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Amanda Palmer Asks Musicians To Play For Free, Pisses Off Musicians [Update]

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Now is the time on Kotaku Melodic where we talk about a music thing that's not really games-related. Y'all have been warned. Okay, here we go!

It's an old story: Famous, beloved musician raises a crapload of tour money on Kickstarter. Said musician writes an enthusiastic blog post asking for volunteers to play with her on her tour. Professional musicians get pissed about the fact that a successful musician is asking for free labor. Controversy ensues.


Okay, it's not that old a story. In fact, it's happening right now. The musician in question is singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer, who recently raised 1.1 million dollars on Kickstarter to support her next tour, "Theater is Evil."

Palmer recently put up a casting call on her blog seeking freelance musicians—a horn section and a string quartet, specifically—from each of the 30-odd cities on her tour. Sounds normal so far, right? Big touring acts hire local players all the time, especially for "non-essential" parts like horn and strings, where it's easier for someone to just roll in and read the charts down without much rehearsal. Well, here's the catch: In this case, the players in question have to attend a soundcheck rehearsal and play the show... for free, paid only in beer and hugs/high—fives.


From Palmer's blog:

we said we'd do it, and we're DOING IT! the GRAND THIEVING IS UNDERWAY.
we're looking for professional-ish horns and strings for EVERY CITY to hop up on stage with us for a couple of tunes.


the deal:
you'd need to show up for a quickie rehearsal (the parts are pretty simple) in the afternoon, then come back around for the show!
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.
CHAD is going to be in charge of sorting the horns, JHEREK is going to be in charge of gathering the strings, and they'll also be CONDUCTING you on stage.
you need to know how to ACTUALLY, REALLY PLAY YOUR INSTRUMENT! lessons in fifth grade do not count, so please include in your email some proof of that (a link to you playing on a real stage would be great, or a resume will do. just don't LIE…you'll be embarrassed if you show up for rehearsal and everyone's looking at you wondering why you can't actually play the trombone.)
we've had a blast putting people together this past summer….COME JOIN THE FUCKING ORCHESTRA.
it's almost as good as the circus.

Hrm. You can perhaps imagine how most professional musicians reacted to the post. (Surely it didn't help that Palmer calls her band the "Grand Theft Orchestra." Accidental terrible name police! Pull over!) Comments on Palmer's website range from angry to apoplectic:

When amateurs and pros alike jump on gigs like this, they are being more than foolish and self-destructive. They are effectively sending a message to people like Amanda Palmer saying that they are impressionable drones whose time and effort is not worthy of payment.

"The Grand Thieving is underway" - you said it. Expecting people who've practiced for years to hone valuable skills to work for you for free? I've never seen another musician show such blatant disrespect for fellow artists.

Here's the deal, Amanda. If you can't afford to pay these musicians, you don't get to have them on your show. It's that simple.

If you cant pay your musicians then dont expect to have any. I really hope your paying your original band members... otherwise, this is utterly disrespectful to musicians worldwide and seems almost like a joke. IS IT A JOKE?!

Are you fucking serious?!!? I suppose you're doing this tour just for the fun of it? Are YOU getting paid in hugs and merch? Oh wait, that's right, people GAVE you money before you even did anything. I hope no pro musicians donated to your fundraising. If they did they deserve a refund.


And on, and on, and on. The conversation has been going on all week, and has overflowed to all corners of the musical internet. In this open letter to Palmer, horn player Amy Vaillancourt-Sals writes:

So, looking back at your ultra successful kickstarter and your request… Here you are, and you've raised over $1 million for your tour and album release. Here we are as musicians on foodstamps, maxing out their credit cards to keep the lights on, are hoping that we have enough money to pay next months rent, and have instruments that are in need of repair, need to be replaced, and even need to be insured. We are looking at you now and your request for musicians to come play with you for free, and most of us have even fallen in love with you and your music, and how do you think we'll respond? We're f*&king perplexed, agitated and disheartened, to put it mildly! What would you say to you if you were in our shoes? I have a pretty good guess...


Palmer responded yesterday, telling the New York Times, "If you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument would become invalid. They're all incredibly happy to be here … If my fans are happy and my audience is happy and the musicians on stage are happy, where's the problem?"

Palmer then pointed out that paying the musicians would cost her around $35,000, which is more than she can afford. That, of course, raised more eyebrows, given Palmer's fame, past success, and million-dollar Kickstarter.


I get where the angry commenters are coming from: I spent seven years out of college teaching jazz and working as a professional saxophonist in San Francisco. I had terrible individual health insurance (lots of my musician friends didn't/don't even have that) and I mostly just prayed I'd never get hit by a car or get sick. I didn't travel much and could never have dreamed of supporting a family. Every gig counted, and nothing would make me madder than financially successful bands asking me to play with them for little or no pay. (This happens more often than you might think, it's just that most bands don't do it on their blogs.)

I've also spent a lot of time as a bandleader, and so I do get where Palmer is coming from, to a point. (Though I, like others, am skeptical that she couldn't have just set aside some of her budget to hire local musicians if that's what she wanted to do.) Sometimes you really just can't afford to pay everyone what they deserve, including yourself, and you hope that people want to play your stuff enough that they'll do you a solid. Often they do, and it's really a lovely thing.


The question seems to be more about how the whole thing looks, and the precedent it sets. Of course I and other local musicians sometimes have to ask our friends to play for free— we're not world-famous, our debut albums didn't break the Billboard top 100, and none of us just raised more than a million dollars on Kickstarter. Palmer is and has done all of those things, and so a blog post asking hundreds of horn and string players to come play with her for free comes with a lot more baggage attached to it.

I don't know the first thing about what Palmer's Kickstarter and tour finances look like (and think people should be careful about presuming that they do), but at the very least it's understandable why people are upset. I think that what we're seeing here is that the whole "Come on bro, play with me and I'll give you beer and we'll have fun" thing works on a low level among friends and local players, but it doesn't really translate up to an internet casting-call for a national tour. I've played plenty of gigs for free either because they're going to be a lot of fun (and safe money says that playing a show with Amanda Palmer is a lot of fun) or because I know the people in the band and am doing them a favor. But to see the request writ large, made by a fabulous and famous musician on her fabulous blog, addressing the entire world and asking them to play for free—well, the idea may be pure, but the execution is lacking.


There are doubtless hundreds of musicians who are more than happy to go blow a horn onstage for some beer and a chance to rock a huge, screaming audience at The Fillmore or the Variety Playhouse. The sad truth is that it's a buyer's market for freelance horns and strings right now, and broadly speaking, there's more than enough free labor to go around.

All the same, it's good to see professional freelance musicians pushing back, and I hope that Palmer comes up with a more substantive response than saying, basically, "We're all having fun, so who cares?" As long as they're generating revenue, it would be nice to see the biggest, coolest touring acts actually pay the local musicians they hire. With real money. Because as one commenter on Palmer's site puts it: "Unfortunately, beer and hugs won't pay my rent."


Update: That more substantive response has arrived: Palmer has posted a lengthy, thoughtful reply to Vaillancourt-Sals' open letter on her blog.



Rockers Playing for Beer: Fair Play? [NYT]

(Top photo | Getty)