When I first broke the news to my Facebook friends that I was chosen to play tuba onstage with Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, most of the responses were of the “congratulations!” variety. Several, however, seemed to be far more interested in my financial well-being.
“How much are you paying her?” one jokingly inquired. “Make sure she pays you,” urged another. “Hope you’re getting paid,” someone else remarked again.For the purposes of this blog, let’s side-step the entire idea that it’s no one’s f-ing business whether or not I get paid to do a gig. That’s like asking a co-worker how much she gets paid or someone you just met his age. But the somber reality is that, for many people out there, $$ comes before art.
Amanda Palmer stirred up a hornet’s nest. Her approach to making music and presenting it to listeners breaks all the alleged rules of rockdom. Instead of getting funding from a deep-pocketed empire that puts up walls to control the flow of art in exchange for the lion’s share of the $$, Amanda decided to do it on her own. By engaging directly and honestly with her audience, she was able to win over their hearts, culminating in a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $1.2 million. Raising over ten times her original goal of $100,000, she shattered the music crowdfunding record.
But she didn’t stop there. She wanted to keep finding fresh, inventive ways to keep her listeners moved and entertained; she wanted them to feel involved. When it came time to tour, she announced that, at each stop along her route, she would crowd-source musicians from the local area to perform with her, reaching out in an unprecedented way to introduce these strings and horns players to her audience while giving them the opportunity to collaborate with the band.This is where controversy struck. According to her website, this is how musicians would be compensated:
“We will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make.” Some in the blogosphere began to revolt. They began to accuse Palmer of using musicians by refusing to pay them. That when musicians work for free, it somehow devalues what they do. Look, I get it. Musicians, myself included, work incredibly hard. We’ve trained extensively, and we’ve spent exorbitant amounts of time and money to become proficient at what we do. We deserve to be fairly compensated for our abilities, yet we struggle in a nation where we are constantly expected to work for peanuts and be grateful. That said, I also think some of us have forgotten why we learned music to begin with. We didn’t pick up our instruments because we thought it would lead to $$ … we picked them up because we thought it would lead to love, art, freedom, therapy, expression, and any number of other intangible rewards.
When I considered the opportunity to join Amanda on stage, I placed more value on being part of a team I greatly admire, performing with folks who make great art and interact with fans as fellow human beings rather than view them as meal-tickets. I wanted to be part of a dream, part of a movement, and part of a revolution. I would have been happy to be paid in hugs and high-fives—and to have been reminded of the spirit of what set me out on my musical journey to begin with.
And then, I got paid.
In response to all the criticism, Amanda managed to shake loose enough money to pay every musician who sat in with the band during the tour.Performing on that stage before an audience of a thousand excited fans, I felt like a million bucks. I wouldn’t have traded away that feeling for a million in my bank account, and I would volunteer to do it again in a heartbeat. I was welcomed as part of the family, and that welcome was warm, it was honest, and it came from every single person who was part of the tour. So, to all the people who wanted to know if I got paid, the answer is YES. And also, I was handed $$.
Photo 1: Photo of the audience with their flashlights, taken from the stage!
Photo 2: Photo of the set opener, including the horns and strings, taken by Melissa Axel from the balcony.
Photo 3: Amanda poses with the vinyl record Melissa Axel and I released, available at http://music.melissaaxel.com
Photo 4: Melissa Axel, Amanda Palmer, and ModernTuba pose after the show.