Art Endures, Capitalism Degenerates: The Evolving Career of Amanda Palmer

Photo (partial) by Tracy Graham

The arts have always suffered and survived in times of economic depression. Amanda Palmer has forged a career that has not only weathered the recession, but rejects the received wisdom of the music industry. Is she an exception to the rule, or an example other artists should follow?

Hot, Not Hungry

But like all the artists I mention, there are signs that she dances on the edge of a precipice, albeit of a different kind from the reliably drug-addled legends of yesteryear. Palmer's relationship with her fanbase (she blogs almost compulsively, and has a well-earned place amongst the Twitterati) is something that Palmer has, against all odds, turned into something unique and sincere, and such constant exposure means that the world has been able to follow the development of her career -- and the misadventures behind it -- with unusual closeness. It is through this relationship, and Palmer's sometimes dangerous honesty, that the agenda behind her work becomes comprehensible.

"there is a collection of angry men who are railing against me. it’s no longer me & my band against the world. they are now looking at me as a woman alone on stage, and they don’t like it... in their minds i will either turn into: 1) madonna meets liza minelli (and play madison square garden and make them millions of dollars) or 2) a completely cult phenomenon (and play clubs of 500-1000 people in every city and make them no money). they think i’m doing everything in my power to become the latter. they are only partly right."

-- Amanda Palmer, blog post, 28 November 2008.

A concise account of that career is difficult; the prolific variety of Palmer's work means that each project demands its own spotlight, to be seen on its own terms. The Dresden Dolls -- the "Brechtian cabaret punk" duo she formed with drummer/collaborator Brian Viglione -- was an enterprise that almost from its inception set out to defy and subvert the assumptions their image aroused, repelled by the 'gothic' cliches it associated them with. Such concerns never troubled Roadrunner, a subsidiary of Warner Music, to which Palmer signed in 2003 and then spent the next six years trying agonizingly to extricate herself from.

Admittedly, the label never seemed a good fit for Palmer, to say the least -- something which both Palmer and Roadrunner seemed to quickly figure out for themselves. Roadrunner had a slew of profitable heavy metal behemoths that played to the niche Roadrunner felt comfortable with, but it rapidly become clear that the label had no idea -- no good idea, anyway -- of how to handle or promote an artist like Palmer, despite (or perhaps because) she brought with her a niche-audience all of her own that was difficult to define.

While at first their new corporate connections helped the Dresden Dolls to achieve airplay and garner overseas press, it soon seemed that the label was doing more harm than good. Having done little to promote Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, the relationship was further damaged by a series of ham-fisted attempts to 'handle' Palmer, which culminated in an infamous falling out over the video for her single 'Leeds United', after Roadrunner suggested cutting or digitally altering certain shots of Palmer's exposed stomach.

It must take a certain hardwired capacity for self-delusion to see Palmer as overweight, and watching the 'Leeds United' video afresh, in which Palmer struts, poses and glows with unrestrained mischief and passion, it's still hard to see how it could be improved by some visible rib-bones. "i'm not TRYING to look hungry," Palmer wrote on her blog, "I'm trying to look HOT."

The controversy -- a shortcut to the ever-popular discussion of celebrity body image -- gained an inordinate amount of media attention before dying down, but the damage was done. "a few weeks later," Palmer blogged, " i had a meeting with the owner of the label. he said he thought it was a shame that someone as smart and talented as me could not make a commercial record that they could sell. and he thinks that someday i’ll see the light and write some better songs. i told him i made exactly the record i wanted to make... he shook his head and felt sorry for me."

There are a lot of ways a singer or musician can express their displeasure with their record company; the fact that Lou Reed recorded Metal Machine Music, a double album of meticulously produced feedback, in order to get out of a record contract in the most undiplomatic way possible has become a minor legend. Palmer took the direct approach, and began actively campaigning to be dropped by Roadrunner -- even writing a song to that effect -- which the label perversely refused to do for as long as possible. They seemed determined to squeeze as much as they could from Palmer, for as little effort as possible.

"...Because it still hasn't gotten weird enough for me."

