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On Tuesday, an album that made headlines months before it was released goes public. “Theatre is Evil,” by Boston-based indie musician Amanda Palmer, is a 100 percent fan-funded recording.
Back in May, Palmer asked her army of followers to help pay for its production, distribution and promotional world tour — and they obliged. Ultimately Palmer shattered records by raising $1.2 million on Kickstarter, the world's largest crowd-funding website for creative projects. The success story went viral, and it's safe to say it would not have been possible if it weren't for the artist's uniquely tight relationship with her fans.
And Palmer has a lot of them. The musician has been called "the social media queen of rock and roll" for good reason. On Twitter, she has 600,000 followers, and about 25,000 of them donated — from $1 to $10,000 — to fund her new album. Palmer launched the effort as part of her ongoing crusade to buck the corporate music industry by operating — and thriving — independently.
Her financial supporters are being rewarded with all kinds of thank you gifts: digital music downloads, stickers, fun little packages in the mail. One backer level was dubbed "the 7-inch vinyl summer mail box invasion," which arrived via post in five separate installments.
People who donated $300 earned tickets to an intimate concert and art exhibition featuring works Palmer commissioned to go with the new album. She’s part of the package, too. At a recent show she gave group tours of the diverse display.
"Cynthia von Bueller’s piece over here is actually a working theremin, you can play it and it makes music," Palmer explained to about two dozen attentive fans at The Middle East, a Cambridge rock club.
Most of the other art works depicted Palmer herself — paintings, sketches, nude photographs. The 36-year-old Lexington native, who's married to sci-fi author Neil Gaiman, is the opposite of shy. She actually has a knack for disrobing, and has even let her fans draw all over her naked body. A former street musician and stripper, Palmer’s cabaret-style songs can be confessional and dark. But at the Kickstarter party she smiled while mingling graciously among about 50 of her "fan-vestors."
Fan-vesting In Amanda Palmer
One giddy local couple remembered the time they saw Palmer walking down the street, and recounted one of her shows with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall. Other fans traveled from as far as Toronto and San Diego to attend the gig, including 48-year-old Tom Steiger.
"I mean, I’ve never come out of one of her shows going, ‘Oh yeah that was OK,’ " Steiger said. "I always come out going, ‘Oh my God, that was amazing!’ "
Steiger has seen Palmer perform about 70 times and said she always interacts meaningfully with her fans at shows. He also follows her active Twitter feed religiously. The musician’s extreme transparency and accessibility are some of the reasons why Steiger and his girlfriend Conni VanBilliard gave $1,200 each to see four Kickstarter concerts around the country: in Brooklyn, San Francisco, LA and Cambridge.
"A lot of people, when they talk about Kickstarter they say things like, ‘Oh, you’re donating,’ but you’re not," Steiger clarified. "It’s really an investment and the fact that the album is coming out without a label, that’s sort of the payback."
"It's an investment in Amanda's artistic vision," VanBilliard added. "And she always delivers."
Knowing they've been able to support their favorite musician in such a novel, tangible way is part of the payback too, Steiger and VanBilliard say. The couple reported being fully satisfied with the Kickstarter concert in Cambridge.
Nurturing The Connection
Now releasing an album without a label isn’t unique these days, and hasn't been for years. But raising more than $1 million on the Internet directly from your fans is unprecedented. Thirty-four people contributed $5,000 to Palmer, earning them what's being billed as a private "a la carte" house party. The musician already performed one of these in Fresno, Calif., and will play hostess at others in South Africa, Israel and Puerto Rico.
"I absolutely love going to people’s homes and playing music," Palmer said. "It just feels so authentic and so primal."
Palmer explained this while sitting at her baby grand piano in her South End apartment. "I started playing because my mom had a piano in the house, and I just wandered over to it when I was old enough to bang on it. Nothing's changed!" she mused with a laugh.
The musician doesn't spend much time in her own home because of her crazy touring and project schedule. A few thousand CDs fill the shelves in her living room, but Palmer told me Bach and Beethoven are in heavy rotation when she's not on the road.
The performer speaks candidly and casually, and is quite comfortable chatting while wearing just a T-shirt and underwear. Her relationship to her fans has always been close, Palmer explained, going back to her first group, The Dresden Dolls. The punk-cabaret duo played shows upstairs in the attic.
"Our fans and our friends were the same people, and eventually our friends followed us into the rock clubs," she recalled. "We were all the same tribe, there was no separation. And that’s the way I’ve always wanted to keep it, otherwise I don’t think I’d like the job."
The Business of Being Amanda Palmer
The job of being Amanda Palmer is hard, she said. Non-stop tweeting, Facebooking, plotting and networking. She's been so busy prepping for the Kickstarter campaign, and then executing it, that she hasn't written songs since finishing lyrics for "Theatre is Evil" a year ago.
"People freak out when I point out to them the actual amount of man hours that it took to sit down and pen the songs on this record. It's probably less than twenty four hours," Palmer said. "And yet, I’ve actually have devoted the last four years of my life to putting this record out."
The fundraising effort was painstakingly researched and calculated. "I had a big overarching plan," Palmer said, "but even if it tanked we would still be going on the same tour, just with less money."
Palmer believes her new fan-funded album is her best yet.
The Future Of Music?
In her Kickstarter video pitch Palmer proclaimed: "This is the future of music." And yes, the campaign is being held up as a new model for an industry that's been floundering to find its feet in the digital age. At the same time, some have questioned if the effort could ever be repeated, calling it a one-shot deal. Palmer has also been criticized for essentially begging her fans for money. And she's battled her own guilt for focusing so much time and energy on the "manual labor" it requires to be truly D.I.Y. — which has included raising dollars rather than making actual music.
"There's such a shame about being a songwriter and an artist around the business of it," Palmer admitted.
Daniel Brockman, a music writer for The Boston Phoenix, has been vocal with his skepticism -- but said he also admires Palmer’s creativity and relentless ambition. Now he’s concerned the headline-making funding mechanism will overshadow her music.
"She got a lot of attention for this particular endeavor because the discussion of, 'What do we think about someone doing this?' was part of the process," Brockman said. "I think that the part that’s kind of a drag about the whole thing is that there’s not a discussion about the songs involved."
That might change now that the album is being released. Marc Hirsh, a music blogger for NPR.org, is reviewing Palmer's release for The Boston Globe and said playfully in an email, "'Theatre is Evil' is really good, possibly even great. But then, I got mine for free."
Hirsh also sees why people would want to invest in this way. "I understand the passionate fanbase mentality that would inspire folks to donate a chunk of change to an artist they love," he wrote.
As for Palmer, she just wants her legion of devoted fans to be satisfied with the album they helped create. And they seem to be. They’ve been tweeting a flurry of glowing reactions to the pre-release tracks Palmer has sent them.
"You know, this is what you can’t really explain to the music industry. I mean yes, the money is symbolic and it’s real and I need to pay my rent, but this is about something so much bigger," Palmer explained. "This is about having made a real emotional and artistic connection with so many people that they will hold me up like this."
And Amanda Palmer plans to hold her fans up, too, by incorporating their photos, artifacts and voices into her live performances this year. Her world tour with her new band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, hits the road this week.
This program aired on September 10, 2012.
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