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Will (Not) Play For Hugs And Beer: Musicians Attack Amanda Palmer’s Request For Volunteers

Amanda Palmer performs on stage with her new band Grand Theft Orchestra in Berlin in June, (AP)

Amanda Palmer performs on stage with her new band Grand Theft Orchestra in Berlin in June, (AP)

BOSTON — Asking fans to contribute to her music-making has long been Boston rocker Amanda Palmer’s M.O. They’ve given her lyrics, feedback, moral support and a whopping $1.2 million via the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter.com to help produce her new album, “Theatre is Evil.”

But this week the indie musician ignited a firestorm in the same social media universe that’s nurtured her success.

On Tuesday, the day her album was released, the New York Times picked up on what would become a torrent of angry criticism aimed on Palmer via Twitter (where she has 600,000+ followers) and on her blog. Fans and musicians were reacting to an invitation Palmer posted on her website back in August asking “professional-ish” horn and string players to volunteer to play with her and her band on tour.

Palmer offered beer, hugs and merchandise in exchange for jamming on stage in cities across the nation.

Over the course of the week musicians from all genres have been aiming barbed accusations that Palmer is taking advantage of working musicians by asking them to play for free.

The Musician’s union in Seattle tweeted:

Non-musicians chimed in too:

But plenty of people sided with Palmer:

I called Pat Hollenbeck, president of the Boston Musicians’ Association, to get his take on the uproar. He acknowledged having a unique perspective on the situation, since Palmer grew up in Lexington and has been part of Boston’s music community for years.

“I know her, I’ve worked with her and support her 100 percent,” Hollenbeck said. At the same time he qualified, “When you start going on a major tour, worldwide, she can still collect musicians wherever she goes, that’s a great idea, but I feel there’s a moral obligation to pay them.”

Any musician on stage, union or not, deserves to be compensated, Hollenbeck added. He has particular sympathy for students currently paying tuition (which can cost $50,000+ a year) or graduates saddled with student loan debt.

“Hugs and beer are not going to help pay for that. And the ones that are out of school, last time I looked, MasterCard wasn’t accepting hugs and beer either,” Hollenbeck said, adding, “I think people that don’t know Amanda’s work are misunderstanding her motives here,” which he believes are wholesome and sincere.

If it wasn’t for Palmer’s record-breaking Kickstarter campaign Hollenbeck doesn’t think this would be causing such a stir. A lot of people can’t get their heads around the idea that Palmer would ask musicians to play for free after raising $1.2 million from her fans. Palmer told the New York Times that it would cost her $35,000 to pay musicians to tour, and that she couldn’t afford to do that.

Back in May, Palmer defended how she’d be using the money she raised via Kickstarter.

I reached out to Palmer Friday but she declined to be interviewed about the melee. One of her firsts tweets of the day read, “good morning believers.”

Palmer did post a lengthy open letter on her website, though. She wrote it in response to a confused and agitated fan and musician. Palmer admitted, “It’s definitely got me (and a lot of other people) thinking and talking about what it means to ask a musician to volunteer their time.”

In line with New York Times writer Daniel Wakin, Palmer also pointed to the cultural divide between union musicians (a high percentage of which are classically trained) and those who make rock and roll.

Palmer also alluded to musician David Byrne dropping by to sing with her band a few months ago. Palmer wrote: “we never had a formal arrangement…we paid him in thanks and beer which i’m not sure he even drank.”

In sum she shared this:

i would never criticize or judge you for drawing your own lines and deciding how to value your talent and time. more power to you, for real. it takes a strong commitment to do that, and i wish you luck. in exchange, i’d ask that you not criticize us because we belong to a different culture, where we’re playing a different game, with different rules. and we’re making a pretty joyful noise, and we’re happy to welcome those, with no judgement, who want to hop on stage and make it louder.

from one musician to another with loads of love and respect, afp

Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra have three concerts in Boston this November. It will be interesting to see how (or if) this debate plays out in her hometown.

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  • AJV

    Thank you, WBUR, for covering this with calm, perspective, and reason. Raising the issue with AFP or publicly is cool; respectfully disagree and constructively arguing is cool. The left-field personal attacks aren’t cool; making huge assumptions, not looking for facts, and choosing the least-charitable interpretation aren’t cool.  And you can swap out “cool” there with “good,” “constructive,” … Some press (I will not say journalists) seem to just want to foment hate and controversy. Andrea Shea actually gets at what’s going on, helps the reader understand it, and makes clear that it is a story in development. That’s cool. 

  • Ben

    Ms. Palmer would have been happy to be paid 600 thousand hugs and another 600 thousand beers by Kickstarter, but due to the considerably higher fungibility of dollars, she regretfully accepted her fans’ cash.

  • tridoug

    I’m a hobbiest musician and, as is true with most performing musicians, you can’t make a living at it so you also have to work a day job.  If a favorite band of mine — or almost any band for that matter — invited me to play with them, I’d absolutely do it.

    Fact of the matter is, except for a very select few, we pay for hobbies.  Skiing, golf, quilting, bowling, pool, running, racing cars, acting, cooking and, yes, playing music.  Then there’s supply and demand.  If there’s really a demand and not an oversupply, musicians get paid.

    • Steverpint

       Right on to this. You nailed it. Most bands I know get under $100 for playing out and do it for fun.

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