Boston indie rocker Amanda Palmer has been called “the social media queen of rock and roll.” This week she cemented that title — and broke records — by raising $250,000 in one day on Kickstarter, the world's largest crowd-funding platform for creative projects.
Palmer's Kickstarter campaign, like most others on the site, comes with a video pitch. In hers, the one-time street musician-turned-cabaret punk rocker and social media maven stands on a street corner, wearing a colorful kimono.
Palmer doesn't speak. Instead she holds up signs — think Bob Dylan in the "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video — describing her project: a massive world tour that includes a traveling art exhibition with work from 30 artists and a new album. The soundtrack is a medley of tunes from her upcoming indie recording with her new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra.
"To me there’s almost less integrity letting someone else who really isn’t emotionally invested in your art and isn't really connected to you and connected to your fans do all the transactions for you — plus take a giant cut."Amanda Palmer
Then Palmer asks people for money, "to promote, mix, manufacture and distribute" her new release. She offers fans incentives for contributing to her effort — like a $1 digital download of her album, limited editions, signed art books, special invites to "backer parties," even dinner with Palmer and her band. Oh, and hand-written thank you notes, too.
Palmer launched her Kickstarter campaign Monday. In the first seven hours it brought in more than $100,000. By day's end the total was a quarter million, making it the most funded music project on Kickstarter ever. And now the effort is approaching $500,000.
"I'd be lying if I was completely shocked," Palmer said on the telephone from New York. "I thought the project would do well; I didn't know it would do so well so fast."
The fact is, Palmer is a Kickstarter veteran. She raised $133,000 last year that she and her husband, author Neil Gaiman, used to fund a performance tour through five West Coast cities.
But this current project is a much bigger undertaking — four years in the making.
Palmer has been chatting about it with her fans on stage and on her effusive blog all along the way. She has 500,000 followers on Twitter, where fans have been expressing their moral support and offering to help with things like fundraising house parties.
"This is not going to work for an artist right out of the gate, but it’s also worth noting that she is not a Radiohead, she’s not a Pearl Jam," Carioli said. "She was briefly on a major label. It was not a particularly great experience for her, and she has built her audience from the grassroots up."
Now Carioli said Palmer's fans are paying her back. In his mind, this crowd-funding triumph is tangible proof that some things are now possible for independent musicians that weren't five years ago — or even five days ago.
Carioli and I watched Palmer's Kickstarter video in his office at the Phoenix. At the end of the pitch her signs read: "If I have not made it clear, I am really excited about this record. I hope you will join our rock and roll cause. When you get on board please spread the link. This is the future of music. This is how we *&$#@ do it. We are the media."
Then she ends with, "I love you."
Laughing, Carioli mused, "Hey, do you think Bob Dylan would've done that?"
Then he answered his own question.
"Twenty years ago, asking an artist to go to their fans and essentially ask them for money upfront, not knowing what the record’s going to be and whether it’s going to be any good, would’ve been completely abhorrent to them. And they would’ve felt that they were breaching some code of conduct with the audience," Carioli said. "This is certainly a measure of how far that pendulum swung the other way."
Daniel Brockman, another Pheonix writer, has observed this shift in the musician/fan relationship, and he isn't quite sure what to make of it. He sees the positive sides of indie musicians using social media to build and nurture audiences, but the Kickstarter crowd-funding model leaves a bad taste in his mouth.
"It gives artists a direct connection to their fans — but it also gives artists a direct method to essentially shake their fans upside down for pocket change," Brockman said.
In other words, he sees Palmer's campaign as the equivalent of "begging."
"It's really more similar to a barter system," Sam Dwyer countered. "You give them money and Amanda Palmer gives you a reward."
Dwyer contributes to BostInno, an online publication covering the tech and start-up scene in Boston. He recently wrote an article about Kickstarter's "Dark Side." But in Palmer's case, he calls the transaction a fair trade because fans get to help out an artist they love while also earning perks like $1 digital downloads or personalized artwork. Based on her track record, Dwyer believes Palmer will pull through for her supporters by producing a bang-up tour and new album.
As it turns out, Palmer herself has heard the begging analogy before.
"You know, I think the people who think crowd-funding is begging are the same people you see yelling at me to get a job when I was a street performer," Palmer said, laughing. "And I was standing there thinking ‘I’m doing my job, this is my job!’ So I don’t see it as begging at all.
"In fact, to me there’s almost less integrity letting someone else who really isn’t emotionally invested in your art and isn't really connected to you and connected to your fans do all the transactions for you — plus take a giant cut."
Palmer is ecstatic to be making music on her own after breaking with her label, Roadrunner Records, a few years ago. Just a few days before she launched her Kickstarter campaign, Roadrunner closed offices in the U.K. and Canada, giving her one more reason to be grateful for her devoted, generous followers. But the musician also admitted she has a fear of being known as "the Internet girl."
"I don’t want people to just know me for my clever internet marketing skills and all that," Palmer said. "I want to focus people back on the music and back on the art that these people are making."
The people Palmer is referring to include the members of her new band, the 30 artists who made original works for her world tour, and everyone it will take to pull it off. She has to pay all of them. The entire project will cost a ton, according to Palmer. Likely more than the $400,000-plus raised on Kickstarter so far. Then she added, "We probably haven’t broken even yet."
This program aired on May 4, 2012.