Amanda Palmer and the Art of Asking

Amanda Palmer and the Art of Asking March 4, 2013

“Punk cabaret” singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer has a TED talk that was released last week titled “The Art of Asking” where she challenges the music business to stop worrying about making people pay for music and instead find innovative ways to let them pay for it. Like most TED talks it’s quite interesting and I encourage you to watch it yourself.

I like TED talks, though I’m not a regular viewer. I’ve seen quite a bit of criticism of them lately: they don’t allow rebuttal and dialogue, they oversimplify complex problems and make solutions seem easier than they are, they don’t challenge a system many of us find unethical. These criticisms are valid, but that doesn’t mean the format is fatally flawed and it certainly doesn’t invalidate the “ideas worth spreading” that are communicated through this channel.

If you’re cynical about TED talks, just take them for what they are: secular sermons. If you go to church you don’t expect to hear a doctoral dissertation or a fully developed project plan. You expect (or at least, hope) to hear a short engaging talk that informs and inspires and gives you one or two things to contemplate in the coming week. If a topic or a point really grabs you then you can do more research on it and that can turn into something more substantial.

The first thing that struck me in this talk was the Eight Foot Bride. Amanda Palmer was a living statue for five years to support herself while she made music. I imagine her story is not exactly unique – aspiring artists, actors and musicians have a long history of taking odd and at times unpleasant jobs. But still – the idea of living as a busking street performer for five years amazes me. You can’t do that – you won’t do that – unless you’re passionate about your art. You can’t do it “waiting for the big break” because unless you’re delusional you have to realize there’s a very good chance the big break will never come. You have to love what you’re doing so much you’ll do anything to keep doing it.

I admire that kind of single-minded passion. It’s not how you build a healthy, balanced life, but it is how you accomplish Great Things.

Whether or not Amanda Palmer has accomplished Great Things is a question I’ll leave unexamined for now. I like her music and I’ve listen to / watched a good bit of it on YouTube, but I’ve never bought any. Haven’t pirated any either. But it’s clear she passionately wanted to be a rock star and she’s become one – I admire that.

When it comes to the core of the talk, I think Amanda Palmer is right that there is an art to asking: asking for help and asking for support, not being too proud or afraid to ask, and asking in a way that makes people want to give. But behind the art of asking is a concept very familiar to modern Pagans – reciprocity.

The world runs on reciprocity: I give to you, you give to me. The gods give to us, we give to the gods. I give you some of my apples, you give me some of your corn. In our modern world, though, most reciprocity involves money, and we tend to get suspicious if it doesn’t. Amanda describes several exchanges and asks “is it fair?”

The Eight Foot Bride asked for money and gave flowers and smiles in return. Is that a fair exchange? Given that there was no compulsion and no exploitation on either side, how could it not be fair? Is a smoothie and a conversation a fair trade for a hand-delivered neti pot? I wouldn’t do it, but someone was happy to.

Amanda Palmer was invited to give this TED talk because she ran the most successful crowdfunding music project in history. She asked for $100,000 to record and produce her new CD and got almost $1.2 million. But it’s important to remember that this wasn’t charity – all those donors got something for their contribution. At the low end ($1) it was an early download of the new CD; at the high end ($10,000) it was a private dinner with Amanda, who also would paint your portrait.

Why would someone pay $10,000 for a portrait of themselves by Amanda Palmer? Is that fair? Two people thought so.

On Saturday’s Wild Hunt, Jason Pitlz-Waters discussed several successful Pagan crowdfunding projects and listed several more that are in process. Based in part on his own success, Jason is an active promoter of crowdfunding to help fund the things the Pagan community needs, and to dispel the attitude that Pagans are all either broke or cheap.

I contributed to The Wild Hunt’s “Fall Funders” program. I got my name listed on the front page and a link to this blog. Is that worth the $50 I gave The Wild Hunt? In strict economic terms, no. But I appreciate the work Jason does with The Wild Hunt and I think it’s an important resource for the Pagan community. That’s important to me – I want to support it and I want to be associated with it. I like having my name and my blog listed on what I consider to be the top site on the Pagan internet.

I contributed to the Orpheus Pagan Chamber Choir’s Inception CD. This project took the standard OBOD liturgy and set it to choral music – it’s called Missa Druidica, the Druid Mass. I heard an early cut of this at last year’s OBOD East Coast Gathering and was blown away. I wanted to be a part of it. I got an early CD and a listing as a contributor, which is nice, but mainly this was something I wanted to help manifest.

When Sharon Knight and Winter went on their “Hunger Games Tour” last year, I worked with Sharon to arrange a concert in Denton. I personally guaranteed their minimum and put them up in our house for the night. My experiment as a concert promoter ended with me out about $100. It was worth it to support Sharon’s music and to bring something that’s been meaningful to me to my home town. And the breakfast conversation the next morning was great.

On the other hand, there have been many more crowdfunding requests I’ve declined. There’s no formula, no standard for what I’ll support and what I won’t. It’s highly subjective – some of them just didn’t grab me and some came when I was low on cash. And a few I didn’t want to support.

I’m not a social scientist – I just play one on the internet. But it seems to me that behind the art of asking is the process of making a connection. Not charity and not quid pro quo, but giving people the opportunity to support something they believe in, or just something that strikes them as oddly beautiful – like a living statue. And even more importantly, giving people the opportunity to be a part of it.

If you attempt to crowdfund your project, what do you offer in return? What perks can you give? What will people be able to point to (in their minds if not to their friends) and say “I had a part in making that happen”? What connections have you already made that you can draw on?

Amanda Palmer is right – there is an art to asking. But if you want big help for your project, you also need passion, reciprocity and connection.

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