Dressed up like a million dollar trouper… What Amanda Palmer’s fail taught us about capital v labour in art

I’ll try to keep the background and sniping about how overrated Amanda Palmer is to a minimum.

Amanda Palmer teamed up with the extremely talented Brian Viglione to form The Dresden Dolls.  They had two good songs and everybody lost their shit about how wonderfully original and meaningful their songs were.  To show how wrong everybody was: they have two studio albums, one live album, and a ‘best of’ album.

A best of.  After two albums.  Seriously.

The career of Palmer resembles, in many ways, that of George Lucas.  With Viglione around to be brilliant, Palmers worst excesses were controlled.  Going solo, all the conceptual abominations were unleashed on to an adoring public with neither the culture nor the religion to resist it.

The result was a trainwreck of controversies.  The ‘Evelyn Evelyn’ thing was flatly disgusting with disability activists rightly outraged.  And then there was this (trigger warning):

In short, exploitation is the theme of the decade with Amanda Palmer and utterly nothing gets through to her that her behaviour is reprehensible.

Which brings us nicely to the latest controversy.  Palmer ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise cash for a new record.  Her goal was to raise $100,000.  24,883 fans gave her $1,192,793.  All well and good.

Having made over 10 times more than originally budgeted, Palmer decided to crowdsource backing musicians for her gigs, paying musicians in beer and high fives.  Understandably, the music industry cracked it.

People far more eloquent than myself have discussed the balls out craziness of this.  A particularly good one is this by In These Times’ Sady Doyle.

I think most of the people I know are fully aware of the silos full of vitriol I have for Amanda Palmer so there’s not a lot of use in rehashing that ground.   It’s more interesting, I suspect, to discuss what the whole thing means about capital versus labour, and minimum wage.

By way of an aside, there have been a few posts recently which make me sound like the most radical of Marxists (Foucaultian notions of power in language, Gramsci’s cultural hegemonies, and now class struggles…).  I shall correct that trend very, very soon but today is not that day.

Palmer tried to justify her position:

If you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument would become invalid.[…] They’re all incredibly happy to be here. [Source]

It’s an interesting advance in the field of logic: argumentum ad felicitatem.  Your argument is invalid because the people I’m exploiting are happy.

Is cultural production labour?  Although I wouldn’t consider anything I do cultural, I’ve produced articles, artworks, and given lectures for free and didn’t think much of it.  As far as I was concerned, I was building up my portfolio of creative output or doing favours for people.  In a sense, the recompense is being able to point to those things and receive credit for them when I put them on resumes and such.  I have even been paid in beer.

Loosely, my position has been: if the person receiving the work is not making (much) out of using my content, then I’ve got absolutely no problem with it, particularly if I’m acknowledged as the author.  I think that’s my position because it sits nicely with the fact that I’ve written for publications without being given credit but got paid to do so.  They were basically buying my moral rights.

In the Amanda Palmer case, she’s making a profit off the cultural objects of others but isn’t compensating them for it.  The amount she earns from their performance is more than the cost of a beer and a high five.

We’ve moved into a space of ‘cultural object as commodity’ and that’s where I think things get messy.

Imagine a person, Jonas, lives in the war-torn Peoples Democratic Republic of Craptopia and flees across the border to Markopolis (according to local politician Ttocs Sonmorri, Markopolis should bring back Temporary Protection Visas… cough).  Jonas loves it in Markopolis and really doesn’t want to go back to Craptopia.  Jonas doesn’t have many marketable skills (he studied a BSc at the University of Craptopia) and so needs to find low-skilled work.  Fortunately, construction company Remlap Industries doesn’t want to pay minimum wage…

When Remlap’s exploitation of Jonas and other people in Jonas’ position is splashed across the front pages of Markopolis’ media sites, Remlap says: ‘If you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument would become invalid. They’re all incredibly happy to be here.’

Even if people are happy to be exploited, should we permit the exploitation?  One might wonder who defines ‘exploitation’ here and one would be missing the point.

While the musicians were happy to gift their labour to Amanda Palmer, it was still exploitative and Amanda Palmer should feel bad for being an exploitative person.

What’s funny about this situation is that Amanda Palmer literally becomes the Gina Rineheart of the music industry: ‘if people want to work for $2 a day in my coal mine of a music industry, they should be allowed to…’

There’s a second group of people for whom we should have some consideration: the musicians who rely on trading their labour for payment in order to make a living.

I don’t donate to ‘Build Houses in the Third World’ charities although some of my friends are completely agog with them.  People in the developing world need houses and people in the developed world need to find an increasingly varied number of ways to feel like they’re making the world a better place.  Thus — runs the thinking of the scheme organisers — why not get the people in the developed world to donate their time to building houses for people in the developing world?

People do this with absolutely the best intentions (hi, friends!) and I don’t begrudge them for doing it, but what they’ve effectively done is flooded a market with exceptionally cheap labour (free labour) thus undercutting all the local builders.

This is why, following natural disasters in Victoria and Queensland, the government pumped funds into the local markets to increase the purchasing power of people who’d lost their homes.  They were able to spend that money on labourers and tradesfolk in the local area.  In effect, it was a form of economic stimulus.

What the government didn’t do was hire a bunch of labourers from, say, the Pacific Islands to come and rebuild everybody’s houses for free.

By crowdsourcing free musicians, Amanda Palmer trashed the creative economies of the areas in which she’s playing.  There are a finite number of venues, and very few of them get packed full enough to pay a decent gig fee.  Not only was she planning on using free labour, she was also using up an opportunity for a local musician to get a paying gig at the venue she used.

Amanda Palmer is a terrible person.  While she’s just as overrated as Neil Gaiman, at least Neil doesn’t have the overbearing sense of entitlement.  Where she once championed the alternative and subversive, she has now completely assimilated into the exploitative nature of the music industry — the same exploitation she cried about in the song ‘Please Drop Me’.

Well done, Palmer.  You’re now a corporate dick.