Why I'm Fine With Playing For Amanda Palmer For Free, By S.F. Cellist Unwoman

Categories: Guest Opinion

UnwomanDaveBryanCrop_live_500.jpg
Dave Bryan
Unwoman in concert.
Editor's note: There's a flurry of arguments floating around online about independent artist Amanda Palmer asking skilled musicians to play a couple of songs at each stop on her upcoming tour for just beer, merchandise, and affection. Many argue that it isn't fair that Palmer -- who raised more than $1 million in a Kickstarter campaign for her current album -- is asking musicians to play without pay. S.F. cellist and solo artist Unwoman (aka Erica Mulkey) played with Palmer in July, and will again perform with her at the Fillmore later this month. Here, she explains why she's happy to do it for free.

I'm a solo singer-cellist. I've been performing as Unwoman for 12 years now, after studying cello, composition, and electronic music rather seriously. I've been a fan of Amanda Palmer since I saw the Dresden Dolls open for Nine Inch Nails in 2005-ish. I've found her music inspiring -- of tears, musical expression, and confidence in my ability to do this as a career. In fact, it was her blog "Why I Am Not Afraid To Take Your Money," that inspired me to take the plunge into doing music full-time, supported directly and solely by my fans. In a slow and steady climb, my most recent Kickstarter -- partly because it got Amanda's attention and she tweeted about it -- raised $23,000, or 306 percent of my goal.

Now, that's about 2 percent of what Amanda raised on her last Kickstarter. But her endeavors are on a vastly greater scale than mine, and she actually talks about where all that money goes, even though in my opinion she doesn't need to justify taking money that people want to give her. In fact I will say this: if you think artists are accountable to use Kickstarter funds beyond the goal (and apart from obviously delivering their promises) for what you want them to use them for, please do us all a favor: Stop pledging on Kickstarter and STFU. As my dad said once, some people give you a dollar and think they own you.


Anyway, I'm nowhere near rich -- I live with my parents, and very modestly, but for the last four years, every year I've made $8,000-$10,000 more (gross) than the last on my music, after having supported my (small-scale, DIY) solo project with a day job for seven years so that I was never in debt. I've been really intentional about doing things that are long-term profitable all along, like having sources of passive income, rocking my own engineering and production, and not spending much money on marketing until recently.

I was overjoyed to have the chance to play with Palmer when she came through San Francisco in July. I got the gig through my friend and occasional collaborator Charith Premawardhana of Classical Revolution. I played two shows with the Grand Theft Orchestra and Amanda. They were magical experiences, and I would have done it for free, but they paid (more than I usually get paid), and Amanda put me on stage to do a surprise solo song the first night. That exposure alone was huge for me. The second night I brought some of my CDs, and I sold a bunch.

There, they told me about the Sept. 26 gig (at the Fillmore) and that they hoped I could make it. I had planned to fly to Boston with my mom on that day (which happens to be my 32nd birthday) for my cousin's wedding, but a few weeks ago I confirmed that I'd be playing the 9/26 show, and I moved our flights to the following day, which cost $240. I didn't find out till later that it would be unpaid, but I thought, "Eh that's kinda lame," then went right back to looking forward to the show. If Amanda lets me sell CDs there, and mentions that I have CDs for sale, I'll probably make that much money. And even if I don't, this is a much better way to celebrate my birthday than on a plane!

So those are the economics of the situation for me. Now, here are some points.

* I worried, as I began to write this piece mostly defending her, that I was just excusing her because I want to kiss her butt, because she's cool/famous/has been helpful to me personally. But I am absolutely honest about my bias toward her, as both a fan and a musician. And the fact that people like myself -- both her fan and potential collaborator -- exist, is kind of the point of this whole thing.

* Amanda Palmer is not a support system for struggling classical musicians.

* Classical Rev musician and letter-writer Amy Vaillancourt-Sals would believe me naïve for wanting to play unpaid, and I just can't believe that after 12 years. On any given night, would I rather be playing with one of my top-10 favorite current musicians, or hanging out at home? Or buying a ticket, merely watching the show, wishing I were on stage? The answer is obvious for me. A musician who only wants to play paid gigs? That's valid too; neither of us is more serious or righteous than the other.

