Category Archives: Storytelling

Fictions, falsehoods and other things that are true

An Open Letter to Amanda Palmer about Criticism, Kickstarter, Controversy and Art

Dear Amanda Palmer,

I enjoy your music.

And, while I do not consider myself a member of your incredibly enthusiastic fan base, when I listen to your music, it takes me to places that I want to be or explore, and that is, for me, the determining criteria for good art. (I am a fan of your husband’s work for the same reason – I like poking around the places it takes me.)

The reason I open this open letter with that affirmation is twofold:
1) Because it’s true; and
2) because you seem to be widely criticized for dismissing any dissenting opinion regarding your work as coming from people who are hateful, jealous or “just don’t get it”.

I have to admit that from what I have seen, this accusation seems at times valid. I feel that in letting you know from the outset that I DO “get it”, that you might be at somewhat more predisposed for taking this letter as it is intended – a set of observations on things you’ve done and do and the thoughts those things inspired, and not as an attack on the way in which you choose to make art. I want to make that very clear because I am a zealous believer in the idea that value of art is that it IS an individual’s expression, and at no time is dictating how that art should be accomplished a valid form of criticism.

That said, I do believe that criticism for the way that one engages in the BUSINESS of making art is fair game. And, as much as you are Amanda Fucking Palmer the Artist, you are also Amanda Palmer, Inc. And, as I feel fairly confident is saying that you probably drew your first picture or banged out your first baby piano concerto long before you opened your first lemonade stand, (or the Amanda Palmer equivalent) I am going to hazard that from where you sit, Amanda the Artist is who you see when you look in the mirror, and Amanda, Inc. is somewhere in the periphery.

From the perspective of a consumer, however – and whether a person is a rabid fan or an occasional listener, they are all consumers – The Artiste and the Incorporated Brand are very much one in the same, especially in the case of a person who decided to take full control of the business of their art in a very public split from their record label. As evil as many record labels may be, (which I am told by a former insider is considerably, alarmingly, shockingly evil), they are, generally speaking, the entity that handles the business end of the music biz and, as such, absorb a lot of the rancor for the way things are done in the industry. Your decision to run your own music-related business makes whatever line there may have been between your art and your business management even less distinct and opens you up to all the criticism that comes with it.

Hence, this letter.

I feel compelled to explain what inspired me to write this, because the research surrounding it, which ironically (you will see why I say ironically in a moment), involved a great deal of reading about you and what people were saying about you – from fans and detractors – to try understand my own reactions to you of late.

Some background:

Until two years ago, I had no idea who you were.

I had listened to and enjoyed a number of your songs from the Dresden Dolls days, but didn’t actually know who the artist was. Dresden Dolls was a name that I was familiar with, but could never name a song they sang. It wasn’t until my fiancé, who had your cd and popped into the player on a road trip, that I was able to connect the music with the band name and laughed at not having done so before then.

Shortly after that, I read Neil’s blog about getting engaged and to whom. I got the impression that the person was of some note, and in a quick foray into Neil Stalking, googled your name and laughed at not having made the connection before then. I then started following you on twitter because I liked your music and liked Neil and wanted to keep up on the goings on when those two things intersected.

Fast forward to today:

Not only do I know who you are, but I know more about you than I tend to want to know about people that I don’t personally know. Stories about you seemed to be everywhere I turned, partially because of choices you made and the attention those choices drew, but also because of your association with someone whom I and many of my friends have a significant interest in.

You became nearly ubiquitous, and I found myself becoming increasingly annoyed by it. It was one thing when I could choose to listen to your music or not, but it started to feel a lot like if I wanted to continue to enjoy other things that I enjoyed, I had to accept that you were a part of that, and that in doing so, my power as a consumer was significantly diminished. One of the things that people always tell people who complain about things they don’t want to see on TV or hear on the radio is that if they don’t like it, they can turn it off. In the global, highly interconnected New Mediaverse, however, it seems we aren’t yet ready to admit that that isn’t so easy anymore.

And so, the question became not how do I get away from Amanda Palmer, but how do I resolve the sense of annoyance that I feel at someone whose art I enjoy, but whose activities outside of the performance of that art reduces the enjoyment that I feel towards not only their art, but the art of another person they are associated with?

