How to Be a Millionaire (2012)
Amanda Palmer is the new face of entrepreneurial music stardom
By percy thrillington Jun 6, 2012 12:36PM
You may never have heard or even heard of her music, but Amanda Palmer, of Dresden Dolls semi-fame, has made a lot of news lately for her Kickstarter campaign, which recently passed the million dollar mark. That is to say: She asked her fans to give her money and they did. She may even make a record and tour with it—only time will tell. People talk a lot about how musicians make money now that no one buys records. The answer, it would appear, is to go right to the source and just say please. Now that they've eliminated record labels, will the next step be to eliminate the middle man of actually making music at all?
Just before midnight last Thursday in an industrial parking lot in Brooklyn, the singer Amanda Palmer stood before a few hundred of her fans in a dress made of balloons, urging anyone with pins or scissors to pop the garment away and reveal her nude body beneath it.
It was a typically theatrical gesture by Ms. Palmer, a 36-year-old performer who calls her style “punk cabaret.” But it also symbolized the extent to which she has opened herself up to her fans, intimately and unconventionally, to cultivate her career.
The performance was part of a nightlong party to celebrate the nearly $1.2 million she has raised for her new album on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, with 24,883 fans making contributions ranging from $1 to download the album to $10,000 for a private dinner.
“It doesn’t feel like a windfall,” Ms. Palmer said in an interview before the party. “It feels like the accumulated reward for years and years of work.”
Ms. Palmer is one of music’s most productive users of social media, galvanizing a modest fan base — her last album sold only 36,000 copies, and she tours small clubs and theaters — through constant interaction that blurs the usual line between performer and audience. She posts just-written songs to YouTube and is a prolific correspondent on Twitter, soliciting creative feedback from her 562,000 followers and selling tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise in flash sales. That engagement has brought her rare loyalty.
“I have over $1 million of capital to manufacture a record that nobody’s heard,” Ms. Palmer said. “To me, that makes that entire pile of money look like a mountain of faith that my fans have in me, because they’re already on board with my music, my philosophy, my career. They’re on Team Amanda. That’s the kind of thing that a new artist can never do.”
The $1,192,793 Ms. Palmer raised in the monthlong campaign for her album, “Theater Is Evil,” is by far the most for any music campaign on Kickstarter, where the average successful project brings in about $5,000.
“It’s not about fame,” said Yancey Strickler, a founder of Kickstarter. “Fame is a lot of people caring about you a little. What Amanda has is something different. It’s a few people caring about her a lot.”
It is not the first big crowdfunding success; Radiohead pioneered the pay-what-you-wish model in 2007 with “In Rainbows.” But Ms. Palmer’s ability to raise such a great sum from a relatively small pool of dedicated fans has drawn the attention of the music industry. It has also led to discussions (and skepticism) about how widely the model can be applied, and how sustainable it is in the long term.
Music projects are among the most successful on Kickstarter, with some 600,000 people contributing $40 million over the site’s four-year history, Mr. Strickler said. But how many times can artists keep going back to the well?
Ms. Palmer, who sometimes performs with her husband, the writer Neil Gaiman (she plays keyboards, he does a novelist’s version of singing), was a member of the Boston group Dresden Dolls. Since a bitter fight with her former record company, Roadrunner, for control over her career, she has become a standard-bearing independent artist.
The strength of her audience was clear at the Brooklyn party. Over about six hours, as songs from her album blared over loudspeakers, she thanked individual contributors by ripping out pages of a phone book on which their names had been scrawled. The crowd resembled a gothic version of the “Glee” cast, with dancers in black lingerie and pirate costumes, others walking on stilts, and a rainbow of neon hair dyes among the congregation.
“If any sort of artist should be succeeding right now, it’s artists like her,” said Cassandra Johnstone, 20, a fan who has two Kickstarter projects of her own. “When I discovered her music it made such a difference to know that somewhere out there, there was a fan community.”
Despite its handmade touch, Ms. Palmer’s business is not entirely do-it-yourself. She has experienced managers and publicists behind her, and every step of her fund-raising campaign was choreographed. New songs, video teasers, photos and behind-the-scenes blog posts were spread out to stoke fan interest. As with any well-executed marketing plan, sales jumped whenever fans were goosed with new media.
In a long and candid posting as her campaign neared its end, Ms. Palmer gave details of the accounting behind the project. Toward the end of her fund-raising campaign, however, Ms. Palmer calculated that even with $1 million in anticipated pledges, she would still end up with less than $100,000. Her expenses include Kickstarter’s 5 percent cut; $250,000 in recording costs; touring and promotional expenses; and hundreds of thousands to design, manufacture and ship the deluxe packages she offered fans. The payments are not donations but rather advance sales, and she is responsible for paying taxes on any income.
Yet in the economics of the music industry, where even superstars can owe millions to their label, releasing an album already in the black is an uncommon achievement. Ms. Palmer also stands to earn substantially greater royalties once the album is released in September; her managers are working on a distribution deal.
Still, some executives are skeptical about crowdfunding as a sustainable business model and about how many artists have the drive — or the interest — to immerse themselves in social media as intensely as Ms. Palmer has.
“Kurt Cobain wouldn’t have been hawking his Kickstarter campaign,” said Greg Scholl, a former chief executive of the digital music company the Orchard who is now the executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. “And a record company looking to fund a project would have to swallow hard if they felt they weren’t going to get any leverage out of an artist’s social graph. So there will probably be some great artists who will have a hard time breaking through.”
Ms. Palmer said the project raised questions for her, like how to budget her time between creating art, communicating with fans online and managing the business behind it all. “I haven’t made any music all month,” she said. “I’ve been working on my Kickstarter.”
But those roles are beginning to blur, Ms. Palmer added, as she goes online to share her progress writing a song or to collect recommendations while on the road. That interaction tends to lessen the distance between artist and fan, and ultimately turns the fans into more loyal and generous customers.
“If I’m in a city and I Twitter for a good vegan joint for dinner, I’ll get 200 responses, and I’ll answer and say thank you,” she said. “Those interactions create the environment and the community where something like this happens. All that connecting, all that talking, all that being an authentic human being with needs and a life, instead of a picture of a pop star on a billboard.”
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