* The thing that bothers me the most about this debate is the people who guilt those who do work for free, as if we're devaluing the work by doing so, as if we're scabs. I am very firmly for labor unions, but playing a super-fun rock show is not at ALL the same as manual labor, or teaching. Or playing a corporate gig no one really wants to play. As soon as actual musical love and sparkly fame come into the picture, you're looking at currency that's not dollars. That currency is, in Amanda's case, invisible to anyone who doesn't love her music or want to play for her fans. But it's real to us.

Location Info

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The Fillmore

1805 Geary, San Francisco, CA

Category: Music

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76 comments
tammer-timmy
tammer-timmy

Such a flowery way to say "I'm a scab and I don't care because I'll just live on my parents' couch forever. Any musicians without this option can rot for all I care. This is about ME."

metaphorge
metaphorge

I just wanted to thank you again for writing this, Erica, after having spent about a two hours arguing with someone about all of this who simply does not :get it".

IATSE
IATSE

(quote)I know, I know, I sound like an evil capitalist decrying the minimum wage -- but playing music is just not the same as labor. All the Facebook memes in the world aren't going to get around the fact that people enjoy doing creative things and will do them for free because we need the fulfillment that doing them brings.(quote)this is where things get ruined, and i will explain why. I live in NJ, and here i get paid decently as a sound engineer for mixing bands, something I LOVE TO DO, and i am happy enough that i get paid well to do it, and it is BECAUSE of unions up here that i am able to get paid decently. a few years ago i moved to athens, georgia and applied at multiple bars and clubs to do sound and i eventually had to MOVE BACK TO NJ because athens was full of college kids and local bands that were doing sound FOR FREE or For BEER, litterally. I HAD TO MOVE BACK TO NJ TO MAKE A LIVING BECAUSE OF PEOPLE LIKE YOU.

 

The union needs to shut Amanda Palmer down, if she performs at an IATSE venue then the stagehands should shut her ass down that night

how3ird
how3ird

@unwoman Irony:my musical cousin moved to Boston where she gets paid for her gigs.She didn't in Santa Cruz. But yeah, support who helped u.

poochlalow
poochlalow

@unwoman saw your live feed once. It is worse than a shame she isn't paying U and U feel U have to play for free to play at all. Sad really

mark
mark

Sprohnn's response is the most spot-on amongst all the back and forth I've read on this topic across the net. Palmer's banking on obviously skilled musician megafans all over the country like you to do the gig for free.

 

There is a massive salary hole for everyone below the top 10% of performing musicians -- know this -- and it gets harder every day to scrape together any coins in exchange for years of dedication and honing of ones art in our newly developed culture of "free." Shit, I'd be content knowing I had just my baseline health covered in these ever more Dickensian times. The music culture mirrors the larger culture here in the US -- there ain't no musical middle class, but ever-widening feast or famine.

 

I speak as a musician who has played hundreds of gigs on the middle of the bill opening  for many  well-known artists. Unless you're headlining, you ain't making any money. It's pay to play for everyone except the headliner. The new boss is worse than the old boss. 50 bucks wouldn't be insulting, it'd at least be a token of goodwill from someone whose fans rained goodwill generously on her and knows firsthand how tough a grind it can be. For someone who has taken on the role of indie savior in the new music paradigm, Palmer's logic on this one is muddled.

 

Erica, by accepting the gig and demanding nothing, you devalue your skill as a trained musician and for others like you -- bottom line. Crowdsourcing is scabbery, no matter how creatively Palmer wants to spin it, sorry

 

If you want to continue living at home until well into your thirties, that's your choice (or maybe not). Many of us musicians want to get compensated for our dedication, skill, and labor so that we can afford to live like adults and continue to enrich the world with our art.

Sprohnn
Sprohnn

To be clear, the performance at the Fillmore, Sept. 26, has tickets at list price for $25. The Fillmore's capacity is 1199 souls. Ms. Palmer is undoubtedly being compensated for her performance _financially,_ not with "hugs" and "backrubs," although I imagine that Mr. Gaiman provides those willingly for free.

