By Sophie Lasken
The democratizing power of the internet and new media has been the subject of both praise and debate in the past decade. We hear stories of overnight internet celebrities, while being bombarded by complaints of the utterly unintellectual nature of the latest YouTube sensation. This might lead one to wonder whether any true artists have managed to make the internet live up to its potential. Amanda Palmer is one such artist, having gained a reputation for using new media as a revolutionary tool to change the future of the music industry.
Amanda Palmer first rose to fame in the early 2000s with her two-person band The Dresden Dolls, and quickly became known for her outspoken feminism, theatrical live shows, and unique musical style which she calls “punk-cabaret”. Since ditching her major label and striking out on her own, Amanda Palmer has adopted a philosophy towards media that gives power back to audiences and artists, epitomized in the slogan “we are the media”, a line taken from her song “Map of Tasmania”. The video for the song, true to Palmer’s philosophy, was filmed by her friend Michael Pope, populated with volunteer backup dancers, and released directly to YouTube and Vimeo. The video never went on TV and, as the lyrics say, “they don’t play the song on the radio.”
Palmer maintains a unique connection with her fans through email lists, Twitter, her blog, and other new media avenues. This connection is essential, because her success as an artist working outside of the established music industry depends on fan collaboration and support. These new media outlets allow Palmer to organize flash mob concerts, and produce music videos with the help of her fans (Potts, 371-2). With her newest band Palmer’s projects have also been funded in part by fan support through new media devices such as Kickstarter, and in return she allows them to download her albums from her website using a “name-your-own-price” format (Glide).
Palmer has been outspoken about her philosophy towards media, and she has been duly recognized for it as well. Her philosophy on art, media, and business stems from her background as a street performer, and in 2009 she wrote a manifesto of sorts on her blog outlining these views. In it, she describes becoming a “virtual street performer” and writes that “it’s about empowerment and it’s about SIMPLICITY: fan loves art, artist needs money, fan gives artist money, artist says thank you” (Not Afraid). The following year Palmer gave a speech at Harvard University on the subject, again emphasizing how the supposed downfall of the music business brought on by new media is actually good for fans and artists. While media corporations bemoan the increased opportunity for piracy provided by the internet, Palmer welcomes it precisely because it nixes these corporations from the picture. According to Palmer, this allows artists more creative freedom and fans more power to endorse the art they want (@Harvard).
Palmer emphasizes that without a label as a middleman, fans and artists have an increased responsibility to each other, and the interdependency of fan and artist created by new media brings a kind of intimacy to the art. She notes that “if you’re moved . . . you can put in a dollar, and you can know that you’ve had a very real exchange with me, with no middlemen, and no label and no promoter and no nothing, it’s just you and me” (@Harvard). In 2011 she was invited to give a speech to the graduating class of The New England Institute of Art, and in her advice to young artists she described not just how the internet is changing the music business, but art and society in general; “. . . there is an unwritten code out there right now, especially online, that we’re all helping each other to build a beautiful, crazy, lawless new world, where there are no rules about how it gets built, we are making the rules up as we go along, and we are changing them every single day” (“Fraud Police”). Once again, for Palmer the internet is about freedom.
Earlier this month, Palmer synthesized all of these ideas on new media in a TED talk titled “The Art of Asking”. In it she asserts that in the wake of the piracy threat, the wrong question is being asked. Instead of asking “how do we make people pay for music?” she says, we should be asking “how do we let people pay for music?” This again refers to Palmer’s view of fan and artist as existing in a kind of symbiosis—when fans truly connect with an artist, they want to help that artist. This connection, in Palmer’s opinion, is making artists a part of the community again, rather than untouchable celebrities. And the reason this connection is now possible beyond the realm of street performances and live shows, is largely because of new media (The Art of Asking).
Amanda Palmer is living proof that new media can be a powerful and radical tool for artistic and social change, and not merely a space for the celebrity mishaps and sneezing pandas of the world. As stated at the end of “If You Want to Sing Out, Log In,” her spontaneous, Twitter-organized, fan-produced video: “don’t fear the twitter”.
“Amanda Palmer Releases Video for ‘Polly (Nirvana Cover)’.” Glide Magazine. 08 Feb 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Palmer, Amanda. Amanda Palmer: The art of asking. 2013. TEDWeb. 4 Mar 2013.
Palmer, Amanda. “The Fraud Police” – AFP’s Commencement Speech to NEIA’s Class of 2011 . 2011. Video. Web. 10 Feb 2013.
Palmer, Amanda. AMANDA PALMER @ HARVARD: TOWARD A PATRONAGE SOCIETY . 2010. Video. Web. 10 Feb 2013.
Palmer, Amanda. if you want to sing out, log in (amanda & co. in L.A.) . 2009. Video. youtube.comWeb. 10 Feb 2013
Palmer, Amanda. “MAP OF TASMANIA VIDEO & REMIX CONTEST!!.” amandapalmer.net. 14 Jan 2011. Web. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Palmer, Amanda. “Why I Am Not Afraid to Take Your Money, By Amanda Fucking Palmer.” amandapalmer.net. 29 Sep 2009. Web. Web. 10 Feb. 2013.
Potts, Liza. “Amanda Palmer and the #LOFNOTC: How online fan participation is rewriting music labels.” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies. 9.2 (2012): 361-382. Print.