We ARE the media

I may have overdosed on Amanda Palmer, you guys. Unfortunately, most people I’ve mentioned her to don’t know who she is, so let me illuminate your lives for a minute. Because that’s why we’re both here, right? (Warning: there is much more link clickety fun than normal in this blog post. Just do it. It’s worth your time. Mostly.)

Back in the day, Amanda Palmer was the lead singer for The Dresden Dolls. She went solo and then ditched her record label. Somewhere in there is when I started listening to her, right around the time she released a badass album of Radiohead covers all played on the ukulele. That’s right. That’s what I said. Radiohead covers. On the ukulele. A whole album of them. Because that’s how one rolls with no evil corporate scumfucks looking over one’s shoulder. Art for art’s sake. Anyway, she’s just a great big tornado of weird fun and I love everything about her.

The reason that I bring her up now is that she’s been in the center of a wee little media frenzy with this new album, Theatre Is Evil. This is like the history of New Media in three acts, for real. What happened was that she crowdfunded the money for the album on Kickstarter, raising way more than she asked for (the goal was $100K and they ended up with $1.2 million). That’s what happens when your fans love the shit out of you and you make perfectly reasonable requests that will have awesome artistic repercussions. So, she made the album and, in addition to regular cds and itunes and all that blah blah, she released it on her website on a pay-what-you-can basis. I paid ten bucks for mine, even though I’m broke and could’ve gotten it for free. Because it’s her music and she worked her balls off to make it and she can do whatever the hell she wants with it! Once you take a record label out of the equation, anyway, and there’s no one telling anyone else what to do. Ever. (Frankly, I doubt very many people tell this woman “no.”)

So when she and her band started their tour they crowdsourced some musicians to go onstage with them. Now, here’s where the bullshit starts to get thick. I, personally, think this is a fucking fantastic plan. Why pay to haul an orchestra’s worth of people and equipment around the world when you can find a few people in each town to play with you, save on travel costs, and give some of your musically-inclined fanbase such an awesome opportunity? Are you fucking kidding me? It’s brilliant. Saves money and gives a bunch of people a huge happy. I love it. But apparently some musician’s union asshats had a problem with it because she was bucking the system. Demeaning everything they’ve worked for as a union and whatnot. Which, I mean, I see their point, too, but it’s not like she hired professional musicians and then refused to pay them. These folks were all enthusiastic volunteers who were aware of the terms when they signed up. (I should clarify that since this nonsense got some media attention, she and her team of minions have revised their budget so now they are paying everyone who comes to play, even though they never asked her to.)

And then, like a ninja, she sneaks onto the Billboard charts (as of this writing, she was sitting at number ten). With a crowdfunded album! With no record label! Which is a pretty incredible thing. Probably the first time all three of those circumstances have come together, although I can’t say that unequivocally. We kindasorta had this conversation when Radiohead released In Rainbows and gave it away. And then we noticeably didn’t have this conversation when Nine Inch Nails did the same thing with The Slip, which I thought was weird. Maybe it’s just being made into a big deal now because the interwebs is becoming exponentially more important each year. Evolution is speeding up. The singularity is getting closer and closer. And although the music industry was among the first to feel it, they’re turning into the whining toddler of the group, that annoying one that won’t leave without howling its fool head off. And folks like Palmer are the thorn in their side, telling them to their faces that they’re wrong. Good on her.

Now, we all know that I’m not a particularly adept music reviewer, but I am great at analogies and will say this: Theatre Is Evil fucking rocks. It’s like if The Cure and Concrete Blonde had a baby who was raised in a traveling burlesque show by Tori Amos and Ben Folds and grew up to be smoking hot and eyebrowless. I definitely like some songs more than others. I have listened to those songs about a thousand times. And I’ve listened to the whole album about ten times in the three days I’ve had it, and I’m just now able to get through the damn thing without crying. I even took the afternoon off yesterday and learned Ukulele Anthem on my uke. (Side note: at this point I feel obligated to mention that you shouldn’t pronounce it “you-kuh-lay-lee” but “ooh-koo-lay-lay,” because if I don’t my mother will yell at me.)