 

I cannot fathom why musicians should perform with Ms. Palmer without a similar expectation of financial compensation. While it is chic to bash unions, even musicians' unions(!), the simple fact of the matter is that, even at the union's casual wage scale, $335 for a three hour show and a two-hour rehearsal is hardly an onerous burden.

 

Ms. Palmer would have to sell 13.5 tickets at $25 each to pay for a musician, compensated appropriately. A five-piece backing band would require 69 tickets' worth of income. That's 6% of the Fillmore's capacity. Another way of putting it: why is Ms. Palmer unwilling to share 6% of the door with the musicians who make it possible? 

 

And why are folks here prepared to accept that?

 

(I edited to correct faulty math. Apologies if this still contains incorrect figures. I tried to verify with Local 6's [the musicians' union] Webpage and the Fillmore's Wiki page).

ErinCraig11
ErinCraig11

@newmusicmichael interesting. Still think it's not right. Regardless of their reasoning, they are devaluing the skills of trained musicians.

unwoman
unwoman

@AndrewMayer thanks for the bump, Andrew! You coming to Dark Shadows tonight? Old-school rivethead back room!

Ialoa
Ialoa

 @tammer-timmy So true - anything is possible when freeloading off of parents... in one's 30s nonetheless haha

IATSE
IATSE

the NY Show at Terminal 5 is an IA theater - its on new years eve, the stagehands should be out there with the rat, or be pressuring right now to shut that show down. I would not work it, but i would happily come out on new years eve with the rat, and amanda can give me a backrub, while i hold up the banner " Amanda Palmer - unfair to unions "

unwoman
unwoman

@poochlalow did you read my piece? If so, you missed my point.

unwoman
unwoman

 @mark Sure, we all *want* to be compensated for our dedication, skill, and labor, but you yourself agree that's not happening. In its absense I'm absolutely thrilled to live on a shoestring and play shows all the time with my friends.

newmusicmichael
newmusicmichael

@ErinCraig11 just as a devil's advocate, what's the diff b/w that and say I help out an artist w/some accounting/bookkeeping/tax work gratis

AndrewMayer
AndrewMayer

@unwoman NP. And Dark Shadows sounds fun! I was wondering why fate was leaving my Friday open...

poochlalow
poochlalow

@unwoman good she gave you solo spot. The piece I saw U do was great. I have sat in with icons, too. Different thing.

6bullets
6bullets

 @unwoman  @mark OK -- Need to be. Side note and more background relevant to this discussion to make my point: I've been low-balled by our local lords of commerce, Google and Yelp, by asking to play for much less than my band is worth because they both cried poormouth. We told 'em to get fucked! Google alone has helped to suck 90 Billion dollars out of the music economy over the last decade. Performing live is one of the few ways for a musician to make money these days and they want to fuck us out of that, too? The problem with free is if you accept it, you very often get it. Amanda has been a part of great things with her community of fans. I believe she's abusing that relationship on this one. It's a precedent setting slippery slope that others in her position could easily follow. Like I said before, there is very little middle ground in the music "industry".

 

She wants to be the voice of the new-paradigm, successful independent musician? Then, she's gotta walk the walk, if she's gonna talk the talk (loudly).  She needs to respect her musicians by paying them (even a little bit!) -- your're not an intern any more, Erica.

 

Undoubtedly this gig will be fun for a big fan of hers like you. I would be tempted to do the same if I was in the same position. And unfortunately If you don't do it, someone else will. That's the shackles of being a fan and the heart of the abuse of the power dynamic. But that's what corporations do and that's why so many musicians have rightly called bullshit on AFP. Good luck with your music.

erinfaught
erinfaught

@newmusicmichael @erincraig11 like a very individual decision on whether or not to volunteer. All musicians are in different places.

erinfaught
erinfaught

@newmusicmichael @erincraig11 really interesting discussion all. I hadn't heard about this previously. I'm not too sure what to think, seems

amvanimere
amvanimere

@newmusicmichael @erincraig11 those bands didn't just make over $1MM through a high profile kick starter campaign.