-- Bill Murray, Where the Buffalo Roam

Meanwhile, her career evolved. She put out a gorgeously realised book of photography, portraying her playing dead in a variety of poses and dispatched by a variety of grisly means, accompanied by prose and poetry from Neil Gaiman, the acclaimed bestselling fantasy author (and since his marriage to Palmer, contender for the title of Luckiest Bastard Alive). She starred as the Master of Ceremonies in a Boston production of Cabaret, and staged a play at her old high school based on the music of Neutral Milk Hotel.

She did an entire album of Radiohead covers, performed solely on the ukulele. She recorded a single about an Oasis fanatic aborting the pregnancy that resulted from being raped. A second musical duo was formed, this time with Jason Webley, in which the pair portray two conjoined sisters -- Evelyn Evelyn -- that have escaped from the circus (a graphic novel based on their exploits will be published shortly).

Any one of these notions, by the conventional wisdom of the industry, is commercial poison. Yet the kind of eccentric side-project that other artists might allow themselves as an indulgence between profitable, 'proper' albums have almost become Palmer's exclusive province. She stopped having a career in spite of the music industry, and built one that seemed to exist in open defiance of it -- not merely by presenting an avant garde or 'outsider' image, or even by having the bravery to produce worthwhile but proudly uncommercial work, but by finding a way to avoid the compromises that most artists resign themselves to, bypassing the mechanisms by which they are supposed to survive -- and found her way much more effective.

"I've built up such an independent empire while being signed up to a major label that it hasn't even mattered what kind of label I'm on because I'm functioning independently anyway," she told Pitchfork in 2009, "I've managed to do an entire world tour with almost no promotional help from them. That's the paradox: I'm signed to this major label but I'm a totally DIY operation. My fans are so much more powerful than the media or the label... and it's fucking incredible." ("Amanda Palmer Tells Roadrunner Records: 'Please Drop Me'", by Ryan Dombal, 1 April 2009)

Palmer is rare, but not a singular phenomenon. Sufjan Stevens -- he who vowed to write an album for every state in America, released a collection of electronica based on the Chinese zodiac, wrote a multimedia tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and a dozen other projects besides -- of a similar example of a phenomenally talented songwriter that has followed his muse through whatever territory it may take him, and it's difficult to imagine him any other way; he still writes the cheques at Asthmatic Kitty, the label he runs with his former stepfather where, Stevens told me during a 2009 interview, they are "artists first". There's no rule that others cannot live the same way.

There will be well-meaning pragmatists who would call Palmer's career something to admire, but not emulate. I'm reminded of something a film student friend of mine once said about the paradox of his classes on Orson Welles: students are taught everything about Welles' life and work in tones of breathless awe... before being told, in the same way children are warned against falling into a life of crime, that his is not a career path they should follow.

There's a touch of truth in that; Palmer's multifaceted career is not a format that can easily be copied. And the extraordinary transcend, one way or another; it's a clue to their nature. However, as times grow hard, the matter at hand might not be whether aspiring artists should wander from the well-beaten track, but if they have any other option. In an embittered economy, where technology marches terrifying on and the old certainties of a bloated, self-satisfied music industry appear to die on the vine, the old path to a career in the arts is increasingly blocked.

At the time of writing, Occupy Wall Street continues to gain momentum. In spite of mass media sneers, the astonishing variety of groups, individuals and ideologies involved seems to be fueling that momentum, rather than confusing the issue. But if and when it stops, the challenge issued by the idea at its core must be answered: Is there another way of doing things? Can we make the world work a different way?

If we can, it will not be a way of fortune without limit. It will not be mansions and private jets and end-of-year bonuses and pillowcases full of drugs. The music industry, and many others besides, might do well to ponder Tyler Durden's dream of a world in Fight Club, "stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center..." Or we might, if we dream well enough, find a way to distinguish music from the money that can be made from it, and discover that, as it turns out, the world works the way we tell it to work.

That remains to be seen, and I have vast reserves of pessimistic cynicism which remain untouched. But if any of that is possible, it will be a revolution Palmer -- and every brave artist like her -- helped begin.

"i want to be happy. i want to make people happy. i do not need to be rich to do that."

-- Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer performing for Occupy Wall Street Protestors - Photo by Katie Sokoler / Gothamist

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