That is when I realized that what annoyed me was that it seemed as if the attention that the artist had started to overshadow the art. That getting the attention had BECOME the art and the art that I enjoyed seemed to get consumed by it.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should here admit that I cannot abide attention seeking behaviors. I fully believe that a person’s attention is theirs to give and not something to be wrangled from them. If my attention is not on something, it is because it is on something else that it needs to be on, or that I want to be focused on; attempts to take my attention away from where it needs to be in that moment feels invasive. It is the reason why I don’t like advertising, and find attempts to get me to develop an emotional attachment to a shampoo offensive. In the case with you, your art had my attention, and attempts to get more of it seemed alternately greedy and as if what of my attention you already had wasn’t enough. And, while I know intellectually that those attempts at getting my additional attention weren’t directed AT ME, you have stated that have become very successful in your art by establishing a very deep, emotional and personal connection with each and every member of your audience. Is it any wonder, then, that the way you go about bringing attention to your art might be interpreted by the emotional centers brain as personally-directed?)

Of course part of running a successful business, in this case, the Art Business, lies not only in how well that art is executed, but in how well that art is promoted. There does, however, come a point when the promotion seems excessive. There is a threshold that can be crossed where good marketing becomes at best hype and at worst deliberate self-aggrandizement. No one can say for sure where that line is, they can only say when it feels like someone has crossed it. From my point of view, from the point of view of a person whose attention your art had already gained, some of your methods of self-promotion fell flat.

In doing some reading among your detractors and critics, I found that a number of others, described as “haters” seemed to be trying to articulate much the same thing. But, emotions are a strange thing to translate into words, and I seemed to be reading a lot of imperfect attempts to put something that lives nowhere near the logic and language centers of the brain into words. It seemed that some things were getting lost in translation, and they were things that were not only valid points, but things being said about Amanda, Inc. that Amanda the Artist might have taken as criticism of how she does art rather than how the business end of things are being run.

And so, it is my hope that this letter will bring to your attention what I and perhaps some of your critics have been trying to convey, though I make no claim to speaking for anyone else beyond myself.

1. Kickstarter, TED and Paying Musicians

I realize that the Kickstarter Project has been dissected by its supporters and detractors from almost every angle, and each group has extremely valid points. To me it seemed that much of the focus on that analysis was how it serves as a direct connection between the artist and the fan base and allows them to be a part of the art that is created.

Raising any amount of money on Kickstarter for a project is to be commended; raising twelve times the requested amount is worthy of conversation. Lauding it as revolutionary is a bit like celebrating Columbus’ Day because he discovered America. People have been doing direct support to artists for centuries and, in fact, for a large chunk of recorded history, patronage was the only way that art got made. Kickstarter and its crowdsourcing cousins like Indegogo are tools that update a time-honored practice for the 21st century. Being an artist and a graduate from an “upstanding Liberal Arts College”, I suspect that many people would assume you were familiar with the practice. And, while you experienced enormous success from your foray into organized financial crowdsourcing, your way of speaking about it at times came off as if Amanda Palmer the Artist pioneered the concept, when the more likely scenario is that Amanda Palmer, Inc. took expert advantage of a resource that many before her had discovered. Rather than being shuffled off to the sidelines while Amanda Palmer the Artist plants a flag and claims Kickstarter in the name of Art, recognizing the move for what it was – a very, very good business decision that positively impacted the way you made art – would have been met with a lot less eye-rolling.

It would also demonstrate that you are more fully aware to what extent crowdsourcing changes the dynamic between the artist and their fan base: Your fans become more than just fans; they also become your stakeholders and investors. Investors who put money toward the outcome, which was, in this case, a finished and polished project that they can enjoy.

It is, perhaps, fair to say that your investors are entitled to a coherent plan detailing the ways in which their investment will be used. And while you responded to the questions about how the money was going to be spent by posting a “back of the napkin” ballpark idea on how much was going to what, for many, that created more questions than it answered. In not having a more precise idea of expenses and/or full accounting and estimate of all the costs involved, it lends the appearance that there was no real business plan in place – only ideas about what you would like to do given the funding.

Artists have ideas, business people, generally, absorb all the associated responsibility to bring that idea to life. A detailed business plan inspires the investor in the exact same way the art inspires the fan. If the relationship between the artist and the fan changes to incorporate an investor aspect, then it seems fair to expect the obligations to the investor must also be met.

For many, it seems that this is where the project may have fallen short. After making nearly twelve times your asking amount to the tune of $1.2 million dollars, you seemed baffled by the backlash at seeking semi-professional musicians to play on your tour for free. When confronted with this semi-outrage from a number of corners, your response explaining the crowdsourcing mindset of touring that your discussed in your TED talk seemed to miss the point. A point, that as I stated earlier, may not have been clearly articulated, which was this:

How could a plan for a finished and polished product – specifically the tour to support the album, a tour that included such extras as an art book, house parties, free surprise gifts, private parties, gallery shows, shipping costs and a host of other gimmes, fail to include something as basic and as integral to a successful tour as payment to competent musicians?