unwoman
unwoman

@AndrewMayer YES. I think I am seeing ALL THE FRIENDS there tonight. Super happy about that. I'm gonna rock a vampire cape for this.

unwoman
unwoman

@poochlalow but she would get just as much $$ if we weren't there.

poochlalow
poochlalow

@unwoman Me 2, but usually the whole band is in same boat. A will profit from others' input. she will get paid, but I understand yr point.

unwoman
unwoman

.@poochlalow I play for hugs and beer (and I can't even drink beer) pretty frequently. If I found it demeaning I'd have quit years ago.

poochlalow
poochlalow

@unwoman I hear ya, but still wrestling w/the way she put it, hugs and beer. Demeaning, to those of us who came up in the same scene.

unwoman
unwoman

@poochlalow thank you, glad you like it -- I guess what I'm trying to say is that gigs paid in $$ aren't the only kind of currency.

erinfaught
erinfaught

@ErinCraig11 yep, I see your point! I need to find her request for volunteers, interested to see how she would justify.

ErinCraig11
ErinCraig11

@erinfaught true, everyone's in their own place... but when AP writes something like this http://t.co/dPWNS00A then asks for volunteers...?

ErinCraig11
ErinCraig11

@amvanimere @newmusicmichael I also think it's very different when favours are asked/given between equals. Not the case with AP.

amvanimere
amvanimere

@newmusicmichael @erincraig11 ...album cover or something like that because it's something with a reasonable expectation to be paid for

amvanimere
amvanimere

@newmusicmichael @erincraig11 there's a lot of photo work I've done for free, but I wouldn't let The Smashing Pumpkins use a photo on an...

amvanimere
amvanimere

@newmusicmichael @erincraig11 ...markets, while the lesser ones get a rag-tag group of fans just happy to be there.

amvanimere
amvanimere

@newmusicmichael @erincraig11 also, I think it's insulting to her fans (who lather her with cash) that she's using pro musicians in major...

ErinCraig11
ErinCraig11

@newmusicmichael it's very true. Not to say I don't read blogs, but I do miss having more in-house EJ columnists. Don't have a fix though :(

ErinCraig11
ErinCraig11

@newmusicmichael @amvanimere ha, and I just tweeted I wish I had a blog :)

newmusicmichael
newmusicmichael

@ErinCraig11 @amvanimere though that's not dissimilar to the onslaught of the blogosphere and the print media having to lay off lots of ppl.

ErinCraig11
ErinCraig11

@newmusicmichael @amvanimere I don't want to see a music industry that looks like that. I pay my union dues so shit like this doesn't happen

newmusicmichael
newmusicmichael

@ErinCraig11 @amvanimere that's definitely a fair comment.

ErinCraig11
ErinCraig11

@newmusicmichael @amvanimere then you have hobbyist musicians playing gigs while the dedicated, educated, trained professionals are shut out

ErinCraig11
ErinCraig11

@newmusicmichael @amvanimere the thought then becomes "well if AP doesn't have to pay musicians, then why should I?"

ErinCraig11
ErinCraig11

@newmusicmichael @amvanimere my issue is that as a high-profile artist, she's making it seem acceptable to not pay musicians for their work.

newmusicmichael
newmusicmichael

@amvanimere @erincraig11 maybe they're not a good example cause they're not at the AP line. But same would be true of SSPU Joy Form etc.

newmusicmichael
newmusicmichael

@amvanimere @erincraig11 cause I'm not a huge fan. If say @hollerado wanted a few hours of time in exchange for some food and beer no prob.

amvanimere
amvanimere

@newmusicmichael @erincraig11 ...you wouldn't be doing Adele's bookkeeping for free.

amvanimere
amvanimere

@newmusicmichael @erincraig11 I don't think what she's doing is fundamentally wrong, but the optics of it are pretty horrible.

newmusicmichael
newmusicmichael

@amvanimere @erincraig11 so there's some sort of "Amanda Palmer" financial line over which it's no longer appropriate.

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