With this combination of autobiography and self-help manual, punk singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer expands on her popular 2013 TED Talk on “The Art of Asking.” Palmer has worked as a human statue, a performer and a singer. Each job helped her learn how to connect with others and ask for help. She covers life on the road in her art-punk band The Dresden Dolls, explains how crowdfunding makes it easier for artists to ask for help and discusses her personal life, including her struggles with shame and her marriage to author Neil Gaiman. Palmer’s message of how to ask for help is the core of her text. Her writing, like her life, is chaotic. Her memoir sometimes seems like a stream-of-consciousness exercise and its confusion makes her heartfelt ideas about the need to escape shame and remorse harder to find. Still, I recommend Palmer’s tale of creative ambition and fearlessness to entrepreneurs, inventors and artists of all types.
What singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer learned from her job as a living statue
How her band – The Dresden Dolls – fared
How to use the Internet to ask for help
How to recognize that accepting a gift gives to the giver.
THE TED TALK
In 2012, singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer received an invitation to speak at a TED conference. She was surprised because she’s a punk musician, not a professional speaker. The organizers had noticed her Kickstarter campaign to fund her album, //Theatre Is Evil//. Almost 25,000 loyal fans paid a total of $1.2 million to support the recording. Artists and entrepreneurs can use Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo or GoFundMe, to ask others – the crowd – for donations to pay for their projects. Kickstarter is all or nothing. If you don’t meet your minimum financial goal, donors get their money back. Palmer wrote her TED Talk to reach creative people who struggle with asking for help. She was surprised that her talk resonated widely.
In it, she discussed her life as a street performer and musician, her Kickstarter campaign, and the backlash that followed. Many people told her they felt she spoke directly to them. They, too, had problems asking for help, financial or otherwise. She learned that “everybody struggles with asking.” Palmer hopes people will just ask for what they need, despite their fears. She stresses that you must believe in what you ask for and be prepared to hear no. Ask with grace and compassion; never demand or beg.
THE 8-FOOT BRIDE
After graduating college at age 22, Palmer moved home to Boston. She scooped ice cream for $9.50 per hour plus tips – then decided to make her living as a human statue. Her costume was an antique bridal gown; white face paint; a full-length lace veil; white opera gloves; a black, 1950s pin-up girl style wig; black combat boots; and a glass vase she spray-painted white. She made her way to the middle of Harvard Square in full bridal regalia and stood perfectly still on a milk crate, holding the vase full of flowers. A small crowd formed, and a five-year-old
boy put a dollar in her hat. She moved her hands, pulled a flower from her vase and handed it to the boy without a word. Palmer made $38 in an hour. She decided never to get a real job or have a boss.
Street performers and their audiences have a different relationship than performing artists who sell tickets. Their interplay requires more trust, because street artists must connect with strangers one on one. Palmer found it physically taxing. Standing still in combat boots on top of a milk crate for 30 minutes hurt her knees, so she switched positions between crowds. She found that her emotional connection with people was worth the physical pain. She appreciated the few people who stopped to look rather than the majority who ignored her.
She experienced a feeling many people share: Sometimes she didn’t feel real. Psychologists call it the “imposter syndrome”; Palmer calls it the “Fraud Police.” The fraud police live in your subconscious and wake you in the middle of the night to tell you they know you are a fraud, that everyone else also knows it, and that you deserve neither success nor friends. Because they grow accustomed to criticism, many artists know the fraud police well, but most everyone eventually encounters them.
The higher you climb in your career, the more vigilant they become. Palmer recognizes that everyone fakes his or her life at some point. She contends that professional performers embrace that fakery; frightened people try to hide it. Palmer’s salary as the Bride was pretty consistent. She could make more than $100 – plus the costs of two bouquets of flowers – on an average day. She particularly disliked people who yelled, “Get a job!” She felt that she had job, one she had made up without asking permission from anyone. Besides her street patrons, others chipped in to help her, including a guy who gave her free burritos and a local florist who sold her slightly damaged flowers for much less than the regular price.