The questionable ethicality of asking for semi-professional or professional services (read: competent) to be rendered for free, or at least for beer and hugs aside, hiring musicians to play your music on a tour is not only a fair expectation but, most would argue, a fait accompli. The fact that they were initially crowdsourced is at best an egregious oversight, perhaps excusable for someone just started out and easily ameliorated with the unexpected Kickstarter bump or, at worst, crowdsourcing WAS the business plan. If it is the former, then accusations of incompetence become extremely valid criticisms to make; if the latter, then ethics becomes a real concern – not just because the expectation of free labor was there, but also because the risk to the investor NOT getting a polished product – a tour in which all of the elements for successful execution are in place – increases exponentially and is not disclosed. And while the risk to any one supporter might be negligible, both scenarios suggest more of a “making it up as you go along” mentality than a well-considered plan. Not to say that there is anything wrong with making it up as you go along, but as I mentioned earlier, within the investor dynamic, it generally doesn’t go over well.

Which brings me to…

2. Golden Globes, The Boston Bomber Poem, Lady Gaga Klan Tweet and Assorted Controversy

Having read a bit of your blog, I have found a recurring theme of your being perpetually in the position of having to explain yourself and you intentions behind the things you do: The stripshow at the Golden Globes, The Poem to Dzhokhar and the infamous ironic Klan tweet being some notable examples. In many of these explanations, you cite not being understood as the source of much of the outrage people feel in response to some of your choices; that some people out there just don’t seem to get you. I confess that I have found myself in this same position of not being understood a few times in my life, and I don’t know anyone who couldn’t say the same. We are all of us at times misunderstood, some of us with a frequency that can be characterized as “above the norm”. Some are misunderstood on the basis of what we do, our upbringing, how we relate to the world, but for the most part, the thing about is that is the greatest source of misunderstanding is the choices we make.

In studying the Misunderstanding of Amanda Palmer and the Collective Panty Twisting that Seems to Accompany it, I followed a trail of links that led to other links and still more links and ultimately landing on State.ie.

In an interview posted there, when asked by the interviewer if you were expecting the backlash you received over the Kickstarter and Musicians, you responded as follows:

“No. I’ve never wittingly stepped into any kind of controversy, which is funny given that it happens time and time again, but I’d also rather be the kind of person who takes risks and who shares herself and pulls back the curtain and open myself up to criticism than to be the kind of artist that is cowardly and just toes the party line.”

This is of particular interest for two reasons: (and I am not speaking from a medical or psychological perspective – I am not licensed to practice. These things are interesting on an observational level).

1) It is fascinatingly contradictory of itself because it says, in a nutshell, “I do not step into controversy. I do controversial things in a public arena”, as if those two things are completely different things.

2) It suggests a profound disconnect between actions and outcomes as the trade-off for pursuing a profound connection with your audience/fans.

Further, your statement to State.ie is the “Why” behind the negative sentiment towards you, there is a great quote from the TV show Homeland that encapsulates the “What”:

“You are both the smartest and dumbest fucking person that I’ve ever met”

To that I would add that “and it is often impossible to tell which”, as it seems you often leave many to wonder what a well read, well cultured, well-traveled, artistic graduate from a high-end Liberal Arts college could possibly have been thinking when pulled some of their most arguably….boneheaded…moves? Was said graduate thinking, or was she truly, entirely oblivious to her boneheadedness before and occasionally even after, committing the boneheadery?

For example:

How can you criticize a woman who wore a meat dress and showed up at an industry awards show in an egg over ironic Product Placement in her video (the irony that she was using those products to promote HERSELF), when each time you flash your breasts could very easily be considered non-ironic Product Placement promoting Amanda Fucking Palmer?

How can you include an “ironic” reference to one of the most notorious hate groups ever established and not understand why that would be the source of the controversy that you found yourself “unwittingly stepping in”? Did you really not know that any mention of the KKK that is not immediately followed by some variation of “they are horrible terrorists that suck” is going to get the racism finger pointed in the direction of the mentioner, without exception?

How does being “completely clueless” about red carpet etiquette for an even that was NOT the VMA’s translate into being oblivious to the fact that stripping down on the red carpet might be considered by some as “stealing the spotlight” from other artists? (I know you have no problem with nudity, but would not assume that precludes you from being aware that many, many, MANY other people do. Stripping down at an event where literally HUNDREDS of members of the media who have built careers on reporting on red carpet nip-slips (accidental and intentional) are gathered? How else could or would that have possibly been portrayed, especially considering many people who get naked in pubic in front of cameras are doing so specifically to get noticed?)

