Kickstart Me Up
By Sarah-Jane CollinsMay 25, 2012
Performer Amanda Palmer took her latest full-length album online and raised more in two weeks than any record label would have given her — and she’s not done yet.
Wandering minstrels cast out from Europe's medieval royal courts would roam in search of an audience — from bustling squares to filthy markets to remote hamlets, they took their tales and their harps and citterns on the road, playing to whoever would pay their way. The modern touring artist takes a more organised approach. Unless, that is, the artist in question is Amanda Palmer.
Palmer, 36, one half of punk-cabaret act The Dresden Dolls, is funding her latest solo album using the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. One offering is a USD5,000 package that will bring Amanda Palmer to your town to play a house party. Some 35 of these gigs were available for purchase, and all have been snapped up. Palmer's new album is truly, completely, fan-funded. That raises unique challenges.
"We're going to South Africa, Israel, and possibly Puerto Rico," Palmer, says, admitting that so far, it sounds pretty romantic. "But … today I had an agonising conversation with my manager about how the fuck we're going to get to the middle of nowhere in Germany.
"[It's] four hours from the closest airport [and the gig has to be during] this upcoming tour because the guys who bought the package are going overseas for a year and begged us — begged us — to try and make it before they moved. So we're sitting there looking at a map going, 'Is it possible?'"
There is a scheduled worldwide tour — many dates have already sold out — and house parties will be slotted in around them, wherever they may fit.
"The problems of doing house parties are manifold," she says from her apartment in Boston, Massachusetts, two weeks into the Kickstarter fundraising drive. "But there are way worse problems. I would much rather be working out how to get to the wilds of Germany than waking up at 7.30 and clocking in to my shit job at the bank."
Palmer says what she thinks, and she's raised more than USD830,000 doing it since the start of May. And more keeps coming. Her Kickstarter fundraiser runs until the end of May, with supporters contributing every day. At last count there were more than 17,500 of them.
Kickstarter, set up in 2009, is an online tool used to fundraise for creative projects. Since launching, the website has successfully funded 20,000 projects, with total donations topping USD200 million. Some 1.8 million people have become backers.
The premise is relatively simple. A person seeking backers nominates a funding target, and offers certain reward packages based on the amount of money backers pledge. Then, if the project reaches its funding goal in the allotted time — so in Palmer's case, USD100,000 (her original goal) in the month of May — backers are charged the amount they pledged. If the project doesn't reach its funding goal, no one has to pay. Palmer's Kickstarter project offers backers a range of options, from USD1 for a digital copy of the album to USD10,000 to bring Palmer to your home for a spot of portraiture work (she paints, too).
"Kickstarter is a new tool but the idea to go around asking all your friends and family for money to get the capital to launch an art project, I think, probably dates back to the beginning of art itself. It's just a new tool for an old idea," Palmer says.
By using Kickstarter, Palmer has eschewed the well-worn path of most musicians. Get noticed, get record deal, get label to promote you, get famous, repeat. Palmer split with her label Roadrunner in April 2010, after a long fight. She blogs about it in her usual honest style.
"After endless legal bullshit, it's over, I've been DROPPED, RELEASED, LET GO, whatever you wanna call it. In other words: I am FREE AT LAST!!!!!! RAAHH!!" the blog post says.
Her fans have outstripped the amount Palmer estimates a record label would have spent paying for her album and tour (USD500,000), and meanwhile she is free to package and perform her music however and wherever she wants. But that doesn't mean she's rich, with Palmer estimating that even if the Kickstarter hits USD1 million, she'll probably make less than USD100,000 in profit.
On May 16, 2012, not long after the Kickstarter hit its 14,000th supporter, Palmer sent them all a copy of a single from the new album. Within minutes, her Twitter stream was full of effusive praise. "Dude, this first single is fuckin' great. Can't wait for the album!" one fan tweeted. "I have never felt more a part of the art I consume than I do tonight. Rocking out to the single and #EmotionallyOverwhelmed," said another.
Palmer responds to them all, because Twitter, and her blog, have built her online empire and provided the fan base that made her Kickstarter a roaring success.
"If I had just taken time off and I hadn't stayed engaged with my fan base [after the release of the last full-length studio album Who Killed Amanda Palmer in 2008] and kept touring and constantly talked and connected and blogged and twittered — not just once in a while but all day every day — I'm in bed with my fans. They're my friends, they're my community, you know — they're my life [then] I think this Kickstarter may have raised maybe 10 or 15 thousand," she says.
On Twitter, Palmer has over 550,000 followers. She's constantly blogging and tweeting about the minutiae of her life. ("Here I am, decorating the Christmas tree in my bra," that sort of thing.) Something she believes helped enable the Kickstarter to succeed.
"I think it's the personal connection that these people have to my life that really makes them want to connect to the album… They know what my life is like, they know that I'm going to deliver them something great — it's not a risk, and that is something a label can't do for you, a manager can't do for you," she says.
Palmer doesn't think Kickstarter can work for everyone, but she sees it as a way for smart, plugged-in artists to gain more freedom.
"There's no doubt that [for] an unknown band who's released nothing and never played live and has no fan base to speak of — going to Kickstarter to fund an album is probably a stupid idea," she says. "It really is for people who already have a supportive group of people and they need an organising system."
Artists starting out will continue to benefit from the megaphone a major label can provide. But Palmer is proof that the internet makes it possible for artists to reduce the influence of labels over what music is produced and consumed.
"[Recording] labels are becoming more and more unnecessary," she says. "You can go directly to your fans, whether you've got a couple of dozen of them or a hundred million, it doesn't matter, you can now reach them."
Palmer doesn't ask lightly for her fans' investment. She is confident the work will stand on its merits.
"I think it's hands down the best album I've ever made. [That's] why I was able to step so boldly into the ring and hold up a sign and say: 'Help me with this fucking record, it's really good.' I wasn't going to go out there screaming with a megaphone if I thought I had a half-baked product, I just wouldn't have done it."
Palmer recorded the album in Melbourne, with her band the Grand Theft Orchestra, during an extended stay in the Victorian capital following a short tour in late 2011. ("MELBOuRNE...if you missed it, I'm looking to rent a couple places in town Feb/March, ideally Fitzroy. Going away? Leads?" she tweeted in December.) Some songs have been kicking around in one form or another for a few years, others are completely new.
Will people remember this album, though, or will they just remember that this is the most money a musician has raised on Kickstarter?
"I really believe in the record and the band and the project. So I hope it overshadows the Kickstarter, I hope everyone forgets about it, because at the end of the day it is just a tool. It's a great tool and it's a powerful tool but it's not art. You can be creative with it, but at the end of the day you really have to have the art to support the system, otherwise the system is useless," Palmer says.
While Palmer has been drumming up support for her album, Kickstarter has been gaining attention for a different reason. A watch that connects to your smartphone has raised over USD10 million from almost 69,000 backers. That's a lot of cash (or a lot of watches).
But Palmer's not jealous. "I don't think I'm gonna beat the watch," she deadpans.