THE DRESDEN DOLLS
Palmer, a punk singer and piano player, started a band named The Dresden Dolls with drummer Brian Viglione. The name referred to Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse-Five, which recounts the Dresden bombing. Palmer imagined the porcelain dolls that lay underneath the rubble.
Palmer and Viglione hung out at the Cloud Club, a four-story brick townhouse in Boston that accommodates a rotating cast of artist tenants. In the 1970s, a friend of Palmer’s had borrowed $9,000 for a down payment on the house to create a community of artists. The Cloud Club has housed more than 100 different artists over the course of 40 years. Palmer had written songs for the piano since she was 12 but she had rarely performed them publicly. The Dolls rehearsed on the top floor of the Cloud Club. She played her songs for Viglione, and he came up with the drumbeats. They played their first gig at a friend’s art gallery. They found vintage costumes and donned what would become their signature look, including white face paint.
Viglione loved to wear stage make-up and to cross-dress. The Dresden Dolls always had a special, mutually beneficial, relationship with their fans. During their first three years, they took any gig they could get, paid or not. Palmer maintained an email list obsessively. Because the band had no manager, record label or publicist, they booked their own gigs, located performing venues and found couches to sleep on through friends. The band gained a following in the Boston vicinity by sending out email blasts and posting flyers around town.
Eventually their popularity spread to other cities. The Dolls relied on fans for support – couches, meals and a few extra dollars to cover costs. Their fans were happy to oblige. By 2002, the band was touring a lot and making real money. Fans kept asking for their music, but they had no CD. A friend who was a sound engineer lent Palmer and Viglione a free studio after hours. They bought blank CDs and empty jewel cases from OfficeMax. Working in the kitchen, they made five-song discs they sold for $5. Fans were eager to buy them.
The band’s fan base grew locally and then regionally as Palmer and Viglione traveled to other cities. If they didn’t have a place to sleep, they’d ask the audience. Their couch surfing patrons became great friends as they bonded after shows. After every performance, Palmer and Viglione hung out and signed merchandise – CDs or T-shirts or their fans’ handmade art. Sometimes, the signing would take longer than the show. The signing line gave people a chance to tell the musicians their stories. Fans also asked Palmer and Viglione to listen to their music. They always accepted homemade CDs from their fans.
THE MUSIC LABEL
Constantly printing and mailing CDs to fans, booking gigs, and responding to emails and phone calls became exhausting. After two years of gigs, the Dolls still had no agent or manager despite drawing crowds of 500 people a night in various cities. Then they got an email from a heavy-metal label. Desperate by now, the Dolls signed a disadvantageous deal. In the beginning, the relationship with the label was great. It promoted the band in Europe and Australia and did a lot of marketing.
Palmer and Viglione got magazine interviews, and their music was in stores. The label thought the Dolls “could be mega-launched into the echelon of indie bands” such as The Hives, The Shins or The Vines, and wanted them to convert strangers into fans. The Dolls wanted to focus on their existing fans in line at concerts or online through Palmer’s blog or Twitter. The label didn’t want to pay for the band’s website, thinking it should be “up” only if the Dolls had a new record to promote. The Dolls shot a video in London for the song “Leeds United.” Fans came in droves and threw pies while Palmer lip-synched and danced on stage.
The label didn’t like the video, but Palmer refused to change it. The label was upset when she wrote about their disagreement on her blog. Then, the British group Radiohead released //In Rainbows//, the “first pay-what-you-want album” from a name band. The Internet was transforming the music industry: Artists and fans could connect directly.
Palmer found to her dismay that her label owner never heard of Radiohead. The Dolls did the work themselves on their first studio album and sold it to the label. For the second studio album, //Yes, Virginia,// the label paid for everything and its people thought the album would catapult the band into the mainstream. It sold 25,000 copies during the first week. Palmer and Viglione were ecstatic, but the label considered it a failure because radio stations wouldn’t play it. Palmer explains, “We were a punk-cabaret duo specializing in tear-jerking, seven-minute songs with drum solos. We were not radio friendly.” The Dolls wanted to break off with the label. Palmer posted the song “Please Drop Me” – sung to the tune of “Moon River” – on her blog and asked fans to video it and upload it to YouTube.
