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On Amanda Palmer's unpaid orchestra: A DIY-crowd-sourcer's take

September 13, 2012|By August Brown
  • The band Emperor X with local crowd-sourced musicians at a New York City show.
The band Emperor X with local crowd-sourced musicians at a New York City… (Anna White )

The singer-performance artist Amanda Palmer is catching some blowback from professional musicians after crowd-sourcing unpaid backup musicians for her upcoming tour. While she does have a small paid touring band on the road full time, she's recruiting additional "professional-ish" unpaid musicians with a promise of beer, hugs and a fun night onstage. 

This might not have been a big deal, except that Palmer also wowed the music world after raising well over $1 million from fans in a Kickstarter campaign to fund, among other things, this very tour. 

Plenty of professional muscians -- especially the classical and jazz players versed in the string and horn instruments she's looking for -- were outraged at the suggestion that a professional touring artist with considerable fame and cache wouldn't extend the same courtesy of payment to her players. But in the indie and avant-garde music scenes, this strategy of ad hoc backing bands can be a useful tool and creative gambit, one that unpaid amateurs would gladly participate in for kicks and a chance to collaborate.

For some perspective on the dueling value systems here, I called Chad Matheny, a noise-folk singer songwriter (and, full disclosure, an old friend) whose L.A.-based project Emperor X has toured American and Europe in a similar fashion for over a decade and earned raves from Pitchfork and NPR.

Matheny does this out of necessity. He has considerable vision impairment and travels by bus or rail because he can’t drive a tour van. He will often recruit collaborators online for each tour stop, each at varying degrees of skill and necessity for filling out his sound. But while he finds that the setup can be a creatively fulfilling and economically efficient strategy (especially for musicians on the low-margin DIY scene), it comes with expectation that everyone is broke and doing this as a passion project -- a sense of goodwill that an artist with fame and a huge financial windfall can't expect for themselves.

Below is an edited and condensed version of his remarks on crowd sourcing musicians on the road, and how the tension between commerce and creativity changes as an artist scales up. Emperor X's most recent album "Western Teleport" came out last year on Bar None Records.

"I started doing it because I can’t drive, so I was always dependent on other bands on tour. Owning a car and assembling a band is incredibly expensive, so I’d get on board with a band with their own van and play regional shows. I have people I can call in 10 to 15 cities and get them to play for me. But also, I do it as a kind of subterfuge. It’s really important for me to play all-ages shows, and sometimes I’ll get emails from people saying they’re underage and can’t get in. So I’ll tell them “Bring a banjo, we’ll write some parts for you to play.” When you go to a town and hear people playing your songs that you haven’t taught them, it’s really fun and takes away an element of control. Sometimes it sounds terrible, sometimes it’s beautiful, but it’s always exciting.  

But if I were [Palmer], I’d probably try and pay them, or at least compensate them somehow. I don’t think she’s doing anything predatory, but if she’s making a few thousand bucks a night, I don’t see why she shouldn’t try to pay. Treat people like you want to be treated.  But then it also depends on the artist. If the Flaming Lips tried this I don’t think anyone would have questioned it, but if Lana Del Rey did, people would question the hell out of it. It’s all about their attitude and the results they want.

If she raised over a million dollars for this, she should have an itemized statement about where this money is going. People don’t understand that even with how much money is floating around the top levels of music, most musicians live in abject poverty. I have a fan base, I’m not a musician no one has heard of, but if you gave me 1% of that money it would immediately change my life. Those disparities are shocking, and that can really irritate people.

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