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“want me to invade your home? oh, i shall.”
-from Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign
To finish off what has been riotous year for Amanda Palmer, she is set to play two house parties in Los Angeles this month before performing at the A TOTAL DISRUPTION Soirée on December 15th at the Echoplex. This constitutes a typical stop for the outspoken, polarizing punk-cabaret musician as she closes out a year of over 75 gigs in every kind of venue imaginable across the U.S., Europe, and Australia.
There are few artists who have embraced the new media landscape and direct-to-fan relationship with as much passion and engagement as Amanda Palmer. Early on, she saw the new tools offered through technology as an opportunity to return to a time before mass media ushered in the era of hero worship and celebrity culture — to a time when artists were connectors, built into the fabric of the community, and not untouchable divas shielded behind a wall of spin doctors, music industry suits, and middleman. In her bravura TED Talk, “The Art of Asking,” that got over 3 million views, Palmer flipped this traditional rock-god narrative of a million adoring and distant fans on its head, “it’s about a few people loving you up close, and those people being enough.”
For the past six months, from Portland to Boston and points in between, I’ve dropped in on Palmer as she’s blessed living rooms, community centers, book stores, streets underneath highway overpasses, farmhouses alike, crisscrossing the country to play music and trade stories and hugs for hours on end across America and the globe. Palmer draws hundreds of people to these spots thanks to her easy accessibility and indefatigable diligence via social media channels like Tumblr and Instagram – on Twitter, she’s gained close to a million followers, and this woman powerhouse has been on the road nonstop all year with a combination of actual concert dates and house parties in large part to fulfill her record-breaking $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign promises.
The house parties have existed as part of Amanda’s repertoire when she began toying with the concept back in 2011, “I kind of did a proto-Kickstarter when I put out my Australian album, and I put it out here via my website. For 25 bucks you got the signed CD, and, I think for $3,000 you got a house party anywhere in Australia. That was just an experiment. I went around Australia touring, and I routed the tour around also doing house parties in Melbourne City, Brisbane, Perth, and I loved it. I loved doing it. It’s very real.” The 33 of these she has done this year in Philadelphia, Nashville, Seattle, London, Oslo, Tel Aviv, 23 of which have been in North America, cost the hosts 5K each (often groups of friends pool money together to make their lives better by importing Amanda and then sell tickets to other super-fans.) I have never witnessed disappointment, and the end of the night never comes before the wee hours of the morning, nor before tears are shed.
Yet since reaching out to her community to crowdfund her Theatre Is Evil album in 2012, Palmer has become a lightning rod for harsh criticism around her outside-the-box approach to making and performing her music, which apparently poses a threat to the stifling methods of the major players who dominate the music industry. She is unapologetic in announcing that “The tyranny is over.” When I ask her why, she pats her keyboard as if its her favorite dog’s head, “This is the main reason. Artists have wrested control back. We have our voices back. We don’t need them to talk for us.”
Amanda has been condemned by the media for soliciting donations to support her art, vilified and called “an idiot” by producer Steve Albini for crowdsourcing musicians to back her up on tour for free, not to mention the viral controversy over a blog post she entitled, “a poem for dzhokhar” after the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Gawker shrieked that it was “the worst poem of all time.” Every move Palmer makes seems to be scrutinized not only by a hostile and snarky music press, but by legacy news outlets that feel the need to accuse her of hypocrisy, exploitation, and having an entitlement complex. But Amanda doesn’t roll over for her critics, rather she fights back with a subversive and feminist voice in an otherwise male-centric music business. Most recently, the Daily Mail, a UK tabloid made a feeble and chauvinistic attempt to embarrass her when they posted a picture of Amanda’s wardrobe malfunction at the Glastonbury music festival when her breast escaped her bra. Shortly after, Amanda shot back during a live performance in a hilarious and witty smackdown, “Dear Daily Mail,” and halfway through she dropped her kimono and played in the buff. The lyrics include, “dear Daily Mail / there’s a thing called a search engine: use it! / if you’d googled my tits in advance you’d have found that your photos are hardly exclusive.”
Outside Palmer’s hotel in Denver, the house party host and two other fans – giddy with excitement – pick Amanda up like an old college friend. They all cram together in the car, and they excitedly fill her in on what they have in store back at the fort: streamers, sushi, homemade sangria, a brass band, homemade ginger beer, and pirate decorations. They also tell her how her music has sustained them over many years, at the darkest times. Amanda is coming off playing a magical gig at Red Rocks with Devotchka the night before, followed by a signing line that went for hours where many people told her similar savoir stories and hundreds of hugs were exchanged (We’re currently editing this for an upcoming CEA episode.)
For Palmer, the allure of doing the house parties is rooted in the importance of hospitality and how that allows the good times to flow, “There’s really a difference, energetically, between showing up at someone’s house at their address, knocking on the door, having the door open, and waiting in line to get your ticket from someone who’s like, ‘Here’s your fucking ticket…you’re gonna need to check your bag over there. It’s a shitty way to enter a space.”
As the house party kicks off, stripped-down ukulele performances by Amanda lead to intelligent and personal exchanges about art and self-expression and the distance between rock star and fan fades further into the night. One fan confides to me Amanda’s secret, “It’s about how human she makes herself and how she honestly, earnestly wants to connect. That humanity is what brings us together and makes us want to stay and talk together and be near each other.” Back in her hotel room the next day, Palmer agrees, “The house parties feel like the core base ingredient of what I fucking do. Be with some people and play music for them and talk with them.”
My takeaway, applicable to all, is that it’s not about hiding our process or maintaining hierarchy, or even mystery anymore. You can say what you will about Amanda, but I shine a light on her because we all have a lot to learn from this force of nature and her fans. Amanda Fucking Palmer was built for this time.
The moral of the story: The more you can connect and empathize with the people for whom you are creating, the better your work and life are going to be. You no longer need to see the gatekeeper, you just need to work hard and share your passion with the world, then use the Internet to connect and innovate ways you can monetize what you do through an honest exchange with your fans. Hallelujah.