Also, there are a couple of really awesome videos for these songs. Like this one. And this one. That stop-motion ink-crawly weirdness is just so fucking cool. And that’s not CG; it was all practical. This kind of shit makes you remember when video was important, and think maybe it could be again. Most of that money that they repurposed for paying the musicians is coming out of the video budget, though, so I don’t know how much more fun visual stuff we’ll see for this album. Thanks for that, media/musician peer pressure. I really do miss that combo of visual and musical art that was so prevalent in the age of music videos. But Palmer also commissioned a bunch of folks to help her make an art book to go with the album (which I think was part of the higher-level Kickstarter package), so maybe that idea will catch on and we’ll have a new and exciting way to do music-slash-art stuff in this wretched post-video era.

Anyway, check out Amanda Palmer. She blogs (and somehow, inexplicably, overuses the word “kerfluffle”) at amandapalmer.net (where you can also buy the new album), and is @amandapalmer on Twitter. Basically, she’s awesome wrapped in art dipped in punk. You can’t beat that.

PS – I tried really, really hard not to mention this, but she’s married to Neil Gaiman, and we know how much I lovelovelove him. And while that has absolutely nothing to do with her music or her art, this is one of the sweetest things I’ve seen in a long time.

12 thoughts on “We ARE the media

  1. I
    a) don’t really give a shit about Palmer’s music,

    and

    b) haven’t read through every shred of commentary on this imbroglio,

    but a couple of things.

    1. You don’t really have to sell many records to hit the billboard charts (Cake hit number 1 a year or so ago with ridiculously low numbers compared to any week of the 1990s).

    2. To me, it’s less that she wanted to give fans a chance to perform with her, and more about setting precedence regarding whether payment for playment (see what I did there? Pretty rotten, I know) is okay in a professional setting.

    3. I didn’t read all of Steve Albini’s responses, but I recall the thrust of his complaint being that she raised a ton of dough and then allocated it inefficiently. This coming from a veteran indie producer who knows both the system and how to make records on the cheap and on the expensive.

    4. It might be that I don’t really care for NIN, but my take on why their pay-what-you-want forays didn’t get Radiohead levels of coverage goes like this: first, the music press (particularly online) *did* cover it. Second, none of the artists that tried that model got Radiohead levels of coverage because it wasn’t as new at that point. Third, Radiohead are critical darlings to the extent that NIN haven’t been since 1994. That last one is most subjective, I suppose, and I am certainly biased.

    1. I do wonder how they calculate the Billboards these days, since physical record sales are so ridiculously low. All the sales numbers have to be terribly skewed toward itunes, too, so I wonder how that factors in.

    1. That’s a great article. Despite the writer being a fan/supporter, it does show both sides pretty well. I have to ask you, though, Fizzy, if you’ve heard the album?

      1. Oh, you responded, eh? Somehow my email doesn’t let me know these things. Good thing I am enough of a procrastinator for me to actually check back on this two weeks later.

        Um, no. I ain’t listened. I doubt I will, at this point. I’m a bit out of the scene right now. Lacking a job (although hopefully not for too much longer) inhibits the amount of available monies to be spent on new music. On another front, I acquired quite a bit of music from the radio station before I left that I’m still processing. On yet another front, I acquired a ton of cheap jazz records in Philadelphia a couple months ago.

        1. That said, here are some things I came across in that jazz acquisition that you should listen to:

          15 minute disco/funk medley of music from the first Star Wars film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=td3KlonxeOE

          Disco/Jazz cover of Star Trek (disco ruined a lot of things for a lot of jazz musicians, but not this guy): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_v1J-kGxXds

          Latin Jazz (both sides of the LP by the legendary Ron Carter) music inspired by the Empire Strikes Back: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVnqF_YFDdg&feature=relmfu

          Let it be known that I paid no more than 3 dollars for any one of these LPs

          1. Well, yeah, the Ron Carter pedigree is pretty impossible to top. He has literally played on over 1,000 records–jazz, funk, r/b, you name it. And most of them are fantastic. I was very surprised to see that an officially-sanctioned (unlike that Meco record from the first film. You can tell from the album art that he had nothing to do with Lucas) Star Wars release would land someone of Carter’s stature.

            My co-host and I used to blindly guess which tracks we played featured Ron Carter, and we were often right, just from the sheer number of awesome records

        2. I don’t know why it’s not emailing you to let you know I responded. I’ll talk to my guru about it. In other news, when you say “acquired”…?

  2. Purchased vinyl from a used record shop (Philadelphia Record Exchange) and ripped CDs from the radio station’s library, as was encouraged by management in order to explore the depths of their ridiculous catalog.

    1. I was actually busting your chops, but good plug. I love a record store that actually sells records. Getting rarer and rarer. And thanks for the youtube vids. I’m going through them now.

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