As a former member of theatrical rockers Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer is used to pushing extremes and being out there on her own as an artist. However for a new solo album Theatre Is Evil (set for release on 10 September) she has applied that outlook to her business dealings, dispensing with a label instead using internet crowd-funding site Kickstarter.com to raise money to make her record by offering fans a series of options from a simple album to packages including art books, invites to a touring art show to even getting Palmer to pop round for a house party. However, what’s marked the singer out from previous crowd-funding promises of band member blood or signed records, is that Palmer rapidly raised over $1million using the system. With a UK tour (kicking off at London‘s Koko on 23 October) just announced, we spoke to the singer to discover if she’s an artist, a businesswomen or both…
How the devil are you?
“I’m good thanks. Yesterday I shot a video with [Cure collaborator] Tim Pope which was a perfect coming together. He understood me and I trusted him. Now I’m taking my band and art show on tour.”
A lot has been made of you how you’ve left the label system behind and “crowd sourced” funds for you new album, what’s it like being your own boss?
“It means I can finally get stuff done. I know my music and my fans best so I can create things they’re interested in rather than leaving it for a label to guess. Taking control of these sort of non artistic side of things is not new to me. When we were in the Dresden Dolls Brian [Viglione, drummer] would drive the van and I’d book the shows, then we’d play the gig and afterwards I’d be finding us a hotel on my laptop. This is just a bigger version of that, plus I have good management who I trust to help me.”
You didn’t feel you could work inside the label set-up any more?
“When audiences and artists are left to their own devices and given an arena in which to trust each other, impossible things are possible. Record label and the music business have really failed to grasp this and it’s why the collapse is so complete.”
What were you expecting then when you decided to use Kickstarter as a means to raise funds for your album?
“Well we set the target of $100,000 as something nominal to aim for, but we quickly went past that which was a surprise, but not a complete surprise. I’ve been preparing with my releases before this album. For example I chose to release my Radiohead covers record strictly on digital and vinyl, just as an experiment to see what would happen if you cut out the CD factor. Actually what I learned was people really wanted CD, so I responded to demand with this one. I can react to the fans and make a note for the next record. So there were simple things like that which I did, but also learning how many fans would order the record the day it came out, the things they liked to get with it, the packages they wanted… All these things I learned with the Radiohead record and my Australian live album. Every single project educated me more about how the fans behaved and I responded to them.”
Has raising money via Kickstarter and offering all the different packages to fans inspired a new level of interaction between you and your audience?
“I think so. There’s something a lot more pleasurable about doing business with me over the market place that is the internet, then driving you car to the local shopping mall, going into the giant warehouse store and paying $25 to cashier who doesn’t give a fuck about you. That’s a really depressing experience, whereas buying a record from me is actually really pleasurable.”
And generally you’ve enjoyed your side in this process? Would you do it again?
“Crowd funding is definitely not a gimmick, it’s just a new system. As long as it works for artists and people continue to want music it will work as a system – and as long as it works as a system I’ll keep using it. If one day something better comes along I’ll use that, but right now I don’t see anything better.”
There does seem to be a mind set at the moment that suggests acts can use crowd-funding as a means to prove they’re still worthy of a record deal. Presumably that was not your intention?
“Well, you tell me a label which will give me a $1.2m advance, creative control and I’ll take the deal!”
You’re happy with having to be an artist and run a business at the same time though?
“If someone could magically snap their fingers and answer all the emails in my inbox and take care of the really shitty parts of the work I would go for it. But if it’s an option of running of my own business and actually having creative control then I’d rather do the hard work. Like I say, I’ve always been involved in that side, I think it’s an experience most bands have, even if you have a label, a manager, an agent… there’s a large amount of office work for you to do, especially now you can be constantly involved through email and cell phones.”
At least with managers, etc, it’s easier to carve out time to be creative, you’re confident you still can even though you have to deal with everything?
“The beautiful thing about real creative control is I chose when to launch this. I chose the release date, I didn’t have to fucking slot myself in between other acts, which was really, really nice. It used to be that a lot of other forces were dictating the life and path of my band which had absolutely nothing to do with it. Now I can work with my own schedule and say, Wow I’m not ready to make an album, I’ll wait. Or, I want to delay the release for a month because things aren’t ready, and I can. Because of that, in many ways it’s easier to balance things.”
Can you hear that sense of freedom on Theatre Is Evil?
“It’s a good question. The difference between this album and my last one that Ben Folds produced [Who Killed Amanda Palmer], is the last record was songs on a piano and I knew I wanted to produce them creatively but I was really sure how. Ben did a great job. We played in the studio and made a lot of good creative choices. For this record I had a really specific vision for how I wanted the songs to sound. It’s also why choosing the right producer was key. I needed someone who spoke fluent 80s, but not just any 80s they had to speak the right dialect [laughs] and John Congleton was my man. He was born around the same time as me, grew up on the same diet of bands and that made it so much easier in the studio to make artistic choices and explain where I was headed. That also included my band. All of them were intuitive geniuses. I’d play them the song on a piano, give them a couple of reference tracks from the world I was trying to capture and generally I didn’t have to explain much more. They picked up my vision and ran with it.”
There is quite a range of sounds on this record – 80s pop, even some Britpop – not what you might expect from a Dresden Doll. Even though you’re now your own boss was there anything artistic impulses that you questioned?
“The stuff I felt I needed the most permission to get away with was oddly the simple pop stuff. I think I really have built up my cred to the point where I can let my songwriting brain take dictation from above and not worry about proving myself so much any more. I’ve proven I can write good songs [laughs] now I can extend my powers in any direction and I don’t have to worry about destroying my fragile cred.”
Along with the album, you’ve also created an art show and book to accompany the album. How much is this linked to the record and how much did you have to do this to create packages for fans?
“Really linked in a big picture way. I became an musician so I could find my art community and this is a really direct manifestation of that. It’s an art community to which everyone’s invited. Everyone can take joy in the artwork and it definitely enhances the songs. Also it really inspires the fans. There was a girl who couldn’t have been more than 20 who showed up at the art show last night with a beautiful, really stunning, three-foot painting which she had been working on. The paint was still wet. She brought it in a giant bag to show me. A couple of dozen people gathered round as she got it out and all enjoyed the work, so we put it up against the wall and included it in the show! I think art always inspires more art. I grew up in a world of visual music, MTV, big LPs, a room covered with weird posters and to me music couldn’t not have a visual element, it’s part of the job! One of the best things you get to do as a rock star is hang with the artists, [laughs] for me it’s a perk of the job.”
Is the painting joining the show?
“Yeah. Well we left it up today and she’ll pick it up after the gig tomorrow. We’ll definitely put it on the website with the rest of the art. We get sent a lot of pictures. It’s a two way intercom, they send me endless art and I try as hard as I can to broadcast it all.”
Finally, you raised quite a large amount of money, is there any suggestion in your mind that this might be a fluke because of the novelty of crowd funding?
“I don’t think there’s any element of fluke, unless you want to sit down with any of those 20,000 people and ask them if they were tricked out of a million dollars. I don’t think any of them will say that they were. The vast majority of what is happening here is based on trust. My fans trust me. They trust me to make a good record and they trust me not to rip them off. That trust has been built up for years and year and years. It is the opposite of a fluke. If I took all the money and just headed to Mexico then it would have been a fluke but it’s probably not now.”
Surely though with the money you made it would have been somewhere nicer than Mexico?
[laughs] “No, no I could live for quite a while in Mexico.”
For more head to Amandapalmer.net.