Amanda Fucking Palmer. A Dresden Doll. An Evelyn. The one who puts Amanda Palmer into Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra. Former living statue. Occasional agent provocateur. Record breaker in the field of crowd funding. These are only a few ways to describe an artistic renaissance woman. In May 2012, she took to Kickstarter to fund an album and art book with her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra. $100,000 was the nominal goal. When the funding period ended after 31 days, 24,883 people had given a total of $1,192,793. This success earned her a lot of attention and a lot of criticism. The latter resulted in a much lauded TED Talk called The Art Of Asking in February 2013. And, in turn, this added yet another way to describe Amanda Palmer: author of the book The Art Of Asking.
► I try not to start interviews with obvious questions, but I’ll make an exception here: With a book out that is called The Art Of Asking, how are you ever going to be able to turn anyone down who has read the book and now asks you for something?
Well, just because somebody asks you for something does not mean you have to be the one giving it to them. That is part of the authenticity of any relationship, right? And part of my career has been learning the art of saying ‘no’ without hurting people’s feelings, learning to be on the other side – asking for many, many things and being told ‘no’ – and learning not to be hurt by that response.
► Which do you find to be more difficult, asking for help or turning someone down?
Definitely turning someone down, because you’re in the position of power and, without wanting it, in the position to disappoint and hurt.
Crowd funding as a human concept goes back to the dawn of time. If cavemen hadn’t pooled their resources, we wouldn’t be here today.
► Let’s talk about the origins of The Art Of Asking by going way back. Do you remember when you first heard of the concept of crowd funding?
As in crowd funding as online platforms? Because before Kickstarter and other websites, there were similar ways of getting money for a project. I mean, I launched my own proto-Kickstarter when I put out my Radiohead record. It was a similar campaign: I simply asked the fans to pre-order the record way in advance, so that I could use their money to produce the record. That’s pretty much what Kickstarter is. And there are artists like Kristin Hersh and Marillion and others who have used the internet to go straight to their fans and get support in the form of money, long before any crowd funding platforms existed. I was aware of all of them and was very happy to join their ranks when I managed to regain ownership of my own music after I got off the major label I had been signed to. But you could even say that crowd funding as a human concept goes back to the dawn of time. If cavemen hadn’t pooled their resources, we wouldn’t be here today. And what is that if not a form of crowd sourcing?
► You say you were aware of the concept and happy to join the ranks. That sounds like you were very confident that it would work.
Let’s say I had a sense of what would be possible. But it was still an experiment. I had no idea what exactly was going to happen or how the numbers would stack up. It was a trust fall into the crowd. I knew I might be able to raise $100,000. I knew I might be able to raise half a million. And I knew it could be a million if people really got behind the idea. So while I didn’t know where it would all end up, I did know that it would be successful to some level – because I had asked my fans. I didn’t ask an empty room or a faceless mass. I asked my fans to do this thing, and they had answered with “Yes, we will do this thing.”
► Even on Kickstarter, you didn’t start with the big one if I remember correctly. There were campaigns before that, right?
Yes, I tested out Kickstarter with two other projects before I did the big one.
► When you did those, did you get any negative feedback as you did with the one for Theatre Is Evil?
Not in the same way. But these campaigns were much more under the radar. With the very first Kickstarter I did I was producing somebody else’s record. That flew completely under the radar of the media. Anybody outside my fan base had no idea that I was doing it. And it was a very small Kickstarter. It raised under $10,000 and it was just for people who were excited about seeing me produce an instrumental pianist – very, very esoteric. (laughs) But it was fantastic for the artists, who then got to go and pay for studio time and the actual record and send it straight to interested people. And I learned how Kickstarter worked. So everybody won.
► Then comes the Theatre Is Evil campaign in 2012, seeking to raise $100,000, and doing exactly that in the first day. Were you surprised by the extend of the negative feedback you got because of it?
I wasn’t totally surprised because there is a handful of people out there who dislike me, no matter what I do. But I was surprised by the negative backlash against the concept of crowd funding. I hadn’t anticipated that crowd funding was so widely misunderstood. All of a sudden, I found myself having to explain, over and over again, that crowd funding was a legitimate marketplace and exchange of money for goods, that it wasn’t charity, the way a lot of people seemed to think it was.
► Back then, I myself wrote a piece, saying that a) in general, I’m happy for any artist who gets to realise their vision, b) it is none of my business what Amanda Palmer does with her own money or whether or not she is married to someone who might be able to fund that goal and c) as I am being asked for money, it still feels justified to ask “Is this a necessary campaign or would you have other ways of funding your idea?” In the gamut of feedback you received, where does this criticism lie?
Probably somewhere in the middle between the completely enthusiastic and the irrationally negative. I think a lot of the criticism in the beginning came from a lack of education on the topic or the concept. Of course the easiest response to that is always “If you don’t like crowd funding, just ignore it, don’t support it.” That is the very easy solution to the problem some people seem to have with it. In that sense, it is a lot like street performance. If someone is playing the violin in the street, you don’t have to give them money. You can just walk by. And with the non-physical presentation of crowd funding online, it is even easier to walk by, so to speak.
► My reasoning back then was that projects by well-known people, who might have other ways of raising the money, might take away the attention from those who don’t have other options, and that every dollar spent on an ‘unnecessary’ campaign is a dollar that can’t be spent on a ‘necessary’ campaign.
I simply don’t believe that is true, for several reason. For example, the statistics on Kickstarter seem to indicate that when larger artists create campaigns, it helps the smaller artists, because there are people who learn of Kickstarter and join because of a campaign by a bigger artists and then really get into the overall idea of crowd funding and go on to support five or six other artists who are much smaller. It is a much more healthy eco system than people give it credit for. And the truth has to be that there has to be a place in the eco system for every artist. Especially if we talk about moving to a system where artists go directly to the public for support. For that, every artists has to have an equal voice. It’s not that the voice of the band in the garage down the street has any more validity than the person who is exhibiting in the main gallery in the Museum of Modern Art. I think realising that they are equally legitimate is the healthiest way of looking at the eco system, rather than trying to pit artists against one other for attention.