Ethics and Music and Business, Oh My!

So, once upon a time, Amanda Fucking Palmer kicked a wasp’s nest…

I’m not actually talking about the Kickstarter business and its potential effect on the music industry. As a musician and as a philosopher, I’m fascinated by the recent blowup about her decision to ask for volunteers to play strings and brass in each city on her current tour.

The idea appears to be this: Her regular (paid) touring band consists of the Grand Theft Orchestra (bass, drums, guitars/synth/etc.) and a team of horn players called Ronald Reagan, who will be present at all shows on the tour. Jherek Bischoff, bass player for the Grand Theft Orchestra (hereafter GTO), is also her opening act, and some players recruited to join the show for a couple of songs will also be joining him prior to the main act. She’s asking, in effect, for fan musicians to donate their time (a quickie rehearsal combined with some sight-reading skill seems to be all it takes — judging by what I heard on the live webcast Tuesday night, the parts are pretty simple and not too hard to learn). It’s a gig paid in beer, hugs, high-fives and merch. That’s what she said.

AAAANNNNNDDD then a whole bunch of players just Lost. Their. Shit.

Why?

Here’s the thing: being a musician is, as a rule, a lousy way to make money. For every huge touring act that rakes in millions, there are thousands of other musicians (many of them brilliant) who work for peanuts and have to hold down day jobs to keep body and soul together. AFP knows this. Hell, she’s been there. Many of us have a pay scale we depend on because we can’t get any more, but we can’t afford to ask any less. Being a musician for a living is about the hustle. Even classical musicians with tenured symphony chairs who might have gotten more used to regular pay (supplemented by recording, by pickup gigs, by ringer gigs, by solo engagements, and by teaching) than your average bar band still have to hustle. If you’re a musician trying to make a living, it’s pretty common in your experience that people are looking for ways to avoid paying you. Non-musicians often don’t understand the work, so they don’t know how to value it (especially true in the age of recorded music, I think). They only know that they want something they can afford.

One can easily see why being asked yet again for a freebie looks like more of the same-old same-old. It can look like the setting (or reinforcement) of the dangerous precedent that undervalues sidefolk at the convenience of the headliner, or the one where corporate management looks for cheap widgets to fill in behind their moneymaker. Professional musicians have fought for years to get fair compensation for their work, and the union people have a point: the fight is never over. We do not live in a culture that overvalues music. Quite the contrary. To expect professional service for free in that context looks not only unreasonable but insulting (and apparently hypocritical, given AFP’s stated commitment to a different vision of the music business, one that favors the artists).

OK, fine. But: What if this isn’t about getting free labor at all? What if it’s about taking seriously the claim that We Are The Media (the rallying cry for the “Theatre is Evil” experience)?

“Theatre is Evil” is intended to involve the audience. Audience words (gathered at the show itself) are used in a song. Audience-submitted images play on the screens. The crowd-surf demands an audience to be engaged with the show, a grand risk symbolic of the leap of faith that is the entire “Theatre is Evil” process. The intent of asking for musical volunteers, as I understand it, is an extension of the larger relationship between the artist and her fans — now, they can be a part of the show in yet another way. At every step in the process, the fans are invited to participate in the making as well as the consuming of art; their consumption becomes a necessary act of making.

We Are The Media indeed.

Obviously, while just about anyone can tell a story about her own life or work a digital camera well enough to get some images to meet a prompt, it takes special skills to play musical instruments well (especially on short notice). While Green Day’s show may easily make room for a fan to come up to play on a well-known song (and may forgive its being done poorly)*, that’s not the level of involvement being asked by AFP+GTO. She’s asking for co-artists. The call for “professional-ish” players is not meant to solicit pros at no pay — it’s a call for fans with the right skills to self-select into a particular kind of participation.

***UPDATE: AFP says it herself.

So — what do you think? Is she robbing fellow musicians, or engaging them?

Me, I’m on the engagement side, cheering on the commission of felony grand theft orchestra. If I lived a couple of hours closer to the show I already plan to attend, I’d be recording an audition and hoping to play. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that — music isn’t my day job, and I don’t have to hustle. I have the luxury of pretending at art. I think, though, that I’d want to play even if that weren’t true.

[Honestly, I think that this whole thing wouldn’t have blown up into quite such a big fucking deal if Amanda Fucking Palmer had worded the request so as to make what she’s after a little more obvious…but the people getting confused about it really, really ought to have paid more attention anyway. They’ve really lost their shit all out of proportion.]

*Note that this isn’t a criticism of Green Day — they do a great job of interacting with their fans in a lot of cool ways, of which the invite up to play is one. It’s just not the same kind of thing as what AFP is trying to do.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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