickstarter campaign is now permanently linked to this controversy, realize this: the tour included in the Kickstarter was the 6 city art show/underground concert series that ran over the summer. The current US tour is a separate enterprise entirely. The Kickstarter money was used for the Kickstarter campaign--album, music videos, art commissions, and gallery concerts.

Amanda's actually reached the point where she is asking people not to feed the trolls. I could say more about the argument on both sides, but I will respect her wishes and not deconstruct the common arguments on both sides. Suffice it to say that I think the whole thing is blown out of proportion. Read any comment section and you'll see the most vocal critics asking who Amanda Palmer is and why anyone would want to play with her.

That's the point. If you don't know Amanda Palmer, you don't know the relationship she has crafted with her fans. Just in the last few years, she's expanded her fanbase with one on one Twitter interactions and pay what you want music downloads on her site. She Kickstarted a teenager's debut album of piano compositions after randomly meeting him in Boston. If she's not exhausted, she'll come out after every performance and meet her fans.

If Amanda Palmer is too obscure an example for you, think about the performer or artist you would drop everything to work with even for a night. You would be able to say for the rest of your life that you worked with that artist. Your contribution to their work would be seen by a large audience and you would get to pull back the curtain and see how everything comes together. The one catch is being competent at the skill they're looking for. Would you balk at the opportunity just because you're not being paid for one night of work?

In my case, that person would probably would be Amanda Palmer right now. I wrongly assumed that sax players would be lining up to go play with Amanda for a night in NYC. Otherwise, I would have signed up for another unpaid gig as a musician to hang out backstage and play for her other fans. Worst case scenario, I would have gotten a story out of it and been able to state that I played onstage with Amanda.

Best case scenario? Who knows? Maybe Amanda would need help on a paid gig in the future. Maybe she would have found out about my writing, my crafting/design, my musical arrangements, my mad alto clarinet skills. If not Amanda herself, then maybe one of the opening acts or Amanda's team would need me in the future and remember my work on that one night.

It's not out of the question with Amanda Palmer. She's very loyal to her collaborators. In fact, at the NYC gig, she explained how most of the volunteer musicians were people she worked with before who were called to do the gig.

The reason that I still work with music is my love of music. You don't music direct for educational theater because of the paychecks. You do it to share your passion with young people. Music is a large part of what kept me going growing up. I feel privileged to be able to share that with younger people and encourage them to develop their own relationship with the arts. If I refused the work because it doesn't pay pro rates, I wouldn't be able to get hired for pro rate summer gigs or arranging work. Why? Because I wouldn't have the experience. I don't back away from an opportunity to perform unless I'm booked for another job (not even a well-paying job; committed to another performance) or too sick to perform at all.

This is how I choose to view music performance. It does not mean that I don't wish every gig came with a big check or a wad of cash. I just know that, for me, performing to perform is a better use of my time, skill, and passion than sitting at home and waiting for the next paycheck.

If you're at the point in your life that you don't feel the need to get out and perform unless there's pay involved, that's your choice. I respect it. Just consider that maybe, just maybe, some people who are skilled at their instrument are capable of choosing how to handle their performance career. We're not all union members for various reasons. We can choose how we want to handle a career in the arts.

Thoughts? Share them below. Love to hear from you.

Ben Folds Five & Fraggle Rock "Do It Anyway"

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra Live in NYC 9/11/2012