The label still wouldn’t oblige. In a fit of desperation, Palmer met with someone from the label and pretended to be drunk. She told him she was sick of the band and wanted to start a family. She lied by saying that she worried the label would drop her if she got pregnant. The label rep assured her this would never happen and promised he wouldn’t tell anyone. A month later, a lawyer wrote saying the label was dropping Palmer.
DIRECT TO FANS
The whole episode only confirmed for Palmer how unnecessary – and indeed, destructive – interacting with corporate entities can be for artists. The band had strong relationships with its fans. Those relationships provided viable commercial support. The label didn’t want to or try to understand the Dolls, their fan relationships or the cooperative model of commercial success the band had created. Corporate entities understand only one paradigm and resist all others. Independence makes them uncomfortable because they can’t control an independent artist. Artists now recognize their true supporters are their
fans, not commercialized methods of distribution.
The Internet opens a different world for artists. Patreon.com allows fans to support artists directly by committing to a monthly donation. For example, Palmer’s friend, Samantha Buckingham – an Australian indie guitarist and singer-songwriter – sought patrons on Patreon. She gained 44 backers – including 19 who give her $1 monthly and one $50 backer – so she’s paid about $200 every time she releases a song. Artists can make a living via subscription services, “pay-per-piece-of-content pledge services,” or – for big projects – crowdfunding.
All these outlets rely on trust between creators and supporters. As long as the artists make art, their patrons are happy. Some critics of crowdfunding call it digital panhandling or “online begging.” Some Twitter users accused Palmer of being a “useless, entitled narcissist” who conned her followers. Not everyone understands how crowdfunding works. To succeed, you must build relationships. Sometimes, unknown artists are successful because they cultivate personal connections with their fans. Lesser-known artists have small but loyal followings that pay for their content. Ironically, Palmer acquired about 25,000 backers – about the same number that her former label had considered a failure in terms of sales.
Palmer wonders why it’s so hard for her – and others – to ask for help. She resisted letting her husband Neil Gaiman support her when she took time off work, even though, since he’s a best-selling writer, his help would have caused them no financial hardship.
From reading and talking to social scientist and TED speaker Brené Brown, Palmer learned that women often suffer shame from failing to be “good enough” – good enough lovers or wives or mothers or girlfriends or wage-earners. Palmer had difficulty even describing shame, because admitting to or experiencing shame seems in itself shameful. Her inner voices unfailingly reminded her that she was a fraud and undeserving of help. With a great deal of self-study and the support of her husband, friends and fans, Palmer began to understand that the act of asking for help is a powerful blow against shame. When someone offers you something and you accept it, “your acceptance of the gift is the gift” to the giver.
“You can’t really afford to be choosy about your audience, nor about how they wish to repay you for your art.”
“Sometimes people just don’t want the flower. Sometimes you have to let them walk away.”
“American culture in particular has instilled in us the bizarre notion that to ask for help amounts to an admission of failure.”
“For every new bridge you build with your community, there’s a new set of trolls who squat underneath it.”
“I started judging myself a little less harshly every time I looked in the mirror.”
“Often it is our own sense that we are undeserving of help that has immobilized us.”
“Crowdfunding has to be a democratic tool, and mega pop stars have as much right to use the tool as anyone else.”
“When the gift circulates, we feel the very essence of art and life not just in the words and songs, but also in our deep desire to share them with one another.”
“When you’re afraid of someone’s judgment, you can’t connect with them. You’re too preoccupied with the task of impressing them.”
“We have to truly believe in the validity of what we’re asking for – which can be incredibly hard work.”
“To erase the possibility of empathy is also to erase the possibility of art. Theater, fiction, horror stories, love stories. This is what art does. Good or bad, it imagines the insides, the heart of the other, whether that heart is full of light or trapped
About the Author
Blogger, singer and songwriter Amanda Palmer is half of the former punk-rock duo, The Dresden Dolls. Her 2013 TED Talk on “The Art of Asking” has garnered eight million views.