How can you not have thought that titling a poem as a dedication to a man that bombed the city you live in would not elicit some incendiary responses that “read it again” was not going to assuage?

There are many, including yourself, who would attribute much of this to an extreme level of obtuseness, which is to some extent, entirely believable. Just as you have observed that some people “just don’t get it”, I am sure that in some respects, the same is true for you as well. But the State.ie interview points to an answer that is far more nuanced and, by dint of that, probably far more accurate:

State.ie: Do you still feel misunderstood?
AP: Sure, but if I was completely understood all the time I’d be a terrible artist!

In the world of Amanda Palmer, the Artist, it seems that the measure of success is the degree to which you are misunderstood. And while you don’t set out to do things that bring on the backlash, outrage, name-calling and other assorted unpleasantness into your life, in the world of Amanda Palmer, Inc., these things are what creates the exposure to the wider audience that the business needs to thrive. Engaging in controversial acts in public puts asses in the seats, as it were, and asses in the seats is a far more tangible metric of success than something as abstract as misunderstanding.

I know it is often considered by many artistic sorts anathema to be seen as someone who is more aware of the bottom line and how to pad it than they wish to appear. They somehow think that being extremely business-savvy corrupts or dilutes the creative process by requiring a compromise or sacrifice of vision in favor of opting for the pragmatic. Perhaps there was a bit of that art-as-a-business-conflict at work behind the non-paid musician’s kerfluffle? I could see how while it would have been much more pragmatic to plan on hiring musical services, crowdsourcing them was much probably truer to the artistic vision you had in mind. And in that respect, perhaps the artist was driving the bus when maybe the CEO should have been. Or, maybe they were fighting at the wheel.

The bottom line is that the level of cluelessness that you often profess to is a hard thing for a reasonably intelligent person to swallow, and telling an intelligent person something that is hard to swallow is tantamount to insulting that intelligence and often comes off as treating them like they are stupid. Someone as connected to their audience is you are is very likely aware of how intelligent that audience is. The thing is, as many of your critics once considered themselves your fans, dismissing them as jealous haters who don’t get you as opposed to considering the validity of their criticisms does kind of suggest that they aren’t as smart as the people who remain your fans. To some people, that reads as “You were smart when you were my friend, and now that you aren’t you’re stupid” or “You are stupid because you don’t get me”. And while I am sure that is not the message you are trying to send, it is one that is being received by at least a few people. From what I have read, its not that the majority of your critics think you are clueless – they are convinced that you aren’t. Being somewhat angered that the explanation of your choices – cluelessness – doesn’t hold water with of them is a strange sort of a compliment.

I’d wager that very few people think you are as clueless as you at times, seem to be, nor do they think that you are as clueless as you sometimes make yourself out to be. I suspect that you are an incredibly adept businesswoman who excels in self-promotion, and that is not at all a bad thing. I think what might be getting lost in your chosen methods of promotion is what lies at the intersection Amanda Palmer, Artist and Amanda Palmer, CEO: Amanda Fucking Palmer the ART. And I don’t mean the music, or the writing, or drawing, because I truly believe that you have pretty much transcended any specific medium or manifestation of art. I am referring to the ART that you have devoted your whole life to becoming. That is what I meant when I said that “I get it”. You strive to live your life as a living, breathing manifestation of the spirit of Art, making connections, being open, putting yourself on display in very intimate ways, treating the world as your gallery and museum, hanging yourself in front of and within arm’s length of reluctant visitors and aficionados alike inviting them to appreciate or deride or (metaphorically) slash the canvas or throw paint on it. Art is not just to be seen, it is to be experienced, and you do what you can to make yourself the best experience you know how to be.

I get it.

And while I have stated that I have issues with the degree to which you promote yourself, what I really have issue with is that it seems to clearly be done with an awareness of social media, how to work an audience and how to leverage controversy with fantastic success. I am left confused that it is a fact you seem reluctant to embrace, choosing instead to play the clueless card. Not only does that appear to play into a terrible female stereotype that rankles me to NO end, but also does a disservice to both the Artist and the CEO, as well as obscuring the ART that lies between. It’s akin to putting lights under bushels, which is exactly where they DON’T Lights don’t belong.

And in what are some pretty dark times, we need ALL the lights we can get burning as brightly as they can.

I do hope you will read this letter. As I said earlier, I hope that this comes off in the spirit that it is intended – not as a criticism, but as translation of a vague sense of something into…something less vague. Maybe it expresses some sentiments other than my own, maybe not. For my own part I can say having written this feels like something good to have done for myself. And if that is all that comes from it, I’ll happily take it.

Most sincerely, and with warmest regards,

Harlequinn Bell
Observer and Fan of Art